Trojans finish signing day with a flourish

Lane Kiffin entered the Varsity Lounge of Heritage Hall on Wednesday bleary-eyed and with a blank expression.

Clearly, this was a man who was running on little sleep.

But after a tiring homestretch to national signing day, Kiffin can take solace in the famous line from Glengarry Glen Ross — “coffee is for closers.”

The class of incoming freshmen that signed with USC on Wednesday affirmed Kiffin’s position as a relentless force on the recruiting trail. Moreover, it helped legitimize a coach who has been under fire since taking over his new post.

“We didn’t want to reach and lower our standards,” Kiffin said. “Very often, you’ll see coaches reach in their first year just to make an impression and sign a certain number of kids.”

The exact rankings are unimportant — it’s a fool’s errand to attempt to quantify how good high school seniors will be before they play at the collegiate level. But by keeping together what had been Pete Carroll’s class and adding his own touch, Kiffin quelled talk of a USC downfall.

Under Carroll, top-ranked recruiting classes became a foregone conclusion. But several top prospects eschewed the Trojans last year, prompting discussions of whether USC had slipped from its perch atop the conference.

With the Pac-10 competition entering an arms race, Kiffin needed palpable results as payoff for all those long nights spent working the phones. The day looked dicey when UCLA went on an early afternoon stretch in which several highly touted prospects chose the Bruins on national television, including two who were considering USC.

“It was pretty easy [to watch] because I kept thinking about that left tackle that might be coming here later in the day,” Kiffin said.

That left tackle is Seantrel Henderson, ranked by some services as the best player in the nation. The 6-foot-8, 335-pound Minnesota native’s verbal commitment adds value and much-needed depth to the Trojans’ roster, but he also shows that USC won’t be beat easily for top players as long as Kiffin is around.

In addition to having geography and timing working against the new USC coaching staff, the members had to convince Henderson that all is well in Troy. While other coaches had in-depth relationships with Henderson, Kiffin had to cobble together what he could in three weeks.

Yet, there Henderson stood on national television, wearing a comically mismatched white No. 10 USC jersey.

When USC hired Kiffin, there were minimal concerns about recruiting. But what the 34-year-old was able to accomplish in less than a month was nothing short of astonishing.

“You have to put him up there among the top five — maybe top three — head coaches in terms of recruiting,” ESPN analyst Todd McShay said Wednesday on ESPNU.

Kiffin’s first class wasn’t without fault, however. There were more than a couple of sought-after players that turned down the Trojans for another school. And with only a handful of linemen and linebackers, the assortment of players looks more like a flag football team than a group you’d put in pads.

But Kiffin admitted the shortcoming and chalked it up to the coaching transition.

“The offensive and defensive linemen have more of a bond with their position coach or the school that they’re going to, so it’s hard to come in late and turn those guys,” Kiffin said.

Despite whatever shortcomings it may have had, Kiffin’s inaugural recruiting effort will be remembered for how he restored faith in the program to recruits who might have looked elsewhere.

“[The recruits] had a sense that things were the same on a lot of fronts here,” Kiffin said. “It’s why I think you saw this class really stay together.”

The next task for Kiffin is showing that he can progress all of the four- and five-star players he hoarded. Carroll came under fire for player development, but Kiffin could make his mark early if he thrives in this area.

But for now, he deserves praise for the job he did in securing his first class.

And maybe he should get that coffee percolating because those class of 2011 players won’t recruit themselves.

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