Antonio Morales (The Athletic) — LOS ANGELES — After USC wrapped up its eighth open practice of the preseason on Monday afternoon, Clay Helton was asked for his thoughts on the progress of his 2019 recruiting class, a group that underwhelmed some fans on national signing day but has looked better and better with time.
Helton mentioned four-star tight end Jude Wolfe and three-star running back Kenan Christon, the reigning 100-meter state champ, along with five-star receiver Bru McCoy and four-star standouts Kyle Ford, Chris Steele and Drake London. Four-star defensive lineman Drake Jackson was not name-checked, but he impressed throughout the spring and figures to be a Week 1 starter.
“I think it’s a really good group,” Helton said. “And I think that’s not only going to help us now but really when you look at the future, it’ll be one of those that’s really special.”
Farther down that class’s rankings are two of the Trojans’ 18 three-star freshmen: wide receiver Munir McClain and quarterback Kedon Slovis.
If you count McCoy and Steele as 2019 signees (both transferred to USC after spending spring practice elsewhere), McClain and Slovis are the 16th and 17th highest-rated freshmen in the Trojans’ signing class, per 247Sports. Yet it is those two three-stars who have been the biggest standouts of this freshman class to date, outperforming their expectations and providing intrigue to USC’s future at their respective positions.
Slovis’ list of Power 5 offers stopped at three schools — USC, N.C. State and Oregon State — but he has a Super Bowl MVP in his corner who can explain why big-name programs weren’t constantly knocking on his door.
“He didn’t start until he was a junior,” said Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, who was Slovis’ offensive coordinator at Desert Mountain in Scottsdale, Ariz. “I think that was part of it. Another thing is we weren’t a great program. … I think that played a little part in it as well. … I think you couple that with the fact we played more of a pro-style offense where he had to read and make decisions, the fact we weren’t a program that was typically strong at the offensive line, so a lot of stuff he did, he had to create on his own, take hits and do some of those things.
“He only got so much tape, I think when people came out and saw him in person, that’s when you had people kind of go, ‘OK, the kid can play.’”
Slovis passed for 2,987 yards and threw 32 touchdowns against just five interceptions in his first year as Desert Mountain’s starter. USC jumped in and offered him the following May, and it didn’t take long for him to commit. He made it official with the Trojans in December’s early signing period and enrolled this spring.
Still, Slovis was mostly viewed as an afterthought in the Trojans’ long-term quarterback plans, sandwiched as he is between five-star 2018 quarterback JT Daniels, who won the job outright as a true freshman, and 2020 commit Bryce Young, who is the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in his recruiting class.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Slovis was expected to add some depth to USC’s quarterback room behind Daniels and upperclassmen Jack Sears and Matt Fink, and that’s pretty much it. However, when spring rolled around, it was obvious how comfortable he was in offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s system.
USC’s scrimmage on Saturday was the latest rough day Slovis has had mixed in among the days of improvement, which is to be expected of a true freshman who just turned 18 in April. But in general, he has been more consistent in practice than Sears and Fink, who have been in the program for three and four years, respectively.
“Kedon’s a special talent,” Harrell told reporters last week. “He just turned 18 this summer so he’s a young kid, had room to grow and did grow. … He can make some throws a lot of people can’t make. He did a great job all summer, coming in, watching film, trying to get as many reps as he could get without being on the field. He maximized his summer that way.
“When that ball comes out of his hand, it looks different. And that’s what it’s supposed to look like.”
In the three seasons Warner coached Slovis, the Desert Mountain coaching staff asked a lot from its quarterback in terms of reads and responsibilities, and Slovis welcomed it all. The young quarterback knew he wouldn’t be perfect and that there would be mistakes, but he wanted to be pushed.
A member of USC’s offensive staff describes Slovis as a “sponge.” Show him how to do something, and the next time around he’ll do it exactly how you told him.
Warner praised Slovis’ accuracy on second-level throws (between 15 and 35 yards in distance). Many quarterbacks can handle deep balls and underneath routes, but it’s tough to be consistently accurate on intermediate routes.
“That’s where he was different than pretty much everyone I’ve been around at that level,” Warner said. “It was his ability to make those type throws.”
Once Slovis gets the snap, there is never much hesitation. He knows where he wants to go with the ball, and most of the time he fires off the pass pretty quickly, which is what Harrell’s offense requires. No throw seems too forced.
It’s impressive decisiveness for a quarterback as young as Slovis is.
