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USC's Steve Sarkisian hits the ground running on recruiting trail

Two months after being hired, USC Coach Steve Sarkisian hopes a whirlwind recruiting effort will yield a strong class despite NCAA sanctions.

February 03, 2014|By Gary Klein

Steve Sarkisian became USC's coach in December and he did not complete his staff until two weeks ago.

But Sarkisian is confident that on Wednesday, the first day that high school football players can sign national letters of intent, the Trojans staff will close a short recruiting season with a flourish.

"It's always great to make a statement there at the very end," Sarkisian said.

Sarkisian's first USC class will be the final one recruited and signed under NCAA sanctions. For three years, the Trojans have been limited to 15 new scholarship players, 10 fewer than the maximum allowed.

USC Athletic Director Pat Haden hired Sarkisian in part because of the Southland recruiting contacts he established as a longtime Trojans assistant, relationships Sarkisian called upon during his five seasons as Washington's head coach.

Sarkisian's ability to be on campus and start recruiting for the Trojans almost immediately after the end of the 2013 regular season also played a role in his hiring.

USC has 19 slots in this class because former coach Lane Kiffin signed only 11 players last year.

Four players who graduated early from high school — quarterback Jalen Greene, offensive linemen Toa Lobendahn and Jordan Austin and defensive lineman Don Hill — are attending classes at USC and will participate in spring practice. Defensive lineman Claude Pelon, a junior college transfer, also is enrolled and attending classes.

Ten other high school players have announced commitments to USC.

But three important Southland prospects remain in play: Gardena Serra receiver/defensive back Adoree' Jackson, Long Beach Poly receiver/defensive back John "Juju" Smith and Bellflower St. John Bosco offensive lineman Damien Mama.

Jackson is also reportedly considering UCLA.

"The big issue is: Can they hit the home run and land all three?" said Greg Biggins, national recruiting analyst for Fox Sports and scout.com. "If [Sarkisian] can come in his first year and land the big three, that's a huge, unbelievable coup."

This is Sarkisian's second go-round as a first-year coach. However, the situation is markedly different from when he took over at Washington after the 2008 season.

Sarkisian inherited a Huskies program that had finished 0-12.

"We were trying to sell a vision of what we thought we could get accomplished," said Sarkisian, who had a 34-29 record at Washington. "Here at USC we have a tremendous product that has stood the test of time and has drawn some of the greatest players in California and the country."

Mike Farrell, national recruiting analyst for rivals.com, said Sarkisian and his staff faced the challenge of maintaining a class that committed to previous coaches and then adding to it.

"He will really be judged on next year's class, when his staff has a full year to recruit," Farrell said.

Sarkisian's focus the last two months has been on building depth in the offensive line and adding receivers, cornerbacks and tight ends.

With five players from last season's 10-4 team leaving early for the NFL, several new players could be asked to play significant roles.

Lobendahn is regarded as an option to replace Marcus Martin at center. With Marqise Lee gone, receivers would help a corps that also will be bolstered by the return of junior George Farmer and redshirt freshman Steven Mitchell, who sat out last season while recovering from knee surgeries.

The players who announced commitments to USC include defensive backs Jonathan Lockett, Uchenna Nwosu and John Plattenburg, receiver/ defensive backs Rahshead Johnson and Ajene Harris, offensive linemen Chris Brown and Viane Talamaivao; defensive linemen Malik Dorton and Olajuwon Tucker and tight end Bryce Dixon.

Last year, several high-profile players in USC's projected class changed their minds on signing day and signed with other schools, including defensive back Jalen Ramsey, a starter for Florida State's national championship team.

There could be a flip or two on Wednesday, but USC is expected to land a class that could help build momentum to 2015, which is regarded as one of the strongest West Coast classes in years.

"There's some gratification knowing we can do this in a two-month span," Sarkisian said, "and to imagine what if you had 12 months."

gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesklein

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