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Clay Helton recaps USC Signing Day 2021

The USC Trojans finished signing day with the No. 7 ranked class in the country, thanks to the addition of two four-star signees on Wednesday, in linebacker Raesjon Davis and cornerback Ceyair Wright. USC also announced two transfers, in former Colorado wide receiver K.D. Nixon and former Texas defensive back Xavion Alford.

Those four are added to the 21 who joined USC during the December early signing period, putting the Trojans currently at 25 new additions, with former Texas running back Keaontay Ingram likely to be added, and USC still pursuing five-star defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau (Sammamish, Wash./Eastside Catholic).

USC head coach Clay Helton spoke with the media on Wednesday afternoon, addressing the class and answering questions.

Helton opening statement:

“Really excited to welcome our 2021 signing class to the Trojan Family. I think this is a great combination of young, elite talent, combined with some experienced transfers that we were able to acquire – really meet some needs that we desperately needed going into next season. Love these guys, one, for their character, two, their maturity, their talent level, and really think it’s a group that can help us next year. Especially when you look at losing seven NFL enrollees to the NFL Draft, that combination of young talent as well as a couple transfers at needed positions I think is going to propel us to our championship goals.

As we looked at it last time we talked, back in December, we had 20 guys that were signed. We really felt that after diagnosing who we were going to lose in the NFL Draft there were two really big goals. One, to finish up on some exceptional, elite talent here on the West Coast. And then, to dive into the transfer portal and be able to acquire some needs that we needed headed into next season.”

To be able to get some great news on January 2 with Korey Foreman, one of the best players in the country, an elite pass rusher. And then to be able to get great news today, two outstanding defensive players with Ceyair Wright, an elite corner coming on with us, as well as Raesjon Davis, a tremendous linebacker, really put the exclamation point on a great class.

Fourteen of these guys are going to be midyear guys coming on with us and can be a part of spring, which is absolutely awesome. And then everybody else will be joining us in June.”

Helton on the differences between this 2021 class and last year’s recruiting class:

“I think there were a couple factors. One, just the sheer numbers. We only had about 12 spots last year to be able to sign, so sheer numbers helps the class. Two, the year before was a big man’s class, which is not very sexy in a lot of eyes, but was very needed, to acquire the likes of a Courtland Ford, Jonah Monheim, Casey Collier, those type of bodies. Being able to have a full class was one. Two, I absolutely love the work ethic the entire staff gave in relationship building in a very adverse time, going through the world of technology like we had. We really made a strong commitment to basically duct tape the phone and ipads to our heads and really dive into relationships with these families and created some great ones. I think the resources that we were given by Mike Bohn, Brandon Sosna and the administration that really helped us from a personnel standpoint, a recruiting standpoint, a Name, Image and Likeness standpoint, and really kind of rebranding ourself I thought was extremely important. And finally, I thought the biggest part of it was the ability to play. I was very nervous that we weren’t going to get a chance to show who we were as a football team, our culture and where we were headed, with young men. But to be able to play six games, show young people, they’re trending in the right direction. This is something I want to be a part of. I thought was extremely valuable, for them to be able to watch our style and our brand of football. With that work ethic, those resources, some proof of being able to show us playing, I think it was a combination of all that. And then you had some guys who had some belief, especially when you have the No. 1 player in the country in Korey Foreman that comes on and says hey, I want to be a part of that. That helps with other guys. You have to think that helps with a Ceyair Wright. It helps with a Raesjon Davis. So, I’m very proud of this class. I thought they really dove into who we were. They took the time to get to know us. They had big picture aspirations, not only athletically but academically and what they wanted to do after football. And they see how USC can get you there with that. It was a great culmination and proud of today. It was a lot of effort over many years of relationships with a lot of these kids.”

Helton on what the addition of cornerbacks coach Donte Williams meant to the recruiting efforts and results:

“We team recruit. I’ll always say that. But Donte obviously did a wonderful job. I’ve always said that some guys can elevate you and elevate an entire staff and Donte was one of those guys that elevates the people around him. He’s a great relationship builder and obviously has strong west coast ties – was involved not only with the corners, but several recruits on both sides of the ball. Just his relationships and how he conducts his business is extremely impressive. He has a passion for recruiting and did a phenomenal job this year.”

