LOS ANGELES (CBS/AP) — With severe scholarship restrictions at Southern California over the next three years, coach Lane Kiffin knows the Trojans must emphasize quality over quantity in recruiting.
Kiffin got plenty of quality Wednesday in a class that was even smaller than it had to be.
USC signed just 12 players on national signing day, three fewer than the Trojans’ NCAA-mandated limit for each of the next three years. With five mid-year enrollees also new to the program, Kiffin is hoping USC has collected enough talent to survive its sanctions in style.
“You can’t really take much risk,” Kiffin said. “You can’t really project some guys as much as you’d like to. You’ve got to take some safer bets.”
Kiffin still landed another standout crop for the Trojans, who are limited to just 15 new scholarships per year and 75 total scholarship players on their roster for the next three seasons. Even with just 12 players in it, the recruiting class landed near the top of some national rankings.
But after the Trojans lost out on a handful of recruiting competitions in the final hours, particularly among three offensive linemen who chose other schools, Kiffin elected to save those scholarships either for late commitments, midyear enrollees or the 2013 class.
“There were a couple of guys still on the board late that we were going to take,” Kiffin said. “In years past, we would have had backup plans for those spots to fill them up. … We didn’t do that in this situation. We saved those three spots so that we could go add to that class next year, and make that class 18 (players). We’re balancing out the penalty, is what we’re doing.”
With quarterback Matt Barkley leading a powerful team back for next season, USC could afford to be choosy this year. The Trojans are stocked with elite talent at the offensive skill positions, albeit with little depth after a rash of transfers and dismissals among players who got little playing time while the Trojans went 10-2 last season and finished No. 6 in the AP rankings.
Kiffin stockpiled talent last year in anticipation of the sanctions, bringing in 30 players and redshirting several elite talents. With restrictions limiting the Trojans’ recruiting for two more years, Kiffin and his staff fought for players with a high probability of immediate success.
“It’s going to be very critical for these players to stay in our program and succeed in our program,” Kiffin said. “We can’t get into a situation where we have guys transferring out or having academic issues.”
Most notably, USC plucked 6-foot-5 defensive lineman Leonard Williams out of Daytona Beach, Fla., and receiver Nelson Algholor from Tampa, surprising many observers.
Kiffin cited the offensive line as the Trojans’ biggest need with the early departure of All-American left tackle Matt Kalil. The Trojans landed local prospects Jordan Simmons and Max Tuerk, and they picked up 6-foot-9 offensive lineman Zach Banner from Puyallup, Wash., the son of former All-Pro lineman Lincoln Kennedy.
“I’m actually glad it’s over with. It’s been a long recruiting process going to my Senior year and finally here and over with. I’m ready to get my workout plans tomorrow,” said the No. 1 guard in the country Jordan Simmons. “It’s a lot of hard work and mental preparation as far for working out and doing well in camps.”
But Kiffin and star recruiter Ed Orgeron lost out on elite offensive tackles Andrus Peat and Kyle Murphy, who both chose Stanford, and Kyle Dodson, who picked Ohio State. The linemen’s choices left the Trojans frustrated.
“We looked at it as, our starting pitcher pitched six great innings and our bullpen got rocked,” Kiffin said. “It was a tough end of the day. It didn’t end very well. … With the offensive tackles, to go 0 for 3 there, I thought we would have at least went 1 for 3, and I certainly didn’t think two of them would go to the same school.”
The Trojans’ recruiting class also included the top two linebacker prospects in California: Scott Starr, a midyear enrollee who’s already on campus, and Jabari Ruffin. Receiver Darreus Rodgers, from nearby Carson, Calif., was the final recruit to commit to the Trojans.
Kiffin must clear room on his roster to fit under the 75-scholarship limit, but he’s keeping quiet about the few moves he must make. He’s determined to keep the Trojans in contention for the biggest prizes, even with fewer players.
“We’re not going to sit around and complain about it,” Kiffin said. “It’s the hand we’re dealt … and we’re going to maximize the situation we’re in. We can’t control how many we sign, but we can control who we sign. I’m proud of our staff, because if we could have signed 10 more, this probably could have been the No. 1-rated class in the country.”