By the end of the 2016 season, few programs would have chosen to take the field opposite USC, as the Trojans were one of the hottest teams in the country. That momentum carried over into signing day, as USC's recruiting class climbed to No. 5 in the nation on the strength of adding six ESPN 300 prospects on signing day.
The Trojans' train simply refuses to slow down, as USC is one of a few programs blitzing the 2018 recruiting trail. Already the Trojans hold five commitments from ESPN Jr. 300 prospects -- as many as the rest of the Pac-12 combined.
The base was set early last year, when No. 3 pocket passer and No. 25 overall prospect, Matt Corral, announced his commitment in February of 2016. Corral is the top quarterback in a loaded group of California signal-callers, and he immediately became a vocal recruiter for the Trojans.
But USC’s momentum on the trail isn’t simply limited to which recruits are already a part of the class. Even losing a prospect as talented as wide receiver Manuel Allen, who decommitted from USC last week, could eventually turn into a positive, as the Trojans are heavily in the mix for No. 2 overall prospect Jalen Hall -- a former teammate of 2017 USC signees Joseph Lewis and Greg Johnson -- as well as Amon-Ra St. Brown, Chase Williams and Marquis Spiker. All four wide receivers ranked among the top nine overall California prospects.
It’s a huge year for wide receivers in Southern California, and USC has the edge with many of them.
“I think USC has a lot of confidence right now,” said wide receiver Andre Hunt, who holds offers from UCLA, USC and others.
Asked what garnered top local receivers' attention for USC, Hunt wasted little time answering.
“Darnold,” he said of USC quarterback Sam Darnold. “He’s a captain. He’s a leader.”
While Darnold’s success could go a long way toward keeping recruits interested in USC, as a game-changing quarterback is always a positive in recruiting, some prospects said the Darnold factor didn't play a big role in their own recruitment.
ESPN Jr. 300 tight end Camren McDonald said that while Darnold is certainly a star, he understands that the quarterback likely won’t be there for much of his career, or possibly any of it. For McDonald, coach Clay Helton has become the focal point, which is a huge positive for USC. After a 1-3 start last season, it looked as though Helton could be fighting for his job.
“They’re rolling right now,” McDonald said of USC’s recruiting. “The fact that coach Helton was able to turn around the program in a season is kind of hard to wrap your mind around. They went from a losing team to a winning team based on coaching.”
Helton seems to represent a departure from the three previous USC coaches in terms of personality, as Pete Carroll, Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian were all fairly outspoken when it came to recruiting. Helton, on the other hand, seems as low-key as it gets.
“The other guys weren’t the same type of coaches," McDonald said. "He’s the first guy to do it the way he’s doing it, and it worked. He’s a great coach -- one of the best coaches out there in my eyes.”
USC flexed its recruiting muscle late in the 2017 cycle, and perhaps no pickup was more impressive than Jay Tufele, a Utah prospect coveted by Michigan and Ohio State, as well as the hometown Utes. Bringing in the top-10 defensive tackle signified that USC had the ability to beat out big-time programs with plenty of momentum of their own.
In the 2018 class, that message was delivered early, as USC landed a commitment from No. 1 outside linebacker Palaie Gaoteote last week. Gaoteote held offers from Alabama, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas A&M and was a significant target for Ohio State, which signed former Las Vegas Bishop Gorman teammates in quarterback Tate Martell and defensive tackle Haskell Garrett in 2017. Gaoteote's commitment gives USC two of the top five prospects in the west region -- a feat the Trojans accomplished in the 2017 class, but not in either 2015 or 2016.
Gaoteote's commitment won’t be the last the Trojans have to fight off other recruiting giants for. Defensive end Cameron Latu has been one of the West region’s fastest risers this spring, and Alabama took aim after extending an offer during a junior day visit. Now, it appears a battle could be brewing between the Crimson Tide and Trojans that could offer another glance at how well this class could shape up for USC.
“I think USC has a lot of momentum right now, ending third in the AP rankings,” Latu said. “That was crazy because they were down low and ended up third and have a lot of momentum going into the next year.”
The only constant with recruiting is to expect the unexpected, which means anything could happen between now and signing day in 2018. But at this point, it appears that the No. 5 ranking USC finished with in 2017 could also be a launching point for this 2018 group. A tough 2018 schedule and early departures to the NFL loom as potential stumbling blocks, but as it stands now, it’s tough to bet against the Trojans on the recruiting trail.