USC’s recruiting surge: Trojans bolster defense with five commitments on Sunday

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LOS ANGELES — Nick Montana has visited several colleges in the past. He’s attended plenty of recruiting events, too.

Considering the light rain that was covering Los Angeles on Saturday morning and afternoon, the fact he was in a tent, enjoying a crawfish boil and surrounded by several four- and five-star prospects was “about as good as it could get, really,” said Montana, the offensive line coach at Oak Hills (Calif.) High School who was accompanying the Bulldogs’ four-star running back Karson Cox to USC’s weekend recruiting event.

“Aaron Donald walks by, you never know what’s going to happen,” Montana said. “You’re at the University of Southern California, so anything can happen any second.”

USC entered this past weekend with one commitment in its 2025 recruiting class. Sure, it’s only March, but the Trojans’ work in the ’25 cycle could be described as sleepy at best and concerning at worst.

But on Sunday, USC flexed its recruiting muscles by picking up five commitments — all on the defensive side of the ball and all from outside the West Coast footprint.

The Trojans added three top-100 prospects to their 2025 class and a talented cornerback, Dominick Kelly, to their 2026 class.

When operating at peak capacity, this is what USC’s recruiting should look like.

Five-star defensive lineman Justus Terry had been committed to Georgia for more than a year. But when new USC defensive line coach Eric Henderson visited Manchester (Ga.) High School earlier this year and talked with Terry and his parents, coach Demonta Prather had a feeling his star player might eventually flip his pledge to USC.

“He’s a really entertaining guy but he’s also a really straightforward guy, down to earth,” Prather said of Henderson. “He’s going to keep it real. I think that’s one thing Justus likes about him also.”

You have to start with Henderson when discussing USC’s recent recruiting efforts. Henderson, who joined the program in January after spending the previous five seasons with the Rams, coached Donald, a future Hall of Famer, but also developed younger defensive linemen like Kobie Turner, who finished third in voting for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2023.

Henderson was named the NFL’s John Teerlinck Defensive Line Coach of the Year, which was voted on by his peers, in 2021 when the Rams won the Super Bowl.

The trenches are where national championships are won and lost. If USC hopes to return to the top of the sport, it has to improve on both sides of the line, particularly on the defensive line where it has struggled to develop top-flight players for the past decade.

Henderson’s resume gives the Trojans immediate credibility with recruits.

“I think coach Henny has been real big on communicating with Justus,” Prather said when asked what pushed USC over the edge, “and letting him know how much he really wants him, how much he appreciates him, and he’s been getting him in touch with different people to help him out and help him change his mind.”

It didn’t stop with Terry though. A few hours after Terry announced his flip from Georgia, the Trojans landed a commitment from four-star defensive lineman Isaiah Gibson, also a Georgia native.

Terry is the No. 8 overall prospect in the 2025 cycle while Gibson ranks 76th. Those are the sort of prospects USC has missed out on in recent years.

The truth is the Trojans were recruiting at a disadvantage on the defensive side of the ball the past few cycles because there simply wasn’t much belief in former coordinator Alex Grinch, who was eventually fired last November.

But there’s a new staff in place with a diversity of experience. Henderson is a Super Bowl champion. Linebackers coach Matt Entz won FCS national championships at North Dakota State. Secondary coach Doug Belk grew up in Nick Saban’s system at Alabama. Coordinator D’Anton Lynn executed an impressive defensive turnaround at UCLA last year.

This staff has much more to sell. And that’s not limited to the new defensive hires either. Newly minted running backs coach Anthony Jones Jr., who joined the program after several seasons at TCU, also left an impression on Cox, the No. 2 running back in the state, this weekend.

“First time they met. First time we met. I think he (Jones) made a good impact, though,” Montana said. “I know he (Cox) likes his coaching style. He sat down with us for crawfish boil. Sat and talked for over an hour. The running backs at USC came and talked to us and talked about life, what it’s like being a student at USC. Karson asked coach a bunch of questions, learned a little about himself.

“He finally reached out to Karson last week and started building that relationship. He definitely wants him to come back a couple times. It’s only an hour and a half (drive) so he’ll definitely be back.”

One thing has been made abundantly clear in the past two recruiting cycles: USC really likes the state of Georgia.

