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IMHO Sunday: A recruiting nightmare – for now

In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think from Los Angeles.

Recruiting thoughts: Man, I gotta tell ya, I had the most unbelievable nightmare last Tuesday night. I mean, when I awoke Wednesday morning, I was in a full-on panic sweat. I dreamt that Clay Helton’s (photo above) Trojans early signing day class finished 12th out of 12 in the Pac-12 on Wednesday, and not one of the top 25 eligible blue-chippers in California signed with the Cardinal and Gold. Logically, I knew this was a complete manifestation of my subconscious dreamland. At least, I thought it was until I started watching the Dec.18 signing day results roll in, and then watched all-world Upland linebacker Justin Flowe put on that Oregon hat and flash that “O” deal with his hands. I had to pinch myself thrice to ensure I wasn’t dreaming. Then I shockingly realized that Tuesday night’s horrific recruiting nightmare was foreshadowing what was a Wednesday reality.

Recruiting thoughts – Part 2: All the doomsayers and naysayers were right about forecasting cardinal and gold disaster for the recruiting class of 2020. Many hoped that Trojans’ athletic director Mike Bohn revelation in an Annenberg School interview that he knew things the rest of us didn’t and said that we’d be surprised on Wednesday and said that the recruiting results would be revealing. Well, we were all surprised alright – surprised by the worst recruiting class in my 57 years of watching or writing about USC football. The word “jaw-dropping” comes to mind and let’s not leave out major eyeball rolling, but that’s probably well understated. Let’s hope that the February signing period moves the Trojans up some ranks in the Pac-12 overall recruiting rankings.

Recruiting thoughts – Part 3: Rather than looking ahead to next Friday night’s SDCCU Holiday Bowl against the CFP No. 16 Iowa Hawkeyes in San Diego, USC Trojan fans and most of college football remain in disbelief at the devastation of Wednesday’s USC recruiting debacle. On the positive side, Trojans’ head coach Clay Helton was he was happy that his offensive and defensive line needs were filled, and he’d rather win on Saturday’s than basically on Wednesday. He called his new linemen recruits “monsters.” I am sure that the majority of 3-star kids are eager to prove themselves, and hopefully, some of them will be the next Kedon Slovis regardless of position. However, I’ve been at this recruiting game for nearly two generations, and there is a definite difference between a 3-star and a 4 or 5-star lineman prospect, there really is.    

Trojans head football coach Clay Helton (photo above) said numbers were the recruiting class of 2020 small, but he like the large group of linemen that he called “Monsters.”

Recruiting thoughts – Part 4: In retrospect and to be blunt about it, this past week’s recruiting effort was not only a disgrace, but an embarrassment. So much for seeing that pre-signing photos of prized linebacking recruit Justin Flowe (Upland, Calif./Upland HS) in a Trojans’ cardinal hoodie alongside USC President Carol Folt at last weekend’s basketball game. And to be honest, you knew where this recruiting disaster was leading much earlier in the process when Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei quarterback Bryce Young decommitted from the Trojans, switched to Alabama, and on Wednesday signed with the Tide. Young was once a powerful leader in helping the Trojans’ recruiting cause. You think that if the Trojans had signed Justin Flowe, that would have probably earned the Trojans some high-level prospects for the February signing period? A rhetorical question to say the least. So, how does a class like this happen? Why are the normal 10-15 best players in California looking at the Trojans like a Leper colony? Not one of the Top 25 in the state signed with the Trojans. How does this happen and why? I think you know the answers.  

Recruiting thoughts – Part 5: The Justin Flowe decision and the earlier Bryce Young situation is symbolic of where we are today in USC football recruiting. Again, who takes responsibility of the best player in the state heading for Eugene? Who takes responsibility for not one of the Top 25 players in California not signing with USC? Again, it appears to be a rhetorical question, but is it? At a post-signing day press conference, Helton told the media, “It’s not going to be the national ranking because we just don’t have the numbers.” The problem with that is even if it’s a small class in terms of numbers, it’s still about the quality of the players signed.  The Trojans have signed small classes before. Former head coach Lane Kiffin once signed a small class, but the quality of each player was either four or five-star players.  

