How have USC football’s three-star recruits fared under Clay Helton?

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

With three-stars occupying the majority of slots in recent USC football recruiting classes, what can fans expect from lower rated prospects based on past results?

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As USC football heads into the 2020 offseason with a dangerous amount of uncertainty surrounding the program, there is one area that has some clarity: the Trojans will have more three-star players on their roster than in any year in recent memory.

The downturn in USC’s on-field success after 2017’s Pac-12 Championship led to consecutive recruiting classes that were composed differently than most Trojan classes in the last two decades.

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From 2015 through 2018, USC brought in classes with eight, six, nine and two three-star recruits for a total of 25 in four cycles.

Following a 5-7 record during the 2018 season, Helton and his staff put together an unorthodox class comprised of USC’s typical headliners like Kyle Ford, Drake Jackson, Max Williams and Drake London, while later welcoming 5-star prospects Bru McCoy and Chris Steele in on transfer. However, the Trojans had a large number of roster spots remaining, which led to the staff signing 18 three-star recruits to fill out the team’s depth.

Three-star recruits are a staple in almost any recruiting class at any school. However, USC missed out on several high-profile targets like the top overall prospect Kayvon Thibodeaux, cornerback Mykael Wright, offensive tackle Jonah Tauanu’u and linebacker Mase Funa, who all elected to attend Oregon despite hailing from Southern California.

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In years prior, it was assumed that the top athletes in the state were destined to be Trojans. When people outside of the program saw this rule broken, it created the sense that Helton’s failures on the field and the instability of his tenure drove top players away from USC. Unfortunately, the three-star replacements are viewed as last resorts for a floundering coaching staff.

However, a year later, the 2018 class was quite impactful considering the skepticism that surrounded it.

Jackson was USC’s best defensive lineman this season, London started in the slot, Steele played meaningful snaps at cornerback, and McCoy, Ford, and Williams will factor into the team’s 2020 lineup after redshirting because of injury.

Yet the biggest boon came from the ranks of the three-stars, as Kedon Slovis rose from a relative unknown to become one of the best collegiate quarterbacks in 2019. Thrust into action after JT Daniels’ season-ending ACL injury, Slovis played in 12 games and finished seventh in the Power 5  in passer efficiency at 167.60. He set the NCAA record for freshman completion percentage at 71.9 and established a multitude of other records in his first season.

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The other major contributor of the class was three-star burner Kenan Christon, who joined Slovis in the backfield after a slew of injuries. He displayed promising skills as runner and pass catcher out of the backfield, averaging 5.5 yards per carry and 11.5 yards per catch.

Nevertheless, doubt regarding the rest of the class remains. Three players never made it onto campus and the majority of its members were afforded little-to-no playing time. Briton Allen, Ralen Goforth, Nick Figueroa, Jayden Williams and Dorian Hewett each participated in 10 or more games but this group primarily cut their teeth on special teams and received few opportunities on defense.

No other three-star, first-year player exceeded the redshirt limit of four games, outside of receivers Munir McClain and John Jackson III (who is technically part of the 2018 recruiting cycle). While this isn’t surprising, especially at USC, it leaves an air of mystery surrounding what the future contributions from this group could be.

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To make matters more intriguing, the Trojans signed 11 players on Early Signing Day this year, 10 of which are three-star recruits. Adding at least 10 three-stars to the team means that Helton and staff have signed 28 three-stars in two years, more than the four previous years combined.

As of this weekend, USC gained an additional commitment from four-star prospect Gary Bryant Jr. at wide receiver, which means the class is currently comprised of two receivers, one kicker, three defensive linemen and six offensive linemen.

It’s no secret that football games are won and lost in the trenches, and there is little doubt that Helton’s team must restock and improve its performance in up front to regain their place atop the Pac-12. Supporters and media members remain dubious as to whether the Trojans will accomplish that considering the state of recruiting and development under the fifth-year head coach.

