USC’s recruiting pedigree has not paid off recently

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.

Pair of Trojans to transfer

In a span of three days, two USC players have announced their intentions to leave the program despite a recent 10-win season.

Redshirt freshman wide receiver Kyle Prater confirmed Monday night he would transfer after arriving at USC in spring 2010 as an early enrollee. Prater’s announcement came soon after sophomore tailback Amir Carlisle obtained his release to transfer to Notre Dame.

Change of scenery · Freshman redshirt receiver Kyle Prater announced Monday he will transfer to either Northwestern or Wisconsin. - Carlo Acenas | Daily Trojan

“I will be transferring,” Prater said via Twitter. “I love my teammates, SC, my fans, athletic staff. Will always respect the coaches. God Bless.”

In two seasons with the Trojans, Prater was limited by nagging injuries, redshirting as a freshman in 2010 compiling just one reception for six yards last season.

The Illinois native, who was rated as the No. 3 overall prospect in the class of 2010 by Yahoo! Sports’ Rivals.com, will transfer to either Northwestern or Wisconsin, according to a report appearing in the Chicago Tribune on Tuesday. Because of NCAA rules, Prater will be forced to sit out the 2012 season should he transfer to a Football Bowl Subdivision school, but will be eligible to play in 2013 as a redshirt junior.

“He needs to be around his support group, and that’s his family,” Prater’s mother told the Tribune. “It will be either Wisconsin or Northwestern. I made sure he kept his academics up. He may have had other issues, but I made sure of that first and foremost. He will get his degree.”

Carlisle will transfer to Notre Dame, sitting out next season per NCAA rules, USC confirmed Monday.

The second-year tailback was similarly plagued by injuries in his first and only season with USC.

He appeared in five games, rushing for 118 yards on 19 carries and racking up seven receptions, including one for a touchdown in a 42-17 victory at Colorado on Nov. 4.

“This definitely was a family decision,” his father told the South Bend Tribune on Saturday. “It wasn’t just an Amir decision. We felt as though Notre Dame would be the best fit for him for the next four years.”

Last March, his father, Duane Carlisle, became the director of sports performance at Purdue, located in nearby West Lafayette, Ind.

The younger Carlisle considered Notre Dame during his recruiting process last January before eventually signing with USC.

Other players, such as senior defensive end Armond Armstead and redshirt junior wide receiver Brice Butler, are reportedly considering transferring as well. Since both players graduated in December, they will be able to transfer and to play immediately.

Armstead redshirted last season after not obtaining medical clearance to play after being hospitalized with an undisclosed medical condition last March.

Because of NCAA sanctions, USC can carry no more than 75 scholarship players next season.

Coaching staff impressed with Lee’s play

Despite only three collegiate games under his belt, freshman wide receiver Marqise Lee has already begun turning heads with his big-play ability.

“He’s gotten better every week,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “Last week, in the game, he looked the best that he’s looked as far as being comfortable, being lined up.”

Serra standout · Freshman wide receiver Marqise Lee has drawn comparisons to teammate Robert Woods during his first year at USC. - Brandon Hui | Daily Trojan

Kiffin’s highest praise came when comparing sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods’ freshman season to Lee’s performance.

“I would say at this point right now, after three games, he’s ahead of where [Woods] was a year ago,” Kiffin said. “This kid’s really special. He’s every bit as fast as Robert, but he’s bigger and stronger.”

Lee, who is the No. 2 receiver behind Woods, is locked in to play when the coaches decide to call his number.

“[I’ve] come out here focused way more than I was the previous weeks,” Lee said. “You know, got everything off my mind and just really focused on the game and I’m ready.”

Saturday’s matchup against Arizona State in No. 23 USC’s first road Pac-12 game features a banged up, yet effective secondary that Lee and Woods will try to exploit.

“I wasn’t here last year to play them, but I heard their top corner is hurt. So I mean, they’re still doing a great job,” Lee said. “I know they got an amazing team, and I know about their linebackers being great, too. We’ll just go out there and compete and give [them] a good look.”

Lee might be asked to go across the middle of the field where Arizona State junior linebacker Vontaze Burfict awaits — Burfict is widely considered one of the top linebackers in the country. But the prospect of being hit by Burfict does not faze Lee.