Although there were many things not to like about former Trojans’ head coach Lane Kiffin (photo above), recruiting 4 and 5-star talent wasn’t one of them.

Recruiting thoughts – Part 6: It’s natural to want to completely blame Clay Helton for the USC recruiting version of the Titanic, but whatever chance the Trojans’ football program had to salvage this currently “last place recruiting in the Pac-12” effort should be placed on the petite shoulders of USC President Carol Folt, who strongly supported and perhaps even directed the return of Helton for 2020 in the first place. IMHO, the gregarious Folt is accountable because we all knew that the only way the Trojans could salvage quality talent in the early signing period was to change the culture and the head coach. Anybody who follows any of the recruiting sites or reads any of the USC football specialty sites like WeAreSC knew what was coming. A class like this has been coming for the past two years. You can’t have the type of turmoil and ineptitude from the top and not pay the consequences. The general public optics from a recruiting point of view has been horrendous. Sure, there was a light at the end of the recruiting tunnel, but it was a runaway recruiting train and a wreck waiting to happen. You can beat a dead horse and tarnish Clay Helton, but as I’ve said many times, he doesn’t hire or hire himself.

Recruiting thoughts – Part 7: The disaster that is currently USC football recruiting up to this point dispels the idea that the university’s long history of football excellence recruits itself. No, it works when there is no controversy, and you have administrators that are committed to having a national championship and support staff. Neither Carol Folt nor Mike Bohn have been around this place long enough to really know what’s going on with the Clay Helton situation. It was like Folt and Bohn were in denial of the current situation and needed another year to make an informed decision. I think Bohn had an idea of the Helton situation or I hope he did, but Folt has given no indication that she knows how to deal with the present USC football theatre. She only knows North Carolina’s football expectations, where a good UNC season is 8-4 or maybe 9-3 and a bowl game – any bowl game is cause for celebration. That’s not how it works at USC. By retaining Clay Helton, Dr. Folt gives the impression that she is totally naïve to the what is happening, and it might be more of a nuisance to her than a priority. Well, Carol, last in Pac-12 recruiting tells you what’s happening, and you don’t even have to know what 4th-and-goal at the 1 means. I doubt Dr. Folt even knew who Justin Flowe or Bryce Young were until she was told and why should she? As for Mike Bohn, how much was he paying attention to USC football the last the few years when he was at Cincinnati, and he certainly didn’t know the depth of the recruiting problems that were on the horizon until he got here. But more on Bohn momentarily.   

Is Trojans’ athletic director Mike Bohn (photo above on right) part of the blame for the Trojans horrendous recruiting class by retaining Clay Helton (photo above on left) as the USC head football coach?

Recruiting thoughts – Part 8: I think that there was a lot of faith in Dr. Folt when she first arrived and got rid of Lynn Swann earlier than expected. Most folks I know took a deep breath and felt maybe the best was yet to come. I doubt many, if any, feel the same way now. Sure, Folt has a lot on her university plate, but changing the USC football coach was perhaps her easiest decision to date because she would have had so much evidence to do so, near unanimous support and backing from the masses, and the approval of the media. I can’t even imagine the fan and alumni response if the Trojans take a dive against Iowa next Friday night in the SDCCU Holiday Bowl.

Recruiting thoughts – Part 9: As bad as Lynn Swann was as the USC athletic director, what was the point of firing him or allowing him to resign if you were going to keep Helton around anyway?Retaining Helton was the clearest evidence that neither Folt nor Bohn did their due diligence or were simply blinded by nice guy Clay. I suspect it was more Folt than Bohn in bringing back Helton for yet another season against all logic unless it was money, which I doubt, and that Bohn has become Folt’s proverbial and perceptual fall guy. They both knew and know, however, that Helton is a true company man and wouldn’t give them the kind of angst that a high-profile coach might.      

