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.