Was the 2019 NFL Draft the new norm for USC football?

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

USC football had only three players selected in the first two rounds of the 2018 and 2019 NFL Draft. Will this trend continue under Clay Helton in 2020?

MORE. Who Will Lead USC in Rushing?

For the program with the most NFL Draft picks in history, the past few years have been underwhelming for USC football.

Just eight Trojans heard their name called in the last two drafts with the majority of the selections coming in the third round or later. In fact, 2019 was the first time that USC did not have a player drafted in the first two rounds since 2002.

CHECK OUT: USC’s 2019 is pretty unique in college football

And if you were wondering about the volume of draft picks, USC had 60 players selected from 2002 to 2010 and just 42 from 2011 to 2019.

While some of the drop off in overall volume can be attributed to the sanctions era, recent history suggests that highly=touted prospects at USC have not developed into NFL-caliber talent as regularly in the post-Carroll era.

But despite the Trojans’ recent inability to develop players, the arrival of offensive coordinator Graham Harrell along with a simplified defensive scheme could result in better results for USC in the 2020 and 2021 drafts.

TRENDING: Five opponents USC should schedule for a home-and-home

To understand the current perception of USC’s players among NFL evaluators one can simply analyze the last two drafts. In 2017 USC had four players selected—Sam Darnold (Round 1, Jets), Ronald Jones II (Round 2, Bucs), Uchenna Nwosu (Round 2, Chargers) and Rasheem Green (Round 3, Seahawks). While those high selections look good on paper, it is clear that three of the four were always destined to go early on in the draft.

Green was a five-star recruit that could have jumped into the early first round with another year of college experience and weight gain. Jones II certainly benefited from playing for Deland McCullough but was a collegiate star prior to McCullough’s arrival. Darnold is viewed as the savior of the USC football program (and Clay Helton’s job) due to his creativity and on-field heroics that are innately within him.

On the other hand, Nwosu came to USC as a three-star prospect and undoubtedly developed (with the help of the coaches) into the team’s most dominant defender. As it stands, he is the best example of player development at USC during Helton’s tenure.

SEE ALSO: USC’s greatest three-star recruits ever

Meanwhile, several other blue-chip prospects returned to USC for the 2018 season in order to improve their ailing to nonexistent draft stock. Unfortunately, none of them were able to necessarily accomplish that goal during the Trojans’ disastrous campaign.

Once again USC had four players selected in this year’s NFL Draft, but this time they were all seniors and none were taken prior to the third round. Chuma Edoga (Round 3, Jets) was the first Trojan off the board and actually earned his draft position through a dynamic performance during Senior Bowl week along with excellent combine measurables. It is evident that Edoga possesses many of the tools to excel in the NFL but USC’s coaching staff came nowhere near unleashing that potential on a weak Pac-12.

Next Iman Marshall (Round 4, Ravens) and Marvell Tell (Round 5, Colts) found homes in the league and both remain very intriguing prospects because of their raw athletic ability. Both were inconsistent on the field throughout their college careers but pro teams likely recognize that the USC secondary was very poorly coached during that same timespan (I mean, what did Adoree Jackson really do in college to be drafted in the first round besides be a supreme athlete?)

Finally, Cameron Smith (Round 5, Vikings) rounded out the USC selections in 2019.

MORE: Ranking USC’s best defensive backs in history

Outside of Nwosu, none of the other Trojans selected appeared to benefit from improving while at USC.

Their raw ability dictated they be taken.

Yet, the 2019 season offers new hope for all of the draft-eligible players who return for another year in Troy.

For example, Graham Harrell’s coherent offensive scheme should result in a stock boost for each offensive prospect. On such player is left tackle Austin Jackson.

Jackson has always been considered a prototypical NFL tackle prospect but has yet to live up to that billing on the field. He has the size and quickness to ward off most college defenders, but some technique adjustments could catapult him up the rankings. With a new offensive line coach in Tim Drevno and an offensive system that prides itself on getting the ball out quickly and creating advantageous matchups for its players, Jackson is the Trojan with the best chance to crack the top two rounds in next year’s draft.