Three of the Trojans’ five 2025 commitments come from the Peach State — Terry, Gibson and five-star quarterback Julian “Ju Ju” Lewis. In the 2024 cycle, USC signed top-100 edge rusher Kameryn Fountain and four-star tight end Walter Matthews out of the state.

In the Atlanta Recruiting Confidential published by The Athletic earlier this month, one high school coach singled out USC for its work in the city.

“Lincoln Riley and USC are making sure Atlanta and the state of Georgia are a recruiting hub,” he said.

When asked what’s led to the Trojans’ success in the state, Prather said: “I think their appearance, being visible, showing themselves. When you’re able to come from one side of the country to the other and show your interest in a kid, I think that kid understands that you really want him.”

Take a look at the commitments USC landed on Sunday. Two are from Georgia. Two are from Florida and one is from Texas. One of the most common critiques USC fans have had of the program’s recruiting efforts is the lack of success with local players.

During the 2024 cycle, USC signed just two of California’s top 25 prospects. And it wasn’t landing a ton of elite out-of-state recruits either.

If Riley and the staff are going to take a national recruiting approach and not prioritize Southern California, then it must have this type of success in other regions of the country.

The other common complaint relates to USC’s rather conservative approach to NIL. The scars of the Reggie Bush NCAA penalties still run deep for the university’s upper administration.

But recent court rulings have blocked the NCAA from enforcing NIL rules. Sources have indicated that House of Victory, the athletic department’s official NIL sponsor, will operate with a much bigger budget this year, as much as three times larger than what was in place for 2023. That, combined with this recent run of out-of-state success, should raise USC’s recruiting ceiling.

The title wave of commitments on Sunday generated buzz nationally and excitement within USC’s fan base. It started with Terry and Gibson and was followed by Kelly and then top-100 safety Hylton Stubbs.

The fifth and final commitment is bound to leave some fans feeling conflicted. Gus Cordova, a defensive lineman from Lake Travis High School in Austin, Texas, announced his pledge to the Trojans on Sunday evening. The program offered Cordova in late January and he visited campus this past weekend.

Last fall, Cordova was involved in a controversy at his high school. As a joke, Cordova and another teammate reportedly placed peanuts in the locker of Carter Mannon, who previously had told his teammates that he had a strong peanut allergy that he said could kill him. Cordova and the other teammate later removed the peanuts but some residue remained.

Fortunately, Mannon only broke out in a rash and he played in Lake Travis’ game later that night. Cordova and the other teammate were suspended for the next two games.

John Canzano went in-depth on the situation last month and there seems to be tension and disagreements between the two families.

Texas reportedly backed off of recruiting Cordova, though there are some reports he may take an unofficial visit to the Longhorns’ spring game. On Instagram, Cordova reported offers from Clemson and Georgia on Sunday, so other schools are still pursuing him. It comes down to how comfortable each program feels about giving second chances and how much a teenager can learn from their mistakes.

A source with knowledge of the recruitment said there were discussions with Cordova about the incident during his visit. Obviously, the USC staff felt comfortable enough to accept his commitment.

But given the situation and the fact USC is taking a risk, one some will view as unnecessary, the program will likely have Cordova on a shorter leash than a typical recruit.

Georgia and USC haven’t met on the field since 1960. But they’ve oddly crossed paths on the recruiting trail quite often over the past few years.

In 2021, USC landed a commitment from five-star defensive lineman and Georgia native Mykel Williams. Later that year, Clay Helton was fired and Williams flipped to the Bulldogs.

Georgia is selective but has had success recruiting Southern California in recent years, landing St. John Bosco offensive lineman Earnest Greene, now the Bulldogs’ starting left tackle.

During the 2023 recruiting cycle, the two programs battled for five-star tight end Duce Robinson. In this cycle, the Bulldogs have pursued Lewis despite his commitment to the Trojans. And USC recently flipped Terry.

“It was already intense,” Prather said when asked if Georgia’s pursuit of Terry will intensify now. “Anytime a school came to visit, Georgia was right behind him. I think it’s already been intense. Of course they’re going to take it up a notch.”

USC has a different staff and is in a much more stable position now than it was when Williams flipped, but the challenge of keeping this class together remains the same. So while the Trojans have put themselves in a good position, the real work and real test of the program’s recruiting strength begins now.

“(It’s about) being consistent,” Prather said. “Doing the same things they did to get him (Terry), they’ve got to do the same thing to keep him.”

(Photo of Lincoln Riley: Kirby Lee / USA Today)

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