Was Dr. Carol Folt (photo above)) misinformed, misguided, or simply too new to the job to make an informed decision regarding Clay Helton’s return?

Recruiting thoughts – Part 10: In a Annenberg sports video in which he was explaining his support for retaining Clay Helton and hoping to calm the general public’s panic over the dismal state of recruiting, AD Mike Bohn didn’t do himself any credibility favors by saying before signing day that “recruiting is going dramatically better than anybody wants to admit.” Yeah, nobody would it admit it because it wasn’t true. Bohn added there were some dramatic silent commits. What did Bohn know that the rest of us that follow this for a profession didn’t know? Who gave him this information for such optimism? Logic tells you it came from the football office because it certainly didn’t come from the various recruiting sites that knew better. Well, the one eating the words “recruiting is going dramatically better than anybody wants to admit” is Bohn.

In fact, I doubt that Bohn had even followed USC recruiting much if at all until he arrived a little over a month ago. Certainly, until Carol Folt arrived on campus, do you think she knew a Justin Flowe from a Justin Beiber? When I watched the Annenberg Bohn video interview, I cringed at the athletic director’s inside recruiting information and positive hints. I said to myself that Bohn must know more than the recruiting services and websites, who do this recruiting thing for a living. So, again, I suspect that he was getting his information from the football office.

USC athletic director Mike Bohn (photo above) has been lying low since the early NLOI Day.

Bottom line: When asked about Mike Bohn’s remarks asserting recruiting was going better than people wanted to admit, Clay Helton commented, “At the end of the day, I’m not about perception, I’m about wins.” I hear ya coach, but recruiting is also about perception and that is based on winning and program harmony. When your two-season record at this point is 13-11 and includes turmoil, you can figure out the perception from a recruit’s point of view. When not one of 25 California’s elite prospects do the unheard of – not sign with the storied Trojans – it speaks for itself. Don’t kill the messenger.   

Bottom line – Part 2: Because of their lack of recruiting knowledge and apparently the lack of knowledge of the Clay Helton situation, it’s possible that Helton recruited both Folt and Bohn by telling them recruiting is going much better than the general public perception. Well, guess what? There is now no doubt how things are going based on Wednesday’s recruiting results. If Folt and/or Bohn care about the Trojans’ national football image and its impact on recruiting, it’s likely mindboggling for them to see where the Trojans are ranked in Pac-12 recruiting after Wednesday. If Folt and Bohn were caught off-guard by the recruiting results, at the very worst it should be a wake-up call for them, as well. Now they have a real credibility problem on their hands and who knows how the February signing period will turn out? Like I said, don’t kill the messenger.

From the press box…

The winners: Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s contract extension was a win-win-win situation for Texas native. First, the guy is now a millionaire over and over and over again and kudos to him. Second, if the Trojans win the Pac-12 or make the CFP or win it, he’ll be a head coaching candidate hotter than the Texas sun in August. Lastly, Harrell could actually be in line for at least an interview for the head coaching position at USC if Clay Helton’s 2020 team falls short of a conference championship. Nice job, dude. 

No one could be happier than offensive coordinator Graham Harrell (photo above), who signed a multi-year, overall three million dollar contract to remain as the Trojans’ offensive coordinator.

Just the facts: In the Trojans’ eight victories this 2019 regular season, the offense scored 306 points, an average of 38.25 points per game. In the Trojans four losses, the offense scored 92 points, averaging just 23.0 points per game. The combined record of the eight teams that the Trojans beat was 40-45. Of the four Trojans’ losses, those victorious teams had a combined record of 35-14. Of course, the Trojans had to deal with injured quarterbacks, but one of the backups, Matt Fink, led the Men of Troy to a 31-23 upset of highly ranked Utah. So, what conclusion(s) do you draw from it all. For me, in the four Trojan losses, only twice did the offense approach 30 points. It was 27 points against BYU in OT and 27 points at Notre Dame. In the other two losses, it was 14 points with backup QB Matt Fink at Washington and 24 points with Kedon Slovis at QB against Oregon in the Coli. What worked overall was that Graham Harrell had a system, and it worked when injuries became a major factor. 

