Their plan at quarterback was set into motion two summers ago.
Bryce Young, the nation’s top quarterback recruit, announced his commitment to USC that July, before he’d even taken a snap at Santa Ana Mater Dei High. Over the next year, as Young emerged as a potential star, he kept with that commitment through coaching changes and constant unrest, and USC clung tightly to its plan, pursuing no other quarterbacks, counting only on its bright future behind Young.
But late last September, when Young suddenly flipped to Alabama, that future got dark in a hurry. By last Sunday, as a three-star passer from Louisiana rejected a late offer from USC, the Trojans’ once-promising plans at quarterback could not possibly feel further away.
Their last-ditch hopes for a quarterback in the 2020 class ended with a tweet during the Super Bowl, as Blake Shapen committed to Baylor and became the fourth quarterback target this cycle to pass on USC.
He’d also be the last. As the final few letters of intent are inked Wednesday on national signing day, any lingering hopes of the Trojans signing a quarterback in this class have since been abandoned. They do plan to sign four-star tight end Jack Yary, whose father played at USC, and could add another four-star in running back Michael Drennen.
But the program that has long been known for signing blue-chip passers on an annual basis is all but assured to go without signing a single one for the first time since 2012.
That’s not to say USC is doomed at quarterback, with the reigning Pac-12 offensive freshman of the year, Kedon Slovis, facing off this fall with JT Daniels, a former five-star recruit who won the job last fall before tearing a ligament in his knee. Beyond those two — both of whom suffered serious injuries a season ago — USC could find itself perilously thin at the position in 2020.
The Trojans have only one other scholarship quarterback on the roster, and he’s no guarantee to stay through this offseason. With just one year remaining of eligibility, Matt Fink could pursue opportunities elsewhere. Fink nearly transferred last summer to Illinois, and after taking a majority of the snaps in two games last fall, including a wild win over Utah, it’s not impossible to think he could have other options as a graduate transfer.
The most pressing questions at quarterback come after next season, when Fink runs out of eligibility and Daniels is left to decide whether to use his elsewhere. With Slovis the overwhelming favorite to remain the starter, it’s unclear whether Daniels would accept a backup role, considering the suitors who’d line up to have him as a grad transfer.
Regardless, with no quarterback in this class and little certainty beyond Slovis, USC’s plans at the position moving forward are now especially pivotal.
It took fewer than 24 hours after Young decommitted for Jake Garcia, a five-star prospect from La Habra High, to pledge last September to play at USC in 2021. Garcia has said all the right things since, even suggesting he’s willing to compete with another quarterback in the class.
But with another 10 months remaining until Garcia can sign, USC would be wise to learn from its failed quarterback pursuits of 2020. Namely, that it can’t afford to put all its eggs in one basket.
When Young committed, USC all but removed itself from the running for Bellflower St. John Bosco five-star DJ Uiagalelei, who went on to sign with Clemson. It was a decision that USC felt it had to make at the time. It wound up paying for it.
“You can make the case that they were too loyal to [Young],” said Brandon Huffman, national recruiting editor for 247Sports. “Their willingness to stick to him, instead of going for DJ, obviously ended up coming back to bite them.”
Perhaps more puzzling, though, were the choices that came after. Following Young’s flip to Alabama in September, it took more than two months for USC to officially offer Rancho Cucamonga quarterback CJ Stroud, who’d already caught the attention of Ohio State, Michigan, Georgia and others.
By the time Stroud received an offer from USC, it was too late. Last week, the Ohio State signee was elevated to a five-star prospect in the 247Sports composite rankings.
“Bryce flipped on a Saturday, and by Saturday night, CJ should’ve had an offer,” Huffman said.
USC likely won’t be so coy this time around, with all signs pointing to them needing multiple quarterbacks in the 2021 class — and perhaps in 2022, as well. In addition to Garcia, the Trojans have already offered Miller Moss of Bishop Alemany, as well as two 2022 quarterbacks in Serra’s Maalik Murphy and Rancho Verde’s A.J. Duffy.
Whether those plans will come to fruition remains to be seen. At this time last year, USC seemed set to sign the top quarterback in the nation.
But after missing on Young, Uiagalelei, Stroud and Shapen, USC can’t exactly afford to have any more plans fall apart at quarterback.