Freshman defensive tackle Jay Toia caught most everyone by surprise last Wednesday when he entered the NCAA transfer portal after just one semester at USC.
On Monday, Toia publicly addressed the news, calling it “one of the toughest decisions in my young life” and referring to USC as his “childhood dream school.”
“The 2020 pandemic was tragic to so many that lost so much. For me and especially my parents we felt forced to make a major decision signing with USC based on limited information because of COVID-19 restrictions. We were not able to take any official or unofficial visits to any of the other school on our short list, such as Michigan, Utah, UCLA, Miami among others,” Toia wrote in his post.
“I as well as my family are truly thankful for the USC staff and students for all the support this past semester. Although I earned all A’s last semester at USC as an early enrollee and worked myself into the 1’s and 2’s deep rotation during spring ball 2021, we as a family felt it was important to really take a closer look at all my options regarding my short term and long term future. I have major respect for USC, but I owe it to myself and my family to reevaluate my current situation.”
The note, signed by Toia and his parents, added “a special thank you” to USC head coach Clay Helton for his support.
Toia, a four-star prospect from nearby Grace Brethren High School, had arrived at USC this winter as an early enrollee and made a strong impression in his first spring camp.
Given USC’s thin depth at the nose tackle position, following projected starter Brandon Pili’s season-ending Achilles tear in the spring, Toia looked to have a real path to playing time as a freshman. He and redshirt freshman Jamar Sekona had taken the bulk of the reps there this spring, while Alabama transfer Ishmael Sopsher was set to join the competition there in August after he was sidelined by injury through the spring.
Without Toia, the Trojans are now perilously thin at a position that was one of stability and strength the last few years with Marlon Tuipulotu, who left for the NFL after last season.
Even more will be expected now of Sopsher, a former top-100 national prospect who appeared in only one game in two years at Alabama. Sekona was considered one of the most improved players on the roster this spring after playing minimally as a freshman last year.
Behind them, it’s hard to say …
USC has a very promising defensive line overall with sophomore defensive end Tuli Tuipulotu looking primed for a breakout season, five-star freshman DE Korey Foreman arriving this summer, redshirt senior Nick Figueroa coming off his own breakout last season leading the Trojans in sacks and tackles for loss and pass-rushing outside linebacker Drake Jackson a projected potential first-round draft pick lining up just off the line with veteran Hunter Echols rotating in behind him.
But none of those players are in the mold of the 6-foot-3, 325-pound Toia or 6-foot-4, 325-pound Pili.
Redshirt freshman Kobe Pepe (6-foot-1, 300 pounds) and redshirt sophomore De’jon Benton (6-foot-3, 300 pounds) are other potential options at nose tackle, but Pepe played sparingly as a freshman and was inactive much of the spring due to injury and Benton has mostly played defensive end.
Perhaps, USC will need to dip back into the transfer portal itself in light of this setback.
Or perhaps Toia’s evaluation process leads him back to the Trojans in the end. It seems a longshot, for sure, but if exploring options the family wasn’t able to look at more closely before he signed with USC is truly the impetus for this decision, then anything would seem possible.
And there’s no reason to think the staff wouldn’t welcome him back if it came to that.
As for the other schools he named, UCLA remains the most obvious as the Bruins made an aggressive push to flip Toia’s commitment in the days leading up to the early signing period.