Helton on whether this was the expectation when Williams was hired:

“It was really two-fold. I had been so impressed with Donte as a position coach. I think that gets lost sometimes. I think this guy is going to be a coordinator one day. He’s going to be a head coach one day. And it was kind of when he came on, it was like man this is the culmination of a really good coach that is exceptional at recruiting also. And so I don’t want that coach to get lost in what he does recruiting-wise, because I think he’s really good at it. Obviously when he came on board, you could see everybody’s ears prick up. You go, wow, that’s a big move and that’s a move that can really help a program. That’s one of those resources that I thank Mike and Brandon Sosna for doing. To be able to commit and invest in coaches significantly and long term, that shows investment in a program. When you do that, you want to be able to reap the rewards of it and we have. That’s evidenced today.”

Helton on whether USC has room to add more recruits in this class:

“We have room for more. We only signed 12 last year, so we have 13 that can count back. So we have a ton of space right now.”

Helton on the changes that produced this successful class:

“I think there were significant changes. I go back those resources, I know I keep on harping on it. I thought we had very talented individuals in Spencer Harris and Gavin Morris, but they’re only a couple guys. And to be able to bolster that recruiting room, just from a personnel standpoint in the room, just sheer bodies, help. And then to be able to acquire some of the technological side, the artistic side of recruiting, with graphic design specialists, with video specialists, that’s an investment that has to be made. Then you go into the staffing and to be able to acquire I think really elite recruiters, and the other guy I know won’t get mentioned. But when you’re talking about Craig Naivar, that guy knocked it out of the park also this year. So you acquired some elite recruiters on staff. So that culmination, yeah, it does, it feels different. Obviously you can see the benefits that we’ve had through this year with those guys. I commend them. They work tirelessly at it. They literally took a 30-second break and now they’re on to 22’s (class of 2022) right now. It’s a never-ending process and I appreciate them for the men they are and how hard they work at it.

I was really impressed with both Mike and Dr. Carol Folt. When we got done after the season and they sat down with me and said coach, what do you need? What do you need to get it to where you want it to go? And to be able to be asked that question and then supplied the resources for it, to be able to say, hey here’s the vision. This is what we need to be able to do. Obviously this brand is exceptional. It represents the greatest tradition of excellence there is in college football, in my opinion. You always respect this brand, but you fight like hell for innovation. Recruiting has become very innovative and it changes by the second. To have a president and an athletic director to be able to say, you know what, let’s give coach exactly what he needs to be able to push forward, that makes you feel good and it shows investment in the program. I want to commend both Dr. Carol Folt and Mike for those investments that have been made because coaches are good, but players help you win championships. And to be able to acquire the players that we did today and through the month of December obviously will helps us in the future.”

Helton on how to balance recruiting high school players and through the transfer portal:

“We really had a plan going in and I think it’s going to have to carry over to all programs and head coaches as they’re managing their rosters. The transfer portal has kind of made us more like the NFL, to be honest with you. It’s become a free agent market. When you look at the NFL teams every year, what happens? You have guys that retire. You have guys that become free agents. Well, in college now with the early signing day plus the transfer portal, there’s a lot of transition that happens right after your season and you can look up, and just like we have—you have seven NFL early enrollees and then a handful of guys that want to explore the transfer portal. And you get that information basically after the December signing day. So I think it’s going to be in the future for everybody and what we did, we acquired 20 what we thought were elite bodies, and then had space for us to be able to take a step back and say okay, let’s see what we lose to the NFL. Let’s see what we’re going to need to make immediate needs and acquire. And be able to see what is still left out there from West Coast and other elite prospects that are waiting until February. So we acquired the 20 that really fit us, that we felt were extremely talented, that we thought could help us, but saved us space to be able to go out into the transfer portal as well as save space to be able to acquire a Korey Foreman and a Ceyair Wright and a Raesjon Davis, who we felt we could not let leave Southern California. Those are the guys who are going to help you win championships. I thought Spencer Harris, who runs our personnel department, did a magnificent job of keeping us on pace, giving us the big picture, always, and being able to not just take guys to take guys, but take elite guys and then take immediate needs that we needed. I though the patience in the process was very well done throughout and we were able to acquire some needs that, when you lose a Talanoa Hufanga or you lose a Marlon [Tuipulotu] or you lose two wideouts, that you can go out and be able to get those bodies. Appreciate Spencer and the job he did over this past year.”

