Recruiting has always been the lifeblood of college football. That's hardly news.
What is news in 2017 is the way it's changing. By the way it's practiced with Alabama's legendary 30-plus staffers assigned to various duties. Or Clemson's 40 student social media staffers sending out millions upon millions of contacts. Or maybe the bidding war between Texas and Ohio State for the six-figure services of the Buckeyes' director of social media when he was still an undergrad. Or Michigan's outreach to the Pope with a spring break in Rome.
There's a lot going on here, as our Gerard Martinez's three-part recruiting staff story this week makes clear.
Not the least are the changes for the coming season instituted by new NCAA rules providing an early signing period in late December with recruits now allowed to make visits as early as April through late June of their junior years and the loosening of limitations on coaches' recruiting talk at camps while limiting the extent of those remote satellite camps.
But run those scenarios by Clay Helton as we did last week and he'll give you the same answer he does when it's also noted that USC, without a bye, will hit the field for 17 straight weeks, counting an extended five weeks in the summer, in 2017. That's also a change.
But it's something USC has planned for, doesn't change the basic approach and will not be a problem for the Trojans program, more of an opportunity, Clay says.
"We have the resources," he says of his five-man recruiting staff. Those have never been a question, he says, under Pat Haden and now Lynn Swann, as he names both as supportive of whatever he's asked.
The big change is the calendar . . . the timing.
Clay says he and his right-hand recruiting guy, Tee Martin, were talking about it the other day. "I asked Tee when he got his first offer. He said it was when he was a senior," Clay said of the former Tennessee quarterback from Mobile, Ala.
"Me too," Clay says of his eventual signing with Auburn. "I was a senior."
And yes, that's a world that's gone forever. Camps and clinics and videos and web sites and all the rest of that have made this a different world even though most of the world has no understanding. The other day, for example, I was talking about the Elite 11 with my neighbor, a big NFL fan.
"But," he wanted to know, "how could they possibly know about who the best 25 [undergraduate] high school quarterbacks in the nation were? How is that possible?"
I told him they have extensive video on all of them and rankings based on a number of in-person viewings at games, practices and clinics for as long as these kids have been playing.
"For high school kids?" he asked, shaking his head. "They do that for high school kids now?"
Indeed they do. And they better do it earlier than ever with the new rules.
"Definitely," Clay says. "Your evaluation process is speeded up." But not just USC's.
"What's important is what's in the kids' minds -- and their timetables."
One thing that matters, Clay says, is "that in my eight years here, we've averaged five to 10 mid-year graduates" coming into the program. So those, like the five this year are pretty much by definition on that early timetable already. Not much change there for USC. "Their recruiting process was done," Clay said.
And yet, "our coaches are going to have to do a really good job [evaluating prospects' mind-sets]," Clay says. That has to be accelerated. And that's not a bad thing.
"I still believe some kids will take it up to National Signing Day," Clay says, with the first challenge there to get the April visits right.
The way it's gone in recent years, Clay says, that by the new December signing day USC "would have still been recruiting six to eight prospects . . . while 15 to 16 would be done."
So again, not a great big change there even for a USC program that has been a big beneficiary of what's gone on in January with important late movers like Oregon recruit Marlon Tuipulotu's Jan. 23 switch from Washington to USC. Also a late January switch to USC was DB Je'Quari Godfrey who was a Cal commit for eight months.
This year, because the schedule has changed at the last minute for everyone, Clay says it wouldn't surprise him if it goes to February for some.
"It really goes back to their individual timetables," which means the evaluations, academic and athletic, will be doing the same, as well as the USC staff's to figure those out for each individual prospect.
"The one thing we always do is we match up so much more than just the playing part of it," Clay says. "We don't see them as a player but as a person and a student. It's a total speed-up. And it can be tough on the players and the coaches because we want to see them all in person with our coaches."
One thing that makes it easier for USC, and Clay, is Tee Martin," he says. "A complete coach," he says of USC's offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach who so often is also the lead recruiter . . . every year I get to keep Tee Martin I'm blessed," Clay says. He calls Tee "the next big thing in college football" the way he combines coaching and recruiting duties seamlessly.
Clay says the basis for USC's territorial recruiting philosophy"started with Coach Carroll and continued with Coach O," in terms of total domination in California and the West Coast, something USC extended through to Oregon, Washington, Utah, Arizona and Las Vegas in the Pac-12 footprint this past year with this current class.
And we'll note here recruiting didn't drop off under Lane Kiffin or Steve Sarkisian during Clay's time here. That wasn't the problem.
"If you get the best kids out here, just look at the population in the West from Phoenix to Las Vegas to Salt Lake City," Clay says of USC extending its recruiting dominance outside SoCal. "Those cities are growing in population. You're either going to recruit the best players out here, or you're going to have to play against them."
USC's choice: Marlon Tuipulotu (Independence, Ore.), Jay Tufele (Salt Lake City), Tyler Katoa (Layton, Utah), Andrew Vorhees (Kingsburg), Bubba Bolden (Las Vegas), Josh Falo (Sacramento), Randall Grimes (Las Vegas), Austin Jackson (Phoenix), Erik Krommenhoek (Danville), Brandon Pili (Alaska/Oregon), Isaiah Pola-Mao (Phoenix), Alijah Vera-Tucker and Godfrey (both Oakland), come on down.