How the NCAA probation helped USC

The talk from Scott Kennedy at Scout.com is that what USC is doing in recruiting is ‘unprecedented‘ after one of the nation’s top running backs, Ty Isaac of Joliet, Ill., committed to the Trojans on Monday.

Internet recruiting reporters aren’t exactly known for their ability to put things in proper perspective — in any given recruiting season, you will hear about players being ‘unblockable’ or being ‘the LeBron James of high school football‘ and so on — but something Kennedy said on the linked video struck me.

“They got hammered by the NCAA,” Kennedy said, before reciting the list of top players from around the country currently committed to USC. “That speaks to the brand and the power of recruiting of USC, Lane Kiffin and Ed Orgeron.”

Without a doubt, Kiffin and Co. are killing it in recruiting. But, to me, USC’s continued success really begs the question: Have the heavy-handed, seemingly unfair and controversial NCAA sanctions–specifically the roster limitations–actually helped the Trojans in some ways?

It certainly sounds counterintuitive, but I believe they have helped USC in three important areas.

First, because of the scholarship restrictions USC has been forced to take fewer chances or reaches in recruiting. With yearly scholarships limited to 15 and overall roster limits set at 75, Lane Kiffin and staff can’t sign as many players who might have trouble qualifying academically, or who might have character issues, or who could potentially wash out. They must work even harder than usual at getting to know all about the recruits they pursue. Pete Carroll might not have recruited 5-8 cornerback Nickell Robey out of Florida because, on the surface, he didn’t fit the profile of the typical USC recruit of that era¹. But Monte Kiffin did his due diligence and now Robey is an All-American candidate and team leader. “He’s the hardest working, most dedicated kid I’ve coached in 20 years,” said one USC coach.

That kind of attitude rubs off on the rest of the team and it certainly appeared to pay dividends in USC’s turnaround 2011 season. The Trojans of 2012 might not be as talented top to bottom as they were in 2007, but they appear to be more serious about team success.

[Note: Let’s also not forget a basic law of economics that applies here: When the supply of a valuable product is restricted and demand remains the same, the value of that product increases. USC’s limited scholarships are of higher value now than they were before the sanctions, which is certain to have some effect on the decisions of recruits around the country. And with USC forced to grant more early playing time due to lack of overall roster depth, that scholarship offer becomes even more appealing, which of course aids the recruiting effort.]

Another way the thinned-out roster has helped is that it has served to speed up the development of USC’s talent. This is a program that is always going to be loaded regardless of who is the head coach. But one of the problems with the Trojans during the latter part of the Carroll Era was, ironically, too much depth, particularly at the skill positions. USC was often over-talented and under-coached. The 2007 roster featured 10 prep All-American tailbacks. Few of them reached their potential, in large part because they never got to play on a consistent basis. At quarterback, a first-round talent like Mark Sanchez had to wait until his fourth season to play because he had to pay his dues backing up Matt Leinart and then John David Booty (who themselves had backed up first-round picks). USC’s current lack of depth has accelerated the learning curve for players like Robert Woods, Marqise Lee, Robey, Hayes Pullard and Curtis McNeal (just to name a few). With more depth on hand, these guys would’ve received fewer reps in practices and in games and, perhaps, wouldn’t have developed as fast, or at all. A few years ago, Lee — a future first round pick  in the making at receiver and one of the explosive cogs in the 2012 Trojan offense — might’ve been moved to safety due to the luxury of USC’s depth.

Furthermore, coaches who are spoiled by ultra-talented rosters tend to not work as hard. With so much talent on hand, the temptation is to roll the ball out on the field and let the players play. The necessities created by a limited roster leads to invention and a greater sense of urgency in all phases. This has certainly been the case with USC, especially when it comes to recruiting.

[As a side note, let’s also acknowledge that USC is extremely fortunate to be located within 20 miles of Gardena’s Junipero Serra High, which has produced three of the most highly-recruited players in the country in the last couple seasons. How much different would this team be in 2012 without Woods, Lee and George Farmer?]

