USC football recruiting: Are three-star players the problem?

SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 05: Head coach Clay Helton of the USC Trojans watches his team during warmups before the Pac-12 Championship game against the Stanford Cardinal at Levi's Stadium on December 5, 2015 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 05: Head coach Clay Helton of the USC Trojans watches his team during warmups before the Pac-12 Championship game against the Stanford Cardinal at Levi's Stadium on December 5, 2015 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images) /

Are three-star commits the problem for USC football? Recent trends show the Trojans’ bigger issue stems from what they do with four- and five-star players.

BEST OF USC. Top Trojan Three-Star Recruits

It’s June, which means it’s time for the annual tradition of debating three-star recruits.

Every offseason, USC football extends scholarship offers to players who stand out at their camps, often prospects who aren’t particularly highly-rated by recruiting services.

CHECK OUT: Breakout players in each position for 2019

And every year those three-star players jump on the chance to play in cardinal and gold, putting their name down as a pledge far sooner than five and four-star prospects have the urgency to do.

And when that happens each year, a certain segment of fans stresses over USC “settling” for lesser three-star prospects.

This year, it’s in relation to recent commits like tight end Jack Yary, offensive tackle Joey Wright and offensive guard Kyle Juergens, all three-star recruits heading into their senior seasons.

MORE: Will Graham Harrell’s Air Raid lead USC to being “Big-12 bad”?

So are three-star prospects a problem for the Trojans? The short answer is: No.

The longer answer is: Not in June.

USC’s class of 2019 was loaded up with 18 three-star players, which was far more than usual.

RELATED: Five silver linings to USC’s 2019 recruiting class

The class of 2018 had just one. The class of 2017 had a more common number with nine. The class of 2016 had seven. The class of 2015 had 10.

Those were all Top 10 national classes, for the record.

The difference between those and the class of 2019 was in when the three-star players committed. Ten of the 17 three-stars the Trojans signed were added in the final couple of months of recruiting. That’s not normal for USC, which usually picks up their handful or two of three-star prospects early in the process.

For instance, the 2017 class had five of the nine three-stars who signed already on board before the start of the 2016 season. (That class ranked fourth nationally, grabbing nine of the top 10 players in the class on or around Signing Day)

SEE ALSO: Ranking USC’s best ever five-star players

The late run on three-star prospects in 2019 was a clear sign of how unbalanced the Trojans were by a 5-7 season, a coaching staff overhaul and a head coach on the hot seat.

But it wasn’t a sign that USC shouldn’t be casting a net to find three-star prospects worth taking a chance on in the spring and summertime.

That’s how the Trojans picked up productive players like Christian Rector, Aca’Cedric Ware, Velus Jones Jr., Jordan Iosefa, Andrew Vorhees and others.

If fans want to direct their ire from watching the Trojans drop to 5-7 towards something, it should be the way USC hasn’t gotten enough out of their elite signees.

MORE: Revisiting USC’s underwhelming 2016 recruiting class

Consider the class of 2016, which ranked 10th nationally and boasted 14 players with a five or four-star pedigree.

Using a very surface-level breakdown, dividing the class into “miss,” “contributor” and “starter” (without much regard for context) it’s clear the three-star players have actually come through more reliably than the higher-rated stars of the group.

Class of 2016

Five-stars (0/2, 0%)

  • LB Oluwole Betiku: Miss
  • CB: Jack Jones: Miss

Four-stars (5/12, 41%)

  • TE Cary Angeline: Miss
  • DB Jamel Cook: Miss
  • WR Josh Imatorbhebhe: Miss
  • RB Vavae Malepeai: Contributor
  • OL Frank Martin: Miss (for now)
  • DL Connor Murphy: Contributor
  • WR Michael Pittman: Starter
  • DB C.J. Pollard: Contributor
  • OL E.J. Price: Miss
  • WR Trevon Sidney: Miss
  • OL Nathan Smith: Miss
  • WR Tyler Vaughns: Starter

Three-stars (5/6, 83%)

  • DL Josh Fatu: Starter
  • QB Matt Fink: Contributor
  • LB Jordan Iosefa: Starter
  • DL Liam Jimmons: Contributor
  • WR Velus Jones Jr.: Starter
  • WR Keyshawn “Pie” Young: Miss

The class of 2016 is an extreme example, to be fair.

Most recruiting classes don’t lose six of their top eight players for a variety of reasons. But there’s a reason the wheels came off for the Trojans in 2018, when the class of 2016 should have been coming into their own.

SEE ALSO: How has USC’s class of 2017 performed so far?

The class of 2017 offers more balance, without the massive sweep of departures. But it also reaches a similar conclusion. A handful of three-star players includes diamonds in the rough and solid contributors (same as the four-star group).

Class of 2017

Five-stars (1/2, 50%)

  • RB Stephen Carr: Starter
  • WR Joseph Lewis: Miss

Four-stars (10/12, 83%)

  • DB Bubba Bolden: Miss
  • LB Hunter Echols: Contributor
  • TE Josh Falo: Contributor
  • OL Austin Jackson: Starter
  • DB Greg Johnson: Contributor
  • LB Levi Jones: Miss
  • OL Brett Neilon: Starter
  • DB Isaiah Pola-Mao: Starter
  • QB Jack Sears: Contributor
  • DL Jay Tufele: Starter
  • DL Marlon Tuipulotu: Starter
  • OL Alijah Vera-Tucker: Starter

Three-stars (6/8*, 75%)

  • OLB Juliano Falaniko: Contributor
  • DB Jay Godfrey: Miss
  • WR Randal Grimes: Miss
  • LB Tayler Katoa: Mission*
  • TE Erik Krommenhoek: Contributor
  • DL Jacob Lichtenstein: Contributor
  • OL Jalen McKenzie: Contributor
  • DL Brandon Pili: Starter
  • OL Andrew Vorhees: Starter

Two-stars (1/1, 100%)

  • LS Damon Johnson: Starter

The class of 2018 is an interesting case study, since scholarship numbers limited the size of the class to 18. That meant forgoing the normal number of three-star additions. In that sense, the class of 2019 tipped the scales back to even.

In any case, it’s too early to evaluate either 2018 or 2019’s classes.

USC is a recruiting juggernaut, and the ideal class includes a couple five-stars, a dozen four-stars and a collection of three-stars to fill out the group.

Taking commitments from a few three-stars in June is par for the course and doesn’t indicate any great misstep by the Trojan coaching staff.

What does matter is the work the staff is putting in to cultivate relationships with elite prospects ahead of the the 2019 season, especially with the early signing period shrinking the recruiting calendar.

Then it’s all about delivering better result on the field to prove to recruits that USC is still a prime destination worthy of their signature.