USC football: Grading the 2023 recruiting and winter transfer class position-by-position
How did the Trojans do with their player additions at each position group?
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With National Signing Day in the books, it’s time to take a look at USC football’s new additions via the Trojans’ high school recruiting class and their winter transfer portal additions.
Back in December, SBLive’s Director of Recruiting, Andrew Nemec, graded USC’s high school recruiting class position by position. His analysis is below and updated with USC’s February Signing Day additions. That break down is followed by SI All Trojans writer Connor Morrissette’s position by position transfer portal grades.
GRADING USC’S 2023 HIGH SCHOOL RECRUITING CLASS
5-star QB Malachi Nelson (Los Alamitos; California)
Lincoln Riley is a certified Heisman Trophy maker at the quarterback position.
So, it made complete sense that Nelson followed him from Oklahoma when the coach made the move to Los Angeles.
And what a prize for the Trojans.
Nelson is arguably the top prospect in America.
The 6-foot-3, 182-pound signal-caller has few holes to his game. He can make every throw, manipulate the pocket and runs well enough to extend drives.
Nelson is well-positioned and talented enough to have a special career at USC.
Running back: B+
4-star RB Quinten Joyner (Manor; Texas)
4-star RB A’Marion Peterson (Hirschi; Texas)
USC snagged a pair of talented running backs out of Texas early in the process.
Joyner is an All-American Bowl selection, while Peterson is a highly productive high school ball-carrier with upside.
Neither addition is a surefire superstar, but both carry plenty of potential – with enough upside to be intriguing.
Wide receiver: A+
5-star WR Zachariah Branch (Bishop Gorman; Nevada)
4-star WR Makai Lemon (Los Alamitos; California)
4-star WR Ja’Kobi Lane (Red Mountain; Arizona)
When you land arguably the top quarterback in America, you’ve got to get him some weapons.
And Riley made sure to do that in this class.
The group is led by Branch, the nation’s No. 1 wide receiver.
An electric playmaker in open space, the 5-foot-10, 172-pound pass-catcher is a risk to break a big one every time he touches the football.
Branch could wind up being an NFL first-round draft pick when it’s all said and done.
Nelson will have a familiar face to throw to in college as Lemon, his Los Alamitos teammate, will join him in Los Angeles.
Lemon is the nation’s No. 7 pass-catcher, but adds a different element than Branch. While Branch is an explosive athlete who excels in space, Lemon creates it before he ever touches the football with his route-running ability.
Want some size to throw to in the red zone? Look no further than Lane, who USC officially added on Wednesday.
Lane is a 6-foot-4 1/2, 180-pound pass-catcher who clocked a 4.5 40-yard dash at Oregon’s summer prospect camp.
This class of receivers has it all – an explosive open-field playmaker, a deep ball threat, a technician as a route runner and a dangerous red zone target.
Tight end: INC
3-star ATH Kade Eldridge (Lynden Christian School; Washington)
4-star TE Walker Lyons (Folsom; California)
USC remains firmly in the mix for Pinnacle (Arizona) 5-star tight end Duce Robinson, but he has yet to make a decision.
Landing the nation’s top tight end would obviously lead to an “A+” grade.
The Trojans added a commitment from Lyons, one of the premier tight ends in the country, on National Signing Day so even if Robinson goes on to sign elsewhere, this grade will be high. 247Sports.com’s composite ranks Lyons as the No. 5 tight end nationally in 2023. He will enroll in 2024 after serving a one year LDS mission.
Eldridge is a 6-foot-4 1/2, 235-pound athlete who doesn’t have a ton of experience catching passes.
Instead, he primarily ran the ball on offense and starred on defense.
Offensive line: B-
4-star OL Elijah Paige (Pinnacle; Arizona)
4-star OL Micah Banuelos (Kennedy Catholic; Washington)
3-star OL Amos Talalele (Santa Clara; California)
3-star OL Tobias Raymond (Ventura; California)
USC secured some quality pieces for the future of its offensive line, but didn’t land a top-150 national prospect up front.
Paige is rated the nation’s No. 16 offensive tackle and is the clear headliner of the group.
The 6-foot-7, 304-pound lineman chose the Trojans over Auburn, Miami, Michigan, Michigan State Nebraska, Oregon, Stanford, Tennessee and others.
Banuelos uses his quick feet and sound technique to dominate high school foes as an offensive tackle. But his future most likely lies inside with a chance he plays right tackle.
The 6-foot-3, 290-pound lineman is an Under Armour All-American selection and has a high floor.
Adding bulk inside is Talalele (6-5, 330) and Noa (6-4, 320), a pair of prospects who could develop into quality guards, while Raymond has an intriguing 6-foot-7, 270-pound frame but will take time.
Defensive line: B-
3-star DL Sam Greene (St. Frances Academy; Maryland)
3-star DL Deijon Laffitte (Colony; California)
3-star DL Elijah Hughes (Washington-Liberty; Virginia)
Greene is a late-riser who has flashed an elite skill-set, but remains unproven..
There’s a chance he pops and becomes a star.
Laffitte is a big-bodied man in the middle who chose the Trojans over offers from Auburn, Tennessee, Washington and others.
Hughes was a late addition to the class and adds some depth.
Edge defenders/Linebackers: A
4-star EDGE Braylan Shelby (Friendswood; Texas)
4-star LB Tackett Curtis (Many; Louisiana)
3-star LB David Peevy (Lincoln; California)
USC landed a pair of potential stars in Shelby and Curtis.
Shelby is rated the nation’s No. 8 edge-rusher and will play a hybrid role at the collegiate level due to his versatility.
Curtis, the nation’s No. 9 linebacker, was a do-everything player for his high school program and provides the character to become the heart of a defense.
A true tone-setter, the Louisiana product was a massive recruiting win for Lincoln Riley.