Finally, the lack of depth forced an important change in USC’s offensive approach. Lane Kiffin’s offenses have always stressed balance (often for balance’s sake), with the quarterback under center, a prominent role for the fullback and not much of a vertical passing game. USC played in a phone booth for the first few games of last year, which resulted in close wins over Minnesota and Utah and a trouncing at the hands of Arizona State. When asked early in the season about putting Matt Barkley in the shot gun, throwing more and not worrying about balance, Kiffin said “If we throw 40 times per game, Matt will get killed.”

Nonetheless, with no real fullback on hand and tenuous depth at tailback, Kiffin loosened the reins a bit in the second half of the season, putting Barkley in the shot gun more often while letting him chuck the ball down the field to his uber-talented receiving corps. USC’s offense responded by scoring at least 30 points in its last eight games (over 40 in five of them) and, while Barkley didn’t throw 40 times per game, he did average 37 attempts per game (second most in Trojan history). And, incidentally, Barkley didn’t get killed since USC gave up the fewest sacks in its history while leading the country in that category.

So where does that put USC heading into 2012? Most polls will have the Trojans in the top three, with many pundits predicting a national title. Is this the sign of a program that has been hit hard by NCAA probation?  Hardly.

On the contrary, the NCAA probation has forced USC to change its approach in recruiting, in roster management and in scheme. Many of these changes were needed anyway as a result of the hangover effect of the Carroll Era. The NCAA’s heavy-handedness merely accelerated these changes and now–justlikethat–USC is back in the national title mix, Barkley is the leading Heisman candidate and even Lane Kiffin has managed to not rub someone the wrong way in a long time.

Surely, this is not what the late Paul Dee had in mind.

Note: Readers should not think that because of this column the NCAA sanctions were a net positive for USC. They were obviously a blow to the program in many ways. I am merely pointing out some of the unforeseen positives that have emerged as a byproduct of the sanctions, which have helped lead to Lane Kiffin’s Trojans remaining an elite team despite the tough hurdles they have had to overcome.

¹ — I do realize that Robey was technically recruited a couple months before the sanctions were announced (though most USC people knew heavy punishment was coming) but he is the model of the type of player that USC has had to work extra hard to find under the current restrictions. 

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Chris Huston, A.K.A. ‘The Heisman Pundit‘, is a Heisman voter and the creator and publisher of Heismanpundit.com, a site dedicated to analysis of the Heisman Trophy and college football. Dubbed “the foremost authority on the Heisman” by Sports Illustrated, HP is regularly quoted or cited during football season in newspapers across the country. He is also a regular contributor on sports talk radio and television.

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31 Responses to How the NCAA probation helped USC

  1. CrazyTrojan May 15, 2012 at 5:58 pm #

    Do you still think USC “committed suicide” when they hired Lane Kiffin?

  2. Heismanpundit May 15, 2012 at 6:17 pm #

    Are you ever going to pay Chase for the bet you lost?

    • CrazyTrojan May 16, 2012 at 7:27 am #

      That was meant to be a serious question because I think most reasonable fans were apprehensive when Kiffin was hired. Also, I have no idea who Chase is.

      • Heismanpundit May 16, 2012 at 10:05 am #

        Sorry, thought you were a different Crazy Trojan.

        I do think the move was unwise given the pending sanctions and it probably made the sanctions worse than they would’ve been. However, Kiffin has done a good job handling things during the run up to the sanctions. Call it an unsuccessful suicide attempt.

        • CrazyTrojan May 16, 2012 at 11:52 am #

          A cry for help, perhaps?

          Who is the real Kiffin – the one who has managed sanctions as you described above, or the man everybody in college football loved to hate when he arrived at SC?

  3. USCarroll years May 15, 2012 at 8:16 pm #

    While I agree with most of what you wrote, I do disagree with parts.
    First, during Carroll’s years, it was well known that practices at USC were harder than the games themselves, USC coaches never got complacent and just rolled the ball out. This coaching is what drew top prospects to USC. Even though they might have to sit for a few years, they knew they would still be developed. These leads me to my second point. This development over the years is what allowed the succession at quarterback from palmer, to leinart, to booty to sanchez to be seemless. Year after year SC knew what type of player it had before the player ever hit the field. Additionally, most SC games were blowouts by the middle of the third quarter and players lower on the depth chart had chances to enter games in the later quarters of games. And given the fact that these players went high in the draft (sometimes even after not ever starting, i.e. Matt Cassel) they clearly were not hurt by sitting and learning for a few years.

