When NCAA sanctions initially fell on USC, coach Lane Kiffin was fond of telling reporters wondering about the decline of the program that “USC is still USC.” Although last year’s 8-5 record might have failed to illustrate Kiffin’s point, the Trojans’ success in recruiting — Yahoo! Sports’ Rivals.com ranked the program’s 2011 class No. 4 nationally — has not halted.
Now, with fall camp in full swing, here are five incoming freshmen to keep an eye on this season.
1.) Amir Carlisle: Tailback
Carlisle, a four-star recruit from Santa Clara, Calif. has surprised coaches and teammates as the early freshman standout in fall practice. The 5-foot-10 speedster, who averaged 10 yards per carry during his career at Kings Academy, drew praise from Kiffin early on for his work ethic and maturity, as well as his explosiveness.
Senior middle linebacker Chris Galippo and junior quarterback Matt Barkley have also remarked that Carlisle’s play reminds them of sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods, who earned Pac-10 Player of the Year honors a season ago.
“I love his attitude of working hard,” Barkley said. “It’s kind of similar how Robert approached fall camp last year — just putting his head down and working.”
With senior tailback Marc Tyler suspended indefinitely, Carlisle will compete with sophomore Dillon Baxter, junior Curtis McNeal and freshman D.J. Morgan for the starting role.
2.) Lamar Dawson: Linebacker
Aside from the jerseys draping the Peristyle end of the Coliseum, there is no player number as important in USC football lore as the mythical No. 55. Typically given to a standout linebacker, it has been worn by the likes of Junior Seau, Chris Claiborne and Keith Rivers, most recently.
With that kind of history behind the number, it was understandably big news when Dawson was given the No. 55 jersey before playing in a single game for the Trojans. Dawson, a four-star prospect from Danville, Ky., is expected to potentially start at outside linebacker for the Trojans. He has been known for his hard hitting and ability to stuff the run with his huge size at 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds.
In assistant coach Monte Kiffin’s complex defensive scheme, Dawson will have a steep learning curve ahead of him, but following the graduation of Michael Morgan, he also has every opportunity to earn significant playing time.
3.) George Farmer: Wide receiver
Farmer has drawn comparisons to Woods since he first committed to USC in December of 2010, and not just because he was Woods’ teammate at Gardena Serra High School. At 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, he was considered to be a bigger, faster and stronger version of Woods coming out of high school.
As USC’s only consensus five-star recruit, he is Barkley’s roommate for fall camp and the third-year signal caller has already raved about the freshman’s determination to learn the Trojans’ offense quickly.
If Farmer develops the route-running skills and awareness that defined Woods’ first season, he could end up starting opposite his old teammate come September.
4.) Andre Heidari: Kicker
Heidari is unique because as the only scholarship kicker recruited by a USC program that historically has preferred walk-ons in recent years. In all fairness, it is unlikely that he will produce electrifying highlights like Woods did in his first season.
Though Woods left fans breathless last season, Heidari’s predecessor Joe Houston made them hold their breath whenever he lined up for field goals. Houston was 10-of-16 on field goal attempts for a lackluster 62 percent.
Those numbers are even more alarming when considering the fact that three of USC’s five losses in 2010 were decided by less than three points. So Heidari, a Bakersfield, Calif. native — the only scholarship kicker on the roster — will have the chance to make good on his billing as one of the top kicking prospects in his class.
5.) Aundrey Walker: Right Guard/Right Tackle
One of the biggest concerns for the Trojans heading into the 2011 season is the offensive line. The unit only boasts two players with significant starting experience in junior center Khaled Holmes and junior left tackle Matt Kalil. As a result, USC will have to fill both guard spots and the critical right tackle position.
Walker, a four-star prospect from Cleveland, Ohio, enters camp as the Trojan’s most esteemed offensive line recruit, and at 6-foot-6 and 375 pounds, he has the size to justify the hype. Considered an option at right tackle, the solid play of sophomore tackle Kevin Graf during camp might mean Walker will end up at guard or in some sort of rotation.