Clay Helton Has to Answer For USC's Massive Recruiting Failures

Ryan Phillips
USC head coach Clay Helton
USC head coach Clay Helton / Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Clay Helton has some explaining to do. After USC announced it was retaining Helton as its head football coach on December 4, he's done precisely nothing to improve his program. Two completely wasted weeks have passed and have ultimately culminated in disaster during Wednesday's early signing day. Helton and the higher-ups at USC have a lot to answer for.

As of Wednesday, USC's 2020 recruiting class ranks 12th in the Pac-12 and 77th nationally. Yes, you read that right. USC, despite all that tradition and being situated in the heart of some of college football's most fertile recruiting grounds, has an incoming class placed just behind Bowling Green on 247's recruiting rankings.

Obviously, that ranking will change, as USC only has 11 current commits in a class that will likely number about 19, and the Trojans sit in good standing to land four-star wideout Gary Bryant Jr. Even so, this class has been and will be a complete catastrophe. The fact that USC will be left scrambling to fill out its open scholarships over the six weeks is mind-boggling.

At the heart of the matter is California recruiting, as kids from the Golden State are leaving in droves. So far, none of the top 25 players in the state of California are committed to USC. NONE. That's utterly insane. The top player in the state, linebacker Justin Flowe, grew up a USC fan and committed to Oregon over the Trojans on Wednesday.

As USC has come up empty, Oregon, Arizona State, Washington Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State have all raided the state, leeching off all the top talent.

In 2019, only four of the top 25 players in California signed with USC. One of them -- receiver Bru McCoy -- transferred to Texas before transferring back. And one of the kids who left the state -- cornerback Chris Steele -- also transferred in to USC. Despite those additions, those massive California misses have happened repeatedly under Helton and can't be allowed to continue.

USC used to lock down the state of California, especially under Pete Carroll. Even Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian built walls around the state. Helton has essentially handed these kids ladders to scale those barriers.

So, how did this happen? Well, instead of seeing the writing on the wall with this class and shaking up his coaching staff before signing day, Helton stuck with it. He's claimed he's focused on the team's Holiday Bowl appearance and not on making coaching changes. That comes despite a number of coaches not pulling their weight.

There is absolutely zero reason to retain coaches through a mid-level bowl game. Other teams across the nation are making bold changes while Helton is focused on winning the freaking Holiday Bowl.

Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has been straight-up awful for years. He's also notorious for not participating in the recruiting process. Pendergast has needed to go for a long time but for some reason Helton has decided to keep him around weeks (and even months) longer than needed.

Instead of making an aggressive move and restocking his defensive staff with a new coordinator and some better recruiters, Helton sat on his hands and watched talent march out of the state.

Failures in recruiting are also an indictment of Helton as a manager of the football program. Last year, he and his staff failed to see the impact of early signing day coming and slow-played some recruits for months, hoping to sweep them up late in the process. In the end, USC was left scrambling as it became increasingly clear most recruits would be signing in December, not February.

Helton's failure to read the changing landscape, adjust with the times and make quick, decisive decisions is should have spelled the end of his tenure. Instead, he's getting another year in charge and USC's football program is being dragged further from prominence.

Helton isn't the only one who deserves blame. New athletic director Mike Bohn waited two weeks after USC's final game to make a decision on Helton's fate and clearly didn't push him to make the quick, smart coaching changes the program clearly needed. Worse yet, USC president Carol Folt waited two months to hire Bohn as her new athletic director after Lynn Swann resigned from the position. All of those slow decisions left uncertainty swirling around USC and, ultimately, led us to where we are today.

A few weeks ago Bohn justified retaining Helton partly because he believed USC had closed the season strong and would finish well in recruiting. He claimed, "Recruiting is going dramatically better than anybody wants to admit."

Hey, Mike? No it isn't.

For years people around college football claimed USC recruited itself, regardless of who was the head coach. Obviously that was wrong. The Trojans are about to turn one of their worst recruiting classes in decades, fresh off another disappointing season.

The blame for the program's failures falls squarely at Clay Helton's feet, with assists from Bohn and Folt. If USC is truly wants to have a top football program, serious and substantial changes need to happen quickly

As things stand, there's no reason to take USC football seriously anymore.