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USC Eyes More Top Recruits

February 02, 2005|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

The stockpile grows every February.

It started in 2001, when new USC Coach Pete Carroll attracted defensive lineman Shaun Cody and persuaded quarterback Matt Leinart and other top high school players to keep commitments that were made before Paul Hackett was fired.

In 2002, the Trojans moved into the top 10 on the recruiting front. In 2003 and 2004, many recruiting experts ranked the Trojans' class No. 1 in the nation.

Not coincidentally, USC won consecutive national championships with major contributions from first- and second-year players.

But today, the first day that high school seniors can sign national letters of intent for fall sports, USC will find out whether the program has reached a saturation point.

According to the website Scout.com, one of several that track recruiting, USC has oral commitments from 14 players, most ranked at or near the top at their positions. But the Trojans are waiting for announcements from others that will determine whether USC achieves a recruiting three-peat.

"This staff must love to live dangerously," said Allen Wallace, national recruiting editor for Scout.com and publisher of SuperPrep magazine. "They are willing to gamble.... They seem to have no fear of late rejections.

"It's how they seem to play as a team under Carroll. They don't get shaken or nervous."

USC has reason for confidence.

Quarterback Mark Sanchez of Mission Viejo, linebacker Rey Maualuga of Eureka, Calif., and receiver Patrick Turner of Madison, Tenn., are among those who have committed to the Trojans.

Receiver DeSean Jackson of Long Beach Poly, linebacker Luthur Brown of Lakewood and defensive back Cary Harris of Sherman Oaks Notre Dame are among local players expected to announce their decisions today. Safety Reggie Smith of Edmond, Okla., and linebacker Brian Cushing of Oradell, N.J., are among the out-of-state prospects targeted by the Trojans.

"We think it's been going real well, but it's all about how we close," said Lane Kiffin, USC receivers coach. "There are a lot of big fish still out there."

Kiffin, 29, has been the point man in the recruitment of several high-profile out-of-state players during the last three years, including receivers Mike Williams (from Florida) and Dwayne Jarrett (from New Jersey). Kiffin has taken on added responsibilities since recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron left after the Orange Bowl to become coach at Mississippi.

Orgeron said USC should not be worried about players who might reject the talent-rich Trojans because of fear of competition or the promise of immediate playing time at another program.

"We raised the bar and went after kids that saw that they could play there and would want to compete -- that was part of the evaluation," Orgeron said by phone last week.

"The guy that doesn't come is a gift, because he doesn't think he can play.... It makes you a better team because he's not there."

Because of its sustained excellence and talent surplus, Wallace said USC could be ripe for a slight drop-off in recruiting over the next two to three years, much as Miami and Florida State experienced after years of dominance.

On Tuesday, running back Jason Gwaltney of Long Island, N.Y., announced that he had chosen West Virginia over USC and Ohio State. Gwaltney was the only running back USC had targeted, meaning the Trojans' recruiting class probably will be devoid of a running back for the second year in a row. Last year, USC lost out on Adrian Peterson, who signed with Oklahoma out of Palestine, Texas, and wound up second in balloting for the Heisman Trophy.

Greg Biggins, director of recruiting for Student Sports, said the opportunity for playing time remains the focus of most recruits. Biggins, however, does not expect USC to be hurt by its stockpile of talent.

"If everything is equal between two schools, they'll choose the school where they can play the earliest, but USC has no equal right now," Biggins said. "They are at such a different level, the kids believe if they can't play right away they still are going to get better and get to be a part of all the winning."

Jackson, the receiver from Long Beach Poly, is deciding between USC and California. Last month, he was onstage with USC players during the school's national-championship celebration on campus, which drew an estimated 7,000.

Also regarded as a top baseball prospect, Jackson said he is aware of the football program's talent base.

"Right now, if I decide to come to SC, they have their big-name people there," he said. "I don't think I would be a big-time player to them right away, but I think I eventually would be."

The trade-off playing for the Trojans, Jackson said, would be "playing with them, and winning all them championships.... We'd always be a contender for the national championship."

Winning also appealed to Sanchez, who played for an undefeated Southern Section champion that was the top-ranked high school team in the state.

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