Antonio Morales (TheAthletic.com) — LOS ANGELES — On paper, USC’s 2016 recruiting class didn’t look bad when national signing day concluded that year.
It ranked 10th nationally and first in the Pac-12, which wasn’t bad considering the class was built during an uncertain period for the program. Time hasn’t been so kind to that class, though.
When Matt Fink opted to transfer last month he became the 11th member of that recruiting class to depart from the program prematurely.
Subsequently, only eight scholarship players from that group, which is entering its fourth year on campus, will be on the Trojans’ roster this fall.
As the numbers of this class continue to dwindle, it’s a good time to examine the circumstances surrounding this group, ponder which early departure USC will miss the most and what it means for this upcoming season.
USC’s 2016 class was born amid chaos. After Steve Sarkisian landed the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class in February 2015, focus shifted to the 2016 group. It wasn’t too long after that when all the uncertainty started.
Sarkisian’s bizarre Salute to Troy incident — when he claimed to have mixed medications and alcohol — unfolded in August, and the second-year coach was fired in mid-October after then-athletic director Pat Haden said, “it was clear to me he was not healthy.”
So Clay Helton took over the program in an interim capacity and Sarkisian’s staff was essentially thrust into lame-duck status, which obviously does not fare well on the recruiting trail when you’re trying to sell stability. Daelin Hayes, a four-star linebacker, decommitted shortly after, as did Mique Juarez, a five-star linebacker at nearby North High School in Torrance.
Helton surprisingly earned the full-time job the week of the Pac-12 title game and after that contest, he fired defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, defensive line coach Chris Wilson, defensive backs coach Keith Heyward and offensive line coach Bob Connelly.
USC officially announced the additions of Tyson Helton (quarterbacks coach), Neil Callaway (offensive line coach), John Baxter (special teams coordinator), Ronnie Bradford (secondary coach) and Clancy Pendergast (defensive coordinator) in early-to-mid January, with only a few weeks separating that and signing day.
Amid the uncertainty and transition, some local prospects began looking elsewhere. The Trojans landed six of California’s top 30 players in 2016. They landed 11 of the top 30 in 2015, eight in 2017 and 10 in 2018. So six was relatively low.
As some top targets shifted their sights, USC did the same and targeted the Southeast where it landed four-star offensive lineman E.J. Price (Georgia), four-star athlete Jamel Cook (Florida), four-star receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe (Georgia) and three-star receivers Keyshawn “Pie” Young (Florida) and Velus Jones (Alabama).
More on them later. Even with the chaos, the Trojans still signed five-star local products Oluwole Betiku, a defensive end who was the second-ranked player in the state, and Jack Jones, the No. 4 overall player in the state. Four-star receivers Michael Pittman Jr. and Tyler Vaughns, both top-10 players in California, stuck with their commitments and bolstered the class, which featured six receivers.
It didn’t take long for the departures to begin. Price left the program in September of his freshman season. That essentially served as an omen for all of those Southeast signees.
Cook transferred as well (and landed at South Carolina). Young was no longer on the roster as of this spring. And though Imatorbhebhe and Jones have yet to announce new destinations, both have entered the transfer portal.
When a program signs six receivers in one class, it’s bound to create a logjam. Pittman and Vaughns have panned out as expected and turned into two of the team’s top receivers along with Amon-Ra St. Brown, who arrived in 2018.
So it makes sense the receivers who signed in 2016 have looked for options elsewhere. Imatorbhebhe, Young and four-star receiver Trevon Sidney, who intends to transfer to Illinois, never cracked the rotation on a consistent basis.
The biggest surprise of the group may be Velus Jones, who was the No. 4 receiver on the team last season and was poised to be again this season in an offense geared toward receivers.
Betiku was a five-star prospect and the No. 15 overall player in the country but was also a raw player and never developed into a complete one while at USC. But he’s hardly the only member of the class that can be described in such a manner.
Offensive lineman Frank Martin, defensive lineman Connor Murphy and safety C.J. Pollard were all four-star prospects, but have yet to make a true impact at USC and time is running out. Murphy may have the best opportunity to finally break through, considering he was heavily involved in the defensive line rotation this past spring.
Jack Jones, who was the second-highest rated player in the class, faced academic trouble before he left the program last year and legal troubles after he did. He was a boom-or-bust type corner but his absence was definitely felt in the secondary, which recorded just four interceptions last season — the same number Jones recorded as a sophomore in 2017.
Betiku and Jack Jones were two of four five-star prospects — Joseph Lewis (2017), who was arrested last year, and Bru McCoy (2019), who transferred to Texas — Helton landed in his first four recruiting classes who have left the program prematurely.
Betiku and Sidney both intend to transfer to Illinois. Keynodo Hudson, a former defensive administrative assistant at USC from 2011-2016, is now the Illini’s defensive backs coach so there’s a familiarity there for both prospects.
Of the recent departures from this class, which one will USC miss the most this season? The bet here is Velus Jones.
Jones was the most productive of the recent receiver departures. He caught 24 passes for 266 yards and a touchdown last season, utilized his speed as a deep threat and demonstrated he could make things happen after the catch when he turned a short reception into a long touchdown against UCLA.
Not to mention, he was built like a prototype slot receiver, something the Trojans lack on their current roster. Jones wasn’t overly dynamic as a kickoff returner but he was good, ranking 41st in the FBS with an average of 23 yards per return last season.
Fink’s departure would have meant more last season, but Sears proved capable in his lone start and Kedon Slovis was impressive this spring, so that loss is easier to bear.
What do these departures mean for this season?
Well, with only eight scholarship seniors on the roster, it means USC’s 2020 recruiting class will likely be small numbers-wise. Last year USC lost 25 seniors and signed just as many in the 2019 recruiting class to replenish the roster. That won’t be the case for the next recruiting cycle.
The position that was hit the hardest during the wave of attrition was receiver. With several veteran wideouts gone, the Trojans will have to count on a wave of freshmen receivers to fill the void.
Of course, a lack of production from so many players in this class paints the coaching staff in a negative light as well. The missed evaluations and absence of development will force Helton to rely on younger, inexperienced players to stem the tide against last season’s regression, making an already difficult task even harder this upcoming fall.