“I think if he gets a shot on me, he gets a shot on me,” Lee said. “I’ll make sure I’ll catch the ball. I won’t get hit for nothing.”

When asked about the announcement late Tuesday night that the Pac-12 will not seek to add more teams for next season, Kiffin agreed with the decision.

“I think it’s great,” Kiffin said. “I love where we’re at right now and we’re just getting used to this format, championship game format, North and South [divisions] and so on.”

The addition of Oklahoma and Texas would not have threatened the Trojans’ recruiting advantage in Southern California, Kiffin noted.

“They’ve always tried to come in here. I don’t think that would change very much,” Kiffin said. “Just because you play a game one time a year in Los Angeles on a rotating schedule, I don’t think  that really helps that much. You’ve still got to go a long ways away. I don’t think that would have been a big deal.”

Freshman wide receiver George Farmer played with the offensive starters during Wednesday’s practice, but Kiffin’s decision concerning Farmer’s status for this season is clear.

“We’re planning on redshirting George; he’s looked better than he ever has been,” Kiffin said. “If this were the beginning of the year right now, he’d be in the mix because he’s finally healthy. So we’re excited about him playing down the road.”

Though Farmer is likely to redshirt this season, another freshman, tailback Amir Carlisle, could factor into the Trojans’ gameplan against Arizona State despite not logging any playing time in the first three games of the season

“We think that he can help us,” Kiffin said of Carlisle. “He adds another dimension and some juice.”

Carlisle has been presumed to redshirt.

Redshirt freshman Kyle Prater made the play of practice, as he made a diving one-handed catch along the sideline.

“He’s very capable of huge plays; he’s just got to get more consistent,” Kiffin said. “Every time he starts to make a stride, something happens. He’s going to eventually be a really good player, hopefully it’s soon.”

Senior offensive tackle Martin Coleman and junior wide receiver Brice Butler and junior center Abe Markowitz were among those who did not practice.

Spring rings in hope for Kiffin and Trojans

The torrential rains of the last few days have not been a coincidence. They are a clear message from the college football gods, who know spring practice begins today:

“We’re watching you.”

USC is near the midway point of paying for its “sins” — and I use that word loosely, considering all the inconsistent rulings the NCAA has levied against schools that have committed seemingly equal or even greater transgressions (someone wearing a sweater vest in Columbus, Ohio, is sweating).

Yet considering how harsh the sanctions are, the Trojans seem to be in fairly good shape. They were still able to sign 30 new recruits, thanks to a number of early admits. There will be a lot of new faces, and, starting today, the 2011 USC football team will begin to emerge.

Football is back at Howard Jones Field and that’s what’s important. I know there’s the whole March Madness business, but I’m guessing your bracket, like 1,865,894,004 others, makes you cringe when you look at it. So let’s turn our attention to the fresh new season of USC football, one with a lot of potential and even more unanswered questions.

Here are a few storylines to watch the next few months:

How much will injuries hinder the Trojans’ progress?

A lot. USC coach Lane Kiffin’s biggest concern heading into this spring has to be injuries, particularly to the linebackers, offensive line and defensive line. Kiffin said 20 players have not yet been cleared by doctors to practice, which is a high amount considering the Trojans could not participate in or practice for a bowl game last season.

Senior middle/outside linebacker Chris Galippo (lower back) has not yet been cleared, senior weakside Shane Horton has a hip injury and junior middle Devon Kennard will miss all of spring workouts after having a hip surgery. This is bad news for a linebacking unit that underachieved last season.

Things might be even bleaker for the offensive line. Starting guard Khaled Holmes (neck stingers) will miss time. Neither Abe Markowitz (foot) nor Kevin Graf (shoulder) have been cleared to play.

On the D-line, defensive ends Armond Armstead (undisclosed illness) and Wes Horton (foot) won’t be available at the start of practice, nor will Christian Tupou, who is still recovering from knee surgery.

These injuries will hold USC back, but, on a positive note, it will give some backups and freshmen a lot more reps. This will be a plus for a Trojan team that lacked experience in its two-deep roster.

Who is going to emerge at running back?

It seems like this has been a perennial question at USC since the tailback who formerly wore No. 5 graduated. The Trojans always seem to have a slew of horses in the stable, but can never quite settle on one.

