Now that National Signing Day 2018 is over, USC head coach Clay Helton and other college coaches around the country can take a deep breath and relax—for now.
Signing day is pivotal to producing a program's future success and Helton has done a fantastic job in the past three years to make sure the Trojans will have the best talent for years to come. This year, the Trojans finished with the fourth best class in the nation and the best class in the Pac-12. With another wave of stellar young athletes joining Helton's ranks, USC now has no excuses to return to the spotlight they once solely possessed in year's past—the days of Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and Pete Carroll. The time is now for Helton to bring USC back atop college football.
USC finds itself in a peculiar situation next season. They are returning just about everyone on the offense and the defense; however, many experts this off-season are putting USC near the bottom of their early Top-25 rankings. The reason? The departure of key players like Sam Darnold, Ronald Jones II, and Uchenna Nwosu leave holes in big positions that the Trojans relied on heavily last season. This is why recruiting, particularly recruiting well, for certain positions is so crucial going into what many consider this to be a transition season for the Trojans.
I don't like the term transition season. On paper, USC is better off at every position on the field this season other than quarterback. The Trojans return most of their starting receivers and add five-star Amon-Ra St. Brown from Mater Dei along with a plethora of other talented athletes. The only offensive lineman the Trojans lost this season was Nico Falah. Falah, a multi-tooled lineman who has the ability to play multiple positions on the line, is a big loss for the Trojans but once again, Helton and his staff were prepared. Justin Dedich, a four-star center and one of the best in the country, will be primed to start right out of the gate.
The biggest loss for this Trojans team and potentially the biggest loss out of all the teams in the country, is Sam Darnold; however, USC has a trio of quarterbacks who are ready to fill his shoes. There is one name that comes to mind for all USC fans and that is JT Daniels. The quarterback from Mater Dei will come in and compete for the starting job. While setting records at Mater Dei, a school that has a history of producing prominent quarterbacks for USC, Daniels has the tools and intangibles that will make him a threat right off the bat.
Despite what some people may think, Daniels can and will win that starting job. Matt Barkley started for USC as a true freshman and this past year, true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm of Georgia led the Bulldogs to an SEC Title and within one play of winning the National Championship. Daniels has the talent and the weapons around him to do the same.
The defense restocked as well. Losing Nwosu, a team MVP and an All-American, leaves some open space for players like Levi Jones or Jordan Iosefa to get in key playing time; however, those two will have to fend off hungry, incoming freshmen who are poised to start right away. Palaie Geoteote IV of Bishop Gorman is one of those freshmen ready to compete in Clancy Pendergast's fiery defense. The Trojans took six linebackers in this year's recruiting class; they only signed five in the past three years combined.
The Trojan defense returns keys players Cameron Smith, Iman Marshall and Porter Gustin. Once again, the Trojan defense will find themselves hyped up early in the season, but they will need to deliver on those high expectations.
The Trojans have talent all across the board. This year, Helton's first ever full recruiting class will be in their junior season. As they become leaders on the team, it will be extremely telling whether or not USC is headed in the right direction. If USC fails to meet expectations, what does Athletic Director Lynn Swann do? Helton recently signed a contract extension through 2023. Yesterday, he said that he told Swann that "this is his last job." It's something he'd like to be doing until he's 60 years old. With growing concerns from boosters and fans about Helton's staff, especially after the drubbing the Trojans received in the 2017 Cotton Bowl, Helton must prove that his success is not predicated on Darnold.
There are no more excuses. With three straight seasons with a top-five recruiting class, USC gets just as good of talent as any other top team in the country. For the last five years, they've pulled the top class in the conference. I know I say all these things with USC coming off a Pac-12 title and another New Year's Six bowl appearance, but the Pac-12 is arguably the weakest conference in the country. It's one that USC should win handily year after year. We saw on December 29th that USC could not hang with No. 5 Ohio State in their 24-7 loss. Helton must prove to the nation that USC is no joke and he has done a fantastic job stalking the talent to do so. Now, it's time to execute.