USC is coming off a 7-6 season despite national championship hype. They have a coach who could generously be described as a “lame duck,” reduced scholarships due to NCAA sanctions, and a team so divided that reports of an all-out brawl have been rampant since the Trojans’ loss to lowly Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.
However, head coach Lane Kiffin is building a historic recruiting class at USC with several stars of the class already on campus.
Like most observers, Ryan Abraham, Publisher of USCFootball.com, is impressed by the class Kiffin is bringing in.
“It’s interesting that any rankings that you look at, every single commit for this team is highly ranked (all four or five stars)," Abraham told Breitbart Sports. "All fourteen commitments played in one of the two major all-star games (the Under Armour All-Star Game or Army All-American Bowl), and no one has ever done something like this before.”
Sanctions have limited Kiffin’s class and the low total number of commits has kept USC (currently ranked #7 in the Rivals.com Team Rankings) from sitting at the top of the rankings.
However, Abraham believes the sanctions have, in a way, helped Kiffin in building this class.
“Part of it is actually due to the sanctions as, only being able to recruit fifteen players or so, prospects feel like it’s an elite 'club,' " Abraham said. "The recruits all know about it and what want to be a part of the ‘club.’ There’s a level of exclusivity to it.”
Abraham also notes that, “the one thing that the sanctions didn’t do is reduce the number of players USC consistently puts in the next level. It’s a combination of still putting guys in the NFL. I haven’t seen the sanctions hurt recruiting."
"This is right in the middle of the scholarship sanctions, and you can argue that it’s as good of a class that USC has had even under Pete Carroll," he added. "In fact, this is almost historic. No one remembers a class like this where every single commit was playing in one of the two all-star games.”
It is clear in looking at this class that USC is still the “cool” destination for prospects and the reputation of the Trojans has not been tarnished in the minds of recruits. In fact, USC continues to arguably have more national appeal than any other program. Of the five USC commits or signees named in the Breitbart 25, four are from out-of-state (#5 Jalen Ramsey-TN, #7 Kenny Bigelow-MD, #11 Max Browne- WA, and #12 Leon McQuay III- FL), while only one (#20 Su’a Cravens) is from inside of the talent rich state of California.
Beyond the impressive compilation of talent USC has put together is the number of early enrollees that Kiffin now already has on campus -- Browne, McQuay III, and Cravens in addition to four star running back Justin Davis (CA) and four star defensive back Chris Hawkins (CA) are already taking classes at USC and will be going through spring practice.
That makes a tremendous difference when in value for the football team. Early enrolling is particularly beneficial to USC.
As Abraham notes, “the sanctions have complicated every aspect of Kiffin’s recruiting efforts and one thing they’ve tried to do is take advantage of getting fresh bodies on campus as early as possible.”
With a limited roster, the freshmen are called to play early, and the extra reps and experience gained by going through spring ball is crucial.
Browne in particular is someone Kiffin and co. are particularly pleased to have on campus. When asked about the key members of this recruiting class, Abraham said, “I think you have to start with Max Browne. I’ve seen him at several all-star games, camps, combines, and Elite 11 and he always seems to be a consistent performer."
"When you get a guy like that who can lead recruiting efforts and enroll early, he just ends up being an overall leader for the recruiting class," Abraham said.
Abraham believes that Max Browne stands a strong chance of beating out Max Wittek for the chance to fill the starting quarterback position left vacant by departing senior Matt Barkley.
Other early enrollees will also have a greater opportunity to compete for starting jobs.
Leading the charge among those who will be signing on February 6th is Breitbart Sports’ #5 overall player, Jalen Ramsey. Abraham believes USC coaches “are going to look for a true freshman to come in and compete right away for a starting cornerback spot. Ramsey looks like a college corner next year, and he gets mad when anyone completes a pass on him.”
Abraham also added that a strong finish could put USC atop the Rivals.com recruiting rankings although they likely have only about three spots left. Among the top targets for USC to fill the remaining spots are defensive tackle and former USC commit Eddie Vanderdoes (ranked #24 in the Breitbart 25), Florida linebackers Matthew Thomas and Quinton Powell (both of whom visited this past weekend), and the Robinson twins Tyree and Tyrell (both of whom are four star athletes committed to Oregon).
A’Shawn Richardson also raved about his official visit, but Abraham was confident that he sticks with Texas. USC is also pushing for a visit for Montravious Adams the final weekend before signing day, but Adams is more likely to choose between Clemson, Florida, Auburn, Georgia, and Alabama (with Clemson the most likely destination).
Abraham projects USC will close with the two Robinsons as well as the coveted Vanderdoes.
Regardless of the class USC brings in, the Trojans will still be an exceedingly talented yet troubled program. Following a poor performance this season, bizarre and immature antics by himself and his staff, and a rumored brawl after the Sun Bowl, Abraham said, “there’s a very low level of belief that Lane Kiffin is the right guy for the job right now.”
Abraham continued by saying, “I still get tweets like ‘has Lane Kiffin been fired yet?’ His contract goes through 2014, and there has been no extension. Reading between the lines, he has one, maybe two years to get it right, and I don’t think it’s just on the field."
'[USC athletic director Pat] Haden is disappointed with immature responses and antics from coaching staff including walking away from press conferences and deflating a football, and the list goes on," Abraham said. "Even if they win, and he’s still embarrassing the program, I don’t think his contract will be extended.”
Kiffin could potentially be a lame duck coach for the remaining two years of sanctions.
However, Abraham did point out that he thinks too much blame has been put on Kiffin and points to a surprisingly strong season the year before last and little to no off-field trouble from his players. He also believes that Clancy Pendergast, who has been the defensive coordinator at Cal for the past three seasons, will improve a defense that “played too slow” last season.
Additionally, Abraham said that he and his colleagues have not talked to anyone on or off the record who described anything like the brawl reported by numerous outlets, and said his sources indicate it was more minor with no punches being thrown.
However Abraham does report that “tensions were high, but there wasn’t a ‘brawl’ or anything like that. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing."
"After a game like that, I think there’s some leadership that needs to step up and look towards the future to change the culture going forward," he said. "This was the player’s way of saying things have got to change.”
Moving forward, not even Abraham knows what to expect from next year’s team. Clearly a very talented group is coming to SoCal, but talent was not the problem this year. What’s clear to any observer, especially one as knowledgeable as Abraham is that time is running short for Kiffin to bring USC back to its winning ways.
Follow Cole Muzio on Twitter @ColeMuzio. Follow Breitbart Recruiting on Twitter with #BreitbartREC