Senior Marc Tyler should emerge as the featured back. He led the Trojans in rushing a year ago, rushing for 913 yards and nine touchdowns. Most importantly, he appeared in all 13 games, which means he stayed healthy.

Sophomore Dillon Baxter will compete with Tyler. Though Baxter probably won’t get the starting spot, he can work his way into the rotation a lot more if he has a good spring. Kiffin likes to use Baxter out of the Wildcat formation because he can throw the ball (Baxter threw for one touchdown last season) and Baxter is quicker than Tyler.

Also in the mix is redshirt freshman D.J. Morgan. The Trojans often used three backs last season, so the opportunities for Morgan are wide open.

How will the young receiving corps develop?

Sophomore Robert Woods will anchor the group. Although young, Woods showed often last season that he could be Matt Barkley’s primary target.

But with the graduation of starters Ronald Johnson and David Ausberry, the Trojans are in need of more young receivers to step into major roles quickly.

At 6-foot-5, redshirt freshman Kyle Prater should eventually take over the split end spot opposite Woods, but a foot injury will keep him out of most or all of spring ball.

That leaves the door open for sophomore Markeith Ambles, redshirt sophomore De’Von Flournoy and senior Brandon Carswell to assert themselves. And they had better. A trio of talented freshmen — George Farmer, Marqise Lee and Victor Blackwell — arrive in the summer.

Until then, it’s time to enjoy the spring and the return of USC football.

Will Jesse Scroggins grab hold of the No. 2 quarterback spot?

Barkley is the undisputed starting signal-caller. The problem is there is no experience behind him. The Trojans need a solid backup to emerge, not just in case Barkley gets injured but also for next season when Barkley might enter the NFL draft.

Redshirt freshman Jesse Scroggins is the most likely candidate, based on exposure alone. But freshmen Cody Kessler and Max Wittek enrolled early and can challenge right away for the No. 2 spot.

Scroggins has a slight edge, but this competition could go any way. This battle will be crucial since it basically decides who has a leg up to winning the starting job once Barkley moves on.

“Middle Ground” runs Tuesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or email Josh at jjovanel@usc.edu.

Kyle Prater sidelined with fractured foot

USC freshman wide receiver Kyle Prater suffered a foot fracture during an offseason workout this past week, according to USC’s RipsIt Blog.

The injury, which could require surgery to repair the break, might force Prater to miss most of spring practice, which begins March 22.

This serves as yet another setback for the Illinois native, who enrolled at USC in January 2010 before undergoing several injuries that forced him to redshirt and miss the entire season.

With the departure of senior wide receiver Ronald Johnson, the 6-foot-5 Prater is expected to compete for a starting spot opposite sophomore wideout Robert Woods. Sophomore Markeith Ambles, senior Brandon Carswell and incoming freshman George Farmer are expected to contend for a starting spot this fall as well.

The school says Prater is expected to make a full recovery.

Brice Butler reportedly set to transfer

According to his twitter account, @USCnumber19, USC sophomore wide receiver Brice Butler will transfer, citing playing time as the primary reason.  Around 11 p.m. PST Wednesday Butler tweeted the following, “Always will be a part of trojan nation! No regrets, I just gotta go play fball, which isn’t happening here… I love all yall! Always will.”

Butler had not previously indicated he would transfer.

A native of Norcross, Georgia, Butler had a promising freshman year in 2009, totaling 20 catches for 292 yards and two touchdowns. He played in all 12 games and started against Stanford, where he caught six passes for 96 yards, including a 36-yard touchdown grab. As a result, he was named to ESPN.com’s All Pac-10 freshman team.

However, those numbers failed to carry over to 2010, as he was lost amongst a new coaching staff. Despite playing in 12 of 13 games, he caught just nine passes for 112 yards and one touchdown, as he was behind the likes of fellow receivers Robert Woods, Ronald Johnson and Brandon Carswell and tight ends Jordan Cameron, Rhett Ellison and David Ausberry.

While Johnson, Ausberry and Cameron were all seniors, Butler would have faced stiff competition from redshirt freshman Kyle Prater, who was a highly rated recruit last year, as well as two incoming freshman. George Farmer, who is ranked the No. 1 wide receiver and No. 3 prospect overall nationally by Yahoo! Sports’ Rivals.com, and Victor Blackwell, who is ranked 18th nationally for wide receivers by Rivals, both have committed to USC.

