Antonio Morales (TheAthletic.com) — LOS ANGELES — USC will enter this coming season with only eight scholarship seniors. So after signing 26 players in the 2019 recruiting cycle, Clay Helton wasn’t lying when he spoke about the 2020 recruiting class.
“It will be a smaller class, I know that going into it,” Helton said. “You look at the number of seniors we have in this class, it will not be as large as this class was. We’re going to have to really identify specific needs coming out of spring. Whether it is we have injuries, who are our upcoming juniors that could have the availability to move onto the NFL, what those needs will be, and currently see where our freshmen are at, the 10 guys who are on campus, as well as the other 16. To be able to say ‘Oh we need this,’ is a little hard right now. I can say from a numbers standpoint (the 2020 class) will not be as large as this year.”
The Trojans will have to be selective, but there will be plenty of talent to choose from in a loaded crop of talented players from southern California in the 2020 recruiting class. But it will likely take some on-field success for the Trojans to reap the benefits of this gifted group.
After a 5-7 season, it was much more difficult for USC to keep in-state talent at home. The Trojans signed only two of California’s top 20 players. For context, Oregon signed five and Washington signed three.
The solution seems pretty simple, though: win games. When USC won the Pac-12 in 2017, it followed that by signing California’s top four recruits — and six of the state’s top-10 rated players — in the 2018 recruiting cycle. When the Trojans won the Rose Bowl, they signed seven of the state’s top-20 players.
While on-field play will likely determine the trajectory of USC’s recruiting efforts, let’s take a closer look at some of the top players who will help define the Trojans’ 2020 class one way or another.
Justin Flowe, 6-foot-2, 225-pound inside linebacker, Upland (Upland, Calif.)
Credentials: The nation’s No. 3 overall player in the 2020 recruiting class, No. 1 inside linebacker in the country and the top-ranked player in California. (All rankings per the 247Sports Composite)
Thoughts: If you take one look at Flowe’s highlights, it’s easy to see why he’s rated so high. He has size. He has speed. He has explosiveness. It’s a combination that allows him to easily punish offensive players and disrupts opposing offenses.
USC is slated to lose two starting linebackers next season — John Houston Jr. and Jordan Iosefa — and Flowe has the talent to potentially make an early impact wherever he goes. Per the 247Sports Composite, only six linebackers have finished in the top 10 of the yearly recruiting rankings since 2010, and only two of those have been inside linebackers — Reuben Foster (2013) and Ben Davis (2016), who both went to Alabama.
No linebacker has finished as high as Flowe’s current No. 3 ranking and none have received a higher composite grade than his 0.9989. Needless to say, Flowe’s recruiting is going to be a dogfight. Flowe told The Athletic on Thursday he has intentions of visiting programs such as “Texas, Clemson, Oklahoma and Florida” over the next few months.
When asked who’s recruiting him the hardest right now, Flowe listed Alabama, USC, Oregon and Texas. Trojans linebackers coach Johnny Nansen is leading their efforts.
“He’s talking to me about going to USC and being No. 55,” Flowe said of the infamous USC number, which has been worn by linebackers such as Junior Seau, Willie McGinest, Chris Claiborne and Keith Rivers. “He said I could really fill that role, No. 55. We just talk a lot about me going to USC and I visit up there a lot.”
Of course, like most players, he’ll have to monitor USC’s progress on the field and Helton’s status, which seemed more and more uncertain as last season went on.
“They’re going to be good in the long run, I’m telling you,” Flowe said. “I think Clay Helton, he’s a pretty a good coach but he just had a bad season. That happens. I think he’s going to bounce back this season.”
Bryce Young, 6-foot, 176-pound quarterback, Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.)
Credentials: The nation’s No. 28 overall player, the top-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the country and the No. 6 overall player in California.
Thoughts: Young, a true dual-threat quarterback, is the face of this recruiting class and has been since he committed to USC last July. JT Daniels is likely entrenched as the quarterback the next two-to-three years, but the future at the position beyond that seemingly belongs to Young.
The Trojans are on their third offensive coordinator since Young — one of USC’s two 2020 commits — committed to them, which isn’t great.
Former offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury was the first college coach to offer Young a scholarship so, naturally, Young was excited about the prospect of playing for Kingsbury. That fell through, but the fact USC hired another Air Raid disciple — Graham Harrell — as its offensive coordinator has helped ease whatever concerns there may have been.
Harrell and Young met last week and all indications from Young suggest it went well.
“The system he ran is really similar to the system I ran at Cathedral. That’s something I’m really used to,” Young said. “So it’s a system I’m definitely familiar with and I feel like I’d be comfortable running his offense.”
Even though things have been rather uncertain at USC, Young, who led Mater Dei to a CIF state championship in December, has been pretty steadfast in his commitment.
The plan for now, Young said, is to lay low. He currently doesn’t have any visits planned. Oklahoma and Washington were the other two programs in his final three.
