USC football’s 2017 recruiting class stands on a knife’s edge between fulfilling Top 5 talent and falling well short of expectations.
The 2017 USC football recruiting class ranked fourth in the nation behind only Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia, one of five consecutive Top 10 recruiting classes for the Trojans. Is the class living up to expectations?
Out of 24 signees, two were five-stars, 12 were four-stars and nine were three-stars, with one two-star longsnapper.
The class has not been without its losses, but the balance of departures, contributors and players with something yet to prove remains largely positive going into Year 3.
- WR Joseph Lewis (dismissal) ★★★★★
- S Bubba Bolden (transfer) ★★★★★
- LB Levi Jones (dismissal) ★★★★
- WR Randal Grimes (transfer) ★★★
- CB Je’Quari Godfrey (transfer) ★★★
As with USC’s class of 2016, high-profile losses at the top of the class have limited the ceiling of the group compared to when they were signed.
Joseph Lewis was the second-highest ranked player in the haul and he was dismissed for the worst of reasons, twice accused of domestic violence, resulting in charges that landed him in prison.
Bubba Bolden was the sixth-best prospect in the class. The safety fell afoul of USC’s student disciplinary board. Despite the controversy surrounding the legitimacy of his multi-year suspension, he opted to transfer for a fresh start in Miami.
Then there’s linebacker Levi Jones, the No. 93 player nationally. He looked on the cusp of becoming a real contributor for the Trojans when he was dismissed for violating team rules.
That makes three of seven Top 100 prospects who have been booted from the program.
Along with those, USC lost two developmental projects in Randal Grimes and Je’Quari Godfrey, who decided to transfer.
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Even with those lost players, the Trojans’ 2017 class would still have ranked eighth nationally had it never included those five.
- OT Austin Jackson ★★★★
- DT Jay Tufele ★★★★
- DT Marlon Tuipulotu ★★★★
- OG Andrew Vorhees ★★★
- LS Damon Johnson ★★
The class of 2017 had a focus on offensive and defensive line additions, so it’s a positive sign that the bulk of the regular starters who have emerged from the group occupy jobs in the trenches.
Andrew Vorhees was the lowest-ranked offensive lineman added, but he was the first to grab hold of a starting job as a freshman. Highly-touted offensive tackle Austin Jackson followed suit as a sophomore. They are the only two returning starters for USC’s offensive line in 2019.
On the defensive side of the ball, Marlon Tuipulotu was slated to be a regular starter as a freshman, but injury resulted in his redshirt. Jay Tufele needed time to settle in, but has steadily risen as a figure on the defensive front. The Trojans are simply waiting for the two to take the next step from promising prospects to reliable playmakers.
Longsnapper Damon Johnson stepped into his starting job and has hardly been noticed, which is the best thing you could say about a longsnapper.
- RB Stephen Carr ★★★★★
- CB Greg Johnson ★★★★
- S Isaiah Pola-Mao ★★★★
- OT Alijah Vera-Tucker ★★★★
- OLB Hunter Echols ★★★★
- TE Josh Falo ★★★★
- OT Jalen McKenzie ★★★
- DT Brandon Pili ★★★
- DE Jacob Lichtenstein ★★★
- TE Erik Krommenhoek ★★★
The redshirt freshman and sophomore contributors from the class of 2017 were many in 2018. Most of them fall into the same category: On the cusp of something. It’s just not clear how big that something may be.
Stephen Carr is the biggest of those. He showed so much potential in the opening month of his freshman season, but injury has hampered his progress since then. He still has the chance to be a star, things just have to come together for him in 2019.
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Josh Falo and Erik Krommenhoek spent their second seasons in the rotation at tight end. Unfortunately, neither took a step up as the tight end unit struggled in general.
At defensive back, both Greg Johnson and Isaiah Pola-Mao made their debuts after injury forced their redshirting in 2017. Year 2 was not as promising as Trojan fans would have hoped. Johnson lost his starting job to Isaiah Langley after four games while Pola-Mao suffered a second season-ending shoulder injury in Week 2. Both will have the opportunity to nail down a starting job once again in 2019 though, so there is plenty of hope for the two.
Offensive linemen Alijah-Vera Tucker and Jalen McKenzie saw their first taste of action up front in 2018, setting themselves up to compete for open starting jobs as redshirt sophomores.
On the other side of the ball, fortunes were mixed for Brandon Pili, Hunter Echols and Jacob Lichtenstein. Pili saw his playing time diminish after an impressive freshman debut. More encouragingly, Echols worked his way into a third-down pass rushing role in the Predator linebacker spot, though his production was nothing to write home about. Further on the plus side, Lichtenstein slowly but surely entered the picture, showing clear development at defensive end.
All three figure to remain contributors, if not more.
Put simply, among the contributors from the class of 2017, potential for excellence remains, but there are no sure things.
Jury still out
- QB Jack Sears ★★★★
- C Brett Neilon ★★★★
- OLB Juliano Falaniko ★★★
- ILB Tayler Katoa (mission) ★★★
The interesting thing about the class of 2017, certainly compared to the class of 2016, is how few players have yet to make an impact in some way.
Brett Neilon could just as easily be considered a contributor already, seeing how he started the season opener in place of Toa Lobendahn, though his action after that was limited to the occasional lead blocker role. He is the favorite to take over the starting job at center this season and the future looks bright for him.
Quarterback Jack Sears also started one game and showed clear playmaking ability even as USC lost to ASU. He will get a fair shot to win the starting job in Graham Harrell’s Air Raid this offseason.
As for Juliano Falaniko, he took a redshirt in 2018 after contributing on special teams in 2017. The crowd at outside linebacker may be a barrier to him becoming a regular contributor.
All in all, the class of 2017 was an integral part of USC’s 2018 season. There’s a “for better or for worse” element to that.
On the one hand, most of the class has already featured in some capacity, which is not something you could say about the class of 2016 at this point. They are now set up to supply a strong foundation for the 2019 team.
On the other hand, the class was party to the 5-7 slip up and stagnation would almost certainly result in another slide.
In short, the class stands on a knife’s edge between living up to expectations and falling well short of them.
Losing Lewis, Bolden and Jones may prove significant. At the same time, the likes of Jackson, Tufele, Tuipulotu, Carr, Pola-Mao, Vera-Tucker and many others are still capable of maxing out their potential. They just need to be given the right environment in which to thrive.
That’s the big question for the group this offseason. Youth and injuries took their toll in 2018, but the disappointing season was also a potential learning experience for players as they settled into the lineup. The continued development of this class will ultimately decide USC’s fate in 2019.
What happens this fall will be a major reflection of the progress that is or isn’t made by the 2017 recruiting class. A reworked coaching staff may give them the boost they need to raise their level. If they come good, then USC can expect to see a drastic improvement.