Helton on the number of hybrid-type defensive players who could seemingly play multiple positions on that side of the ball:

“You see two things that really happen in high school that we love, we’ve always loved, and I go back to the days of Robert Woods and Marqise Lee and Adoree’ Jackson and one, how great they were on both sides of the ball. You see that so much in high school football where you see guys who can play on either side of the ball. I think of a guy like Jaylin Smith, a guy we signed back in December and how good he is on both sides of the ball. Ceyair Wright is the same way. He’s great on both sides of the ball. That’s one. But I think in today’s time, especially with the way college offenses are, the way our hashmarks are and how much grass you have to cover, you have to have elite athletes. They have to have great speed, great explosiveness, cover a lot of ground, have playmaking ability, have ball skills. So that’s what we looked at. We are a nickel package by nature, so you normally have five DBs on the field. So you saw us really revamp our defensive back corps. I think that’s going to have to continue in ’22 because we are losing some older bodies in a hurry. And then the ability, I thought where Raesjon was a huge pickup for us was because of his athleticism. When you turn on the tape, he’s kind of what college football is going to—a guy that can cover a receiver through the middle of the field in Cover 2, a guy that’s great out in space to be able to run the ball down, physical enough in between the tackles in the run game, and truly can apply pressure in blitz situations. He checks off every box. So yes, the athleticism part in today’s time is ultra-important in today’s game, especially how offensive players are getting better and better and better and better, and how much offenses are spreading out. Athleticism is key.”

Helton on how Korey Foreman could help with future recruiting classes:

“I thought it helped with this one right off the bat. January 2 was a big day. It showed other guys that here’s one of the best players in the world and he’s staying right here to accomplish all his dreams. He feels like he can get everything accomplished he wants to right here at USC. When that happens, then other guys want to join. They talk, they visit together. It was probably a big reason why Ceyair is with us today and Raesjon is with us today. And it will affect that ’22 class. When you see the guys that are coming in this year, there’s a lot of west coast kids that go man, something special is happening down there. I want to be a part of that with those guys. It was a big pickup for us in a lot of reasons. One, the quality of person Korey is, the quality of player Korey is, but also his reputation and how he relates to the other guys and them coming on wanting to play with him is big.”

Helton on which defensive players might be able to contribute right away:

“I love this group’s character, I love their maturity and I love their talent. They’re very serious kids and have a high standard for themselves. I think each of them can help contribute next year and some significantly. And I think it’s really important and I’m so glad that 14 of them are going to be here with us this offseason as well as spring. I think that’s a huge piece of the puzzle. And then to be able to get those guys in right after graduation in June and July, the rest of them, is really important for their progression in helping next year. Defensively, this is a really mature, talented group and after losing some dynamic defensive players from last year, I think all of them have a chance to go in there and compete and show what they’re got. And we’ve shown we’re not afraid to play freshmen. If you’re the best player, you’re going to be out there.”

Helton on whether USC was able to “Take back the West”:

“I think we had success in areas that we needed. For us, I was very proud of today. I really felt after—and I said this back in December—I was very happy where we were, but there were some significant targets that were still left out there. And those significant targets were on the west coast. With the spaces that we had left available, we needed to go out and sign a Korey Foreman and a Raesjon Davis and a Ceyair Wright to combine with the 20 that we had. Ultimately, our goal is—I know that’s been a mantra for the staff—but ultimately our goal is to being these young men in and win championships. I believe once a championship is won, I’ll be a lot happier. And these guys I know are a significant step towards that.”

Helton on how USC was able to land K.D. Nixon and what he might provide:

“It was an unusual situation and what a perfect fit for both sides. It was just the right timing. Here’s a guy that has 103 catches during his time at Colorado, 32 returns, so that experience stepped out to us. He’s been extremely productive in our league, and kind of what in a grey area. Does he go to the NFL, does he go another year? With us losing Amon-Ra and Tyler to the NFL Draft, we felt we could acquire an older, experienced guy for a year that could help out that room with leadership, with production. It was just a great fit for both sides. Having a chance to talk to K.D. one-on-one, man he lights up the room. When you walk into a room, you either control what’s going on in the room or you just sit back. K.D. is one of those that likes to control the room and lead, and that was evident in our discussions with him. And then you turn on the tape and you watch his production and his numbers. He played injured this year, basically only four games and really only got to play in two and still had 15 catches. He’s been averaging 45 to 50 catches a year. So, ultra-productive player and it was just the right timing for him, the right timing for us and a great fit for both side. It’s great having him on campus and getting him going.”