The repair man: So, what did Graham Harrell bring to the 2019 regular season? Most importantly, he brought the offense stability, his own philosophy, and was the coach that not only called the plays but tutored the quarterbacks. Harrell was a man with a plan.  Most would agree that Clay Helton had lost confidence, direction, and/or foundation in his own offensive philosophy; the Trojans’ offense had become rudderless. Gentleman Clay certainly gave the impression that he had no more clue what to do with his faltering offense than former President Lyndon Johnson had in his failed Viet Nam policies.

The Day of Reckoning: After his contract extension signings,Graham Harrell said in a recently released athletic department video that he is looking forward to conference titles and national titles, believing groundwork for his offense has been put in place. Perhaps it has, but I can’t ever recall an air raid offense winning a national championship, and please correct me if I am wrong. Yeah, there have been passing attacks that have won, but they were supported by strong running attacks. The only pure passing team winning a national title I can remember is the national championship won by BYU (13-0) in 1984 and under the direction of legendary head coach Lavell Edwards and quarterback Robbie Bosco. It remains to be seen whether Graham’s offense can climb to the top of the mountain under today’s CFP. The counter argument, of course, is that past Harrell’s offenses have never had the type of skill players that USC can put on the field.

Legendary BYU coach Lavell Edwards won the 1984 National Championship with an over-the-top passing game.

The Day of Reckoning – Part 2: So, the big question is can Harrell’s offense carry the day without a legit running game? We know the running backs are there, but thus far the offensive line has remained a question mark. Please don’t tell me the Trojans offense under Graham is a balanced attack because it’s not. Can you win the Pac-12 with just a powerful passing attack? Furthermore, can you defeat a SEC or Big Ten team with just a powerful passing attack? I love watching what Mike Leach’s passing offense does at Washington State, but I don’t recall the Cougars beating rival Washington with the air raid. When was the last time the Cougars won the Pac-12 under Leach? It reminded that unless you can present a physical offensive line, the going will be tough. 

Who was the BYU offensive coordinator when the Cougars won the 1984 national title? Yeah, that was an easy one if you lived during that time period. You guessed right if you said former Trojan OC Norm Chow.

Before Norm Chow (photo above on left) was Pete Carroll’s (photo above on right) offensive coordinator, he was already considered a great play-calling mind and proved it as the OC for the 1984 BYU Cougars national title.

The post-game show…

All-Americans displayed: Don’t know if you noticed, but while Trojans’ wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr was named to another All-America team (second team), Iowa, the Trojans Holiday Bowl opponent – had two starters become AP All-Americans. Junior defensive lineman AJ Epenesa and junior offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs both made second-team honors.  

The holiday uniforms:
Since CFP No.16 Iowa is a higher seeded team than the CFP No. 22 Trojans, the Hawkeyes will wear their home uniforms in Friday’s SDCCU Holiday Bowl while the Trojans will be wearing their white away uniforms.

Iowa will be wearing its home uniforms (photo above), and the Trojans will be wearing their white uniforms.

Welcome home: Former Trojans running back Stefon Johnson has turned to coaching now that his playing days are over, and I was excited to see that Stefon was recently hired by his prep alma mater, Los Angeles Dorsey High, to be their head football coach. A great kid as a player at Troy, I’ll never forget when he swept around right end to defeat Ohio State late in the final quarter in Columbus back in 2009 for the comeback win. It was the largest crowd in Ohio Stadium history, and, yes, that was the famous drive directed by true freshman QB Matt Barkley.