“It’s what we worked on on a daily basis,” Warner said. “That’s what it was all about. Our job as a quarterback was to know who you’re looking at and how to get the ball out of your hands as fast as you can. Get your reads, get your guys as fast as you could, and it’s something he really developed over the years and became a huge strength of his. But that doesn’t surprise me when you say that. He knows where he wants to go with it, knows who he’s looking at and gets the ball to the right guy.”
Slovis threw two interceptions in Saturday’s scrimmage and had some rough throws, but over the eight practices the media has seen so far during USC’s training camp, he has often looked like the Trojans’ second-best quarterback behind Daniels. Instead of being an afterthought, he’s thrown a new wrinkle into the quarterback discussion, which is still dominated by Daniels. Slovis was the second quarterback to get reps with the first-team offense during that scrimmage.
Looking like USC’s second-best quarterback in mid-August is no guarantee Slovis will be the backup when the season kicks off, but the mere conversation seemed pretty far-fetched before he enrolled. Now the possibility gives the Trojans reason to be optimistic about his future.
JSerra coach Pat Harlow blamed the torn ACL and meniscus Munir McClain suffered during his junior season for the wideout’s subdued recruiting process.
“After I got hurt, all the coaches stopped talking to me except for USC,” McClain told The Athletic in May. “I didn’t even have an offer from them at the time. USC ended up giving me an offer before the school year was over with, and I’ve always wanted to go to USC so everything worked out how it’s supposed to.”
His bond with his brother Abdul-Malik McClain, a Trojans outside linebacker who arrived on campus in 2018 and redshirted during his true freshman season, played a role as well.
“The injury definitely had something to do with it,” Harlow said, “but I honestly think a ton of people didn’t recruit him because his brother was at USC and they’re so close it scared some teams away.”
Munir arrived on campus this summer, and it hasn’t taken long to come to the realization that his 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame poses problems for defensive backs.
Munir, who also played guard on JSerra’s basketball team, is a smooth athlete for his size, with the strength to outmuscle defensive backs and break tackles. His leaping ability allows him to high-point the ball and win in jump-ball situations, and he’s elusive enough to evade defenders in traffic. That’s a lot of positives for the lowest-rated of the four receivers USC signed in this class.
“He’ll really shock you,” cornerback Olaijah Griffin said. “Going against him, you wouldn’t expect the things he could do. He’s really talented. If you look at him, he looks like he’s not running that fast but he’s extremely fast. And he can really jump up there.
“He’s tough. That’s all I have to say.”
McClain was held out of practice earlier this week while in the concussion protocol, but his spot is secure as one of the most impressive overall performers during camp. USC is set at receiver as far as starters go — Michael Pittman Jr., Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns have those roles secured — but Helton was emphatic that McClain and London would play this fall.
McClain missed the first three games of his senior season at JSerra still working back from the knee injury that cost him his junior year. He still caught 40 passes for 659 yards and 10 touchdowns in nine games, but he spent a lot of that time restoring confidence.
“I told him this when he got hurt,” Harlow said. “‘You’re going to be healthy when they release you, but you’re probably not going to be mentally there for another year.’ That’s kind of what we saw. As the year went on, he got more and more confident in the knee. As he came back, he took a shot, and he was really scared, thought he hurt it, then he goes back in and takes a hitch for 70 (yards). The more he plays on it, the less he’ll think about it.”
Now, two years removed from the injury, McClain is getting back to the type of player he was before the injury.
Yes, McCoy and Ford were the headliners of this recruiting cycle, and sophomore Devon Williams has a ton of potential, too, but McClain’s emergence raises the ceiling for USC’s future at receiver, which was already pretty high.
When Trojans receivers coach Keary Colbert worked in a quality control role two years ago, he recruited Malik and made in-home visits to the McClains, so he has known the family for a while now. While Munir’s play has been surprising to most, it hasn’t caught him off guard.
“I’ve been around him. I’ve seen him. I know his makeup. I know his background,” Colbert said. “This is no surprise to me. I’m happy he’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing and making plays.
“Again, I just hope he continues to develop.”
Neither Slovis nor McClain garnered headlines for USC when they signed back in December, but through a week and a half of training camp, the former three-stars have proven they’re capable of being more than just additional bodies in their respective position rooms, which is a much-needed boost for a recruiting class that is moving farther and farther away from the flak it took when it was finalized.
“I never really worry about rankings,” Helton said. “I really love this class that we brought in and now that we’re working with them, seeing what type of people they are, how they work, how humble they are, they really came in here with a great attitude. Very coachable, willing to listen to the older guys … and they’re doing some nice things.”