They say that college football is a year-round experience and never is this more evident than on national signing day, a culmination of months and months of speculation and hype regarding tomorrow’s gridiron stars. For some, the day represents one of hope for programs looking to put recent struggles behind them. For others, the ritual has become a tiresome ordeal that places too much importance on unproven teenage players.
Many USC fans might fall into the latter group.
For the past decade or so, USC has routinely finished among the top schools in the nation at recruiting, luring in many so-called blue chip prospects and racking up five-star recruits as regularly as clockwork. In the early part of the 2000s, these high school standouts turned into college stars, with athletes such as Mike Williams, Darnell Bing and Rey Maualuga living up to expectations.
But for every success story comes a disaster story, and recently, there have been plenty of sure-thing prospects that haven’t panned out. Former players such as Kyle Prater, Chris Galippo and D.J. Shoemate either transferred from USC or graduated without making an impact. And given this last season’s disastrous finish, it might be time to evaluate whether or not the team’s recent recruiting pedigree is paying off on the field.
Under Lane Kiffin, USC’s recruiting classes have ranked no lower than 13th nationally, according to ESPN, and this year’s class is expected to rank within the top 10 once again. Next season, Kiffin will have a roster nearly filled with players that he himself recruited, not merely inherited from former USC coach Pete Carroll. But looking at how each of Kiffin’s three seasons have finished, there appears to be a disconnect between the level of talent on the roster and that talent’s performance in actual games.
In two of Kiffin’s three years as USC coach, the team finished the season without receiving a single vote in the Associated Press poll, with 2011’s No. 6-ranked Trojans being the lone exception. Can that storied season be viewed as an aberration given the two that bookended it?
A look at the players Kiffin has recruited during his time at USC tells a compelling story. Though every school has its fair share of busts, there have been plenty of players USC has counted on in the past three years who haven’t even finished their playing careers as Trojans.
Standouts from the 2010 class included wide receivers Prater and Markeith Ambles, defensive end Marquis Jackson, running back Dillon Baxter and quarterback Jesse Scroggins, all of whom have transferred to different schools.
Other notable players who have yet to play up to expectations are defensive back Demetrius Wright and tailback D.J. Morgan.
The 2011 class is harder to evaluate because many players haven’t been given opportunities to contribute yet, but notable players among this class are receiver George Farmer and tailback Amir Carlisle. Farmer, widely regarded as the best high school receiver in the country in 2011, has yet to crack USC’s rotation and has only caught four passes in his first two seasons. Carlisle, who had 118 rushing yards on 19 carries in his freshman season, transferred last year to Notre Dame.
Admittedly, there were many mitigating factors in Kiffin’s recruiting of these players. Scholarship reductions and a bowl game ban for the 2010-11 seasons hindered Kiffin’s pursuits. Additionally, there have been players who have played up to their blue-chip status, such as Robert Woods, Nickell Robey and Marqise Lee. Kiffin has the reputation of an ace recruiter, and these players reaffirm that.
But in all honesty, convincing high school players to come to a school with the tradition, location and NFL connections that USC has should not be too difficult a task. It is clear that this has not been the problem with USC football’s recent fall from the upper echelon of college football programs. The problem has been getting the most out of talented players and, in some cases, keeping talent from moving to other schools.
The players that have picked up the USC hat in the past three years have, as a whole, failed to deliver. Part of this has to do with the difficulty that is inherent in projecting adolescent athletes’ progress as they reach adulthood, but another part is the tutelage they receive once they arrive on college campuses. In this regard, it is reasonable to say that USC has turned its stack of blue chips into a pile of multicolored question marks in recent years.