What direction is USC football recruiting headed in 2019?

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

USC football recruiting efforts for 2019 were hindered by a bad record, poor talent development and a limited staff, but the future remains bright for the Trojans.

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As we head into the New Year and digest the results of Early Signing Day 2019, it’s time to evaluate USC’s efforts in this recruiting cycle and discuss what to expect moving forward from the program.

It’s no secret that the Trojans were an absolute disaster on the field in 2018. At 5-7, it would have been extremely difficult for the team to perform worse. When a program has a year like this, even at an elite one like USC, the effects extend well beyond the field of play.

It is clear that the performance of the team affected recruiting over the course of the year. USC finished Early Signing Day ranked 22nd nationally in recruiting—a far cry from the top-10 rankings produced by Clay Helton in his first three seasons.

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The warning signs emerged in October, as USC had a major decommitment from cornerback Chris Steele. Ranked 40th nationally and the No. 5 overall corner, the (likely) loss of Steele looms large in a position of major need for the Trojans. Decommitments happen constantly across college football, however, this a particularly troubling instance for the Trojans because Steele was the primary recruiter for USC among their commitments.

Even worse, it is obvious that Steele is (likely) bypassing the opportunity to attend USC due to the program’s failures in developing its four- and five-star defensive backs into NFL players. Player development has been uninspiring at best and downright incompetent in other areas (DB and offensive line) under Clay Helton’s staff. While USC players are still selected in the NFL Draft, there is a sense that they are accomplishing this off raw talent or measurables rather than developing key skills while on campus.

Questionable talent development

Once again the 247 Team Talent composite is a useful tool to analyze this issue. The three teams in front of USC in the rankings—Alabama, Ohio State, and Georgia—all had multiple first-round picks in last year’s NFL Draft. Furthermore, Alabama had 17 players selected in the first two rounds of the draft from 2016-2018 while 15 Buckeyes were drafted in the first two rounds during the same time span. So how many Trojans were selected within that period in the first two rounds? Six. In fact, USC only had 13 total players selected in those three drafts.

The lack of recent high draft picks from the Trojan program is staggering and the problem is not getting any better. While some may bring up the fact that Georgia had only five players drafted within the same parameters, four of those selections came in last season’s draft, including three selections in the first round, which is an indication (along with the national title game appearance) that Kirby Smart has his program headed in the correct direction.

Meanwhile, the Trojans won’t have any players drafted that highly this year and probably won’t even see any draft-eligible juniors or sophomores declare for the draft.

SEE MORE: Should USC’s draft eligible players stay or go?

Unfortunately, USC’s inability to develop its talent is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the team’s recruiting issues in 2018.

An uncertain, undersupported coaching staff

Uncertainty surrounding the coaching staff is another crucial aspect as to why the Trojans struggled in recruiting this cycle. Following Ohio State’s drubbing of USC in the Fiesta Bowl last year, many Trojan supporters and media members remained unconvinced that Helton was capable of succeeding without Sam Darnold. His contract was set to expire after the 2018 season, so many fans wanted to see Helton coach for his job with the results of 2018 dictating whether he was retained or not.

Instead, Swann chose to offer Helton an extension through 2023, and the deal was completed the day before the February National Signing Day 2018. The timing of the extension clearly suggests that high-profile recruits were concerned that USC planned fire Helton within the year, so USC extended the coach to secure commitments from those players.

Yet, USC’s abysmal on-field performance in 2018 led speculation that Helton would lose his job despite the extension less than a year ago. The head coach’s seat was set ablaze following a disastrous three-game stretch that included losses to the hapless Cal Bears and rivals UCLA and Notre Dame in November to miss bowl eligibility.

Despite the home run hire of Kingsbury, the instability of the USC coaching staff at the end of 2018 was a major liability for recruiting.

Amid heavy speculation that Helton would lose his job, athletic director Lynn Swann instead chose to give Helton the opportunity to follow the model of Notre Dame in which the Irish forced Brian Kelly to gut his staff following a 4-8 season in 2016.

While Swann and Helton made multiple adjustments to the USC coaching staff, their preeminent hire was bringing in former Texas Tech Head Coach Kliff Kingsbury. Kingsbury was highly sought after throughout college football, and even the NFL, but chose to join the Trojan staff. The move could be a match made in heaven, as Kingsbury’s dynamic offensive scheme should allow USC to develop its tremendous offensive talent and maximize the effectiveness of its players.

Despite the home run hire of Kingsbury, which will result in USC attracting the best offensive recruits across the country moving forward, the instability of the USC coaching staff at the end of 2018 was a major liability for recruiting. Even with Helton retained, prospects could not be sure of who their position coaches would be. Coaches they had relationships with, like Tee Martin, Kenechi Udeze, and Ronnie Bradford were fired, and Helton will begin 2019 fully on the hot seat. This type of uncertainty makes it difficult to convince players of a long-term plan.

