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January 26, 2011

Sanctions haven't slowed USC's recruiting

Remember how NCAA sanctions were supposed to wipe out USC's recruiting for the foreseeable future? Well, it hasn't quite worked out that way, at least in the short term.

One week before National Signing Day, USC boasts the nation's fifth-ranked recruiting class. The Trojans have commitments from 25 prospects and remain in the mix for several other top-level recruits.

"When I heard about the sanctions, I was thinking, 'Should I choose another school?' or 'What should I do?' " said Antwaun Woods, a four-star defensive tackle prospect from Woodland Hills, Calif. "I sat there and thought about it, and I decided it's a good chance to respond to the adversity and tell the world the sanctions aren't going to stop SC from being SC."

On the recruiting trail, USC certainly is acting like the same old USC. Consider that only two of the nation's top five prospects -- wide receiver George Farmer of Gardena, Calif., and athlete De'Anthony Thomas of Los Angeles -- have decided where they're going to play college football. Both chose USC.

But the most surprising element of USC's recruiting class isn't its quality as much as its quantity.

The NCAA hammered USC last summer with sanctions that included 30 scholarship losses over a three-year period. USC wouldn't be allowed to hand out more than 15 scholarships per year nor have more than 75 total players on scholarship during that stretch.

So how has USC been able to get commitments from 25 players this year? The answer is complicated.

Nine of those commitments came from prospects who enrolled at USC earlier this month and consequently count toward USC's 2010 recruiting class. Since only 14 players from the Trojans' 2010 class enrolled last fall, the school could add nine more recruits and remain under the maximum of 25 allowed each year by the NCAA.

That still leaves USC with 17 other commitments, above the 15-man limit the NCAA imposed when it handed out the sanctions last summer. But USC is able to stay above that 15-scholarship threshold because it is appealing the NCAA penalties. When a school is appealing sanctions, the penalties are put on hold until the appeals committee makes its final decision, NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said.

The appeals committee usually makes its final report four to six weeks after an appeals hearing. USC had its appeal hearing Saturday in Indianapolis, so a ruling probably won't come until well after prospects can sign their letters of intent Feb. 2. USC has capitalized on that opportunity to go well over the 15-man limit.

Same old story
NCAA sanctions haven't stopped USC from continuing its annual tradition of recruiting top talent. Here's a look at where USC has placed in the team recruiting rankings each year since 2002, when Rivals.com began ranking classes. USC's 2011 ranking won't be finalized until prospects sign their letters-of-intent next Wednesday.
* - As of Jan. 26
Still, USC coaches had to convince top prospects to sign with a school that likely won't be eligible for a bowl game or a conference title next season.

That hasn't been a problem.

Maybe it's the magic of USC coach Lane Kiffin and recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron. Perhaps it's the benefit of focusing more than usual on local prospects (all but six of the Trojans' commitments come from California). Whatever the reason, USC has remained a favorite school for elite prospects.

Nearly one-third of USC's recruiting class -- including Woods -- committed before the announcement of the sanctions and chose not to look elsewhere. Tre Madden, a linebacker who is the No. 81 prospect in the nation, committed less than three weeks before the NCAA handed down its penalties. He was surprised by the severity of the sanctions, but he refused to reopen his recruitment.

"[USC coaches are] saying pretty much to just think about your four-year career," said Madden, the nephew of former USC defensive back Daylon McCutcheon. "It's going to be one [bowl] game we can't play in. Just think about playing with the best players in the nation and getting a great education."

USC's decision to sign a large class this year should help the Trojans solve some of the depth problems they encountered on their way to an 8-5 finish in 2010, but it also could cause them to face a severe numbers crunch in the not-too-distant future.

USC's roster currently lists 60 scholarship players, including the early enrollees from this year's class. That figure goes to 77 if the Trojans sign all of their currently committed players without adding anyone else. USC's senior class includes only 13 players.

Thus, if the NCAA's appeals committee doesn't reduce its penalty and forces USC to have just 75 scholarship players, the Trojans could be stuck with an 11-man recruiting class next year, though that number would increase if players transfer or leave early for the NFL draft.

Trouble brewing for Bruins?
The NCAA sanctions against USC should have served as a golden opportunity for the rest of the Pac-12.

Some of USC's conference rivals have capitalized on the situation. Oregon currently is sixth in the recruiting rankings. California is 17th despite going 5-7 this past season, while Stanford is 21st despite recently losing four-star running back Amir Carlisle and linebacker Anthony Sarao to USC after the NFL's San Francisco 49ers hired away Jim Harbaugh. Washington is 23rd.

