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Explaining the USC to Illinois transfer pipeline: What gives?

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Three USC Football players are heading to Champaign, and all are eligible immediately.

Oregon State v USC Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Three players are making their way to Champaign from the USC Trojans Football program: Wide receivers Josh Imatorbhebhe and Trevon Sidney and defensive end Oluwole Betiku Jr.. As consensus top-250 high school/prep school products, all three had scholarship offers from numerous SEC, Big Ten, ACC and Pac 12 schools, among others.

Now they are taking their talents from Southern California to the cornfields of Central Illinois. Imatorbhebhe, Sidney and Betiku are eligible to play immediately in 2019 for the Fighting Illini.

Here’s a look at some potential reasons why...

Overload of talent

Arizona State v USC
2016: Josh Imatorbhebhe (No. 17) celebrates with then USC star/now NFL star JuJu Smith-Schuster (No. 9) against Arizona State at the LA Coliseum
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

USC Football is a national brand, and while the program is not what it was in the mid-2000s, it still hauls in some of the best high school talent around year after year. Five-star and four-star athletes sign onto USC — like they do at Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson and so on — knowing that even if they were full time starters one year, the following year there are younger prospects just as coveted who are eager and given a fair shot at a starting spot.

It’s the competition that can be so cut-throat that not all players want to be a part of. To some, they want more security knowing that production and experience will lead to a sense of playing time stability in the coming years. For others, going to a blue-chip program, and coming out on top as a full-time productive starter will ultimately make them a better player and eventually more prepared for pro football. Competing for your job in practice year after year is very NFL-like, and that can be seen as a positive or negative depending on the athlete.

Even if a player does everything right, things like injuries (very much applicable to the three players going to Illinois from USC) can essentially push a player out of favor with the coaching staff and on the outside of the depth chart looking in.

The Tee Martin Factor

Tee Martin observes practice at USC.
Los Angeles Times

Shortly after USC’s 5-7 2018 season came to an end, head coach Clay Helton fired offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Tee Martin. Many, including myself thought that Helton would take the fall, and yet he’s still there... for now. USC’s final game was a close, 24-17 ugly slugfest at home against Notre Dame — a game that had Fighting Irish College Football Playoff implications stamped all over it. The fact that USC was not blown out by their rivals (and held a 10-0 lead at one point) might have given Helton one last season to work with in 2019.

USC ranked 11th out of 12 teams in the conference in team offense, and 10th out of 12 in passing offense in 2018. Tee Martin now has the title of Assistant Head Coach/Wide Receivers Coach/Co-Offensive Coordinator at the University of Tennessee under head coach Scott Pruitt. Martin is getting paid top dollar (with some nice incentives) at his new landing spot in Knoxville — the place where Martin thrived as a college quarterback himself back in the late 1990s.

Why is Tee Martin leaving USC significant? Martin was the guy that recruited all three of the USC-to-Illinois players back when those players were in high school. Martin was Helton’s top recruiter at USC the last five or so years. Coincidentally, the top player in the state of Illinois next year is headed to Tennessee.

In college football, relationships are everything. Of course, we’d like to think that when a high school athlete signs to play for a certain school — he signs on for more than just the coach that recruited them. We’re not saying Martin’s departure had everything to do with those players wanting out of USC — but more likely than not, it was a factor.

USC’s image is hurting for a variety of reasons

The heart of USC’s campus in downtown Los Angeles.
University of Southern California

If you’re into current events and/or a reader of the Los Angeles Times like I am — you know that USC’s image is pretty bad right now, for things that have nothing to do with and are a lot worse than a 5-7 football team.

There’s the College Admissions Bribery Scandal. This has been on the front pages of newspapers and the top-line story of many news broadcasts over the last few months.

Lesser known, there’s the $215M settlement the university paid to quell sex abuse claims by victims against a doctor at USC who for nearly 30 years systematically abused young women.

There’s a dark cloud over USC. It’s nothing direct when it comes to football recruiting or football in general, but it’s still negative press and something that nicks at the prestige of a world class institution. This is just another potential reason why football players might not be “oh so dedicated” to remaining a USC Trojan.

Clay Helton’s seat is HOT

Western Michigan v USC
Clay Helton is 12-6 in his last 18 Pac 12 Conference games — one of those losses was to cross-town rival UCLA. Not great.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

It feels like the college football world has been saying this ever since he got the job, but Clay Helton’s seat is hotter than any head coach in America. It’s the combination of the expectations at USC, the talent at his disposal (this team is too talented to not go bowling), and the lack of progress or inventiveness when it comes to consistently scoring points.

It seemed like a Hail Mary when Tee Martin was fired and USC brought in Kliff Kingsbury for 30+ days before Kingsbury was offered an NFL head coaching job with the Arizona Cardinals. Alarm bells.

USC now turns the offense over to Graham Harrell, a Mike Leach/Kliff Kingsbury protege who most recently ran the offense at North Texas. It could very well work, but all of those changes likely mean that unless that works right away, Helton is gone in 2020.

Lovie Smith’s seat isn’t exactly cool, either and for good reason. This is a results-based business. That said, Lovie Smith’s seat is certainly not as hot as Clay Helton’s.

Let’s see how this all shakes out...