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Trojans hope small class doesn't limit their potential

Despite signing only 12 players Wednesday, USC isn't worried about depth issues going into a season with the highest of expectations.

February 02, 2012|By Gary Klein
  • USC Coach Lane Kiffin speaks with quarterback Matt Barkley prior to the Trojans' victory over UCLA in November. Having Barkley around for another season could help dull the sting of USC's scholarship limitations.
USC Coach Lane Kiffin speaks with quarterback Matt Barkley prior to the… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Quality over quantity. That was the catch phrase USC preached to describe the even-smaller-than-expected recruiting class that football Coach Lane Kiffin announced after the Trojans' first foray into three years of scholarship restrictions.

If targeted players went elsewhere, the Trojans stood pat. No need to reach and settle for second-tier talent, their theory went.

Given that the Trojans can ill afford to miss on prospects as they enter an era of NCAA-sanctioned scholarship limits, the rationale seemed appropriate. USC, limited to signing a maximum of 15 players for three years, still attracted talent that should help it weather the future and perhaps thrive.

However, Kiffin and his staff came up empty in a few areas that could prove crucial as the Trojans chase a Pac-12 championship in 2012.

Kiffin isn't joking when he tells people that quarterback Matt Barkley, who stayed put for a final college season, was the most important recruit in the Class of 2012.

Meantime, the Trojans did not land any tailbacks or defensive tackles among the 12 players they signed Wednesday.

One position is high-profile, the other more lunch-bucket, but both figure prominently for a team that is expected to open the season ranked among the top five.

Long known as Tailback U, USC will go into spring practice with only three players at what was once the most famous position in college football.

"We're very concerned," Kiffin said.

Dillon Baxter is gone and now sitting out a season at San Diego State. Amir Carlisle is doing the same at Notre Dame. George Farmer has moved back to receiver.

Curtis McNeal is coming off a 1,000-yard rushing season, but Kiffin seemingly never misses a chance to question the durability of the 5-foot-7, 185-pound senior.

D.J. Morgan started twice last season but lost the job because of fumbling issues. Durability could also be a problem for the 5-10, 190-pound sophomore, who redshirted in 2010 after major knee surgery.

At 6-1 and 205 pounds, redshirt freshman Javorious Allen fits the role of the big back that Kiffin prefers as a complement to smaller, speedier types. Allen, though, is a largely a mystery, having performed only with the scout team.

The Trojans did sign one running back, Mission Viejo High's Jahleel Pinner. But the 5-11, 225-pound Pinner is considered more a fullback prospect.

"It was just one of those years, especially on the West Coast," Kiffin said. "We just didn't find any guys."

So Kiffin and his staff spent the two days before signing day looking ahead to tailbacks in the Class of 2013.

"It will be extremely important to sign two," Kiffin said, adding that the position was the team's No. 1 need.

Incoming receiver Nelson Agholor will probably get a look at tailback during training camp. It also wouldn't be a surprise if Farmer and receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee morph into more multidimensional offensive threats.

Then again, the need for a true tailback could become moot if Kiffin, as anticipated, gives Barkley every possible opportunity to throw the ball and win the Heisman Trophy.

And USC still must stop opponents.

The Trojans fortified an experienced back seven with linebackers Scott Starr and Jabari Ruffin and defensive backs Devian Shelton, Kevon Seymour and Gerald Bowman, a junior college transfer.

But defensive tackles Christian Tupou and DaJohn Harris are gone, leaving George Uko as the only tackle with much experience. Sophomore J.R Tavai was a reserve last season, and Atwaun Woods and Christian Heyward redshirted.

After verbal commit Pio Vatuvei flipped to Washington on signing day, Kiffin raved about Leonard Williams, a 6-5, 270-pound defensive lineman from Florida. However, Williams is expected to begin his college career at end.

Kiffin did not seem overly concerned.

Neither is senior safety T.J. McDonald, a team captain.

"We're not worried about that," he said of limited depth at a few positions. "There were all kinds of concerns last year and we made it work with what we had."

USC banked three scholarships for mid-year enrollees in 2013. That gives the Trojans a chance to add quantity.

As for the quality of Kiffin's recruiting game plan, its success won't be determined until bowl season.

gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

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