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USC’s recruiting fortunes have mirrored its on-field turnaround

The plane carrying a jubilant USC football team landed early in the morning of Nov. 13. The Trojans were a few hours removed from the most consequential win of their season to that point, a 26-13 victory over previously undefeated Washington.

By 10:30 a.m., the coaching staff still hadn’t had much sleep when a phone buzzed with news of another coup.

During the summer, Jack Sears, a quarterback from San Clemente High and a former teammate of USC star Sam Darnold, had committed to Duke. Some coaches of other teams cut off contact then and moved on. USC Coach Clay Helton and quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton asked if they could stay in touch, check in once a week. They chatted regularly as Sears marched his team toward a state championship — and as USC lost three of its first four games and pressure mounted on Helton.

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Months later, the relationship, and USC’s improved fortunes, were paying off. Sears was calling Helton to let him know he had changed his mind and was coming to USC.

Sears’ commitment marked a shift in momentum. The Trojans’ turnaround on the field was bringing about a similar change in recruiting. They had a slow start. After not being listed in the national top 25 by most recruiting trackers in the spring, they crept toward the top 20 during the summer but stalled after a miserable September showing on the field.

“There was still the perception of the Alabama game in a lot of the national recruits’ minds,” said Brandon Huffman, director of recruiting for Scout.com, referring to the Crimson Tide’s 52-6 whipping of the Trojans in the season opener. USC’s win over Washington and its winning streak spurred a “180-degree turn” in recruiting, Huffman said.

All four major recruiting trackers — Scout, Rivals, ESPN and 247Sports — now list USC’s as the top class in the Pac-12 Conference, hovering close to the national top 10.

The Trojans have 17 commitments, including four players who have enrolled early. They have room for 23. (Last year, USC used two “blueshirts,” meaning two scholarships count against this year’s limit of 25.)

How USC fares in the next couple of weeks leading up to national signing day Feb. 1 depends on how Helton’s philosophy as a recruiter takes shape in his first full year as head coach. Helton, through a school spokesman, declined to comment until after signing day.

A decade ago, under Coach Pete Carroll, USC regularly assembled college football’s best array of talent. Helton has said his goal, as much as attracting top players, is to find players who fit the core values of his team — selflessness and a strong work ethic over glamour.

Brett Neilon, an offensive lineman from Santa Margarita High, said USC emphasized those traits when recruiting him.

“They’re building a really special family atmosphere there,” Neilon said.

USC has a history of aggressively targeting the best players in the Southland. This year, Stephen Carr of Fontana Summit, considered one of the best running backs in the nation, chose the Trojans, but Wyatt Davis of Bellflower St. John Bosco, one of the nation’s top-rated offensive linemen, chose Ohio State.

When Internet rumors bubbled last month asserting that Davis was reconsidering, it came as news to Davis. He told Land of 10, a website that covers Big Ten Conference sports, that he had “no idea” how the rumors of his renewed interest in USC originated, adding, “I’m not going there.”

At least one prominent area high school coach said USC was working hard to improve its status locally. Harbor City Narbonne Coach Manuel Douglas said Tee Martin, USC’s offensive coordinator, has been regularly checking in, even though the Trojans aren’t recruiting any of his players as part of this year’s class.

“When Coach Carroll left, I think they fell off L.A. a little bit,” Douglas said. Martin, he said, “has done a great job of getting USC back in the fold.”

Local coaches and players, Douglas said, have also been sizing up Helton. He hadn’t been a head coach before, so his reputation wasn’t fully known. USC’s slow start amplified the uncertainty.

“At 1-3, everyone was talking about how Coach Helton was going to get fired,” Neilon said. “I was pretty upset at that.”

The wins helped, but Helton also had had to compete for recruits with bigger established personalities: coaches such as Alabama’s Nick Saban, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh.

Helton has acknowledged he is not as flashy as some of his competition, but Huffman said the coach has emerged as an engaged, personable recruiter.

“He’s a genuine person, and he says what he means,” said Jaime Ortiz, who coached Sears and Darnold at San Clemente. “Sometimes when coordinators or assistant coaches become head coaches, you have to go through their staff or go through support staff. And Coach Helton’s always been a phone call or text away.”

In the past two weeks, USC has received commitments from safety Bubba Bolden, guard Jalen McKenzie and cornerback Je’Quari Godfrey-Baggett. But the team still has immediate needs.

USC’s run defense will rely on tackle Kenny Bigelow Jr., who missed all of last season with torn ligaments in his knee. The strength of its offensive line depends on replacing starting tackles Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler.

Last season, USC received a gift in the form of Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, who transferred from Utah to fill a void at defensive tackle.

However, transfers who make an immediate impact are rare, and no ideal option has become available this season. The Trojans may instead rely on freshmen for depth. Terrance Lang, a defensive tackle from Maranatha, recently committed. Alijah Vera-Tucker, one of the state’s best offensive tackles, has been a commit since the summer.

Whether USC can land such coveted players as Aubrey Solomon, a defensive tackle from Georgia, and Austin Jackson, an offensive tackle from Arizona, will determine how the Trojans’ class rates nationally. Solomon is considered a long shot. Huffman said USC could “very well get” Jackson.

USC is also awaiting decisions from two Los Angeles Hawkins players: Joseph Lewis, a receiver, and Greg Johnson, who played running back, receiver and defensive back.

In the past, Huffman said, “Nobody closes as well as USC does. And that’s locally or nationally.”

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand


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