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

On the outside, senior Michael Pittman returns to school with intentions of climbing draft boards.

Pittman led the USC receiving corps with 18.5 yards per catch and racked up 758 receiving yards to narrowly lead the team in yards over standout freshman Amon Ra St. Brown. But once again the consistency and injury history likely led NFL teams to grade Pittman out as a 3rd round pick at best. If Pittman can dominate on a weekly basis this year and display an improved ability to win contested catches with his 6-foot-4 frame, he could certainly become a second rounder.

CHECK OUT: Four potential breakout players for 2019

Opposite Pittman is former five-star receiver Tyler Vaughns. Vaughns is a difficult player to evaluate because the same smoothness in his game that can be mesmerizing can be interpreted as a lack of effort, awareness, or apathy on the field. For example, his drop in the endzone against ASU last year led to a 14-point swing that derailed much of the momentum Jack Sears and company built to that point.

More from Reign of Troy

Yet other times, such as last year’s Notre Dame game, Vaughns displays tremendous hands, an enormous catch radius, and the ability to be a #1 receiving option against quality competition. If he can exert a little more “want to,” he could become another second or third round prospect.

The most polarizing figure on USC’s roster has to be junior running back Stephen Carr. Carr flashed the ability to be a star tailback in his freshman year but has struggled with ankle and back injuries since. If the back is right and Carr can be as explosive as he once was, he will strike fear into opponents’ hearts and reemerge as an enticing NFL back. If not, Vavae Malepeai will supplant him as the Trojans’ lead runner, and have an opportunity to be drafted in a later round in the next two years.

On the other side of the ball, the Trojans draft strength for 2020 resides on the defensive line. Jay Tufele causes the most havoc consistently for USC up front and has shown the ability to penetrate the backfield and play with a high motor. He could end up being a first or second round pick within the next two years due to his athleticism and size.

Another third-year player, Marlon Tuipulotu, also produced for Clancy Pendergast’s defense in 2019 with 5.5 tackles for a loss and an ability to take on blockers in the middle for his linebackers. Of course, Tuipulotu along with Tufele could opt to return to school after this season with two years of eligibility remaining each.

RELATED: Marlon Tuipulotu exploding in Spring Camp

Then there is redshirt senior Christian Rector. The Loyola product has been one of the more up-and-down players on USC’s defense recently. He is unblockable at times but tends to disappear for long stretches during a game or even through a couple of weeks. Rector’s play is exemplified by a game last year in which he burst through the opposing offensive line with ease, got to the ball carrier, and then inexplicably failed to wrap up and drive the player to the ground, which cost the defense yards on both plays.

If Rector wants to climb draft boards in 2020, he will need to finish plays, series, and games or risk sliding to the later rounds.

Another senior, inside linebacker John Houston, features the sideline-to-sideline athleticism that NFL scouts love, but he remains on the lighter side for an ILB. Houston has come under fire throughout his USC career for lacking physicality and missing gap assignments. Cameron Smith’s departure only makes the situation more daunting. Houston is now responsible for USC’s defensive calls in 2019 and his ability to quarterback the defense (and tackle) will be a deciding factor in how scouts view him as an NFL player.

If the 2020 NFL Draft is a step in the right direction for USC, the 2021 draft is trending towards being a be a Carroll-esque draft year. The three best prospects are all on the defensive side of the ball with linebacker Palaie Gaoteote, safety Talanoa Hufunga and Tufele leading the charge. All three players are potential first round choices and will anchor the USC defense at each level for the next couple seasons.

MORE: Five unanswered questions from Spring Camp

Offensively, Amon Ra St. Brown is the most surefire prospect with his technical route running, sticky hands, and impressive work ethic. Markese Stepp is a name to watch because of his combination of size and agility and Josh Falo is a new age NFL tight end receiving-wise but must improve his blocking to be viable at the next level.

So yes, the 2019 NFL Draft was yet another deficiency of the Clay Helton era at USC and player development remains an issue. However, the talent that resides within the program should assuage anxieties that down years like that will become a trend.