CHECK OUT: Kliff Kingsbury to interview for NFL head coaching jobs

To compound the dilemma of coach instability, USC only employs three individuals to provide support in recruiting. The three do tremendous work with what they are given, but they simply cannot get the same number of “looks” or make as consistent of contact with potential recruits as programs like Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Georgia that actually invest in the unrestricted support staff area.

When USC let Martin, Udeze, and Bradford go, it lost the majority of its staff recruiters and the small support staff simply could not make up the difference. This could be another reason why USC missed out on some higher profile recruits this cycle because they simply could not provide the same attention to prospects that other programs could.

Early playing time tough to find

On top of all these problems, USC actually has a positive feature working against it: USC’s roster remains extremely talented. As a result, there are few clear paths to the football field for high-profile recruits.

Want to play quarterback? There are three veterans with multiple years of eligibility remaining. How about wide receiver? Oh, all of the starters return from last season and they already split time with each other. Okay, so maybe linebacker? USC enrolled six linebackers just last year.

This is not to say that there are not opportunities for recruits on this year’s roster. The secondary needs both talent and bodies, the defensive line must rush the passer better in 2019, most of the spots on the offensive line should be up for grabs and there’s a reason USC was able to sign two tight end recruits in December.

MORE: Which new 2019 signees will enroll early?

In this regard, the fact that USC signed more three-star players in this recruiting cycle could actually benefit the Trojans. While it is always the goal to follow the Alabama model and have five-star players backing up five-star players, this system only functions if the head coach has a resume and personality similar to Nick Saban or Urban Meyer. Saban and Meyer can control the players on their roster due to their continued success and promise of an NFL future. USC does not currently have this luxury and talented players in the program often become frustrated when they play sparingly (through no fault of their own). This is where issues in the locker room or off the field arise and players transfer before they can be fully utilized (see Jones, Levi).

These three-star recruits will at the very least provide depth to USC’s roster, and many could become major contributors because they may lack a sense of entitlement and will work to prove they belong at USC (see Nwosu, Uchenna).

Regardless of this, the amount of talent on USC’s roster can be intimidating for prospects who would like to contribute early on in their college careers. Sitting on the bench for a team that just went 5-7 does not sound appealing to anyone, and the results in recruiting to this point reflect that.

After taking all of this into account, where does USC go from here?

The future is still bright

First, the Trojans remain in excellent position to sign multiple elite recruits in February, which would elevate the recruiting class near or into the Top 10 in the nation. Bru McCoy (Nat. 7, Ath. 1) remains the top available player to USC. McCoy should be considered a USC lean, despite a late push from Texas to steal him away, because of the Mater Dei-USC pipeline that also brought JT Daniels, Amon Ra St. Brown, and Solomon Tuliaupupu to Troy.

USC is also in the mix for five-star wide receiver Kyle Ford (Nat. 29, Wr. 5), Hawaiian guard Enokk Vimahi (Nat. 132, G. 8), and Arizona defensive back Noa Pola-Gates (Nat. 153, CB. 18). Gaining the commitment of three of these four players would be massive for USC and would add multiple top-flight recruits to a solid headlining group already including Jason Rodriguez (Nat. 131, T. 12), Max Williams (Nat.152, CB. 17) and Drake Jackson (Nat. 165, DE. 12).

One of the primary difficulties USC had in the 2019 class was bringing in top-rated Californian players. The Trojans currently only have one commitment from the Top 20 prospects in California and will likely end up with three at the most. For comparison, Oregon secured five of the Top 20 players in California.

TRENDING: Top five recruiting targets left for USC

Fortunately, USC has made much better inroads with the California class of 2020. They have already secured the commitment of one Top 20 player in Mater Dei QB Bryce Young and are favored to bring in at least five more of the group.

In the end, the 2019 season will be a turning point for USC football. The addition of Kliff Kingsbury as offensive coordinator should result in USC becoming one of the best offenses in college football. If the defense can replicate its level of play from the past two seasons, the Trojans should play in the Pac-12 Championship game and a New Years Six game. In turn, the class of 2020 should be stellar and USC would be well-positioned to dominate west coast football once again (If it does these things).

Alternatively, Helton’s practice plan and program structure may be too much for Kingsbury to overcome, and USC will end up a .500 or worse football team again (due to a hellish first half schedule). In this scenario, Helton would be fired and the Trojans would reset their program with a new coach and the quarterback of the future joining the squad in 2020.

Either way, the future of the program remains bright.