SEC Country columnist Kyle Tucker spent three days at USC’s training camp as the Trojans prepare to play Alabama at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 3. Stay tuned for more from Behind Enemy Lines.
LOS ANGELES — Alabama has what Southern California wants and what the Trojans once had: a college football dynasty.
Conveniently, 20th-ranked USC, free at last from the fallout of NCAA sanctions that halted its own dominance, gets a crack at the current king to open the 2016 season.
“We understand,” Trojans offensive tackle Zach Banner said. “You can try to give the political answer — we treat everyone the same — but we know who we’re playing Week 1. We give them the utmost respect, but we can’t wait to play against them.”
The men of Troy’s collision with the defending national champion and top-ranked Crimson Tide will be a “clash of the titans,” in the words of USC’s All-American wide receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster. But in reality, his team has been merely mortal for quite a while.
Alabama is the standard now, and this game represents an important measuring stick for the challenger.
* * *
When the Trojans trotted onto their practice field one warm day last week, a slender observer, built like a marathon runner, was struck by the number of hulking humans who thundered past.
“This is the first time in a long time,” he said, “that half these guys don’t look like me.”
Indeed, the 6-foot-9, 360-pound Banner more closely resembles L.A.’s skyscrapers. Squint and 6-5, 260-pound linebacker Porter Gustin, whose hair is as long as his rolled-up jersey, could pass for former USC star Brian Cushing — or musclebound Steve Lattimer from “The Program.” Smith-Schuster, every bit of his listed 220 pounds, looks like a power forward playing wide receiver.
What sets these Trojans apart from recent probation-ravaged incarnations, which still had a handful of stars, is that the wow factor extends well beyond the headliners. Every afternoon now, they form a parade of freakish figures filing out of the locker room and into the California sunshine as the marching band’s rehearsal of “Fight On” rumbles in the distance.
Now, finally, it will be a fair fight. Six years after the NCAA dropped its hammer on USC, the roster is replenished.
“All of a sudden, you look up and there’s a two- and three-deep, and you can send them out in waves,” coach Clay Helton said. “It’s a totally different feeling right now.”
Dramatically different than when Helton first signed on as an assistant, four months before it was announced in 2010 that the Trojans would be banned from bowl games for two seasons and lose 30 scholarships over three years because Reggie Bush’s family accepted gifts from an agent. Wildly different than when Helton saw Lane Kiffin fired at the airport after a loss and Steve Sarkisian dismissed following a series of alcohol-related embarrassments, which earned Helton separate stints as interim head coach.
Helton enters his first season as the bona fide boss (no more interim tag) with 82 scholarship players, most of them former blue-chip recruits. At the low point in 2013 — after the Trojans signed just a dozen guys that February — they had as few as 44 available scholarship players for some games.
“I’m looking at these guys thinking, ‘Man, this is college football and we’re getting ready to play Notre Dame,’ ” said offensive coordinator Tee Martin, who is working for his fourth head coach (counting interim Ed Orgeron) in five years at USC. “But our players never wavered and they gave everything that they had.”
Incredibly, the Trojans didn’t disintegrate. Through three seasons of sanctions and three more with shrunken rosters, their worst record was 7-6. They’ve been to four consecutive bowl games. They won 10 games in a season twice and reached last year’s Pac-12 title game.
“Lucky for us, we’re USC, so (the fallout) doesn’t last that long,” Banner said. “If we were any other college program, I think it would’ve devastated them for many more years. That’s just about the pedigree of our school and the recruiting process of our school.”
It’s true that while the NCAA has not officially given the “death penalty” to a program since shutting down Southern Methodist in 1987, the Trojans’ punishment would’ve done equivalent damage to almost anyone else. The key to survival was making every scholarship count.
USC signed just 28 total players in 2012 and 2013, but 25 of them were 4- or 5-star recruits. Attracting talent was never an issue; being allowed to stockpile enough of it was the major hurdle.
“You said, ‘Man, in three years, we’re going to look like this,’ ” Martin said. “And to actually be here and see that we’re headed in the right direction from a numbers standpoint, the type of players that we have, the type of depth that you want, I’ve been lucky and blessed to have been through the sanctions, come out of it with a new head coach, and still be here.”
