In his first recruiting class for the USC Trojans in 2015, head coach Clay Helton finished with the 11th-ranked class, according to Scout. Though lacking the fanfare of the previous two classes, what the Trojans were able to accomplish on Wednesday was nothing short of impressive.
Despite spending most of the season recruiting as an interim, Helton was able to pry away some serious talent from across the country. The Trojans’ haul also came in at No. 11 per ESPN, good enough for the No. 1 recruiting class in the Pac-12. Overall, USC checks in at No. 9 in Athlon Sports' consensus recruiting rankings.
College Football Podcast: 2016 National Signing Day Recap
So, what are the main takeaways from Helton's new group of recruits?
1. USC loaded up on skill position players
If someone were to sit down and compare the USC offense during the Pete Carroll era to the offense the Trojans have put on the field the last five years, the differences would be night and day. Whereas Carroll’s teams were seemingly loaded at every position, the past couple years have seen USC’s offense become less varied and more predictable.
While injuries and sanctions no doubt played their part, USC’s offense has never come close to recapturing the fear Trojan skill players used to put in opposing teams. For example, last year teams figured out that they could double-team top wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster because the Trojans hadn’t found players capable of replacing that kind of productivity on a week-in, week-out basis.
“The wideout corps that we signed, I think, has to be one of the tops in the country,” Helton said. “I think sometimes as a head football coach and a staff, you have to look for not only the season coming up, but you also have to see what’s going on in the future. With the dynamic of us possibly losing several young men after this season and how special a group this class was, we really felt that we needed to load up.”
To restock the offense, USC signed five wide receivers, two athletes, a tight end, and a running back. Three of those players were consensus 5-star prospects, which means they got the highest rating possible across the recruiting services. Those players are: Tyler Vaughns (WR), Michael Pittman (WR), and Jack Jones (ATH). Josh Imatorbhebhe (WR), Trevon Sidney (WR), Cary Angeline (TE), and Vavae Malepeai (RB) were 4-star players, according to Scout. Velus Jones (WR) and Keyshawn Young (ATH) were rated as 3-stars by Scout, but are higher on other services.
"When you look at [the skill players], you’re talking about the best of the best in the country,” Helton said. “This group is going to be a great legacy here at USC and provide tremendous explosion. Not only down the field, but what I was impressed with each one of them was their ability to make yards after the catch.”
2. Family and academics will the mantra for Helton
Follow recruiting long enough and you’ll start to notice a few things. Among these are the catchphrases and mantras coaches use on the recruiting trail. These phrases and statements often become hashtags or war cries for the team, but they’re marketing tools at their very core.
Family, academics, and understanding what it means to be a Trojan have been the centerpiece of every conversation Helton has had about recruiting, whether it’s referring to the class as a whole or individual prospects. While some of these mantras can be cheesy, there is a very soft and genuine nature to what Helton preaches. Perhaps this is because Helton feels he’s the last guy you’d expect to be the face of the Trojans, but that’s not a bad thing.
In order to be successful in coaching and recruiting, people have to stay within themselves. It’s really no different than the advice coaches dispense to players — “stay within your own game and you’ll be fine.” But while this is a concept a bunch of coaches teach almost daily, very few live it off the field. They try to emulate and copy the style of successful coaches. Now there is nothing wrong with taking bits and parts from successful people, but none of that will matter if the coach doesn’t add a personal touch to his message. Everything Helton does and says feels personal and from the heart.
Whether or not it’s true, experts tend to associate the USC job with an outspoken, vibrant and colorful personality. Helton is by no means bland, but he certainly is more laidback and easy-going than the likes of Carroll or even Ed Orgeron. It works for Helton, though. When Helton speaks, there is a sincerity and warmth to the conversation. The more you pay attention to Helton’s demeanor, the more you begin to understand why he was able to close with such an impressive recruiting class.
Borrowing a phrase from the political season, Helton has the look and face of someone recruits can trust. The way he addresses the media, provides thoughtful analysis, and consistently spreads a message of love, progress, and understanding helps to contextualize some of his early successes at USC. Of course, winning February at USC has never been a problem.
It’s winning in November that seems to give the Trojans fits.
