The uncertainty lingered for months like a dark cloud over the recruiting trail, looming over every living-room visit, following coaches on every cross-country trip. Questions of Clay Helton’s future as USC’s coach had been predictably inescapable, and until only two weeks before college football’s early-signing period opens Wednesday, no sure answers had been provided.
It was a precarious position from which to recruit, paving the way for the Trojans to fall further in national recruiting rankings than ever before. Even as a decision was made to retain Helton, finally erasing any doubt 11 days after USC’s season ended, the prospect of saving its 2020 class this close to the start of the signing period still seemed like a pipe dream.
But on Sunday afternoon, as the top uncommitted recruit in the nation sat in the Galen Center bleachers, posing for pictures with USC’s new president, a shred of hope still remained.
Justin Flowe was worth that optimism on his own. The five-star linebacker from Upland High had all but eliminated the Trojans months before, leaving them out of his top four before the football season. But as the fog of uncertainty over USC and its coach lifted, Flowe chose to spend the final weekend of the early-recruiting calendar on campus, potentially leaving the door open for an otherwise imperiled USC class to sign the highest-rated recruit of the Helton era.
Flowe will choose Wednesday between Clemson, Oregon and USC in an 11 a.m. announcement that could make or break the Trojans’ 2020 recruiting class. Sign Flowe, the state’s top prospect and the fourth-rated recruit in the nation, and suddenly, perceptions of an otherwise anemic class could shift on a dime.
“I think ultimately it would be remembered as the class [USC] got potentially the best linebacker the state has produced in 20 years,” says Brandon Huffman, 247 Sports national recruiting editor.
That’s a considerably different narrative than the one surrounding USC’s class, which ranks 81st in the nation at the opening of the early-signing period, behind the likes of Charlotte and Georgia State, both of which became Football Bowl Subdivision programs only in the last decade.
Of the Trojans’ 10 current commitments, none rank among the top 25 prospects in California, and only one, Moorpark offensive lineman Jonah Monheim, is rated as a four-star recruit.
There’s not a lot of room for others, either, as only eight seniors are set to depart after USC’s Holiday Bowl appearance Dec. 27. With so few scholarships available, a smaller-than-usual class was always doomed to drop a bit in the recruiting rankings, if only for reasons of roster math.
But after ranking 20th overall a season ago — a finish that was far too low, considering the stellar performance of USC’s freshmen — the prospect of another underwhelming class is hardly ideal for the program’s national standing.
That perception could still change Wednesday, after a furious closing week for USC’s recruiting efforts. In addition to Flowe, the Trojans are still in the hunt for five-star Santa Ana Mater Dei quarterback Bryce Young, who was a cornerstone of the class before flipping his commitment from USC to Alabama. Other local prospects like Corona Centennial receiver Gary Bryant Jr. and Harbor City Narbonne cornerback Darion Green-Warren remain in play.
Still, those last-ditch efforts could just as easily be for naught, outweighed by damage done over months of uncertainty. Even with Helton set to return for the 2020 season, it’s unlikely that rumors about his future will abate any time soon. The same could be said of Helton’s staff, aside from offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, whom USC locked up Monday with a long-term extension.
“There are so many guys that cited the coaching situation,” Huffman said. “It loomed so long that with USC, you never could be certain, was he or wasn’t he?
When Mike Bohn finally offered an answer, two weeks ago, the new USC athletic director noted that he “absolutely” weighed recruiting in his decision to retain Helton. As he saw it, perception of his staff’s efforts on the recruiting trail didn’t match reality.
“Recruiting,” Bohn said then, “is going dramatically better than anybody wants to admit.”
Perhaps he’ll be proven right Wednesday, when the nation’s top uncommitted prospect announces his future intentions. But if Helton is unable to close on their remaining targets, the early-signing period could very well be dramatically worse than USC and its new athletic director had hoped.