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Clay Helton’s return could help USC’s sagging recruiting efforts

USC coach Clay Helton looks on during the Trojans’ 30-23 win over Utah on Sept. 20, 2019.
USC coach Clay Helton looks on during the Trojans’ 30-23 win over Utah on Sept. 20, 2019.
(Meg Oliphant / Getty Images)

USC’s recruiting class dropped to No. 78 in the nation Friday when offensive lineman Joey Wright of Bishop Manogue High in Reno renounced his pledge to join the Trojans. His decision came on the heels of the announcement Wednesday by athletic director Mike Bohn that Clay Helton will continue as the Trojans’ head coach.

Bohn said in his statement that he and Helton “will work together to take a hard look at all aspects of the football enterprise and will make the tough decisions necessary to compete at a championship level.”

Many upset by the decision focused on Helton’s 13-11 record the last two seasons as evidence he was not the coach to return USC to its championship pedigree, but recruiting is the backbone of any successful program and the Trojans are in danger of having their worst two classes in the modern recruiting era in successive years.

Last year’s class ranked 20th.

Bishop Manogue offensive lineman Joey Wright in between drills at USC’s Elite Camp on June 12.
Bishop Manogue offensive lineman Joey Wright in between drills at USC’s Elite Camp on June 12.
(Shotgun Spratling / For The Times)
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No one has ever seen the Trojans ranked this low in December, much less a week and a half before the first football signing period opens for high school prospects.

“Recruiting has been horrible this year for USC,” said Rivals national recruiting director Mike Farrell. “I mean, the worst I’ve seen it in the 23 years I’ve been doing this and a stay of execution for Clay Helton is not going to help that. He’s been on the hot seat the last two years and that’s affected recruiting.

“To say, ‘He’s our guy. He’s coming back,’ it’s just gonna continue over and over again until he has success and goes 10-2, 11-1 and wins the Pac-12. Or, you know, until he’s fired.”

Still time to close

Bohn cited Helton’s recruiting abilities as a factor in the decision even though USC has commitments from only three of the top 50 prospects in California and none of the top 25.

Helton remains confident in the Trojans’ ability to add to the class stating, “We are putting the final touches on an outstanding recruiting class,” in a release following Bohn’s announcement. Bohn doubled down in a later conversation with reporters, saying he sees the Trojans’ recruiting “going dramatically better than anybody wants to admit.”

USC makes a move to retain offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, offering him a new contract two days after it announced the decision to keep head coach Clay Helton.

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Helton has maintained a reputation as a strong closer on the recruiting trail. His genuineness is often cited by recruits and parents alike and he is often a major factor in their interest in USC.

“I’ve never had a recruit or the parents of a recruit tell me, ‘I don’t like Clay Helton,’ ” said USCfootball.com’s Gerard Martinez, who has covered USC recruiting for 16 years. “Helton as a coach and a person has always been described as a good man who cares about his players. That gives you some traction during the final stretch of in-home visits.”

USC’s coaching staff has done a good job of maintaining relationships throughout the year despite the rumors and unknowns and now that there is stability, Greg Biggins, national recruiting analyst at 247Sports, thinks the Trojans could finish stronger than most anticipate.

“I know this is going to probably be a surprise to some of the ‘SC faithful, but every kid I’ve talked to and all the families are actually pretty excited about [Helton’s return],” Biggins said. “The whole indecision and not really knowing throughout the last year was what I think was kind of holding recruiting back.”

Clay Helton isn’t going anywhere. Despite rampant speculation, USC athletic director Mike Bohn has decided to keep Helton as the Trojans’ football coach.

Now Helton and his staff are able to go into the homes of the top prospects with some security and conviction as they sell the families on being a team that has a young star quarterback with several talented pieces around him. Biggins believes the message is resonating.

“I’ve always said a rumored coaching change is always way worse than a coaching change itself,” Biggins said. “When you have a rumored coaching change, your families are scared, the kids are scared. They just don’t know. They don’t want to commit without knowing who’s going to be their coach.

“But now that they know and Helton is saying, ‘Hey, we got a young team, everyone’s coming back. We got a chance to be really good next year. I got security. The [administration] is behind me.’ I think that kids and families feel more comfortable now than they did five, six months ago for sure.”

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Farrell agrees that USC will pick up some talented players down the stretch and thinks they could even squeak into the top 25 of the team rankings. Is that good enough at USC though?

“Finishing in that 20 to 25 range is awful for USC, so anything similar to last year — and they’re not close to the pace they were on last year when it comes to closing and finishing up — is embarrassing,” Farrell said. “This is a program that [Upland High five-star linebacker] Justin Flowe would commit to in a second, if you had a [Lane] Kiffin there ... obviously a Pete Carroll, but anybody but Clay, he’d be there. So it’s not going to finish well.”

Commits excited

Many USC commits were excited about the news of Helton’s return.

“I couldn’t be happier,” Scottsdale (Ariz.) Saguaro High kicker Parker Lewis said. “He’s made a lot of progress from last year and I cannot be more excited to be a part of he and his staffs future at USC.”

“I’m really psyched about it and I’m happy that I get to work with him next year and couldn’t be more happy to be a Trojan,” said Kyle Juergens of St. Margaret’s Episcopal High in San Juan Capistrano. “I had an instinct that coach Helton would stay there because the players love him and he’s a very family-friendly coach. He values the players.”

Offensive lineman Andrew Milek initially committed despite rumors about Helton’s job security because he was interested in what the school had to offer, but the Phoenix Brophy Prep prospect said his pledge was only solidified after getting to sit down with Helton one-on-one during a recent official visit.

“It was about me and it was about my future. That really meant a lot to me,” Milek said. “He’s a great person and a great man. I think he’s going to lead USC in the right direction.”


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