Position battles abound despite injuries

Summer is officially over for USC students and classes are underway, but the schedule remains the same for the football team, which has been practicing for almost three weeks in preparation for its season opener at Hawaii on Sept. 2.

Despite several injuries to key offensive players, coach Lane Kiffin was pleased with how the offense performed on the first day of the semester.

Poised · Sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley is competing with redshirt senior Mitch Mustain for the starting role this preseason. - Brandon Hui | Daily Trojan

“Kyle Prater did more than he had to do and Butch Lewis stepped up for us [Monday],” Kiffin said. “Practice was a little strange because of class conflicts, but I thought our guys were tuned in and understood they have to turn it up another notch.”

The depth of the Trojans doesn’t hurt the team either. Kiffin and the coaching staff still have yet to determine who will be starting for the season opener.

“We have made some moves towards that with the way our reps are going in practice but we haven’t finalized anything yet,” Kiffin said.

Senior tailback Allen Bradford bruised his left knee during Friday’s practice and didn’t scrimmage Saturday, but was in full pads for practice Monday, ready to help contribute in any way possible.

“My knee feels better and I was out there running around,” Bradford said. “There’s a little soreness, but I’m just trying to play on it. I just got to get healthy, that’s the most important part. I got to take care of my body first and not worry about playing time.”

Senior offensive guard Butch Lewis also returned to practice after dealing with a groin injury last week, but despite key players missing time, Bradford is still optimistic the offense will be more than ready for the season opener.

“Our offense is really focused and everybody is anxious to play,” Bradford said. “Butch and I are important keys to the offense, but we got guys backing us up that are as good as us and can get the job done. We just got to go out there and work hard and we’ll be fine.”

Spring ball gives look into season of change

A lot of things are coming to an end this week.

Classes are done Friday. Spring football ends with the spring game at the Coliseum on Saturday, and the Daily Trojan’s last issue comes out Thursday.

Given this is the last football practice this paper will cover until August, it seems appropriate to glaze over, like a fine Krispy Kreme doughnut, the things we have learned over the last four weeks.

First, we have learned the early enrollees are deserving of the hype. Chicago-area wide receiver Kyle Prater is taller than the Sears Tower (it will always be the Sears Tower regardless of its current name) and secretly has a jar of peanut butter he stashes in his shorts because his hands are stickier than Charlotte’s web.

His roommate, freshman running back Dillon Baxter, has shown he can be a big-time contributor in the fall. On a Saturday a few weeks ago, with a darting and dashing run, he changed from an inconsistent freshman still trying to find his way to the next Reggie Bush. Granted, that 52-yard touchdown run was against mostly backups and walk-ons, but it still shows the speed and agility Baxter brings to the program. Something tells me we won’t be missing Joe McKnight.

Second, we have learned Lane Kiffin is no Pete Carroll protégé. Even though he worked under Carroll for five years in the early part of last decade, he has his own ways of going about things. Practices are no longer open to everyone. Discipline and accountability have replaced the loose Southern California cool as adjectives that describes the program. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Ms. Trunchbull replace Will Ferrell as the frequent guest of honor at practices.

Along those lines, special teams will be better at USC than it ever has been before. Under Carroll, special teams seemed to be more of an afterthought. But at the beginning of almost every practice, everyone on the team goes through various special teams drills. I mean everyone. A few weeks ago, the offensive and defensive linemen were catching punts. Who knows, maybe Kris O’Dowd’s speed is the best kept secret at USC, and he’ll be back returning punts.

We also learned we really don’t know anything about the secondary. The area with the most questions coming into spring practice has the most going out. With three players ­— redshirt junior Marshall Jones, junior Drew McAllister and redshirt sophomore cornerback Brian Baucham ­— likely to contend for a starting spot sidelined for most of spring practice, many former backups and walk-ons have been getting a lot of reps.

Dual sport athlete Jawanza Starling has gotten heaps of praise from secondary coach Willie Mack Garza, as have junior Daniel Harper and Shareece Wright, the only senior in the secondary. The group has managed to pick off multiple passes from Matt Barkley and Mitch Mustain over the four scrimmages USC has had, but we’ll have to wait and see until the fall how the injuries and lack of experience shape USC’s defensive backfield.

