Young talent can combat sanctions

It’s easy to get caught thinking that last Saturday’s 50-0 trouncing of UCLA marked the end of USC’s probationary period.

With the win, the team ended a two-year period of bowl ineligibility — a sizable weight off the Trojans’ shoulders. USC can now play for a national championship and be ranked in the BCS, something that hasn’t been allowed since the 2009 season.

But an unfortunate reality remains true: The worst part of the sanctions — the part that USC desperately tried to appeal — has yet to come.

The Trojans will be forced to forfeit 10 scholarships for each of the next three seasons. This means that, rather than having 25 recruited athletes join the football team each season, only 15 will be allowed. In a sport where recruiting is the lifeblood of a team’s prolonged success, this is a punishment rarely seen in such magnitude.

Assuming the current coaching staff remains in place, it’s safe to say the Trojans will continue to bring in high-level talent — just less of it. And with less depth, success will depend more than ever on the Trojan veterans — veterans, luckily, that are now just freshmen.

Worried? Don’t be.

At a time when having youth to carry the team is not just important but vital, USC coach Lane Kiffin has gone above and beyond what anyone could have expected.

The Trojans not only finished this season ranked in the top 10, but they did so while starting seven freshmen. One of them, wide receiver Marqise Lee, recorded 73 catches for 1,143 yards and 11 touchdowns. Three others — Dion Bailey, Lamar Dawson and Hayes Pullard — effectively took over the entire linebacking position, something never before seen at USC. Freshman phenom kicker Andre Heidari converted 15 of 17 field goals this season, along with a 50-for-50 mark on extra points.

But these numbers only tell a portion of the story. Perhaps a greater chunk of the freshman talent lies in wait on the bench, earning a redshirt or having backed up a more experienced starter this season.

First-year linemen Cyrus Hobbi, Aundrey Walker and Cody Temple will be critical pieces as the current offensive line begins to improve over the next two seasons. Redshirt freshman wide receiver Kyle Prater and freshman tailback George Farmer, both blessed with freakish speed and athleticism, will also begin to take on increased responsibility within the offense. As was showcased all year, the running back stable remains stocked with freshmen Amir Carlisle and D.J. Morgan waiting in the wings.

And most importantly, there is significant talent at quarterback, ready to fill in for junior quarterback Matt Barkley whenever he decides to leave. True freshmen quarterbacks Cody Kessler and Max Wittek both bring to the table significant upside.

The list really does go on. Though there remains much to be seen, the Trojans now boast quite possibly the best collection of freshmen in the nation, and arguably the best this university has ever seen.

Coming on the heels of the freshman contributions the Trojans have seen the last two years, which included Barkley and lineman Matt Kalil in 2009 and wideout Robert Woods and cornerback Nickell Robey in 2010, that’s a bold statement, but one that has consistently been supported on the field.

Of course, things don’t always go according to plan. Injuries, grades and lack of commitment have felled promising athletes in the past, and will continue to do so in the future.

But the one way to combat this issue is to do exactly what Kiffin has done — stock up. The seeds have been sown for future success, and with the right amount of cultivating, there is potential for progression even beyond what the current team has done.

It is clear that, for all of the success USC has enjoyed this season, it has in no way already triumphed its looming three-year obstacle. But, as Trojan fans have come to expect as of late, the team has certainly taken a step toward ensuring it will.


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