3. The trenches matter at USC once again
Physicality is something that has been lacking at USC for a couple of seasons now. Throughout the 2015 season, expert after expert commented how the Trojans were getting bullied by opposing teams at the line of scrimmage. Knowing how important it was for USC to improve on both lines, the staff set out to bring in guys they believe could have an immediate impact.
“Defensively, we thought it all started on the defensive line,” Helton said. “We captured four tremendous pass rushers. Our league is a passing league and you have to be able to get to the quarterback. When we were evaluating film, we really felt that these men were elite about putting pressure and getting to the quarterback, which is something we dearly needed. On the offensive side, it obviously starts with the offensive line.”
USC’s ability to recruit both lines this past cycle will certainly pay dividends later. The Trojans added seven linemen that combined to receive 27 stars, or an average of 3.87 stars per player. This group includes 5-star DT Oluwole Betiku, 4-star OT Nathan Smith, and 3-star DE Liam Jimmons during the early enrollment period. USC then added 4-stars OT Frank Martin II, DE Connor Murphy and OT E.J. Price, as well as 3-star DT Joshua Fatu, on National Signing Day.
When coupled with the previous hauls on both lines in the last two classes, USC will have little excuse for not physically dominating games.
4. Recruiting assistants were USC’s unsung heroes
Aside from being one of the most respected names in recruiting, USCFootball.com’s Gerard Martinez brought awareness to just how important USC’s administrative assistants were to the overall success of the Trojans’ recruiting class. Martinez noted that USC assistants Keynodo Hudson and Gavin Morris were critical to the recruitment of E.J. Price, Jack Jones, Jamel Cook and Pie Young.
Considered the authority on USC recruiting, Martinez is as plugged in and discerning as they come on the recruiting scene. If he felt the need to draw attention to the work done by Hudson and Morris, you can be sure that they were instrumental in securing a commitment for the Trojans. Acknowledging their efforts was Martinez’s way of stressing that the two assistants may have been the difference-maker for a couple recruits.
USC has largely been fighting an uphill battle after the NCAA sanctions ended. In theory, the coaching carousel at USC should have nuked the past couple of recruiting classes. Because of people like Tee Martin and the administrative assistants, USC has put together tremendous classes. More than that, the Trojans’ coaching staff has closed incredibly strong over the last three years and recruits notice that.
Experts joke that assistants can almost matter more than the head coach. These types of efforts are what inspire those comments. Kudos to Martinez for highlighting it.
5. USC’s brand is stronger than ever
The names Matthew Thomas, Jalen Ramsey and De’Anthony Thomas make USC fans shudder for a reason. DAT is often talked about as one of the biggest signing day surprises because of his famous flip from USC to Oregon. USC thought it had a pair of talented 5-stars with Thomas and Ramsey, but lost both of them to Florida State and haven’t stopped mentioning it since. Wednesdays represented a chance at retribution, of sorts.
Not only did USC’s class feature players from six different states, the Trojans also flipped a couple of highly coveted prospects from Oregon and Florida State on National Signing Day. Running back Vavae Malepeai shocked everyone when he picked USC over Oregon and S Jamel Cook was a bit of a surprise flipping from Florida State to USC.
There is really no such thing as getting even in recruiting, but it didn’t hurt the Trojan brand that they could steal a Polynesian running back from Oregon and a 4-star defensive back out of Miami from Florida State. The Trojans also pulled a vaunted offensive tackle out of Georgia from underneath the Bulldogs’ feet. The growth of the brand was important enough for Helton to lead off his press conference by mentioning it.
“I’m also very proud of the brand that we are spreading across the country,” Helton said. “You look at the states that were represented with these signees — Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and then our own West Coast with California and Arizona. Six different states represented and spread across the country.”
Humorously enough, Helton misspoke. USC actually had seven different states represented. Linebacker Jordan Iosefa hails from Hawaii, but forgetting about the 50th state doesn’t exactly hurt Helton’s point.
The USC brand is growing, now it’s time for the coaches to do the same with the team and Helton is off to a great start.
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Webb is a recruiting analyst for BarkBoard, Scout’s Fresno State affiliate. A contributor to USCFootball.com, Scout’s USC affiliate. He is also a regular guest and contributor for CFBHuddle. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.