The USC Trojans hosted a collection of high-profile prospects on campus Saturday, Feb. 27, utilizing junior- day festivities to showcase an evolving program.
Following a 2015 season largely defined by the dramatic dismissal of second-year head coach Steve Sarkisian, USC elected to move forward with longtime assistant coach Clay Helton as its new leader. A mixture of key internal promotions and fresh staff additions have the Trojans trending in a positive direction with several key recruits.
That sentiment was shared among a mix of athletes who attended The Opening's Los Angeles regional camp Sunday at Redondo Union High School in Redonda Beach, California, just a day after visiting USC.
"The whole mentality is different than what USC was dealing with last season. They're definitely on the right track," 5-star offensive tackle Wyatt Davis told Bleacher Report.
Davis, a 6'5", 290-pound prospect from nearby St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, California, was joined by a slew of standouts considered elite recruits in 2017 composite rankings. Fellow 5-star prospects Tate Martell and Tyjon Lindsey also spent Saturday at USC.
Both prospects emerged as early marquee members of the 2017 cycle in Southern California before transferring to Las Vegas powerhouse Bishop Gorman High School. They connected for 29 touchdown tosses during the past two seasons, per MaxPreps, though Lindsey returned to the region with enrollment at Centennial High School (Corona) earlier this month.
"I just felt back at home [during USC junior day]. I felt comfortable, and it was an amazing experience," Lindsey said.
Martell, rated No. 1 nationally among dual-threat quarterbacks in the class, committed to Texas A&M in August. The Trojans were a strong contender prior to that pledge and maintain a presence in his recruitment process.
"I love being back in Southern California because it's home. Obviously, USC is always going to be that option for me here, but I'm solid with Texas A&M," he said.
The Trojans are well-established as a major heavyweight in the Los Angeles area sports scene, solidified by decades of championship contenders and Heisman Trophy candidates. USC used junior day to reinforce the legacy of past successes.
"USC is USC. The tradition and history is there no matter who is in that spot as head coach," said 4-star wide receiver Terrell Bynum, another St. John Bosco product rated No. 19 overall among prospects at the position.
Though he believes the Trojans' track record speaks for itself, Bynum acknowledged decisions made by university athletic administration aided current recruiting efforts.
"It was huge for them to keep a lot of those coaches on the staff because it means recruits can continue to grow relationships instead of restarting new ones," he said. "They made us feel comfortable. They preached a family environment and brotherhood."
Offensive coordinator Tee Martin is a prime example of continuity at USC. The former Tennessee Volunteers quarterback served as Trojans wide receivers coach from 2012 through 2015, drawing rave reviews from recruits during the course of his stint in that role.
His rise to offensive coordinator under Helton continues to help enhance rapport with established targets.
"He was my main recruiter as wide receivers coach, and now that he's offensive coordinator, it's a win-win situation if I go there," Lindsey said. "I'm feeling very comfortable with him, and we're building a strong relationship."
Prospects also spoke highly of junior-day interactions with staff newcomers, including offensive line coach Neil Callaway. A veteran resident of college football sidelines, he previously filled the position at Alabama, Auburn and Georgia and led UAB as head coach.
Davis and 4-star offensive lineman Chuck Filiaga heaped praise in the direction of Callaway after their interaction with the new USC assistant.
"It was a friendly environment all around campus. I really like Callaway and the coaching staff," Filiaga said. "They're great guys, they're fun to be with and they're welcoming. I love how they all have an open-door policy with everybody. Overall, it was a great experience."
Davis came away from the visit enthused about a fresh offensive emphasis.
"Coach Helton had great energy. I can tell he's going to try to bring back old-school USC football—run first, pass second. That's what I'm all about," he said.
That's good news for running backs such as T.J. Pledger—a heavily recruited rusher in the 2018 class who also took part in the action Saturday.
"It gave us a chance to learn more about the program's tradition. We know some of it because we all grew up in the Reggie Bush era, but there's so much more than that with O.J. Simpson, Marcus Allen and others," he said.
TJ Pledger @uno_tj
Fight On... ✌🏾❤️💛 https://t.co/UO4hZAwAHj2016-2-27 19:34:18
"I enjoyed the whole day," Pledger added. "Walking around campus, putting on the USC jersey; it was all fun. I feel like I'm growing a really good relationship with the new staff, and that's very important."
The Trojans currently claim four commitments in the 2017 cycle. It's a class headlined by three players who received invitations to The Opening finals Sunday (running back Stephen Carr and defensive backs Bubba Bolden and Thomas Graham Jr.).
A successful Saturday of recruiting interactions should further strengthen USC's ability to field a talent-laden class next signing day.