August 2, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

USC’s strong 2021 class could get even better in a few weeks

The conditions were not exactly ripe for a recruiting revival. After rebuilding its defensive staff, revamping its entire operation and dedicating an influx of new resources, all meant to help USC return to the throne of West Coast recruiting, there was now a pandemic to contend with.

The timing, following a class that ranked last in the Pac-12, was particularly unfortunate. But in the face of unusual challenges, at the end of an unprecedented and entirely virtual recruiting cycle, a relieved Clay Helton sat in his office Wednesday, grinning into his computer camera.

Considering the circumstances, it had been “a very good day,” the USC coach said.

Helton offered a similarly sunny disposition last season on the first day of the early signing period, even as the Trojans missed out on all their top targets and tumbled down the national ranks. But this time, USC’s recruiting class left little reason to doubt his sincerity.

USC signed 19 players and added a transfer from Alabama to its 2021 class that ranks 11th nationally according to 247Sports. It inked eight of the top 30 prospects in California, after signing only two in 2020. After striking out on quarterbacks a year ago, USC convinced a fast-rising, four-star quarterback from Utah, Jaxson Dart, to join Miller Moss, the four-star signal caller from Mission Hills Bishop Alemany, in the same class.

And two of the nation’s top prospects, Corona Centennial five-star defensive end Korey Foreman and Los Angeles Loyola five-star cornerback Ceyair Wright, could be on the way.

“We’re in a great spot right now obviously,” Helton said. “There are some big fish that are yet out there that when you’re at USC you’ve got to compete for and compete over the next couple days or if it goes all the way to February. So we’re in a terrific place for it being the first signing day.”

The Trojans may not have taken back the West entirely — Oregon’s class ranks sixth overall — but they certainly reestablished a recruiting footprint.

And they did so without ever leaving their homes. When Dart, a relative unknown with no Power Five offers, emerged onto the scene in September, USC never traveled to Utah to witness his rise in person. While he threw for a state-record 67 touchdown passes and 4,691 yards, USC took in his performances on video and talked with him over the phone.

Without any in-home visits or official trips to campus, Helton and his staff focused especially on establishing relationships throughout this cycle. “I think one of the greatest gifts you can give somebody is your time,” the coach said.

After offering Dart in October, USC’s staff put on the full-court press. On Wednesday, Dart noted those relationships as a determining factor in his decision.

“I’ve been able to gain such a great relationship with the coaching staff over a short period of time,” Dart said on ESPN2. “I love the winning culture and the tradition they have.”

It’s rare that two top quarterbacks join a class together. USC already had one committed quarterback, Jake Garcia, depart for a less crowded depth chart at Miami. But in the case of Dart and Moss, Helton said, both are happy to compete to be the heir apparent to Kedon Slovis.

“They have that intestinal fortitude to believe in themselves, believe in what they can do,” Helton said. “They saw that we hadn’t signed a quarterback last year, that there was a two-year gap, and there was an opportunity to come compete at a very young age and play at a very young age. That’s all you want as a quarterback, to be able to step in a room, compete, and the best guy plays.”

The best prospect still on USC’s radar intended to sign Wednesday, but Foreman, the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit, won’t announce his decision until Jan. 2, at a virtual All-American Bowl special. Wright, one of the nation’s top defensive backs, will also make his destination known that day.

Even without Foreman or Wright, USC signed a respectable, well-rounded recruiting class. That group is especially strong in the defensive backfield, where safeties coach Craig Naivar and cornerbacks coach Donte Williams led the way in recruiting five four-star prospects: cornerbacks Prophet Brown and Jaylin Smith, and safeties Calen Bullock, Anthony Beavers Jr. and Xamarion Gordon.

“This was an unbelievable year on the West Coast for defensive backs,” Helton said. “To be able to have the day like we had today was very advantageous for us for the future.”

The immediate future could hold even more good news for USC. In the meantime, its staff could rest easy, knowing its plans to return to recruiting prominence through a pandemic had been fulfilled. For the time being, at least.