But there's one notable exception.

Instead of benefiting from its crosstown rival's misfortune, UCLA is having all kinds of trouble on the recruiting trail. One week before National Signing Day, the Bruins have just nine commitments. Brett Hundley, a dual-threat quarterback from Chandler, Ariz., is the only four-star prospect in UCLA's class.

"UCLA's probably been the biggest disappointment of any Pac-12 team, by far," said Mike Farrell, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "When you look at the biggest disappointments nationally, UCLA is in the mix."

The Bruins' recruiting woes come one year after they signed the nation's No. 8 class. That 2010 class featured 23 players -- including one five-star recruit and 12 four-star prospects -- so the Bruins weren't expected to sign a large class this year.

Still, a school such as UCLA certainly wasn't expecting to have only one commitment from a four- or five-star recruit a week before signing day.

Part of the problem may stem from uncertainty on the coaching staff. UCLA fired offensive coordinator Norm Chow and replaced him with Mike Johnson last week. UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel still hasn't hired a defensive coordinator.

The Bruins also didn't help their cause by going 4-8 this past season, their third losing record in the last four seasons. UCLA fell apart down the stretch, losing six of its last seven games.

"They killed it last year. Then you look at this year and you wonder what happened," Farrell said of UCLA's recruiting woes. "I'm not sure what happened. I think they were taken by surprise that USC was going to take so many guys.

"They may have taken it for granted that USC was going to take small numbers or that kids weren't going to jump aboard USC because of the sanctions. I can't explain why they haven't been successful."

-- Steve Megargee

In the likely scenario that USC attracts a few more 2011 prospects, the Trojans actually could have a single-digit recruiting class next year.

That means USC will face some tough recruiting decisions in the next couple of years unless it gets some leniency from the NCAA.

In its appeals hearing, USC asked for its scholarship reduction to get cut in half, meaning the Trojans would lose only 15 scholarships over the next three years. USC also is seeking to get its bowl ban for the 2011 season rescinded.

"They're working on the assumption they're going to get some relief [from the NCAA]," said Mike Farrell, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "When you deal with Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron and those types of guys, they're very optimistic about everything. They're the type of people who think they'll get every recruit, the type who thinks they'll never lose a recruiting situation and they're not going to lose a game. They're very positive, very energetic people who are fully convinced they're going to get some relief from those sanctions.

"If they don't, their numbers are going to be very tight over the next few years."

USC athletic director Pat Haden has told reporters that the NCAA's recent history on such matters indicates the Trojans have about a 10 percent chance of winning their appeal, but the optimism of Kiffin's staff seems evident from the class it has put together.

For instance, many FBS programs shy away from using scholarships on special teams players, but USC's 2011 class includes two kickers (Andre Heidari and Kris Albarado) and a long snapper (Peter McBride).

"When you're dealing with a scholarship crunch, in my head, the last thing you do is use scholarships on special teams," Farrell said. "But I'm not the head coach. I'm not the recruiting coordinator. And to be honest with you, Ed Orgeron is one of the best recruiting coordinators in the business.

"He's a guy who's well-respected in the industry for putting together top recruiting classes. He's done it everywhere he's gone. Who am I to question it?"

The coaching staff's enthusiasm already has made an impact on recruits, who are convinced the Trojans won't stay down for long.

They've accepted the possibility that USC won't be able to play in a bowl in 2011. But they believe they'll be national contenders again before they finish their college careers.

"I sat down and thought about it, and my dad and I talked about it," Woods said. "I actually think USC has a great opportunity to respond to adversity and shock the world. With this class, we've got a lot of top guys and that's making a statement right there."

USC's chances of shocking the world in the next few years might rest on the NCAA's decision. As well as USC is attracting talent right now, the Trojans could face serious consequences down the road if they don't win their appeal.

"There's a chance their numbers could get very thin over the next couple of years," Farrell said. "If you're not a gambler -- if you want to play it safe -- you don't do what they're doing right now. But Lane Kiffin is a gambler. Ed Orgeron's a gambler.

"To be honest, in this day and age, you don't have five or six years to turn something around. You'd better win now. They know it, so why wait? You've better bring in guys now and hope you start winning football games. If the appeal goes through and you get your numbers back, you're in good shape. If it doesn't, you get as many good football players on the field now as you can."

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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