In all honesty, Clay Helton was hung out to dry in this recruiting cycle. He has spent months on the hot seat, went into December with his job status uncertain, and even after being retained, few believe he'll be the coach in 2021.
That makes it very difficult to sell any program, even one as shiny and historic as USC, to recruits. It has showed throughout this recruiting cycle, and came to a head on Wednesday.
After the opening day of the early signing period, USC sits at No. 79 in the 247Sports composite team rankings. Just 11 players, including one four-star, have signed to play for the Trojans.
For reference, that ranking has the Trojans behind programs like Tulane, ECU, Louisiana Tech, North Texas, Troy, Western Michigan, Appalachian State, and Bowling Green.
No offense to any of those programs, but that is not USC's peer group.
Trojan greats are starting to express their concern. On Wednesday, after Justin Flowe committed to Oregon over the Trojans and others, former USC superstar quarterback Matt Leinart said it is "open season" for recruiting in Southern California, USC's home ground that it used to build a wall around.
Clay Helton is trying to keep positive. It is unclear what else he can do at this point, but it isn't a message that will be received very well.
From the Los Angeles Times:
“We had a very good day today that we’re very happy about,” Helton explained, adding a less-than-convincing grin.
“I’m not necessarily about perception,” Helton said. “I’m about wins and how to produce the best football team. You have to worry maybe not about popular opinion and address what your needs are.”
With just 11 players committed, there is plenty of room for growth. However, most of the major recruits are already off the board. There's a definite ceiling for the class with the guys available, and when a program settles for small classes filled with backup options or JuCo guys, it can fall into a very precarious position pretty quickly.
Again, Helton was handed a brutal situation with how USC dragged its feet, but by retaining him, it may just be setting up a longer rebuild for the next coach at this point.