LOS ANGELES — There’s been quite a bit of consternation about USC’s on-field product over the past month as the Trojans have played some rather unimpressive football. In the same vein, there have been a lot of questions off the field, mainly about what is (or isn’t) happening on the recruiting trail.
So with the early signing period two months away, let’s examine USC’s 2024 class as it’s currently constituted, as well as the staff’s efforts towards closing strong.
1. A good segment of the fan base is puzzled regarding the staff’s poor performance in USC’s backyard this cycle. There are 37 blue-chip 2024 prospects in California, with the vast majority of them hailing from Southern California.
The Trojans have commitments from only four of them.
Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) has five top-150 players in this cycle, and each has committed to either an SEC school or Oregon. This state of affairs is especially confusing because Mater Dei has been a strong pipeline for the Trojans not only historically but also in the very recent past: Riley signed three Mater Dei players in his first class, when he’d only been on the job for three weeks.
2. USC’s class ranks 19th nationally, which is OK but not up to the program’s standard. If there’s a silver lining to be found, though, it’s that the average player rating for the Trojans’ 15 commits is 91.47, higher than most of the schools whose classes are ranked ahead of them.
As is the case for any number of schools, you’ll see some fans point to NIL as a scapegoat. They claim that this is why USC hasn’t landed more elite-level talent, or why the program has missed on some of those Mater Dei kids.
— Kyngstonn Viliamu-Asa (@AsaViliamu) July 23, 2023
But Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Penn State and Clemson aren’t among the leading NIL innovators, and they’re all ranked ahead of the Trojans. USC lost out on much-needed linebacker target Kyngstonn Viliamu-Asa, out of St. John Bosco (Bellflower, Calif.), to Notre Dame. Can you really blame that on NIL?
Sure, USC’s top-level administration is conservative with regards to NIL. The scars of the 2010 NCAA sanctions probably have something to do with that. While that hesitance may be an impediment, it’s also hard to square with the fact that USC probably wouldn’t be enjoying its current level of success in the transfer portal every offseason without NIL.
There was some thought that, after years of underachieving under Clay Helton, high-level prospects just needed to see USC win and they’d be ready to jump back in the boat. While on-field results aren’t usually felt until a year later on the recruiting trail, the hard truth is that USC hasn’t carried the momentum from last season onto the trail this cycle.
The reality is this staff was expected to recruit at the elite level necessary to be at the highest level of college football, and thus far it has not met expectations. Riley and his staff have to find some way to win these high-stakes battles in the future if they’re going to accomplish what they set out to do when they arrived — winning national championships.
Does Oregon have a great NIL setup? Yes. Does it also have a staff that lives, breathes, eats and sleeps recruiting? Yes. And no matter how many dollars a collective has to spend, having a staff that is nothing short of relentless on the recruiting trail sure helps a lot, too.
3. Given its subpar performance on Saturday against Notre Dame, the offensive line has come under major scrutiny this week. The Trojans brought in three highly-touted transfers this offseason (Michael Tarquin, Jarrett Kingston and Emmanuel Pregnon). The transition hasn’t gone smoothly for each player, and the unit has struggled to coalesce this season. A prime example of the pitfalls of reliance, or at least over-reliance, on the portal.
Depth has been a concern for the offensive line dating back to the spring. Recruiting at the position wasn’t great in the last few years under Helton, but this staff didn’t really make any sort of late push for Earnest Greene III, a St. John Bosco (Bellflower, Calif.) product who starts at left tackle for Georgia, and shockingly lost out on Josh Conerly, who starts at left tackle for Oregon.
In the last cycle, USC made runs for highly touted prospects like Francis Mauigoa, Lucas Simmons and Caleb Lomu but ultimately came up empty in their pursuits.
There are two blue-chip offensive line commits in this class (Jason Zandamela and Makai Saina), but the Trojans will need more on top of that in the future. Plus, those two are out-of-state recruits, which means they’ll be harder to hold on to as the cycle goes on and early signing day approaches. Mater Dei offensive line prospects Brandon Baker and DeAndre Carter have committed to Texas and Auburn, respectively.
Recruiting to fill the offensive trenches has been an area of major concern for the past few years, and now the Trojans are under even more pressure to strengthen that unit moving forward.
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4. Huntington Beach (Calif.) offensive lineman and three-star Stanford commit Justin Tauanuu visited USC for the Arizona game and it seems like the Trojans have momentum in that pursuit.
Four-star receiver Drelon Miller decommitted from Texas A&M this past weekend, and he was a significant target for the Trojans this past summer, taking a visit to USC in June before committing to the Aggies later that month. We’ll see if the Trojans reenter the picture for the top-100 wideout.
Per 247Sports’ Brandon Huffman, four-star defensive lineman Jericho Johnson, a top-150 prospect, has scheduled an official visit with USC for next month. Tauanuu, Miller and Johnson are among the most intriguing prospects to watch out for down the stretch as things pertain to the Trojans.
Fairfield (Calif.) Armijo defensive lineman Jericho Johnson, California’s top uncommitted 2024 recruit, has lined up two more official visits https://t.co/hQ9IW9QsyE pic.twitter.com/lxQ8xPKQd9
— Brandon Huffman (@BrandonHuffman) October 17, 2023
5. Given the need at the position, Johnson is of major significance for USC. It’s been repeated time and time again, but there aren’t a ton of 6-foot-4, 300-pound high school defensive linemen roaming around California.
The Trojans need more beef, with only two blue-chip commits who play along the defensive front in this class. Though the Trojans have posted some really good sack and tackle-for-loss numbers, they still don’t dictate the line of scrimmage on a consistent enough basis.
USC needs better defensive linemen and linebackers — and it needs them en masse.
6. As we’ve noted in previous recruiting stories, USC does not have a quarterback commit in this class. First, it went after Dylan Raiola (and circled back a time or two), but the Trojans couldn’t land him — or DJ Lagway, who committed to Florida last year.
Assuming Caleb Williams leaves for the NFL, USC will have just three scholarship quarterbacks next season: Miller Moss, Malachi Nelson and Jake Jensen.
If Lincoln Riley doesn’t add a high school quarterback to this class, it’ll be fascinating to see which quarterback he pursues in the transfer portal.
(Top photo: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)