Antonio Morales (TheAthletic.com) — LOS ANGELES — Clay Helton opened his 30-minute news conference with some words about recruiting.
He broke down what USC added during December’s early signing period before he moved onto its pressing needs at defensive back, which the Trojans addressed by signing five defensive backs on Wednesday, the addition of three-star linebacker Tuasivi Nomura and four-star wideout Kyle Ford — the highest-ranked player in the Trojans’ 2019 recruiting class.
All topics you would reasonably expect from a coach on National Signing Day. But after the past few months at USC — a stretch that featured staff turnover, Kliff Kingsbury’s 33-day tenure, five-star standout Bru McCoy’s 18-day stay, and Graham Harrell’s hire — recruiting was one of the least-talked-about topics Wednesday.
The fact that the Trojans’ recruiting class is ranked 18th nationally by the 247Sports Composite — their lowest ranking since 2001 (20th) — probably contributed to that, too. But that was the actuality of signing day, and for the first time in more than a month, Helton discussed these issues with the media.
After Kingsbury left USC in early January, Helton said he didn’t feel the need to rush. There was no pressure on him to do so, and he wanted to be patient until he found the right guy for his offensive coordinator opening.
That happened to be Harrell, who was announced as the Trojans’ offensive coordinator on Jan. 30 — three weeks after Kingsbury’s departure. When Helton hired Kingsbury, he said the program showed its hand with what offense it wanted to run, so he believes the fact that USC went three weeks without a coordinator didn’t impact recruiting much.
Helton also made it clear it’s “not necessarily” an Air Raid offense, and he elaborated on what intrigued him about Harrell’s system.
“One of the things that really struck me with both Kliff and Graham is they’re different than Coach (Mike) Leach, who is true Air Raid,” Helton said. “You look at Graham’s offense … not only did they have the 10th-leading quarterback in the country, the 10th-ranked passing game in the nation, but they also rushed for 2,000 yards, and that’s one of the things that always has to be in your offense. The ability and threat to garner rushing yards. I don’t care how good the quarterback is at any level, the quarterback is going to have an off day, and if you can’t run the ball, you’re going to lose a championship.
“Watching Graham’s offense and studying it and being able to say, ‘Wow, they are in 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR). They are in two-tight sets. They are in 11 personnel a bunch (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR).’ … They do garner four-wides, they mix personnel groupings and they still have the threat of the run in each and every ballgame. Enough to garner 2,000 yards rushing in a season. That’s what truly intrigued me. It wasn’t the true Air Raid. It was the ability to have an elite passing game that can still emphasize a running back.”
In an in-house interview with the USC athletic department last week, Helton didn’t mention Harrell by name because his hire wasn’t official yet, but he said play calling would be the new coordinator’s responsibility. After an underwhelming performance by the offense last season, a lot of attention will be placed on Harrell and what he can do to revive the unit when spring practice opens March 5.
Ford — who committed to USC at the All-American Bowl on Jan. 5 — and his family were monitoring the coordinator situation with great interest once Kingsbury departed. Despite some speculation that he might be looking elsewhere, Ford — the top-rated wide receiver in California — was the first signee announced by the Trojans on Wednesday.
It was a positive development for USC that it was able to hold onto the gifted wideout, but now the main question is: When will he be able to play?
On Sept. 21, Ford tore his ACL, which ended his senior season. He told The Athletic in November that his recovery process was the normal six to nine months.
“He’ll finish nine months at the end of August,” Helton said when asked about Ford’s outlook. “Nowadays with ACLs and modern science, it’s not really physical, it’s really mental being able to get back. And usually you’re fully cleared about nine months — that will be at the end of August. In Kyle, we saw a unique talent that we wanted to invest in for the entire future. If he’s ready to go, he’s ready to go. If not, we’ll leave that up to the doctors and see where that is.”
McCoy, the nation’s top-rated athlete, announced his decision to attend USC the same day Ford did. Except McCoy enrolled a few days later and decided to transfer to Texas less than three weeks after that.
