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Clay Helton says USC has ‘very good day’ as recruiting class ranks last in Pac-12

USC coach Clay Helton watches his team warm up before a game against Arizona at the Coliseum.
USC coach Clay Helton watches his team warm up before a game against Arizona at the Coliseum.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

After his final push faltered, as top prospects abandoned the state in droves and his recruiting class fell to last in the Pac-12 and 78th nationally, left to nip at the heels of Mid-American Conference programs, USC coach Clay Helton tried desperately to put a sunny spin on an otherwise dark signing day.

Needs were filled, he said.

The class was small, he said.

The rankings don’t matter, he said.

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And, of course, more players could always sign.

“We had a very good day today that we’re very happy about,” Helton explained, adding a less-than-convincing grin.

But at the end of a Wednesday morning in which the Trojans whiffed on all of their top targets, even the best possible spin couldn’t distract from what, on paper, amounted to one of the worst signing days ever for a usual powerhouse of college football recruiting.

Helton tried anyway.

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“I’m not necessarily about perception,” Helton said. “I’m about wins and how to produce the best football team. You have to worry maybe not about popular opinion and address what your needs are.”

The Trojans signed 11 players to national letters of intent on the first day of the early signing period, due in large part to a small departing class of seniors. Only one of those recruits, Moorpark offensive lineman Jonah Monheim, is considered a four-star prospect, according to the 247Sports composite rankings, a season after USC reeled in seven such players.

This year’s group could grow in the weeks to come as decisions trickle out from other top prospects, like Corona Centennial wideout Gary Bryant Jr. or Harbor City Narbonne cornerback Darion Green-Warren, both of whom remain uncommitted.

But even a few spare four-stars couldn’t save a USC class that has fallen in the national rankings behind Bowling Green, Troy and North Texas.

Rex Johnston, who played both football and baseball at USC and went on play for both of Pittsburgh’s professional teams in the NFL and MLB, died on Sunday. He was 82.

USC’s poor national standing proved only part of the problem during a recruiting cycle shrouded in uncertainty about its coach. As other top programs raided the state’s remaining talent, Helton and his staff proved unable to stop them.

Of the top 25 recruits in the state, according to 247Sports, none are signed to play at USC. Two of those 25 are on their way to Arizona State. Three are bound for Washington. And four signed with Oregon, among them the top uncommitted prospect in the nation, five-star linebacker Justin Flowe, who sat in the Upland High gymnasium Wednesday morning with a USC cap to his left and an Oregon cap to his right.

Flowe had the power to shift perception of USC’s class almost on his own. He was a top local talent who grew up rooting for the Trojans. He’d visited the campus last weekend, and coaches were hopeful it had been enough.

But then, shortly after 11 a.m., those last-ditch hopes disappeared, as Flowe reached for the Oregon cap, setting off a raucous round of applause from a packed crowd behind him.

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For the second consecutive year, Oregon signed the top prospect from California.

Matt Leinart, who won the Heisman Trophy at USC in 2004, declared Oregon the new king of West Coast recruiting.

“Back in my day no one dared to recruit So Cal,” Leinart wrote on Twitter. “Now it’s open season and Oregon is hunting!”

Moorpark offensive lineman Jonah Monheim watches a play against Newbury Park on Nov. 1, 2019.
Moorpark offensive lineman Jonah Monheim watches a play during a game against Newbury Park on Nov. 1.
(Shotgun Spratling / For The Times)

Two weeks ago, in explaining his decision to retain Helton as coach, new athletic director Mike Bohn made a point of emphasizing USC’s work on the recruiting trail. He talked about the importance of attracting great players from Los Angeles and elsewhere in the state. He even hinted at good news to come, suggesting there were multiple players who had silently committed to USC.

“Recruiting is going dramatically better than anybody wants to admit,” Bohn said.

That promise fell short of fruition Wednesday, as USC added just one player who wasn’t already committed. That addition, three-star defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu, is the younger brother of current Trojans defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu.

USC had no such luck convincing others who once seemed like future Trojans. Bryce Young, the five-star Santa Ana Mater Dei quarterback, was committed to play at USC for more than a year before flipping to Alabama in September. There was some hope that he might flip back, but as Helton stood at a podium, introducing a new class, Young was signing with the Crimson Tide.

The Trojans are unlikely to sign a quarterback in the 2020 class, leaving them perilously thin under center heading into next season.

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USC’s class did succeed in adding depth up front, as nine of its 11 signings came along the defensive and offensive lines. Addressing that need in a smaller class, Helton said, was a top priority.

Olympic gold medalist Lenny Krayzelburg is general manager of Los Angeles Current. It’s competing for the International Swimming League title this weekend.

It was the only priority Helton seemed interested in discussing.

“You have to be able to look at your needs,” Helton said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. It’s nice to sign great players, but it’s also nice to sign great players that you have to have.”


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