About this time last year, Coach Lincoln Riley and his new USC staff were in the final, torrid stretch of a full sprint, bringing together every possible recruiting class in less than a month.
Now, with an 11-2 season under their belts and a full recruiting cycle to gain a foothold, the pace is less breakneck for early signing day Wednesday. Most of the Trojans’ 2023 class was built before their 2022 breakaway season began. The headlining trio of five-star players — Los Alamitos quarterback Malachi Nelson and wide receivers Makai Lemon (Los Alamitos) and Zachariah Branch (Bishop Gorman, Las Vegas) — have been committed for nearly a year now.
There are still some additions to be made on Wednesday, while other top prospects may wait until February to decide. Another five-star player or two would likely push USC’s class into the top 10 nationally. Plus, there’s always more mining to do in the transfer portal, where the Trojans under Riley have been prolific.
So where do things stand for USC ahead of the early signing period, which begins Wednesday and ends Friday? Let’s answer some key questions you may have ahead of National Signing Day.
Can the USC secure even more five-star prospects?
Three five-star prospects have already committed to USC, the most since 2018.
According to 247Sports’ curated rankings, there are only seven uncommitted five-star players left on the board ahead of the early signing period, but USC could very well end up with two of them. Bellflower St. John Bosco defensive end Matayo Uiagalelei and Pinnacle High (Phoenix) tight end Duce Robinson are both believed to lean towards the Trojans, and both could make an immediate contribution if they end up at USC.
Robinson, who is also considering playing baseball, could wait to announce his intentions. But Uiagalelei is expected to make his decision on Wednesday. For USC, which has a strong need for depth along the defensive front, this will be the most anticipated announcement of the day.
“In the event that [Riley] brings in Matayo, he brings in Duce, he gets the #1 player in Vegas [Branch]the number 1 player in Arizona [Robinson]the number 1 player in California [Nelson]two more top-five players in California [Lemon and Uiagalelei]”I think that’s exactly what USC’s competitors were afraid of,” said Brandon Huffman, 247Sports’ national recruiting editor.
Since 2010, USC has failed to land five five-star prospects in a hiring cycle.
What will USC get in new quarterback Malachi Nelson?
Riley is notoriously selective when it comes to quarterback recruits and has made few offers over the years. However, his hit rate on quarterbacks is as impressive as it gets.
Since taking over at Oklahoma in 2015, four of his last five passers have made it to the Heisman Trophy ceremony. Three won outright. So Nelson, who committed to Riley in July 2021, will have some big shoes to fill when he hands over the keys to USC’s 2024 strike.
Nelson, the No. 2 passer in the class of 2023 and the No. 1 player in California, is “one of the most natural passers” in his class, Huffman said.
Whether his ceiling is as high as the Trojans’ current Heisman winner as a quarterback remains to be seen, but his ability to process quickly makes him “probably more college-ready than any quarterback in this class, except maybe [No. 1 overall prospect] Archery bow [Manning]’ said Huffmann.
How is USC going about its defense with its recruiting class?
USC is well on its way to attracting the nation’s most dynamic collection of offensive talent in the Class of 2023, but it’s on defense where the Trojans desperately need reinforcements.
USC may not get all the help it needs recruiting. The Trojans need as much talent as possible on all three levels of their defense. But in this class, they only have three defensive commits in the top 400.
Braylan Shelby, edge rusher from Friendswood, Texas, is the only defenseman from the top-100 who is about to sign. Uiagalelei would be USC’s highest-rated defensive recruit, if he chooses the Trojans. Oxnard Pacifica cornerback Maliki Crawford is the only four-star defensive back — and only one of two overall defensive backs in the Trojans’ class.
Adding Uiagalelei could be critical not only because he plays a position of emergency, but also because he’s a blue-chip prospect in Riley’s backyard. “His ceiling is Kayvon Thibodeaux,” Huffman said. “He’s got all the tools.”
USC is also still on the hunt for four-star Gardena Serra cornerback Rodrick Pleasant, but his timeline for a decision remains unclear.
A prospective USC defense signatory has continued to attract attention in recent months, quickly moving up the ranks. Four-star linebacker Tackett Curtis of Many, La., was named Louisiana’s state player of the year and a finalist for the Butkus Award as the top high school linebacker in the country. He could quickly climb the depth chart.
“He’s the one guy you look back on and think, ‘Who’s a guy who would play for Pete Carroll early on?’ said Huffmann. “Tackett Curtis, that’s the guy who gets you 350 tackles in his career.”
What position of distress should be in a better place after the early drawing period?
Attacking line. USC will lose at least three members of its baseline leading up to next season, and it didn’t have much depth to begin with. That made adding front bodies critical in this class.
The Trojans will sign five offensive linemen, including Pinnacle High (Phoenix) four-star tackle Elijah Paige, who transferred from Notre Dame in October. It will be only the third time in nine seasons that USC has added a full roster of prospects in one class.
On the other hand, in this class there is not much in the way along the defensive line. The Trojans have already ducked into the portal for one defensive tackle, but they could use a few more.
What work remains to be done in the transfer portal?
USC wasted no time looting the portal again. Five transfers have already been committed to USC, including the Pac-12 Conference leader in receiving yards, Dorian Singer of Arizona, and one of the Big 12 Conference’s top tackling linebackers, Mason Cobb of Oklahoma State. But USC is expected to remain aggressive going forward.
One of the best available offensive tackles in the transfer market like Tulsa’s Dillon Wade would move things forward.
Defense lineman Trace Ford of Oklahoma State and defense tackle Braden Fiske of Western Michigan would give USC’s defense front a big boost if Riley can lure them out of the portal.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.