“I have complete confidence this staff will change the whole narrative around. They put together a good season, that recruiting class will change really quickly,” he said. “I don’t feel there’s a place in the country that can flip a narrative faster than SC. I think once the success starts coming — which I have complete faith that it will — a lot of other recruits will continue to see that.”
Now, it’s Young’s time to lead the recruiting efforts as far as players go in this class. When speaking with The Athletic on Monday, Young mentioned he was working on some players at Mater Dei, and the best place to start would probably be with …
Elias Ricks, 6-foot-2, 180-pound corner, Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.)
Credentials: The nation’s No. 9 overall player, the top-ranked cornerback in the country and No. 3 overall player in California.
Thoughts: While rising sophomore Olaijah Griffin was a former five-star prospect, and USC’s two other corners — Isaac Taylor-Stuart and Greg Johnson — were both highly-rated four-star players, the Trojans still need more talent at corner.
Griffin had a typical up-and-down true freshman season. Taylor-Stuart battled injuries but didn’t appear likely to crack the rotation at corner and Johnson struggled with consistency. All of that makes Ricks a mandatory target.
In the past, Ricks had gone as far as telling reporters USC was essentially his dream school. Given the Trojans’ need at corner, it seemed like a match that made sense.
After the Trojans struggled this season — and defensive back development became a bigger topic of discussion — Ricks committed to LSU (and former USC coach Ed Orgeron) on Christmas. There are still 10 months left until the early signing period, but the Trojans are clearly playing catch up.
The first thing that stands out about Ricks is his 6-foot-2, 180-pound frame but he’s displayed natural instincts and anticipation on the ball. He finished his junior season with nine interceptions, six of which he returned for touchdowns.
Ricks is a proven playmaker, and it will likely be up to new secondary coach Greg Burns to make up some ground in that recruitment.
Kendall Milton, 6-foot-2, 210-pound running back, Buchanan (Clovis, Calif.)
Credentials: The No. 11 overall player nationally, the second-ranked running back in the country and the No. 4 overall player in California.
Thoughts: The Trojans have immediate and long-term needs at running back. As of now, they only have four scholarship running backs. One of those is three-star signee Kenan Christon, who won’t be on campus until the summer, and the other is Stephen Carr, who has plenty of talent but has struggled to stay healthy in two years at USC. So depth isn’t exactly great at this position.
Landing a player like Milton — who is a bigger back but also shifty — would provide an immediate boost to USC’s running back room, though, which heightens the importance of his recruitment.
Like others on this list, his recruitment should be hotly-contested. Milton unofficially visited Oregon in January and will visit Texas later this month. Aside from USC, he also has offers from Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia and LSU.
In the past, Milton has expressed a desire to play at the same college as Ricks.
The Trojans ranked 87th in the FBS in yards per rush (4.09) last season and will have to sell him on Harrell’s offense — which dominated primarily through the air at North Texas.
John Humphreys, 6-foot-5, 205-pound receiver, Corona Del Mar (Newport Beach, Calif.)
Credentials: The No. 126 player nationally, the 23rd-ranked receiver in the country and No. 16 overall player in California.
Thoughts: USC places an emphasis on receiver seemingly every year in recruiting. With the hire of Harrell, that will likely continue.
The early 247Sports crystal ball projections have Stanford as the favorite for Humphreys and there’s a good reason for that. His father, Brad, played football for the Cardinal. His mother, Wendy, was a four-time All-American volleyball player at Stanford and his older sister, Kelsey, also played volleyball for the Cardinal.
That won’t stop USC from trying to make a push for Humphreys — whose brother, Ben, played football at Duke. His 6-foot-5 frame makes him an ideal target in one-on-one situations and in the red zone. Humphreys doesn’t appear to be afraid of mixing it up while blocking in the run game either.
After losing Bru McCoy to Texas, the Trojans will be in need of a big-bodied wide receiver.
Others to watch
Myles Murao, four-star offensive lineman, Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.): Murao is the top-rated offensive lineman in California. USC lost out on the state’s top two offensive linemen — Jonah Tauanu’u and Sean Rhyan — to Oregon and UCLA, respectively, this cycle. With the way the Trojans’ offensive line struggled last year, the focus should be on adding as much talent as they can there.
Darion Green-Warren, four-star corner, Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.): The 6-foot, 183-pound Green-Warren is currently committed to Oklahoma. As explained with Ricks, USC has a great need at corner, not just in terms of talent but depth, too. Green-Warren would help in both departments.
Josh Jackson, four-star receiver, Narbonne (Harbor City, Calif.): Jackson is a speedy threat on the outside for the Gauchos. With some attrition through transfers and the loss of McCoy (and likely Puka Nacua), USC will be deep at receiver, just not as deep as it once thought it would be. So the Trojans will still need to add some players there. USC (and Michigan) also just offered Jackson’s Narbonne teammate, four-star defensive end Jordan Banks.