USC carries Rose Bowl momentum into strong signing day showing

Prospects are buying into USC at signing day (1:18)

ESPN's Eric McKinney gives his assessment on USC's recruitment during signing day and discusses how head coach Clay Helton was able to sign six ESPN 300 prospects to the Trojans. (1:18)

LOS ANGELES -- USC coach Clay Helton was inside the John McKay Center at USC watching on television when ESPN 300 linebacker Levi Jones unzipped a hooded jacket to show a Florida Gators T-shirt. Jones, the No. 65 overall prospect in the country, was set to decide between Florida, Florida State and USC, but Helton wasn't fooled.

Off came the Florida shirt to reveal a Florida State shirt, then he removed that one to show another with the interlocking SC.

"Levi saved me from a heart attack today," Helton said.

Minutes before he made the announcement, he texted Helton to tell him he would be a Trojan.

Jones was one of six previously uncommitted ESPN 300 recruits to pledge to the Trojans on signing day, which helped propel USC to the fifth-ranked class in the country. The Trojans were the only Pac-12 school to finish in the top 10.

Helton hasn't slept much in the past 24 hours, but it wasn't for fear of how the class would fill out.

"We kind of knew going into the day that we were the leader on most of the guys coming in," he said. "We felt really confident and tried to be as honest as we could with the other young men that were out there.”

Finishing strong has been USC's thing as of late. After starting the season 1-3, the Trojans went on to win their last nine games, including a memorable 52-49 defeat of Penn State in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual. There were definite similarities in how things progressed in recruiting.

"I thought the eight games prior [to the Rose Bowl] really helped us in recruiting," Helton said. "And then to be able to make that statement; to win that Rose Bowl game and finish as one of the top-five teams in the country. It's not where we want to be, but it showed a level of consistency that I thought was important."

Unsurprisingly, the win against Penn State was a hot topic of conversation with recruits in the weeks leading up to signing day. Helton stressed that while it a was historic win, he made it clear that a national championship remains USC's ultimate goal.

Wednesday represented an important step toward making that possible.

Of course, recruiting success isn't a new phenomenon at USC. The Trojans have long been the foremost recruiting power in the Pac-12, and their place among the top-ranked classes in the nation is to be expected.

What makes this class stand out is not just how many talented players there are (14 of the 23 players are in the ESPN 300), it's how well put together it is.

They addressed immediate needs: No. 1-ranked receiver Joseph Lewis joins a talent group of young pass-catchers that will compete to replace JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers. Four defensive tackles (Jay Tufele, Marlon Tuipulotu, Brandon Pili and Terrance Lang) were brought in to help account for the departure of Stevie Tu'ikolovatu.

They also brought in some players they can stash away and develop: No. 3-ranked running back Stephen Carr might earn some early reps, but with Ronald Jones II going into his junior year, plus a capable No. 2 in Aca'Cedric Ware, Carr won't be expected to produce right away. No. 5-ranked quarterback Jack Sears, who is from the same high school that produced Sam Darnold, enrolled early and will surely redshirt.

After going undefeated over the final three months of the season and Wednesday's haul, any doubts about Helton's ability to lead a program of USC's caliber should be gone.