LSU coach Ed Orgeron was named the Associated Press Coach of the Year. Maybe I missed it, but did anybody see a congratulatory comment from former USC AD Patrick Capper Haden?

In his more visible days, former Trojans’ athletic director Pat Haden (photo above on right) gives Trojans head coach Clay Helton (photo above on left) a huge victory hug.

The Call-in Show…

Caller No. 1: Are you excited about the SDCCU Holiday Bowl? Well, it’s an easy drive down south from Orange County, so that’s a positive. I am looking forward to seeing how Graham Harrell’s air raid offense does against a very disciplined Iowa defense. I am also looking forward to seeing how big the turnout of USC fans there will be and what will their reaction with a win or loss. That about covers it.  

Trojans’ OC Graham Harrell’s offense will have a challenge on its hands against Iowa’s stingy pass defense on Friday night in the SDCCU Holiday Bowl in San Diego.

Caller No. 2: Do you like the early December signing period? No, I don’t like it because it just adds to the potential for confusion and additional issues, especially when players don’t know if their position coach is even going to be there when they arrive on campus. I don’t like that teams say to either sign now or we may have to give your spot to somebody else. Players feel pressured to sign immediately, and that is designed. If I had advice, I’d say don’t sign until February in order to gain more information on the state of the program you are looking at. Knowledge is power even in recruiting.  

Caller No. 3: Gregory, is there a rift between President Folt and athletic director Mike Bohn? Some say he is angry over the decision to keep Clay Helton. What’s your take, guy? After last week’s recruiting fiasco, I don’t think anybody really knows for sure except Dr. Folt did say the return of Clay Helton was something she had input in. I think the one thing we do know is that Bohn is not sending out tweets except retweets, so he won’t get a negative fan response. I sure he was stung by all the negative comments on his Twitter sight after saying he was “pleased” to announce the return of Clay Helton as the Trojans’ head football coach. Bohn’s arrival at Troy may have been one of the fastest honeymoons ever for a new USC athletic director. I do think the damage is almost unrepairable. I am sure both Folt and Bohn are praying for a Holiday Bowl victory and a 10-win season in 2020.       

There is speculation that Dr. Carol Folt was instrumental in keeping Clay Helton (photo above), which may have resulted in a horrendous early signing period. The Trojans were ranked 12th in the Pac-12 in overall recruiting polls.

Caller No. 4: Coach Katz, do you think that Clancy Pendergast and John Baxter will return next season as coaches on Clay Helton’s staff? Let’s see what happens in the Holiday Bowl against Iowa. I am sure that Helton does not want to let his two soulmates go. I am told that Pendergast does have feelers out for other jobs, and right now it doesn’t do Clancy good with the new AD knowing that he doesn’t have a reputation for wanting to recruit.  

Caller No. 5: Dude, Starbucks or Donut Star? Well, I don’t and never have liked coffee, so Starbucks is out unless I want a bagel or a brownie. I generally don’t eat donuts, but when I do, I am a sucker for chocolate bear claws. As a side note, I never liked or could understand the Krispy Kreme rage. 

Are Krispy Kreme donuts (photo above) all that they cracked up to be? Not according to WeAreSC columnist.

The final word: I am ready for the SDCCU Holiday Bowl simply because I need a distraction from last week’s recruiting revelations. That’s normal, right?

Greg Katz
Greg Katz

Now entering his 59th season of either writing, broadcasting, or just plain watching USC football, WeAreSC columnist Greg Katz began his affiliation with the website back in 2001, introducing his well-received O/NSO (The Obvious/The Not So Obvious) column and later adding his respected IMHO Sunday opinion and tidbits column. Greg, a former ESPN.com college football columnist covering USC, is also a member of the Football Writer's Association of America. He is also known in Southern California as a professional public address announcer, having called the the 1996 Rose Bowl Game between USC and Northwestern. Greg also holds a master's degree in athletic administration and was a former varsity high school coach of 27 years.

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