It’s Been a Nightmare for USC Football

J. Brady McCollough (LA Times)  —  Months before Bru McCoy, the five-star Santa Ana Mater Dei wide receiver, shocked the college football world by transferring from USC to Texas, signs of trouble with coveted Southern California recruits had already begun to surface for the Trojans.

In mid-October, four-star cornerback Chris Steele of St. John Bosco decommitted from USC. A few days later, after the Trojans lost their third game of the season at Utah, Bosco teammate Kris Hutson, a four-star wide receiver in the class of 2020, also decommitted from USC.

On Oct. 27, four-star defensive end Stephon Wright of Cathedral High watched in the Coliseum as two of his top schools, USC and Arizona State, duked it out. The Trojans lost a heartbreaker to the Sun Devils. Wright noted the result, USC’s fourth defeat in what would be an excruciating seven-loss campaign.

The next week, USC athletic director Lynn Swann called into his department’s weekly radio show, “Trojans Live,” and gave coach Clay Helton a hearty public vote of confidence — a precursor to his decision to keep Helton as head coach despite Swann acknowledging deficiencies across the program.

The Trojans had struggled with opponents on the field, sure, but they had also given them ample ammunition in the perception-driven world of recruiting. USC did not help itself the week after the season when it fired assistant coaches who had been building relationships with the top players in the 2019 class.

Defensive backs coach Ronnie Bradford visited Steele and his family, trying to convince them to come back to USC. The next day, Bradford was fired. Defensive line coach Kenechi Udeze visited Wright and his family. The next day, Udeze was fired. Steele signed with Florida, Wright with Arizona State.

By early signing day Dec. 19, Helton was left to defend questions about the fact USC did not have a five-star signee. (McCoy had silently signed with the Trojans to leave intrigue for his announcement at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, a decision he would reverse in January after then-USC offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury left to become the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals).

Mater Dei wide receiver Bru McCoy makes a key catch against St. John Bosco defender Chris Steele in the second quarter Nov. 23 at Cerritos College. Both McCoy and Steele are former USC commits.
Mater Dei wide receiver Bru McCoy makes a key catch against St. John Bosco defender Chris Steele in the second quarter Nov. 23 at Cerritos College. Both McCoy and Steele are former USC commits. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Then, on Christmas Day, another Mater Dei future star, five-star cornerback Elias Ricks of the 2020 class, decided he was ready to commit. Ricks’ mother was a USC graduate, and he was long considered a near-lock for the Trojans. But Ricks announced he was going to attend Louisiana State.

“That was bigger to me than seeing Bru leave,” said Greg Biggins, national recruiting analyst for 247Sports.

A few days before Wednesday’s national signing day, USC boasts the No. 18 class in the country according to 247Sports and the No. 3 class in the Pac-12. Of the top 20 players in California, USC has just two, one of which, five-star wide receiver Kyle Ford of Orange Lutheran, could decide to sign elsewhere.

Oregon grabbed five of the top 20. Washington took three. With McCoy’s defection, Texas has two. With a few decisions still to be made, it appears likely that more of the top players in the state will head to Southeastern Conference schools than USC, the school that is supposed to be immune to recruiting disappointment no matter what happens on the field.

“For whatever reason, the kids at my school aren’t intrigued by USC,” said Calabasas coach Chris Claiborne, a former All-American linebacker at USC, “and I’m their coach, and I talk about being a Trojan all the time. My offensive coordinator, Curtis Conway, is a Trojan. We talk about loving being a Trojan. But they don’t see it in their eye, that same thing we see.”

Claiborne said that Calabasas four-star wide receiver Mycah Pittman, the younger brother of USC wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr., never discussed USC before choosing Oregon.

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The Ducks plucking five top players out of USC’s backyard is alarming on its own. But, talk to players, coaches and analysts, and there is possibly even more buzz about SEC schools working to plant a flag in the Southern California hotbed, which has never been more open for business.

“Now, it’s a Clemson, it’s a Georgia, it’s an LSU, the excitement kind of rises,” Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson said.

Rollinson is a USC graduate who played for the Trojans under John McKay. He says his players still value the USC brand and that “they know when an SC coach is on campus,” but there’s simply more competition for top talent than there ever has been and more money for schools — especially from extra-flush conferences such as the SEC and the Big Ten — to spend on their recruiting budgets.

“In the last three years, I’ve seen Alabama on this campus,” Rollinson said, “and I don’t think I ever saw Alabama on this campus when we were rolling in the ’90s. And I had some great players in the ’90s.”

