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Needed changes, new energy have USC recruiting ready to roll

After a subpar recruiting cycle by USC standards, the Trojans look as though they’ve gotten things right on the recruiting trail. New additions in the recruiting department have been announced and will be announced, as USC will more than double its full-time staff there. New coaching hires brought new connections and new energy to recruiting. And a renewed commitment to recruiting from the entire program has the Trojan coaches hot on the recruiting trail and prospects across the country buzzing about their efforts as well as USC football.

There are absolutely some positive spins that can be applied to USC’s 2020 recruiting class and efforts. The offensive line depth was replenished. Bodies were added to the defensive line. A potential game-breaker was added on offense. A Trojan legacy was secured at tight end. And it all happened while signing six fewer players than any other Pac-12 program.

But ultimately, USC finished the 2020 recruiting class ranked among the bottom three teams in the Pac-12, signed fewer four-star prospects than all but four other conference rivals, grabbed just one of California’s top 20 prospects, and ceded recruiting control of the region to a number of other programs, including Arizona State and Oregon in the Pac-12.

That won’t cut it at USC.

And while that stretch from December’s early signing period through the February late signing period caused USC fans to do some serious hand wringing and become extremely vocal with their displeasure on social media, behind the scenes it might have set the groundwork for what is likely to become a Trojan recruiting renaissance.

While the top three members of USC’s 2021 recruiting class–which is the No. 1 class in the Pac-12–verbally committed to USC prior to October of last year, USC’s recruiting momentum has been tangible in this class since mid-February. Over the past two weeks, USC landed commitments from four-star running back Brandon Campbell (Katy, Texas/Katy) and four-star safety Xamarion Gordon (Downey, Calif./Warren), and that feels like the tip of the iceberg for what the Trojans could produce over the next few weeks. USC has landed on top-school lists for elite prospects across the country in recent weeks, and has some real momentum in Southern California.

How did all of this come together?

Athletic Director Mike Bohn has repeatedly made mention of directing necessary resources toward the football program, and he also hasn’t shied away from talking about the importance of recruiting. So it’s been no surprise–and a very welcome development–to see the USC recruiting department bulk up, under the direction of Director of Player Personnel Spencer Harris.

Harris arrived at USC last April and worked as part of a five-person recruiting department for the Trojans. Beginning in December, Harris was charged with growing that into an 11-man operation that would start to move USC in the direction of college football’s recruiting elite. While precautions due to Covid-19 have prevented any movement at this time, Harris does have an ultimate vision for the department.

Split into four different areas, the USC recruiting department focus will be on player identification and evaluation, recruiting operations, building relationships with players and coaches, and marketing.

Trey Johnson and Drew Fox oversee the player identification and evaluation portion. Johnson has been with the program since 2018 and Fox will be a full-time staff member now after serving as a graduate assistant the past two years. Kelsea Winkle is in her second year at USC as the director of on-campus recruiting. Gavin Morris has been at USC for six seasons, working his way from recruiting analyst in 2015 to Assistant Athletic Director/Director of Player Development in 2019. Harris called Morris “one of the best in the business at what he does,” as he serves as a solid and familiar connection for recruits. Added to assist Morris recently was Armond Hawkins Jr., the brother of former USC player and graduate assistant Chris Hawkins.

But where Harris sees potential for the most growth in the recruiting department is in the marketing area. Alex Verdugo was recently hired as the Director of Graphic Design after a stint at Oregon. But he won’t be working alone. In what had been a one-man department, Harris will eventually hire four additional full-time people to that staff, allowing USC to produce exciting, innovative, informative and compelling materials for the eyes and ears of recruits, coaches, and anybody connected to any prospect USC is targeting. Harris was close to getting a couple positions finalized before the quarantine and hopes to have everything completed as soon as possible.

“I’m really excited about that piece,” Harris said. “That’s the area the fans and everyone will see us expand in–social media, marketing, creating.”

Those materials will be ticketed for public consumption as well as internal use, as the added workforce will enable USC to simultaneously take a more comprehensive as well as specialized approach to recruiting and recruiting specific players.

“Investment in the football office was extremely, extremely needed,” Harris said. “We need to hire the right people with the right experience. At USC, there’s so much opportunity to sell. We’ll have plenty of material…but the things people see on social media don’t just happen overnight.”

Harris said the content will include recruiting videos to be shown while players are on campus–displayed on televisions in the athletic facilities–personalized graphics, personalized recruiting plans, presentations and other materials. There will also be plenty of pieces for external production, which fans will see on social media. Since videos aren’t allowed to be personalized for recruits, due to NCAA rules, all video work will be seen by fans on social media. But there will be a more concerted effort to personalize the recruiting process for prospects.