Since the restrictions were lifted, the Trojans have signed 66 players in the last three classes, 45 of them 4- and 5-star prospects. And just like that, USC has the second-highest blue-chip ratio in college football this year, according to an SB Nation analysis.
That project, which contends that having more 4- and 5-stars than 2- and 3-stars is a prerequisite to winning a national championship, found only 13 teams fitting the bill in 2016. At 70 percent blue-chippers, the Trojans trail only — you guessed it — Alabama (77 percent).
“I have more time to breathe,” Smith-Schuster said. “Pac-12 teams, they have hurry-up offenses. Almost all teams run the spread and everyone’s getting ready to go — go, go, go — and everything is just speed. We didn’t have that. We didn’t have the depth.
“The guys who have been through the struggles, from the lowest point of USC to now, it’s unbelievable. And right now, I think we’re headed to somewhere good.”
* * *
The funny thing about all this talent he’s accumulated is that Clay Helton doesn’t want to talk about it. Not the recruiting rankings or the NFL Draft projections — Smith-Schuster and electric cornerback Adoree’ Jackson are widely considered first-rounders — or how impressive-looking his team is walking off the bus.
“My least-favorite word is ‘talent,’ ” Helton said. “I heard, ‘Hey, we’re so talented’ for six years. When I think USC football, I think of the names Marcus Allen, Ronnie Lott, Willie McGinest, Junior Seau, Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing. You think physicality, you think toughness.
“And that’s what we tried to do all spring. It was all about ball. It was getting rid of the hype and the flash and the music and just listen to your coach.”
Wander around a USC practice and ask an assistant, a player, a fan, a reporter, a high-dollar donor, or a sports-information staffer what Helton, who hovered under the radar in 10 years as an assistant at Memphis before landing in Hollywood, brings to the Trojans. Their answers all fall from the same tree: calm, competence, stability. All things that have been missing from the program since Pete Carroll beat the NCAA posse out of town.
“I believe the players trust him and will follow his lead because they see in him a person who is honest about his approach and what he wants to see,” former USC star and new athletic director Lynn Swann told SEC Country last week. “I think every day, Clay Helton goes out and believes in what he’s doing. If you’re not there, if you’re presenting a false image, it’s hard to maintain that. I think players see through it. Clay is very comfortable in his shoes.”
So is Swann. He wasn’t hired in time to pick this coach, but if he’s worried about his beloved football program in Helton’s hands, the AD’s relaxed vibe and red sneakers kicked up onto the coffee table in his new office do not give that away.
“He has 100 percent of my confidence,” Swann said.
Smith-Schuster called his coach a role model and father figure. Helton learned that from his own football-coaching father while playing quarterback for him at Houston. A 44-year-old Gainesville, Fla., native who began his college career at Auburn, Helton has some southern twang in his voice and seems better suited to the SEC.
But Southern California is “the most wonderful place in the world” to him, and the admiration is mutual.
“It’s just his personality, his demeanor, how he carries himself,” Jackson said. “Very humble guy but can be strict and get into you. And he’s putting the pieces together.”
* * *
So now comes the reality check. It looks like a stampeding elephant.
From 2002 to 2008, USC won 84 games and lost only nine. The Trojans went to seven consecutive BCS bowl games, won two national titles (including a split decision in 2003) and played for a third. When that dynasty collapsed, Nick Saban and Alabama swiftly assumed the throne.
Since 2008, the Crimson Tide have 98 wins, 12 losses and four national titles.
“If there’s a barometer” for how close USC is to returning to the top of college football, Martin said, “that’s the one you want.”
There are still a few spots the Trojans haven’t quite reloaded. Their defensive line against Alabama’s rugged running game could be problematic. But Smith-Schuster at receiver and Jackson at corner are as good as anyone the Tide will see all season.
“Everything we’ve been through, the seniors here that have seen it … finally, they get to see what it was like in the glory days,” Jackson said. “Hopefully we can bring it back.”
The feeling in L.A. is that the NCAA merely paused USC’s dynasty. Now it’s time to press play again. Helton’s team might be trying to avoid the hype, but it does not shy away from expectations.
“Now that we’re out of these sanctions and at a place where we’ve got some depth, our goal is to take it to the next step and to be where this place deserves to be,” Helton said. “And that’s to win championships. That’s where our bar is set. That’s our standard of excellence. That’s what we believe in.
“Anything short of that, we don’t accept around here.”
* Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Reach him at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.