Helton on whether the Name, Image, Likeness pitch was a successful one:

“It was. We decided to be proactive rather than reactive to the topic because it is going to come into play. We have some huge advantages here. One, at USC and the tradition of the program and what it’s done for other. But also the city of Los Angeles. You’re talking about the No. 1 college football media market in the country as well as the second largest media market in the country overall. When you’re dealing with guys like Ceyair Wright, who is as talented at other things as he is at football—he’s great in academia and he’s great in film—unbelievable personality. You’re dealing with Korey Foreman and Raesjon and this class, that’s important to them. They have big-picture aspirations past the four years. They see USC as a 40, 50, 60 year decision rather than just a four-year experience. What am I going to get out of it? I’m going to get a great opportunity to develop as an athlete. I’m going to get a great opportunity to develop in my academic career and what I’m going to do after the game. But I’m also building a brand while I’m there, an elite brand that can go over a lifetime. To be able to talk about that and have open conversations and show them what it can be like was invaluable to this class. I really think being proactive in it is important, so we decided to be proactive and I think it paid off in relationships that we had.”

Helton on the need to recruit his own players to prevent them entering the transfer portal:

“Part of this experience of being a head coach nowadays, I think it’s going to be really important to have strong relationships, and be able to take time with individuals to be able to show them the future, show them their plan. And I’ve always said the greatest gift you can give somebody is your time. There’s always conversations that are had. And the one thing the NCAA has done for student-athletes is they’ve given them the opportunity to change their path if they choose to. And the one-time transfer rule is probably coming into play here very, very shortly. It’s going to be part of it and you’re going to have to really be a mentor there for young men, where they stand, what the plan is, where you see their future, being very honest with them, being able to tell them their strengths and their areas of growth, so they see a vision and they can see themselves moving forward and progressing. And you’re going to have to take the time to do that and as we know, when you’re dealing with elite athletes, you’ve got to take the time for NFL conversations too, and we’ve had multiple of those over the past year. That’s part of your roster management is being able to have conversations of what’s best for each individual in the moment they’re in and sometimes that is to stay and fight it out, and sometimes it is in their best interest to move on. I thank everybody that has been here with us that decide to move on. There’s several guys that have—over my 12 years here—that have had great experiences here, have gotten their degrees and then were looking for another experience. It’s all part of it, but I think that relationship building has got to be really strong as you move forward in this one-time transfer world.”

Helton on the 2020 seniors returning for the extra year of eligibility:

“They’re all back. You know the transfer portal guys that have been out there. Everybody else is going to have the opportunity to come back.”

Helton on what he remembers from when Korey Foreman committed:

“Korey actually signed back in December, that’s why we were able to do so much brand marketing with him. He signed in the December signing date with him, but wanted to be able to tell it to the world in his own way. There were not very many people who knew that he had signed with us. We’ve done it in the past with guys who have wanted to have their own process. You have to be a good secret keeper. It was neat to be able to have Korey tell his story in his own way, share it in his own way. He surprised a lot of our staff and the excitement, you see a bunch of grown men turn into kindergarten students again and that type of excitement when we did it. It was neat to see. But then what was nice in him being able to sign back in December, you got to see a flourish in what we were able to do because he’d already turned his paperwork in. We were able to celebrate, so that was a large part of it. Had conversations back with him right around the signing date back in December. What a class act guy. He knew exactly what he wanted and what he wanted to do. In asking him why, he gave all the right reasons. He’s got such a clear picture of what he wants to accomplish in college and is so mature and so ready to do. I’ve always thought great players have a sense of urgency to be great. That young man has a sense of urgency to be great. He wanted to get started with it immediately, so he’s focused and working very, very hard right now to prepare for next season.”

Helton on the other transfer portal additions:

“They all fit needs that we may have lost from the NFL Draft. We don’t just take guys to take guys. There’s thousands of guys in the portal right now and even more coming. When we evaluated right after signing day at specific positions and had changes at certain positions, we said okay, we need to dive into this, we need to look for this specific type of player at this position. We were able to do that and be able to acquire some guys that can come in and help us and be able to get here in spring and be a part of spring ball and really learn systems and be able to dive in. It was important for us to be able to acquire those guys and get them here and we feel fortunate in doing so. I look forward to working with them.”

Erik McKinney

Erik McKinney began writing for WeAreSC in 2004, during his junior year at USC, covering the Trojans football team and recruiting. He then moved on to ESPN.com in 2011, where he served as the West Region recruiting reporter and then the Pac-12 recruiting reporter. He took over as publisher of WeAreSC in January, 2019.

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