Is USC football worse than Washington or Oregon at developing bluechip players?

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

USC football has struggled to develop their talented roster under Clay Helton but are they worse than Pac-12 rivals Washington and Oregon?

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Lackluster. This is the best word to describe the USC football’s ability to develop its talent under Clay Helton.

From haphazard on-field performances to the absence of an underclassman declaring for the 2019 NFL Draft (the first such occurrence since 2003 for USC) and declining recruiting success, USC is falling towards its Pac-12 rivals under Coach Helton.

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Unfortunately for Helton, Pete Carroll’s reign of terror over the conference remains fresh in the minds of USC’s supporters who starve for similar success. And what was a major point of pride during the Carroll-era? The number of USC players drafted.

From the 2002 to 2010 NFL Drafts, 60 Trojans heard their name called. For those counting, that is 6.6 players per year. Even after Carroll departed and USC was hit with crippling sanctions, Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian still had 29 players drafted, good for a 4.83 average over six seasons (though the nine players drafted in 2011 could easily be attributed to Carroll which leaves Kiffin and Sarkisian at 20 players drafted in five years).

Despite returning to full scholarship strength, the number of Trojans drafted continues to decline under Helton with just 13 players selected over the past three seasons (a 4.3 player average). Admittedly, the real analysis of the Helton era began with this year’s draft and it will continue over the next couple years to account for how many of “his” players are drafted.

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With these numbers in mind, the obvious move is to check whether the talent at USC has slipped, which could be a logical explanation for why fewer Trojans are headed to the NFL. However, according to 247Sports, USC averaged the sixth-best recruiting class in the nation from 2014-2018.

Yet, the fact remains that other Pac-12 teams have surpassed USC as the Pac-12 destination for players that want to move on to the NFL. Don’t believe it? Ask Chris Petersen, whose Washington Huskies are now drafted more regularly despite trailing USC by a significant number of stars in the recruiting process.

Earlier this summer the Twitter account @The_Data_Dawg released an interesting chart that attempted to evaluate how well college football programs were developing their players.

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Using the recruiting classes of 2010 to 2015 and the NFL Drafts from 2013 to 2019, this individual took the total number of players a school had drafted divided by the players recruited by that school who had a 247Sports composite rating of .906 or better (which is the expected rating of the 255th player in the class or around the last pick in the NFL Draft).

The results claim that Washington produced more draft picks than expected while USC only had 32.9 percent of its expected players drafted.

Skeptical of these results, I created an alternate system to evaluate the developmental success of USC, Washington, and Oregon to compare USC to its best competition in the Pac-12.

I added some parameters to discover what was going on with four and five-star recruits at these schools in terms of development and draft success, and I believe the results do a better job of accurately depicting reality.

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The first additional parameter I implemented was to account for players who did not finish their football careers at the school for various reasons, such as transferring, medical retirement, academics, student-conduct issues, etc.

The second addition was to include any players that were drafted in 2019 as juniors from the 2016 recruiting class while eliminating any players drafted in 2013 from the 2009 recruiting class and any players currently on a 2019 roster (ex. John Houston Jr.).

The results of this deep dive into four and five-star development yielded some fascinating results that indicate advantages for both USC and Washington (sorry Oregon) in terms of developing certain recruits.

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images /

USC is make or break on bluechippers

The Trojans were the clear recruiting kings of the Pac-12 from 2010 to 2015, bringing in 75 total four and five-star recruits. During that period, 19 of the 75 players left the program before exhausting their eligibility or being drafted. From 2013 to 2019, USC had 26 total players drafted with 22 being four or five-star recruits.

What is the major takeaway? USC is not the place for three-star (or worse) recruits with aspirations of playing football beyond college.

The four lower-ranked recruits drafted out of USC in that period were “Buck” Allen, Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, Marcus Martin, and Uchenna Nwosu. However, that means that 29.3 percent of the total blue-chip recruits and 39.2 percent of those players that remained at USC were drafted.

As it turns out, those numbers are actually on par or better than Washington or Oregon’s results.

Washington excels developing, not recruiting

Regardless of Washington’s achievements on the field over the past few seasons, there is a reason to believe that Montlake is where four-star dreams go to die.

Between Steve Sarkisian and Chris Petersen, the Huskies only brought in 25 four or five-star players within the same window that USC had 75.

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With such a modest number of highly-ranked recruits, it stands to reason that those players had every opportunity to earn ample playing time and exposure while at Washington. Meanwhile, every USC recruit has to overcome another blue-chip player to receive adequate practice reps.

Yet, these highly-touted recruits often failed to launch at Washington. Eleven left the program before their senior season, and only five of the remaining 14 were drafted, which left the total at 5-of-25 (or 20 percent).

However, due to the increased number of busts at UW, there was an opportunity for players below the .906 cutoff line, and they capitalized at a tremendous rate.

From 2013 to 2019, 21 lower-ranked Huskies, including John Ross, Vita Vea, and Kevin King, were drafted by NFL teams. Through excellent player development, Washington matched USC in total draft picks during that window (26) and surpassed the Men of Troy with 18 selections in the last three seasons.

Attrition rampant at Oregon

Once considered a recruiting machine in the early 2010s due to a high-flying offense and endless uniform combinations, the Oregon Ducks attracted a respectable 42 blue-chip recruits to Eugene from 2010 to 2015.

But, like their Pacific Northwest rivals, many did not finish at Oregon. The Ducks watched 23 four and five-star recruits exit their program for various reasons.

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With this mass exodus, Oregon’s eight drafted players of the remaining 19 gives them the highest percentage of four or five-stars drafted of the three schools discussed here (42.1 percent). However, the total of 19 percent (8-of-42), is lower than Washington’s dreadful success rate.

Worse yet, Oregon only had 19 total players drafted during this period, which puts them at the bottom of the totem pole in terms of development and draft picks when compared to USC and UW.

What it all means

At the end of the day, these statistics create a nuanced glimpse of how well USC and Clay Helton are developing players. Over the last decade, USC relinquished Carroll’s stranglehold on the west coast for numerous reasons.

Washington is currently setting the pace in the Pac-12, as evidenced by the number of draft picks they produced over the last three years. While the Huskies should be lauded for their evolution under Coach Petersen, it remains to be seen whether a dynasty is arising in Puget Sound.

Meanwhile, the circumstances at USC are much different. There was a sense of inevitability that JuJu Smith-Schuster, Adoree’ Jackson, Sam Darnold, Ronald Jones II, Iman Marshall, and most of the other drafted Trojans, were going to play in the NFL. Those players entered college with the raw ability and work ethic to play at the next level regardless of coaching. Development by these players was less apparent because most were impactful from day one.

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The same can be said for the Trojans who should be drafted this year, like Michael Pittman and Tyler Vaughns, or in upcoming years, such as Austin Jackson, Jay Tufele, Amon Ra St. Brown, Palaie Gaoteote, and Talanoa Hufanga.

The next step for Clay Helton and his staff is to turn their dynamic talents into world-beaters that go toe-to-toe with any team in the country, while concurrently producing more Christian Rector’s and Nwosu’s to replace mishaps along the recruiting trail.

If Helton and Co. are unable to develop the mid-tier players at USC, the results will continue to be the same. Lackluster.