Rollinson paints a picture of the average SEC assistant he encounters at Mater Dei:

“They come in and they’re earmarking the best of the best players at schools,” Rollinson said. “They’re polite and courteous, but you know they’re there to see one, maybe two kids. These guys are pretty good in a short amount of time to gauge interest. They’re not going to spin their wheels. They start out with the No. 1 question: Would you travel East if the opportunity was afforded to you?”

The answer, more and more it seems, is yes. Take Hutson, the one-time USC commitment for 2020, who takes great pride in his multiple scholarship offers from the SEC, including LSU and Georgia.

“I’m in love with the SEC,” Hutson said. “I could always fall back on USC. I feel like there’s more competition down in the SEC. You’re going against the best of the best every day during practice. There’s not one game that you can let off and just relax. Others like the Pac-12, the Big 12, some games it’s going to be easy. All the Southern kids, they’re nice and physical, and that’s what I’m like as a football player.”

Former USC prospect Bru McCoy is heading to Texas

“It’s almost like you lose street cred if you go to the Pac-12,” Biggins said. “It’s like big boy football is in the South. Right now, the Pac-12 has a black eye from a national perspective.”

Still, USC was in pole position to land Steele, despite him receiving interest from Florida and Big 12 power Oklahoma. Steele committed to the Trojans last summer and was actively trying to recruit other top players to join him at USC. Yet, as this season unfolded, Steele could not shake the feeling that he had better options to consider than his hometown school.

“I just think there’s a lot of uncertainty right now in the program,” said Norman Steele, Chris’ father. “The main thing was, you want some kind of continuity, and you want to be developed.”

Under first-year head coach Dan Mullen, Florida went from 4-7 to 10-3, finishing the season with a win over Michigan in the Peach Bowl. Norman Steele had grown to appreciate Helton, and telling Helton that his son wasn’t coming to USC tugged at his heart.

Clay Helton is one of the few dudes that is going to honor his word, not going to lie to anybody,” Norman Steele said. “You almost wonder if a guy like that even has a place in the shark tank. Coach Helton is a nice guy in a land of bad people.”

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Being a nice guy wasn’t enough, though. And now, Chris Steele’s parents have to deal with their son going to college 2,500 miles away in Gainesville, Fla.

With every recruiting process that ends with an agonizing decision, another one begins. The hustle for the next kid never stops, and neither does the chatter. How can USC better compete given everything that is swirling around it?

Obviously, the Trojans need to win games in 2019, Biggins says. But they also can work harder and smarter to identify talent earlier in the process. With so many players electing to sign in the December early signing period, USC can no longer afford to play the waiting game and assume its class will fill up late with top players.

“Just talking to some parents,” Biggins said, “they’re saying, ‘I’m recruiting my kid harder to USC than USC is.’ In years past, USC was able to come back late on kids, kind of circle back to their Plan B choices. Those Plan B guys are off the board. USC needs to be a little more aggressive earlier and get on kids, don’t rely on, ‘We’re USC, we can always make up ground later on.’ ”

Claiborne agrees with that assessment. He sees Oregon and Washington identifying talent before USC and Southern powers hovering more often.

Claiborne is ready to see the Trojans start to fight back.

“You get disappointed,” he said. “But you know, if you make some changes, things can get fixed. We are still SC. I don’t get paid by the university to tell you what the changes are. But there’s got to be something.”

latimes.com

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Paul_Muad_dib
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This article makes me so sad. It blows my mind that USC has sunk this low.

San Diego Trojan
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So painfull to read an article like this, knowing there are many more like it. Also knowing that this perception is our new reality. The fact that neither Swann, Helton, or the administration seem to have taken the pulse of the local high schools, or have, but don’t care enough to address it, is what is really troubling to me

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Last night I was discussing the coaching situation with my older brother. He has coached at all levels of your football up to and including high school. He said something to the effect that all coaches go thru cycles. To which I replied USC coaches cannot be bicycles when the rest of the world are motorcycles. I think he got my point. I supported Helton until I saw both backup quarterbacks playing better than the number one. Helton said student athletes don’t lose a job due to injury. I want to know why? If a receiver is having a great… Read more »

Trojan96
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Exactly!!! Toa is a perfect example of what’s wrong with Helton. I always wondered if Helton was determined to keep Toa on the field, then why not have JT take snaps under center instead of risking constant bad snaps in shotgun? Just Saying.

ATL D.D.S.
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Because JT, like most high school QB’s, have never taken a snap under center until they get to USC. JT likes taking snaps this way as much as he likes rolling out on passes (he doesn’t).

SAS
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Helton clearly had Toa in his “favorites” group. He never came close to looking like a deserving starter should and as a RS Senior that was bad.

