USC found itself in a two-strike hole going into national signing day Wednesday, but managed a big hit.
Coming off a season in which Steve Sarkisian was fired as coach five games into the season and Clay Helton was named permanent coach before a two-game skid to end an 8-6 year, plus a staff in flux until late January, USC still managed to sign a 20-scholarship recruiting class Wednesday that was rated 11th best in college football by Scout.com.
Previously uncommitted defensive backs Jack Jones of Long Beach Poly and Jamel Cook of Miami Central, running back Vavae Malepeai of Mililani, Hawaii, offensive lineman E.J. Price of Lawrenceville (Ga.) Archer, and defensive linemen Connor Murphy of Phoenix Brophy Preparatory and Josh Fatu of Long Beach City College signed national letters of intent to round out the final seven scholarships that were unclaimed at the start of the day.
“As a head coach, I cannot tell you how proud I am of the staff for how they finished and how they closed,” said Helton, who signed players from six states. “There were several battles that were late into the night and early into the morning.”
Also, Price was considered a lock to sign with his hometown school, Georgia.
“They must have been doing a really good job behind the scenes to get these kids to leave and come to USC,” said Greg Biggins, a national recruiting analyst for Scout.com. “They went so far out of the region, you couldn’t guess that they were going to get these guys.”
Said Helton: “I think that if you want to be the best, you have to sign the best and take those gambles.”
Jones was the surest bet of the day, becoming Long Beach Poly’s third standout player in three years to sign with USC, following receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and defensive back Iman Marshall.
“For the next four years, I’m going to take my Poly speed to the University of Southern California,” Jones said.
Wednesday’s signees joined seven players who have already enrolled in spring semester courses. Five players on last season’s roster were awarded scholarships as blue-shirt recruits who counted toward this signing class.
Tyler Vaughns, Trevon Sidney and Velus Jones Jr. became part of a six-receiver class, if two-way player Keyshawn Young is included.
Helton said it was necessary to sign an ample amount of receivers after projecting a few seasons into the future and anticipating that some juniors might not return for a senior season. Tight end Cary Angeline, Helton said, also could be a big target.
Quarterback Matt Fink, offensive lineman Nathan Smith, receivers Michael Pittman Jr. and Josh Imatorbhebhe, defensive back C.J. Pollard and defensive linemen Liam Jimmons and Oluwole Betiku are among recruits already enrolled.
Betiku and Pollard, the son of former Trojans defensive back Marvin Pollard, continue a long line of players from Gardena Serra who have signed with USC.
Asked about projected playing time, Helton said the best player would play. “USC is always about competition,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a freshmen.”
There won’t be much, if any, grace period for this class to adjust to the college game.
Helton said next year’s schedule, as grueling as it appears, lent a hand in recruiting. “Guys said, ‘Coach, I can’t wait to get to Dallas and have the opportunity to be a part of that special game with Alabama.’ ”
The Crimson Tide finished with the nation’s No. 1-rated signing class, according to Scout.com.
But after a fast finish, USC’s September is looking a bit brighter.
Follow Lindsey Thiry on Twitter @LindseyThiry