Some have suggested that there is a lack of obvious offensive and defensive line talent available in the Pac-12’s home region, and there is validity to that theory with just 12 four-star or better line recruits in the area on offense or defense. As a result, they justify the number of three-star linemen USC is bringing in by claiming the higher-ranked players simply aren’t out there for the Trojans to recruit.

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Yet, if USC was firing on all (or even half of its) cylinders and needed to restock on linemen, there is little doubt they could bring in some of those 12.

Regrettably, this struggle extends back to last season’s cycle, when the Trojans received commitments from only two of the 11 four-star linemen in California alone. In fact, USC hasn’t secured California’s top offensive lineman in recruiting since Damien Mama in 2014.

Year after year these misses compound and will ultimately lead the Trojans into a position where they no longer have four and five-star offensive linemen at each position up front. While recruiting rankings aren’t everything, USC is accustomed to operating with highly-regarded players on its line and even then the results haven’t been pretty.

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The same can be said for the rest of the team. As the number of four and five-star players on the roster dwindles, three-star players will be called upon to fill roles in increasing numbers.

Ultimately, the question most people ask is, “How many of these three-star players can be relied upon to be meaningful contributors for USC?”

To answer this, it’s best to investigate the success rate of three-star recruits when playing for the Trojans under Clay Helton.

Of the eight three-star recruits Helton signed in 2015, three became starters, three transferred or retired and two played out their careers as backups. The starters, Deontay Burnett, Christian Rector and Aca’Cedric Ware, were quite accomplished as Trojans.

Burnett caught 152 passes for 1,897 yards and nine touchdowns, including an 1,114-yard season in 2017 and a game-winning touchdown catch in the 2016 Rose Bowl.  Ware was USC’s lead back in 2018 and compiled 264 rushes, 1,505 yards and 10 TDs during his career. Meanwhile, Rector just completed his final season for the men of Troy as a captain. He had 23 career tackles for a loss and 13 sacks.

The following class featured Josh Fatu, Velus Jones Jr. and Jordan Iosefa along with three other three-stars. Fatu was a junior college transfer and made an impact on the Trojan defensive line in both 2016 and 2017. Jones Jr. never found consistent playing time at receiver but was the team’s primary kick returner this season. However, it is probable that he is moving on after entering the transfer portal for the second consecutive offseason. Meanwhile, Iosefa was expected to contribute heavily as an inside linebacker this year but an injury led to the senior redshirting in order to return in 2020.

In 2017, the Trojans welcomed nine three-star players onto the team and four have been starters or major contributors. Two transferred away and one, Taylor Katoa, is finishing up his mission trip prior to deciding whether to recommit.

Andrew Vorhees and Jalen McKenzie both earned starting roles as offensive guards in the last three years, with the latter assumed to be a lock to start at either guard or tackle in 2020. Brandon Pili is a run stopper for the Trojan defense and rotates with both Jay Tufele and Marlon Tuipulotu situationally, and Eric Krommenhoek was the go-to H-Back last season.

In total, 10 of the 23 three-star players had major roles for USC within those recruiting cycles (so far), and that doesn’t include the best three-star player from an earlier class, Uchenna Nwosu. Nwosu racked up 169 tackles for USC in four seasons while sacking the quarterback 12.5 times and defending an incredible 19 passes as primarily an edge rusher.

Players like Nwosu, Burnett, and Kedon Slovis are proof that three-star players can thrive at USC when they are properly developed and utilized. However, as the three-star ranks grow, so will the odds against the program’s national title odds.

It’s unrealistic to expect a larger proportion of three-stars on a roster to actually improve the outcomes for the team as a whole. It’s less likely that these players will develop into the NFL-like talent that is required to compete consistently on the national stage, especially when four and five-star players have struggled to do so in the last five years. Plus, the future of recruiting remains unclear as the instability of Helton’s job continues to be a major roadblock in recruiting for the Trojans.

If USC can’t win the Pac-12 this season or make a commitment to Helton or another coach, the program will be mired in limbo for years to come.

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