The Longhorns officially announced McCoy, the No. 9 overall player in the country, as a signee on Wednesday. McCoy’s scholarship will count within USC’s 25 initially since he enrolled in classes, but Helton said the Trojans y should get the scholarship back in the fall.
His departure left USC without a five-star prospect in this class. Since 2000, the Trojans have signed at least one five-star player every year.
Helton didn’t get into specifics but spoke about the situation.
“Bru’s situation, it was one that was personal,” he said. “Some other attrition that we’ve had was based on graduation, guys graduating in three years wanting to garner bigger roles. Bru’s was personal and I’m going to (keep) it personal, but I will say this about Bru. Phenomenal person. Phenomenal athlete. Wish him nothing but the best. I can say this about him, he loved his time here at USC. He loved his teammates. The personal relationship I’ll have with that young man will be for a lifetime with him and his family. I’ll remain, I’ll (keep) it personal. We wish him nothing but the best. It ended on really, really good terms, and that relationship will last a lifetime.”
Of course, that personal relationship, or McCoy’s relationship with USC quarterback JT Daniels, one of his best friends, couldn’t win out in the end.
The Trojans signed some talented receivers in this class — Ford and four-star wideout Drake London — so they should withstand the loss of McCoy.
Four-star receiver commit Puka Nacua didn’t sign in December or February, so it appears the writing is on the wall and he’ll land somewhere else. He has visited Washington, UCLA and Oregon in recent weeks. That coupled with McCoy’s transfer probably will leave people wondering what could have been with this receiver class, even with its obvious talent.
When Kingsbury took USC’s offensive coordinator job, he declared there would be an open competition for the starting quarterback role.
Since Kingsbury’s gone and Harrell’s in, Helton was asked if there would still be a quarterback competition this spring. There will be, he said, but there also will be one at running back, wide receiver, tight end and every other position.
“Anytime that you bring in a new system, whether it’s quarterback, wideout, tight end, running back, you’re going to evaluate every position and all jobs are open,” Helton said. “Obviously you have experience with the kids that are on the campus and know what they can do, but you have to see how they fit within the system. And part of bringing a coordinator in was to be able to, with our personnel, (find out if) we have the personnel to fit his scheme and system. Obviously, we feel like we do. So all jobs are open. And our kids know that, both offensively and defensively as you go into spring. But especially with a new system, you’re going to evaluate everybody.”
Helton said every player would receive equal reps but didn’t differentiate between first- and second-team reps when he said that. Even with the competition, Daniels would be the assumed front-runner at quarterback.
Jack Sears did perform well in his lone start against Arizona State last season and has the potential to make things interesting, but it would still be considered an upset if he won the job.
In terms of addressing needs within this recruiting class, there was some stuff to talk about Wednesday, particularly in the defensive backfield.
“We lost seven men off last year’s roster due to graduation and attrition, and four of the five DBs that played the last game are graduates and are gone,” Helton said. “Seven gone, plus Dominic Davis as a senior this year. Eight in two years, that’s a huge number. We needed not only immediate help, but we also wanted to be able to plan for our future.”
USC signed Texas native Dorian Hewett, Hawaii native Kaulana Makaula, Corona Centennial’s Jayden Williams, Ventura Junior College’s Jaylen Watson and flipped Arkansas commit Adonis Otey on Wednesday. Each of those players is a three-star prospect.
The Trojans needed bodies, so they’ll help in that regard. If any can contribute right away remains to be seen. Some might have to in the spring considering the fact starting safeties Talanoa Hufanga and Isaiah Pola-Mao are both coming off season-ending injuries.
The highest-rated defensive back USC signed in this cycle was four-star corner Max Williams. Like Ford, he’s coming off an ACL tear.
“In 25 years I’ve never seen a kid work harder or really is ahead of pace to be ready for next season,” Helton said. “He’s already running straight full speed, not a lot as far as change of directions, but our doctors and our physicians are like blown away by where he’s currently at. He’s not on pace, he’s ahead of pace right now. Kid is working so hard to be ready for next season.”
And after a tumultuous season and an up-and-down offseason, USC is in dire need of more breaks like that.