We’ve learned Devon Kennard might be the next big thing at linebacker for the Trojans. Chris Galippo, Malcolm Smith and Michael Morgan (who are all returning) got the marjority of the reps at linebacker last year. But Kennard, who is a converted defensive end, has emerged as one of the best players to come out of this spring. Kennard had eight tackles and a sack in Saturday’s scrimmage, and Kiffin said he “looks like an NFL player now.”

Lastly, we’ve learned the success the team has had this year will be determined by the play of the veterans. Barkley, senior tailback Allen Bradford, senior wide receiver Ronald Johnson, Wright, Galippo, O’Dowd and senior fullback Stanley Havili anchor the team that is very difficult to rank in the Pac-10 and in the nation.

Some days, it looks like this team could contend for a national title. Other days, it looks like it might visit the Emerald Bowl again. But it will be the play and the leadership of this core group of experienced players that will be indicative of this season.

There are many other things learned from spring practice but there’s not enough space here to list them all. We will know a lot more after the spring game on Saturday and once the season starts rolling in the fall semester.

One thing we do know is, with a new coach, a top recruiting class and a more mobile Barkley, this will be one of the most interesting and intriguing seasons USC football has seen in a while.

Is it August yet?

“Spittin’ Sports” ran Wednesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Kenny

at klegan23@gmail.com.

Early enrollees stepping up to fill new roles

If the annual exodus of USC players to the NFL demonstrates anything, it is the importance of having talented players waiting in the wings.

Seven former Trojans were drafted last weekend, and eight more either signed with a team as a free agent or are still looking. Their departures leave holes across the field next season that will need to be filled.

Impactful · Freshman wide receiver Kyle Prater sprained his thumb earlier this spring and wore a cast at practice Saturday but still caught two passes for 21 yards. Prater has received praise from both teammates and coaches during spring practice. - Geo Tu | Daily Trojan

Fortunately for USC, the roster is packed with gifted freshmen and sophomores eager to make their mark.

Sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley gets most of the attention, but there are plenty more underclassmen who will play key roles in the upcoming season.

Sophomore linebacker Devon Kennard impressed in spot duty last season, racking up 34 tackles and three pass deflections. The converted defensive end started the final four games of last season and has impressed USC coach Lane Kiffin this spring.

“[Kennard] looks like an NFL player right now,” Kiffin said at the start of spring practice. “[He’s] one of the few of our guys that look like we used to look when we were here.”

On Saturday, Kennard backed up his coach’s praise with eight tackles and a sack.

“I thought [the scrimmage] went really well,” Kennard said. “I was moving around, making a lot of tackles. I made a couple of mistakes but I’ll go back, watch some film and clean it up.”

Kennard is just one of the linebackers who gained valuable experience last season after Clay Matthews, Brian Cushing and Rey Maualuga moved on to the NFL. Senior Michael Morgan, senior Malcolm Smith and redshirt juniors Chris Galippo and Jordan Campbell also made at least one start for USC.

“We have four or five guys who started a game at linebacker and we’re ready to go in there and prove everybody wrong about what we’re about,” Kennard said. “I definitely hope I can contribute and help bring back the Trojan linebacker [tradition].”

USC also has the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, according to Rivals.com, and the coaching staff has gotten an early look at a couple of the newcomers.  Running back Dillon Baxter and wide receiver Kyle Prater enrolled at USC this spring in order to practice with the team early and have made immediate impacts.

In his short time on campus, Baxter has thrust himself into the running back rotation and become a YouTube sensation thanks to an impressive 50-yard run making the rounds online. The reigning high school National Player of the Year is already being compared with another running back from San Diego: Reggie Bush.

Prater, a physical force at 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds, has impressed coaches with his playmaking ability and, on Saturday, his toughness.

“It really says a lot about the kid that we pushed him out here and he came out in a cast [even though] he obviously can’t catch with that hand at all,” Kiffin said. “That was good to see.”

Prater, who sprained his thumb earlier this spring and wore a cast at practice, had just two catches for 21 yards on Saturday but has been impossible to cover at times during the spring.

“I feel like I can bring playmaking ability,” Prater said. “I know I can go out here and make plays and help us win a national championship, [which] is why I came here.”

This spring, he has leaned on senior receivers Ronald Johnson and David Ausberry. Their advice has been simple: Stay humble and listen.