    • Heismanpundit May 15, 2012 at 10:08 pm #

      USCarroll years: Thanks for your comment. While the practices during those years were certainly intense, that doesn’t mean USC was a hotbed of coaching innovation during those later years. Certainly, Carroll’s cutting edge mentality was blunted, which led to debacles like Stanford in 2007 and UCLA in 2006. As for the talent developing, it matters most how they developed while at USC and how much they contributed. I’m not saying it’s not a good problem to not have Mark Sanchez start until his fourth season because you don’t need him to. But you can’t deny that a Sanchez who started, say, as a sophomore would’ve been even better as a junior. Meaningful game experience matters. Reggie Bush played in 2003 because there was no depth at tailback and he needed to. That made him even better by the time he was a junior, and so on.

  4. paul May 15, 2012 at 8:52 pm #

    Thanks for the support and agree with all, but remember that McNeal wasn’t accelerated he was at USC and having academic problems sat out a year then pulled himself up (thanks to Lane). If you like tennis stuff I do the tennis at CC

    • Heismanpundit May 15, 2012 at 10:10 pm #

      Paul: If there was significant depth at tailback last year, it’s likely that McNeal would not have emerged to the extent he did (and will this year, too). He capitalized on a great situation and this allowed his development to accelerate in just one short season.

  5. PalisadesOG May 15, 2012 at 10:25 pm #

    I agree with much of what you wrote. Especially the stuff about player development. But the stuff about SC’s offense in the first few weeks of the season doesn’t ring as true.

    Kiffin’s quote about Barkley getting killed was made at a time when he didn’t know what he had on the OL, at RB, or at WR (after Woods). It turns out that his OL, RB, and second WR were surprisingly good (or shockingly good, in the case of Lee). But that doesn’t mean the conservative early-season game plans were a bad idea. It simply means Kiffin wanted to see what he had and how his untested players would perform before opening things up.

    What would have happened if he’d opened things up in the first week and Barkley broke his collar bone on a missed assignment by an RB or because an freshman OL got schooled? Better to be sure of what you have and how your players will perform in game situations.

    I’m also grateful SC still uses a fullback and primarily puts its QB under center. When you’ve got the horses, which SC does, the multiple WCO is the hardest offense to stop. Coaches are already catching up to the spread. That will only accelerate as rosters are reshaped in the years to come. But SC will still be using its FB and its QB will still be planted under center and it’ll be ringing up touchdowns in bunches.

    • Heismanpundit May 15, 2012 at 10:47 pm #

      Thanks for your comment.

      Kiffin certainly knew he had a top 5 pick protecting Barkley’s blind side, so I don’t really buy that he didn’t know what he had. The conservative game plan early on nearly resulted in an embarrassing loss at home to a Minnesota team that lost to North Dakota State the following week. A loss would’ve hardly been worth such a safe game plan, methinks.

      I would argue that we really only found out how good the RB, OL and second WR were BECAUSE of the shift in style that came as a result of not being able to run the normal offense with the fullback.

      I’m not a fan of the WCO in college. It’s very difficult to learn and unless you are very creative with it (as Stanford can be) it tends to be quite easy to stop as most defenders grew up learning to defend it (not to mention they’ve watched it in the NFL all their lives). The WCO offense really only works in college if you can simplify it and have first round picks at almost every key position.

      To wit, USC will throw the ball an un-WCO-like 500 times at least this year and will have one of its best offenses ever without a real fullback or downhill rushing attack. So why go back to playing the game in a phone booth?

      Not so certain the spread has been slowed down. 80 to 90 percent of the top offenses are still running variations on the spread. Stanford is really the only WCO team among the top group and they needed the top pick in the draft to get it done.