Peevy was coveted late in the process by Oregon, Washington and USC, but he chose the in-state school.
Defensive backs: B-
4-star cornerback Maliki Crawford (Pacifica; California)
3-star safety Christian Pierce (Rancho Cucamonga; California)
There’s some “miss” with this position group.
The Trojans offered roughly 20 cornerbacks and safeties rated higher than their “gets,” likely indicating they had to move down the board more than they would’ve liked. On Wednesday, 4-star cornerback Rodrick Pleasant picked Oregon over USC.
Recruiting experts are split on Crawford, who is rated as highly as the nation’s No. 16 cornerback or a mid-three-star prospect depending on the service.
Pierce is a top-50 safety nationally.
GRADING USC’S WINTER TRANSFER CLASS
Whereas grading high school recruiting classes is mostly about potential, grading a transfer class is all about current ability. USC added 12 players in the first offseason transfer portal window and all 12 are expected to play this fall. The grades for each position group are listed below.
Running back: A
RB Marshawn Lloyd (South Carolina) – Redshirt Junior
Lloyd is the No. 1 running back in the 247Sports Transfer Rankings and a former top 100 recruit in the 2020 cycle. He will factor in at running back alongside Raleek Brown and Austin Jones. In addition to his ball carrying skills, Lloyd is great as a pass blocker too. He’ll have a chance to be a game-breaker for the Trojans.
Adding a player of Lloyd’s caliber at a position where USC didn’t have a major need is a luxury of having Riley as head coach — elite offensive players want to suit up for him. Lloyd averaged 5.2 yards per carry and scored nine touchdowns for South Carolina last season.
Wide receiver: A
WR Dorian Singer (University of Arizona) – Junior
247sports.com ranks Singer as the No. 2 transfer portal wide receiver, so USC gets another ‘A’ here. Singer looks like he could be next season’s Jordan Addison — a third-year receiver who had a tremendous sophomore season before joining the Trojans. Singer and Addison have similar body types and even though the USC wide receiver room will be one of the best in the nation, Singer should factor in in a major way. Brenden Rice, Kyron Hudson, Mario Williams, Tahj Washington, Michael Jackson III and true freshmen Zachariah Branch, Makai Lemon and Ja’Kobi Lane will all fight for playing time alongside Singer next season.
Against USC this past year, Singer caught seven passes for 141 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-37 loss.
Offensive line: A+
OL Jarrett Kingston (Washington State) – Redshirt Senior
OL Michael Tarquin (University of Florida) – Redshirt Junior
OL Ethan White (University of Florida) – Senior
The high marks keep on coming for USC. In Kingston, Tarquin and White, the Trojans added three plug and play starters. Kingston will most likely play left tackle, Tarquin will most likely play right tackle and White will most likely play left guard in 2023.
Kingston was a three-year starter for Washington State who earned a spot on the All-Pac 12 team as an honorable mention selection this past season. Last year, Tarquin did not allow a sack or a hit on the quarterback in 164 pass-block snaps. White did not allow a sack in 377 pass block snaps last season. He was named an All-SEC second team pick for his efforts.
Defensive line: A
DL Kyon Barrs (University of Arizona) – Senior
DL Anthony Lucas (Texas A&M) – Sophomore
DL Jack Sullivan (Purdue) – Graduate Student
USC added three high level defensive linemen in Barrs, Lucas and Sullivan. Barrs is an interior defensive lineman who had a breakout 2021 season earning All-Pac 12 second team honors. He was solid a year ago making 39 tackles.
Lucas, a former 5-star high school recruit, has the versatility to play defensive tackle or edge. It’s a lofty, lofty ceiling, but Lucas could potentially replace Tuli Tuipulotu as a star defensive lineman for the Trojans.
Sullivan brings a ton of experience with him from Purdue. He’s played in every game for the Boilermakers over the past four seasons. Last year, Sullivan had 5.5 sacks and a forced fumble.
LB Mason Cobb (Oklahoma State) – Senior
LB/Edge Jamil Muhammad (Georgia State) – Redshirt Senior
Cobb looks like a day one starter for USC after earning second team All-Big 12 honors last season at Oklahoma State. He’s ranked as the No. 3 transfer linebacker by 247Sports.com.
Muhammad can play linebacker or rush end. Last year at Georgia State, he made 44 tackles with 1.5 sacks and an interception.
USC really struggled at the linebacker spot a year ago. The reason this grade isn’t higher is because the Trojans could have potentially added another piece in the portal.
Defensive backs: B+
CB Christian Roland-Wallace (University of Arizona) – Redshirt Senior
Only adding one player in the secondary shows just how confident the USC staff is with that position group going into 2023. Roland-Wallace started 29 games in his four years at Arizona. Last year, he made 57 tackles and forced a fumble.
Mekhi Blackmon, USC’s No. 1 corner a year ago, exhausted his eligibility and needs to be replaced. Pro Football Focus named Blackmon the No. 27 overall player in college football last season, so he leaves some big shoes to fill. Will Roland-Wallace be just as good? That’s tough to envision.
Special teams: B
P Eddie Czaplicki (Arizona State) – Junior
Czaplicki was named an All-Pac-12 first team selection in 2022 after averaging 46 yards per punt with a long of 75 yards. He’ll instantly make USC’s special teams unit better, a unit that PFF ranked as the worst in the FBS a year ago.
Elsewhere on special teams, not adding a kicker to compete with Denis Lynch may come back to haunt the Trojans. Lynch went 15 of 22 on field goals last year.
In Riley’s second season in charge, USC will have a roster that should be able to compete for a College Football Playoff spot. USC’s schedule is tougher in 2023 than it was in 2022, but the roster is improved. A CFP spot is definitely on the table and these new pieces are a big reason why.