Lane Kiffin and the Trojans stumbled to a 7-6 record last season, and have… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
A string of losses last fall sent USC's football team on a historic downward spiral, from preseason No. 1 to out of the top 25.
Three weeks before high school players can sign national letters of intent, the Trojans are losing recruits and falling in a different set of rankings.
In August, several websites ranked USC's 2013 recruiting class as the nation's best. Others had it among the top five.
But that was before five high school players who had made oral commitments reconsidered.
"If 'SC goes undefeated and plays in the national championship game, I don't think this is happening," said Erik McKinney, West recruiting coordinator for ESPN.com.
The Trojans' class is currently ranked sixth by ESPN.com, seventh by Rivals.com and 247sports.com, ninth by Scout.com.
With 21 days for 17- and 18-year-olds to ponder their options, USC still has time to move up — or fall some more.
The Trojans' class is led by Max Browne, a quarterback from Sammamish, Wash. The Gatorade national player of the year is among five players who graduated from high school in December and started classes Monday at USC.
Because of NCAA sanctions, the Trojans remain limited to 75 total scholarships — 10 fewer than what is allowed — so they can probably sign only 11 or 12 players on Feb. 6. That's more than a dozen fewer than programs such as Alabama, Notre Dame and Florida could sign.
The Trojans' 7-6 finish, punctuated by a dispiriting loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl, has put USC Coach Lane Kiffin under fire. And the rash of decommitments could turn up the heat.
Kiffin has said that the Trojans will sign the nation's No. 1 class.
"The negativity is at an all-time high, probably," said Greg Biggins, national recruiting analyst for Foxpsorts.com. "But when you look at their class top to bottom it's still ridiculously loaded."
Kylie Fitts, a defensive lineman who graduated from Redlands East Valley High last month, was scheduled to arrive at USC last week for orientation and begin classes Monday.
But early last week, Fitts received a phone call from a Trojans coach informing him that USC would not have room for him until after the spring semester.
The 6-foot-4, 265-pound Fitts, announced via Twitter that he had decommitted from USC. He has not returned phone calls requesting comment.
"The trust has been lost," Redlands East Valley Coach Kurt Bruich told The Times' Eric Sondheimer last week. "He did everything they asked of him."
A few days later, on his Twitter feed, Bruich said: "When people are desperate, their true colors show. Take the USC coach, captain of an underachieving ship. His true color: SHADY!"
On Tuesday, Bruich said in a phone interview that "my player was upset and hurt by it and that upsets me." As a high school coach in Southern California he added, "you'd be crazy" not to want your players to consider USC.
But, Bruich said, "You've been guided through the whole thing, to graduate early and then you don't get to go?. . . Do what you say, that's the bottom line."
NCAA rules forbid college coaches and administrators from speaking publicly about recruits before they sign letters of intent or attend classes.
However, a person with knowledge of the situation, who requested anonymity because of a lack of authority to speak publicly, said USC had been counting on a senior Trojans player completing graduation requirements at the end of the fall semester. When the player did not graduate, USC had one fewer scholarship to award this month and Fitts was the odd man out.
Others have speculated that USC coaches, mindful that Fitts was coming back from a season-ending wrist injury, bumped him in favor of Leon McQuay III, a safety from Seffner, Fla., who committed two weeks ago and enrolled early.
Regardless, the decommitment of Fitts continued a trend that began in November when Mission Viejo High safety Max Redfield reopened his recruitment after a trip to Notre Dame. He has since committed to the Fighting Irish.
A month later, Eldridge Massington, a receiver from Mesquite, Texas, decommitted from the Trojans. Massington, who sat out his senior season because of a knee injury, is now committed to UCLA.
Eddie Vanderdoes, a defensive lineman from Placer High in Auburn, Calif., reopened his recruitment in late December and reportedly is also considering Notre Dame, Alabama, Washington and UCLA.
Earlier this month, Sebastian LaRue of Santa Monica High announced he would reopen his recruitment. USC had recruited LaRue as a defensive back, but he reportedly wants to play receiver.
Fitts was at an all-star game in Texas and looking forward to returning home to enroll at USC. Now, along with the Trojans, UCLA and Washington are among the schools pursuing him.
Biggins said that Fitts' situation — which played out on Twitter — is "another small black eye" for USC, but he said most recruits are more concerned about their own place.
"If a kid wants to go there," Biggins said, "he doesn't care what happens."
Nico Falah, an offensive lineman from Bellflower St. John Bosco High, committed to the Trojans last July. Falah met with Oregon Coach Chip Kelly on Monday but said he was "about 90% . . . still a Trojan."
Of the decisions made by others, he said "it's hard to see them go" and described Fitts' situation as "shocking" because "he's the last guy I would expect to decommit."
"It affects me a little bit," Falah said, "because you want to know who's coming and why did he decommit."