  6. borlots May 15, 2012 at 10:49 pm #

    Have to disagree with USCarroll years, After Orgeron, Chow, Kiffin, Sarkissian left, Pete did a poor job of hiring replacements. Losing Orgeron in particular hurt. It wasn’t only the development the last 2-3 years was noticeable, but the lack of discipline. PC’s defenses have always played agressively, but the last couple years it made more foolish late hit penalties and unsportsmanlike penalties than ever. There is no doubting the last 2-3 years, the team had too many players more interested in improving their NFL draft stock than playing USC football. Their definitely seemed to be a sense of entitlement amongst a few players, that never should have been tolerated (and wouldn’t if Orgeron were there).

    PC is a defensive whiz, a great recruiter and has the enthusiasm to get young players excited to play football. I will always be thankful for the job he did, bringing back USC to prominence. However, objectively speaking, I also have to acknowledge that there were some problems with the program, mainly the discipline, staff hiring, and lack of details. Special teams was treated as an afterthought, thus our performance in that area was always lacking. Between Kicker, Punter, & Snapper you should use atleast 4-6 scholarships towards them. Pete used 2-3 and hoped walk-ons would suffice. Not having a dedicated ST’s coach made things difficult. Instead of having 8 scholarship RB’s or 12 WR’s, it would have helped to add some of those scholarships to ST’s instead.

  7. USCarroll Years May 15, 2012 at 11:19 pm #

    Well not to get bogged down in details here but in that UCLA 2006 game UCLA had three weeks to prep vs USC’s 1 week. Stanford 2007 was the game Booty broke his hand and Sanchez entered the game at half. I totally agree Sanchez would have been better with another year at QB which is why I wish he had come back for his fifth year of eligibility and would have left barkley redshirt. I think the fact that Pete had to replace his coaching staff every two years was difficult and perhaps led to a decline in coaching, however, this wasn’t because he got complacent, if anything, he was just overworked, and I’m sure the NCAA snooping around didn’t help either.
    As it regards your comments about the WCO, that is the exact reason why sitting and developing makes sense and why USC was able to run it so successfully during the Carroll era. Spread is easier to learn but also easier to shut down, especially against top-flight Ds like the ones in the SEC and at SC

    • Andrew May 15, 2012 at 11:45 pm #

      Just FYI, Sanchez didn’t play the second half against Stanford in ’07. Booty finished the game (with 4 INTs) and Sanchez played the next two games (@Oregon, vs AZ).

      • KJ May 25, 2012 at 8:01 am #

        absolutely correct

    • Heismanpundit May 15, 2012 at 11:56 pm #

      USC was far more talented than either UCLA or Stanford and never should have lost either game.

      As for the WCO, the NFL version of it was not really run at USC until Chow left and that is also about the time when the offense started to take a dive in productivity. Didn’t rebound, really, until Kiffin ran a non-WCO toward the end of last year.

      I’m not sure what evidence you have that the spread is easy to shut down. Sure, Auburn beat Oregon, but that type of effort is the exception, not the rule. Oregon also pummeled USC with it two years in a row and then scored 35 in a loss last season. Florida ran the spread with tons of talent and had no problem slicing through those SEC defenses, as did Auburn.

    • trojanron May 16, 2012 at 5:02 pm #

      Suffering through that Stanford 2007 2nd half had many of us screaming for Sanchez to come in. How could a coach in his right mind keep a QB with a broken finger on his throwing hand in the game. If Sanchez had thrown say only 2 int’s instead of Booty’s 4, SC would have won the game. Must have been temporary insanity on PC’s part!!!

      BTW, in 2006 Booty sprained his ankle in the ND game and was a sitting duck the next week in the UCLA game. He sprained it just before half time (I was at that end of the field to see it) and came out in the 2nd half and almost let ND back in the game with 2 int’s.

  8. JacksonSF May 16, 2012 at 12:12 am #

    HP,

    I have been discussing this for a while. One more thing is the sense of entitlement that comes from winning. In the 80s and 90s, the USC teams had a sense of entitlement based upon the successes of the teams from the 60s and 70s. Miami and Florida State had senses of entitlement after the 90s and many could argue that they still have this sense of entitlement. ND still is entitled in many ways.

    It takes a while to get rid of the sense of entitlement. Pete Carroll did after Paul Hackett took USC to rock bottom. I would read Carson Palmer tell stories of how hard his team worked to be the best.