Jamaica
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OK, I have probably been accused of being nothing but negative on this website. Believe me I wish the days of hope & optimism were still part of this program and you wouldn’t hear a negative word from me, Just all “raw raw”! But my continued reading of what the press & notable others who know CFB, it just rips my heart out. You see, I don’t watch NFL football, any basketball, no baseball. It is Trojan Football or nothing at all. This is what I look forward to all year long…. Clay Helton, you are not good enough to… Read more »

Scipio
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Agree totally. You are not being negative, you are being realistic. You used a phrase “2nd to none” that raised a certain sense deep within me. As you can see, my avatar is the US Army Second Infantry Division patch. The Second Division’s (2 ID) motto is, “Second to None”. It is a motto we lived, it wasn’t mere words. There were 2 ID Medal of Honor brothers before of me, and men of like persuasion surrounding me. It was a high standard, and one we maintained. It was never easy, and often hard but we had something to live… Read more »

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SWANN ISN’T A SAVVY ENOUGH OF AN ADMINISTRATOR TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO GET OUT OF THE HOLE, BUT HE OUGHT TO CONVENE AN ADVISORY GROUP OF FORMER PLAYERS, HIGH SCHOOL COACHES, OFFICIALS FROM THE BIG 12 AND SEC, SCHOOL BUSINESS PROFESSORS AND HAVE THEM PRODUCE A PLAN OUTLINING THE PROBLEMS AND THE SOLUTIONS/STRATEGIES/TACTICS THAT SC ATHLETICS CAN MAKE TO SOLVE THE SITUATION.

Jamaica
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Anyone who hides behind closed doors like Lynn Swann and say as little as possible, his ego would never permit him to take your sound advice alamoana9.

alfa1
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Excuse me, do you mind hitting your Cap Lock….
There’s no reason to scream !
Internet Etiquette and all…..

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IT’S IN YOUR MIND THAT MAKES THE CONCLUSION ABOUT SCREAMING. DON’T FORCE THE REST OF US TO CONFORM TO YOUR BELIEFS!

TrojanRJJ
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Businesses are leaving CA in large numbers, residents are leaving in large numbers (CA has one of the largest out migration of residents – for example, in my family, both my sons left (to TX) and both my nephews left (to OR) -my wife and I followed our kids to TX and my brother says he is following his kids to OR this spring), and now it appears football players are also leaving. Note none of the southern CA players are staying in CA.

Jamaica
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Being a welfare State doesn’t hurt Florida, Texas and Louisiana in recruiting top athletes. It doesn’t hurt Cali either. It’s just all the top programs are out here plucking away the athletes they want. USC football doesn’t matter like it did before to high school athletes today. So Clay recruits what’s left over, the 3-stars and a few 4’s. When good employers leave, the lower income families don’t go anywhere TrojanRJJ, you know that, and it is mostly their offspring that use sports as their ticket out of the eroded communities. In a one party State, you find out what… Read more »

Trojan96
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The same liberal socialist policies that have destroyed California are now being implemented by the liberal moron Wanda Austin at SC. SC football is failing as a result of these policies. We are watching this first hand. You can put your head in the sand, but it going to happen regardless until SC gets rid of these liberals on the BOT.

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TOTALLY AGREE. AND THE GEORGE SOROS OF THE BOT IS RICK CARUSO WHO WANTS TO BE MAYOR OF LA. SO HE’S BEEN DETERMINED TO, AS BOT CHAIR, HAVE A TRACK RECORD OF LIBERAL-SOCIALIST CHANGES AT SC TO BE ABLE TO POINT TOO.

Trojan96
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Texas is not a welfare state.

San Diego Trojan
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You are right on, RJJ. Traditional conservatives, even moderates, are moving out of the states because of the radical changes to the political landscape. When you see Orange County, one of the last conservative strongholds, change hands politically, you know things have changed. I heard Carson Palmer moved his family to Idaho after he retired. All you have to do is look at the rising real estate prices in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, etc. to know that a lot of people have seen the future, and don’t like it

ATL D.D.S.
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Sounds like another story that would indicate SC would be better served to go independent until the PAC-12 decides to make the major sports major again. I know it will never happen, though.

Jamaica
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Going independent in these times would be an enormous challenge finding enough better programs to play and make USC a legit player. Even ND has aligned itself to the ACC in filling in their calendar. Texas looked into this and decided they were better off staying put to better qualify for the playoff. BYU is now a lost puppy that has to beg finding opponents willing programs who themselves are in a conference and can demand more compensation and BYU has to pay it or else.