What does having dinner with Shaquille O’Neal at a Brazilian steakhouse, taking a ride in Nick Saban’s golf cart and having identical twin sisters attached to your hip for a night out on the town have in common?
You’ve probably guessed it by now, but college football’s national signing day is today and the aforementioned scenarios are all attempts made by top SEC schools to lure in a strong recruiting class for their respective programs. To what extent do these recruiting classes matter? Does having a highly ranked recruiting class contribute directly to future success?
With less than half of the number of commits of other programs at this point in the recruiting process as a result of NCAA sanctions, USC has managed to assemble the No. 8 ranked class in the country according to ESPN. What the Trojans lack in recruiting volume they make up for in top-flight talent, including the consensus No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the country in Max Browne and Rivals.com five-star recruits Kenny Bigelow, Su’a Cravens and Leon McQuay III. The Trojans have had to pick their student athletes wisely, as evidenced by the fact that every single program commit is either a four- or five-star recruit.
The commitment of five players in the ESPN 150’s top 25 is no accident. Throughout the years, USC has had a reputation for strong recruiting. For instance, former standout players such as Matt Kalil, Robert Woods and Brian Cushing were all recruited as sought after five-star players. Browne’s recruitment, in particular, served as a poignant reminder to the rest of the Pac-12 of USC’s recruiting prowess. Browne hails from Sammamish, Wash., and many University of Washington fans lamented the fact that head coach Steve Sarkisian failed to recruit a quarterback whom had essentially grown up in the Huskies’ backyard.
Success in recruiting prior to a college snap being played could be attributed to coaching staffs and reputation, but the truest test of a recruiting class’ success is how a player’s abilities translate to the college level, and, ultimately, how those abilities translate to victories.
There is no doubt that USC’s reputation precedes it in the recruiting arena, and recent top-ranked recruiting classes have in fact yielded strong results. In the Pete Carroll era, the Trojans finished with Scout.com’s top recruiting class in the nation in 2003, 2004 and 2006. Pete Carroll’s tenure at USC was marked with seven straight top-five finishes, two national titles and a bouquet full of Rose Bowl victories. Though correlation does not necessarily imply causation, it is important to note that the recruiting classes that Carroll, and current USC head coach Lane Kiffin, brought to the program were direct contributors to success.
Breaking down successful recruiting to cases of individual players can hurt this argument; the recruiting process places far too much emphasis on individual players as opposed to an entire squad. Much like the NFL draft, the selection of athletes is mired in a giant stew of physical characteristics, athletic metrics and hype. And much like selecting players from the NFL draft, the entire stew can be ruined with a single drop of poisonous behavior or off-the-field issues.
Take, for instance, USC’s 2010 All-American running back recruit Dillon Baxter. Baxter was touted as the second coming of Reggie Bush, but he virtually checked into his tenure at USC in Kiffin’s doghouse and was dropped from the team shortly thereafter. He subsequently transferred to San Diego State, where he was dropped within a month; he is now attempting to make a comeback playing at the junior college level. Countless other five-star recruits have underperformed or faded into obscurity as a result of seeing too much too soon.
Conversely, many successful players at the college and professional levels have far exceeded initial recruiters’ expectations. All-Pro linebacker Clay Matthews III was initially a walk-on before joining Cushing and Rey Maualuga to form the famous 2009 triumvirate of pro-bound linebackers. 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner Marqise Lee, who looks like a wide receiver coach’s genetically engineered dream, was initially billed by recruiters as a four-star safety. The recruiting process itself is riddled with flaws and unpredictability, but USC has stayed relevant and successful in the recruiting arena by translating highly touted recruiting classes into on-the-field success and by avoiding placing too much emphasis on any single player (with one notable Heisman-trophy-winning exception).
In summation, a 7-6 season reads more like an aberration than the beginning of a precipitous decline for the Trojan football team. The Trojans are one of two teams who failed to finish in the top 10 in the polls in 2012 with a recruiting class in ESPN’s top 10.
Though coaching is an unpredictable metric, it is presumed that the USC football team will recommence their winning ways come fall with the installation of a new defense more effective at stopping the spread under new coordinator Clancy Pendergast. There will almost certainly be a quarterback controversy next season between Browne and redshirt sophomores Max Wittek and Cody Kessler, but competition in this case could be a good problem. With offensive line recruits from last year’s entering class filling out and Lee and senior running back Silas Redd returning for another season, don’t be too surprised if the Trojans’ vaunted recruiting class pays off big dividends yet again.