    After the Texas Rose Bowl game things went downhill. Players like Everson Griffin and Joe McKnight played for the NFL rather than the team. It didn’t help that Pete Carroll hired graduate assistants rather than 10 year vets to coach the team.

    The sanctions got rid of the entitement and instilled an “us against the world” attitude. This team is a lot different than the 2007 team. I doubt this team takes ANYTHING for granted. Even their phrase, its about the prep not the hype, says it all.

    Lastly, in years past, stars like Barkley and McDonald would have departed early for nfl riches. With the sanctions, they stayed. The felt an obligation to make a difference during these terrible times.

    The Sanctions helped Barkley and McDonald come back.

    Great column btw.

    Jackson

    • KJ May 25, 2012 at 8:04 am #

      Really great column!

  9. USCarroll Years May 16, 2012 at 2:03 am #

    Oregon got shut down by Ohio State,
    Auburn got shut down by Oregon to be honest, only scoring 22 points
    LSU got shut down by Alabama
    Tebow got shut down by the Patriots twice last season
    I mean the list is endless. West Coast is clearly the best offensive system

    • Heismanpundit May 16, 2012 at 10:01 am #

      LSU did not run the spread.

      But do you really want me to list the number of times the WCO has been shut down in football history? It’s not even close to the spread, which still dominates college football. There’s a reason only a couple teams run it in college–it generally doesn’t work.

      The Cleveland Browns and the KC Chiefs averaged 13 points per game last year running the WCO. Think they were shut down more than a few times?

  10. Kyle May 16, 2012 at 2:51 am #

    Only one problem with this theory. The 2012 season will be the first season in which USC is limited to 75 sholarship players total on their roster. They will be limited to 75 scholarship players for the 2012, 2013, and 2014 football seasons so the idea that that a small roster has aided the development of players such as Woods, Lee, Robey, etc. does not hold much water. In addition, the limit if 15 recruits signed per year did not kick in until the most recent class was signed. In fact the Trojans signed in excess of 25 players in Kiffin’s first two years in order to build up their roster in preparation for the coming restrictions. Robey was signed prior to these scholarship reductions took effect. Carroll may very well have not signed this player but the scholarship reductions had nothing to do with his signing. Let’s revisit this issue in a couple of years once the scholarship reductions are actually felt to see if this article rings true.

    • HP May 16, 2012 at 9:24 am #

      USC knew the reductions were coming before they actually took effect and had to act accordingly, which meant recruiting a certain type of player and making sure to play them early so they’d be experienced when the roster reductions actually hit. After all, a huge chunk of USC’s roster in 2012 will be freshmen or sophomores. Also, because of the sanctions, the roster was immediately affected by free agency and early entries to the NFL and other transfers and so there was less depth than usual at certain positions in 2011.

  11. Roy Rhino May 16, 2012 at 4:55 pm #

    At this point verbal commits mean nothing. We hope they will honor their word, but until it is in writing, it really means little. Let’s take care of this on the field of glory! There will be no doubt about their decision then.

  12. ian May 16, 2012 at 5:19 pm #

    “Only one problem with this theory. The 2012 season will be the first season in which USC is limited to 75 sholarship players total on their roster. They will be limited to 75 scholarship players for the 2012, 2013, and 2014 football seasons so the idea that that a small roster has aided the development of players such as Woods, Lee, Robey, etc. does not hold much water”

    USC beat UO last year with 55 players.

  13. The He Is Man Winners May 28, 2012 at 3:49 am #

    That’s so crazy! It’s awesome to see a local LCS with such a HUGE hit! Awesome stuff.

  14. bridal lehenga July 8, 2012 at 11:20 pm #

    NCAA probation help is very good for the ranking of the USC

  15. J Slemaker July 12, 2012 at 3:30 pm #

    Anyone who thinks the scholarship reductions is somehow a good thing for USC is insane. The one thing a national championship caliber team needs is depth. Injuries happen. The ability to plug those holes are what differentiates the very good from the great.

  16. IrishBacker July 31, 2012 at 7:24 pm #

    I agree with J Slemaker. The lack of depth will wreak havoc on the Trojans especially if they continue to have injuries in their offensive and defensive line. Throw in a few academic casualties and transfers and it becomes obvious that scholarship limitations can in no way be considered a postive thing.

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