'It was fun' . . . indeed it was

National Signing Day could be a turnaround moment for a first-year coach who needed to put up the kind of surprisingly strong start that Wednesday's quality Trojans class has given him.

Much as he does during the season, Clay Helton chose to spend the night leading up to Wednesday's National Signing Day in his McKay Center office.

He went to sleep at 2 a.m., he figures. Got up at 3. Just in time to get the call from Lawrenceville, Ga., to start his day -- his first NSD as head coach -- when 6-foot-6, 325-pound offensive tackle E.J. Price would inform him that he was coming to California.

One of the nation's top O-linemen, Price was saying thanks but no thanks to the full-court press from his homestate UGA Bulldogs and following the Imatorbhebhe brothers, Daniel and Josh, and Chuma Edoga from SEC Country to SoCal.

Big surprise, Clay was asekd. Not really. "We'd gotten very close to him," he says of a USC staff that went after this with a "team recruiting" approach as they fought to finish strong. "Not just one coach recruiting one kid."

And yet, there was this from Clay. "Tee is just so good getting close to these kids." Indeed.

It's becoming something of a trend now, this SEC Country to USC. And that's a point of real pride for Helton, a former Auburn player, who says USC is "building on what happened with Leonard Williams and Buck Allen when they chose to come to USC. Look at how that turned out." For USC -- and the early entry NFL rookies -- one a star, the other a starter. And with a USC education to boot.

A Top 10 class of just 20 signees that had it all -- even a couple of surprises on a day when the point of pride for USC was how the Trojans didn't lose a single player they thought was coming.

No negative flips for a staff that did flip a couple its way -- multi-skilled four-star Hawai'i running back Vavae Malepeai, who turned his back on Oregon.

And maybe the steal of the day at a position of absolute need -- Long Beach CC D-lineman Josh Fatu. He'd been heading to Boise State as a marginal Pac-12 guy in what many -- Scout included -- thought to be a 270-pound body who turns out to be a 6-3, 307-pounder with both muscle and a motor. When USC called at 6:45 in the morning and offered the Lakewood native, he flipped in a heartbeat to his hometown team.

USC finished with a class of more quality than any other in the nation with its 3.90 star average. Here at Scout, which has the Trojans down at No. 11 overall simply because of the numbers compared to UCLA's 30 signees that earned the Bruins a No. 8 spot, the USC signees averaged 186.7 points to UCLA's 136.7. That's a big difference no matter what sort of faith you put into the star system.

You want stars. USC was the only program in the country with four five-stars. No one else had more than the three of Alabama and Georgia. Notre Dame's Top 10 class had none. UCLA had one.

But there they were: D-lineman Oluwole Betiku, WR's Michael Pittman and Tyler Vaughans and DB Jack Jones.

A total of 70 percent of USC's class was either a five- or four-star prospect. And Clay couldn't say it enough: the only surprises were positive ones. That's something a staff working together made work in the couple of weeks allowed after the month long dead period.

"We're a team recruiting bunch," Clay said. "Kids see that dynamic," something he said gives them a glimpse of the USC "family."

It's a family, with members from Florida -- Miami, actually -- and Georgia and Pennsylvania and Alabama and Arizona and Hawai'i, in addition to California -- that resembles USC's international/national student body. A California kid from Serra -- Betiku is here just a couple of years removed from his native Nigeria.

And yet, was the more important moment Wednesday happening across the street on Howard Jones/Brian Kennedy Field where Max Browne was leading a no-nonsense winter throwing session? Maybe.

Because as much as Clay could take heart in how well this day had gone for him and his program, he can't wait to get the guys together with his coaches. He mentions just one -- the man who recruited him to Auburn -- Neil Callaway.

"He's a very tough guy," Clay said with a smile at the reference to his new O-line coach, a man whose children Clay and his wife baby-sat when they were students at Auburn. More of that family atmosphere going forward. With a tough twist.

That would seem the way to go here when this USC team hits the field for spring ball March 8.

But for now, on this day, this staff that had come together in December and January under a first-time head coach, had the touch of a bunch that had been there and done that.

And now they have, Clay said, as he described his many multi-state, four-time-zone flights from here to Florida to Pennsylvania to Grand Rapids, Mich., to Arizona to Hawai'i or was it to Alabama by way of Utah and then the Bay Area.

"It was fun," he said in a quiet moment that typified USC's quiet day. ESPN's Shelley Smith had been sent off to report live from Stanford. UCLA got an early shot on ESPN as well.

But for USC fans, Wednesday's quiet accomplishments were just that -- fun and a whole lot more of it than anyone had expected.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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