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USC is recruiting up a storm

NCAA scholarship restrictions haven't prevented Trojans from attracting top talent.

August 05, 2012|By Gary Klein
  • USC's wooing of Penn State running back Silas Redd, pictured, put a spotlight on the Trojans' recruiting prowess.
USC's wooing of Penn State running back Silas Redd, pictured, put… (Gene J. Puskar / Associated…)

The pursuit featured a private-plane trip to the East Coast by much of the coaching staff, an at-home computer presentation to the targeted player and a campus visit to Los Angeles that ultimately sealed the deal.

All completed in a little more than a week.

USC's wooing and landing of Penn State running back Silas Redd put a national spotlight on the Trojans' recruiting prowess. But it was only the latest high-profile example of the program improbably prospering on the recruiting trail despite severe NCAA penalties handed down two years ago.

A two-year bowl ban, the loss of 30 scholarships over three years and a roster cap of 75 players -- 10 fewer than the standard annual limit --- was supposed to handicap USC's ability to procure an abundance of top talent.

Instead, the Trojans are enjoying a run of success that analyst Mike Farrell calls "one of the top two or three recruiting jobs in the last decade."

USC opens training camp Monday ranked No. 3 in the USA Today preseason coaches' poll. The roster includes seniors such as quarterback Matt Barkley and safety T.J. McDonald but is stocked with starters culled from Coach Lane Kiffin's first two recruiting classes and incoming freshmen who could contribute immediately.

The Trojans also have commitments from 18 high school seniors -- presumably, several will enter school early next winter -- including blue chippers such as quarterback Max Browne, running backs Ty Isaac and Justin Davis and defensive back Su'a Cravens.

At Pac-12 Conference media day, Kiffin referred to a "perfect storm with so many good things going." These include a strong finish last season, the conclusion of the bowl ban, Barkley's decision to return, the opening of the John McKay Center athletic facility and, Kiffin and recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron said, the support of Athletic Director Pat Haden and USC President Max Nikias.

"We feel good about our current team," Kiffin said, "and about our future teams for years to come."

Orgeron, a USC assistant from 1998 to 2004, says the Trojans currently have the best recruiting staff with which he has been associated.

Orgeron had great success as USC's recruiting coordinator from 2001 to 2004. He was regarded as one of college football's most relentless recruiters as Mississippi's head coach in 2005 to '07 and also as recruiting coordinator for Kiffin at Tennessee in 2009.

When he returned to USC with Kiffin -- also a former Trojans recruiting coordinator -- they studied the inherited roster and immediately began working relationships from their previous stint.

"We passed the baton and took off running," Orgeron said. "That's how we felt."

Their first recruiting class was 17 players, and nine of them started at least one game last season. Receiver Robert Woods and cornerback Nickell Robey were second-year starters, and redshirt freshmen linebackers Hayes Pullard and Dion Bailey led the Trojans in tackles.

In 2011, having already served the first year of the bowl ban, USC was awaiting word on its appeal of the sanctions, staying the penalties and allowing the Trojans to stockpile recruits. USC brought in eight players in January, which counted against the previous year, and signed 22 in February.

"We thought we needed to sign as many as we could to front-load the roster," Orgeron said.

Last season, USC signed 12 players and five ended up starting games, including receiver Marqise Lee, offensive guard Marcus Martin, linebacker Lamar Dawson, defensive back Isiah Wiley and linebacker Tre Madden. This season, 2011 recruit Aundrey Walker is expected to replace first-round NFL draft pick Matt Kalil at left tackle.

Last February, its appeal denied and its NCAA-mandated cap of signable players set at 15, USC signed 12. Among them, receiver Nelson Agholor and defensive lineman Leonard Williams could have an immediate impact.

By signing three less than the maximum last spring, the Trojans saved those spots for early enrollees next January along with the 15 available slots in the 2013 class.

"We had to be more choosy," Orgeron said. "If we weren't sure, we didn't reach."

USC's 18 commitments from the Class of 2013 include players from seven states, 10 from California with two each from Texas and Maryland. Others are from Washington, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee. Players cannot sign letters of intent until February.

Nico Falah, from Bellflower St. John Bosco High, was among three offensive linemen who announced their commitments on July 11.

Falah said that with a limited number of scholarships available, USC's coaches told him, "We're taking the best of the best."

"It kind of opened my eyes," Falah said. "I didn't want to wait."

Even before Penn State was hammered by the NCAA -- giving Redd and all Nittany Lions players the opportunity to transfer without penalty -- Kiffin was tight-lipped about how many players were on scholarship and how he planned to manage a roster that cannot exceed 75 players this season and in 2013 and 2014.

He dismissed speculation that room would be made for newcomers by pulling scholarships or by players failing to qualify academically.

"We have a plan to maximize the situation," he said, "and we don't talk about that publicly."

Regardless of how Kiffin manages the roster, the Trojans will face depth issues going forward. "When you lose 30 scholarships over three years, you're going to be pretty thin," said Farrell, who works for, "and you better not be hurt and you better not miss."

On the recruiting trail, USC hasn't been missing much. Farrell credited Trojans coaches for turning a negative into a positive. In one way, those sanctions have been a blessing.

"You can sell immediate playing time," Farrell said, "in a top-five program."

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