But the recruiting department isn’t the only place where USC’s recruiting momentum will come from.

As the dominoes fell during the coaching search on the defensive side of the ball, one thing became obvious. The new additions, from defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, to safeties coach Craig Naivar, cornerbacks coach Donte Williams, defensive line coach Vic So’oto and special teams coach Sean Snyder, could recruit. But they didn’t just recruit well. They loved to recruit well.

“These guys are awesome,” Harris said. “They bring such good energy, juice, ideas. College football is all about recruiting–making sure you have better players than everybody else. That’s how Alabama and Clemson win. You recruit and develop better players. These guys get it.”

One of those new ideas came from Williams, as the former Oregon assistant suggested that every person in the football department–from coaches to recruiting assistants to ops people–be put on a single text thread. Harris said the results have been instantaneous and overwhelming.

“Every time a recruit posts a top-10 list, a commitment or something like that, we send that immediately, and that way every coach sees it, and every coach can interact with it, retweeting or replying,” Harris said. “We’re getting that information immediately, and everyone is on the same page immediately. That’s helped us a ton, and it’s built good staff camaraderie.”

Recruits in the 2021 and 2022 classes have commented over the past few months about how impactful it’s been that multiple USC coaches are heavily involved in their recruitment. Top 2022 safety prospect Zion Branch (Las Vegas/Bishop Gorman) said last week he spoke with Naivar, Williams, wide receivers coach Keary Colbert and defensive graduate assistant Michael Hutchings, and that the increased attention he’s received of late has been noticeable.

“That’s been a huge emphasis the last couple of months,” Harris said of getting multiple USC points of contact to recruits. “I’ve reorganized how we reach out to recruits, parents, trainers–anyone important to them–and hit them from multiple people.”

Offensive line coach Tim Drevno’s position gained a commitment from three-star offensive tackle Mason Murphy (San Juan Capistrano, Calif./JSerra) in early March, and has seen the benefits of the recruiting push.

“Everybody is supporting each other and everybody is in it together,” Drevno said of recruiting. “There’s a big emphasis around building a fence around Los Angeles, and doing it every day…I think we’re working together and talking about it a lot more with recruiting meetings. Everybody is helping out and we’re recruiting as a team.”

“They’ve been really refreshing,” Harris said of the coaches. “They’re tough, hard-nosed, energetic, great dudes to be around. They match really well with coach Helton and the rest of our staff…They’ve come in and adapted to our organization and process.”

Harris said the new coaches have been able to expand USC’s recruiting board, thanks to connections they brought with them from previous stops. They’ve also been able to implement new strategies and ideas, as the staff meshes those with what works for USC.

Drevno and Harris both cited new ideas brought by the new defensive coaches, and one change seems to be how much of an impact they make and how visible they are on social media. So’oto consistently mentioned building relationships as the absolute key to recruiting, so it makes sense that he’s willing to put his outgoing personality on display. Recently, he posted a video of himself getting in a quick workout, using all five of his children as weights. It drew a reaction from four-star 2022 defensive end target Gracen Halton, an exchange and a potential talking point between the two that wouldn’t have happened without the video.

Head coach Clay Helton has also taken to celebrating recruiting commitments on twitter, as he’s now posted this traveler gif in tandem with the past two commitments.

Ultimately, the coaches are putting on just about all of the finishing touches when it comes to recruiting, as prospects need to feel comfortable with who they’ll be coached by during their careers. But getting to that point can be largely influenced by what USC is building now.

“These coaches are great, and the coaches are the ones building the relationships,” Harris said. “But there’s so much to see about USC. We’re taking all that information and we can show it in the best manner so that parents and kids can understand it. We have to show them what USC is all about in a way that maybe a coach can’t show it…We can’t be on the phone with recruits 24/7, but recruits are on their phones 24/7.”

The reorganization and recommitment has made recruiting fun again at USC, and prospects are taking note. There are six public 2021 commitments at this point, but it’s not a stretch to think that with a successful 2020 football season, USC could be back among the top 10 programs when it comes to recruiting rankings.

“We feel like we have some really good momentum right now and we hope to continue,” Harris said. “It’s only April, so there’s a long way to signing day. But we feel like if we keep doing what we’re doing, we’ll have a chance to close really well.”

USC hasn’t gone out of its way to recruit differently during this time of “safer at home” and the NCAA dead period. Instead, the Trojans have simply turned the dial up on recruiting in a way that can be sustained for the long haul.

“This staff has so much energy and juice,” Harris said. “Everyone is so aligned and focused on the team, the program goals and the vision of coach Helton. We’re tying to focus on the bigger picture of winning championships here…[Recruiting] rankings are great and we want to be at the top, but we want to do it to win championships.”

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Erik McKinney
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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