“I’m just glad I came in early because it’s given me a big step ahead of the other guys coming [with] the playbook,” Prater said. “And when they come in I can help them out as well. It’s just going to be that much better.”

This fall, five-star recruits like receiver Robert Woods, tight end Xavier Grimble and offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson will give the USC offense added firepower. Even without former standouts like Taylor Mays and Everson Griffen on the field, the Trojans will attempt to replace the star power they lost.

USC’s roster might be littered with talented underclassmen, but a trio of veteran players stood out Saturday. Senior quarterback Mitch Mustain completed 12 of 22 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns, senior running back Allen Bradford rushed for 89 yards and two scores and Ausberry hauled in a 42-yard catch-and-run touchdown.

USC recruits among nation’s strongest

Pete Carroll might have started USC’s football recruitment for the 2010 season, but Lane Kiffin was the man who closed national signing day with one of the best classes in the country.

Late risers · Final day signings from top-ranked recruits helped coach Lane Kiffin move up the national recruiting rankings on Wednesday. - Mike Lee | Daily Trojan

The new USC football coach officially signed 18 players Wednesday, including five five-star recruits, and produced the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation, according to Rivals.com.

USC jumped ahead of Florida, Texas, Auburn, Alabama and other powerhouse programs, helped by the verbal commitment of No. 1 offensive lineman Seantrel Henderson on Wednesday afternoon. ESPN ranks USC’s recruiting class at No. 7, with Florida, Texas and Alabama as the top three.

Henderson joined four other five-star offensive recruits going to USC, including No. 1 running back Dillon Baxter, No. 1 wide receiver Kyle Prater, No. 1 athlete Robert Woods and No. 3 wide receiver Markeith Ambles, to complete a strong offensive class for the Trojans.

“To see a skilled class like this come together is very exciting,” Kiffin said at Wednesday’s press conference. “I’m sure one that Matt Barkley is extremely excited to have around him. These guys will make any quarterback good. So we’re excited.”

The five five-star recruits are more than any other program received. USC’s average recruited player ranking of 4.22 stars was also the highest in the nation.

Although Baxter, Prater and Woods were expected to sign with USC, the statuses of Ambles and Henderson were uncertain heading into national signing day. Fortunately for Kiffin and USC, both players decided to don the Cardinal and Gold, though Henderson has not fully signed with the university yet. Still, it  helped ease the pain of seeing some potential recruits, such as No. 9 linebacker Josh Shirley and No. 9 safety Dietrich Riley, join UCLA’s eighth-ranked class.

“We’re very impressed with this class,” Kiffin said. “There will be more that we add here. I think it’s a dynamic class.”

Joining Kiffin’s top recruits are a number of talented offensive players. USC signed three top-six tight ends, including No. 1 Xavier Grimble, No. 4 Christian Thomas and No. 6 Randall Telfer. Kiffin said he expects them all to compete for jobs at the tight end position to help replace Anthony McCoy next season, but the recruits might also play elsewhere.

USC also locked up No. 5 quarterback Jesse Scroggins and No. 3 running back D.J. Morgan.

While many of the Trojans’ most notable recruits are on the offensive end, Kiffin signed some top defensive talent as well. No. 3 defensive tackle George Uko committed to USC, and No. 9 defensive back Nickell Robey chose the Trojans on Wednesday morning to join Dion Bailey, Demetrius Wright and Anthony Brown in a strong defensive backfield class.

Kiffin’s staff did, however, miss out on some key linebacker recruits. Instead of luring some of the top athletes, USC signed Glen Stanley out of Eastern Arizona Junior College to help create depth and competition at the position.

“All that [ranking] means is we got some very talented players. We’ve got a lot of work to do to coach them, to develop them,” he said.

Kiffin said it spoke volumes for USC’s football program that, even without signing a large number of players, still has one of the best classes in the nation. He also expects some of the new players to make an immediate impact next season, similar to the way he saw wide receiver Mike Williams star on the field as a freshman in 2002, when he caught 81 passes and scored 14 touchdowns.

With recruiting now behind him for the time being, Kiffin said his next step will be piecing together an offensive coaching unit and finalizing his staff for the 2010 season. He said he will begin interviewing potential coaches Thursday morning.