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Setting the stage for USC's Early Signing Period

The emergence of the NCAA's Early Signing Period in recent years had already been game-changing for college football recruiting, with the overwhelming majority of prospects choosing to sign in December rather than the traditional February National Signing Day.

But add in a delayed football season because of the pandemic and it's even more of a scramble for coaching staffs to work to close the deal with their top remaining targets while also preparing for games of escalating stakes.

In USC's case, the Trojans found out Monday they had to shift Pac-12 championship game preparations from Washington to Oregon, on Wednesday they'll sign the bulk of their 2021 recruiting class and on Friday they'll play for a conference title.

"Wednesday is an important day -- it just happens to be on championship week, which is the first time in my 26 years of coaching, so it makes for some long nights," USC coach Clay Helton said this week.

"It’s a heck of a week, but it’s just part of the job," offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said with a laugh.

Added defensive coordinator Todd Orlando: "We've got an incredible recruiting staff that really picked up the slack and they understand what we're trying to get accomplished, but it's been a grind."

A grind that should pay off in a big way this week.

RELATED: The TrojanSports.com staff debates the 10 biggest USC recruiting storylines entering the Early Signing Period

After reaching a new nadir last season in the history of USC recruiting, ultimately finishing No. 71 in the Rivals rankings with a 12-man class (the Trojans lost 3-star TE signee Jack Yary to Washington before he ever got to campus), Helton's future with the program seemed predicated on the ability of he and his staff to lead a recruiting rebound as much as the on-the-field results.

To his credit, the Trojans have done both. As mentioned, this 5-0 USC team is back in the Pac-12 championship game for the first time since 2017, and meanwhile the Trojans are ranked No. 11 in the Rivals recruiting rankings entering the Early Signing Period with a strong likelihood of finishing comfortably in the top 10 and maybe even back in the top 5, where they resided much of this recruiting cycle.

USC has 18 commitments entering the week and could formally add a handful more to the class Wednesday while resetting the program back to standard recruiting expectations -- or at least close.

Of those 18 commitments, 13 are from 4-star prospects and 11 of those are ranked in the Rivals250. USC signed just two 4-star prospects last cycle and only one Rivals250 prospect, in WR Gary Bryant Jr.

Just as important, USC has commitments from nine of the top 30 in-state prospects with four or five still reasonably in play. Again, not to belabor the point, but the Trojans signed just two of the top 30 in-state players in the 2020 class.

But that is clearly in the past now -- and a few of those players have already emerged and played key roles (Bryant, 3-star DE Tuli Tuipulotu, 3-star OT Courtland Ford 4-star OT Jonah Monheim and kicker Parker Lewis).

We stated here consistently last year that, yes, the class overall was inexcusable for USC, especially considering the top local talent the Trojans were unable to keep home, but it also figured the program could weather one down year if it was somehow able to immediately get recruiting back on track. The 2020 class was always going to be small based on available scholarships, which helped somewhat minimize the overall impact of the struggles last cycle, but that could only be said if the bounce-back was significant in 2021.

So far, so good.

It started with an impactful Junior Day event on campus early last February that featured many of the top local prospects who will be signing tomorrow. The message from the staff resonated that day and started paying dividends a month and a half later as 4-star offensive lineman Mason Murphy kicked off a wave of commitments that carried all the way into June and vaulted the Trojans into the top 5 of the recruiting rankings for much of the cycle.

There has been attrition, as there always is in recruiting. Four-star WR Quaydarius Davis fell out of the class within the last month or so, 4-star QB Jake Garcia decommitted a couple weeks ago, etc.

But there are some major uncommitted targets still left to announce decisions that will help shape just how impressive this recruiting rebound will prove to be for the program.

"Signing Day is an important day because you bring new members into your family and talent into your family. And obviously coaches are nice, but players are so much better," Helton said. "I'm a lot better coach when Adoree' Jackson's here, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Drake London and Amon-Ra St. Brown. We've signed these kids and we're going to sign more based on our evaluation, and some of them are going to be extremely highly-ranked based on services and some of them we feel are 5-stars for us but may be lower ranked. But we know they're Trojans.

"I'll never forget Drake London, being able to watch him in high school and knowing how special he's going to be -- I really didn't care what anybody had him ranked. And then you're going to have the Amon-Ra St. Brown's and the whole world knows. But the guys that we're going to bring in here on Wednesday are extremely important because they bring talent and they bring the ability to help us win championships."

On that note, here is a thorough preview of what to expect, what we're hearing and what to watch for Wednesday.

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Announcements to watch Wednesday

4-star QB Jaxson Dart (Corner Canyon HS/Draper, Utah)

Ranking: No. 5 dual-threat QB, No. 105 national prospect

When/where: Dart will be announcing his decision around 9:15 a.m. PT live on ESPN2.

Why it matters: Dart's recruitment has been one of the most interesting storylines of the last few months. USC already had two 4-star QBs committed in local standouts Jake Garcia (for more than a year) and Miller Moss, but the Trojans staff became enamored with Dart this fall as he was setting Utah single-season state records (67 passing TDs, 5,867 total offensive yards) and decided to make him a priority target. That eventually drove Garcia to decommit from the class a couple weeks ago, making it an especially prominent priority that USC close the deal with Dart. The Trojans need two quarterbacks in this class as incumbent starter Kedon Slovis projects as the only returning scholarship QB next year, and if they don't land Dart the Garcia departure will become a major what-if.

What we're expecting: USC certainly looks like the favorite here. It was telling that Dart brought his whole family to Los Angeles two weekends ago for a self-guided tour of USC's campus -- which he had already checked out earlier in the fall. While he also visited UCLA on that trip, no program has pushed harder for Dart than the Trojans, and he's talked about USC's rich QB history and his intrigue in the offensive system. Arizona State has actually looked like the primary competition as the Sun Devils were Dart's first Power 5 offer and they too have recruited him consistently since then. But our guess here is USC. One way or the other, Dart's decision will set the tone for the Trojans' day.

Read more: In-depth interview with Dart a few days before the Early Signing Period

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