As USC enters its final week of spring practice, the feeling of optimism that head coach Steve Sarkisian carried with him during his introductory press conference has not dissipated, but rather intensified. On the practice field, coaches are energized, players are engaged and just about everyone seems to be genuinely excited to be there.
All of this positive energy is great, but the top reason for why this optimism seems to have some legs to it is simple — this is an incredibly talented, deep football team.
The 2014 USC Trojans are an anomaly — a team entering the first year under a new head coach that legitimately has championship aspirations. These lofty goals aren’t simply the demands of a large, spoiled and opinionated fanbase — all traits of which the Trojan Family will gladly claim ownership — but they are instead genuinely realistic expectations.
A look at the depth chart at nearly every position group shows top-end, widely sought-after talent that has made its way from the top of Scout and Rivals recruiting rankings to the USC roster. There are at least a dozen or so future NFL players currently on the team, and even more will arrive in the summer when the rest of the Trojans’ recruiting class of 2014 enrolls in school.
This is not supposed to be the look of a team that is one year removed from firing its head coach midseason. So how could a program be in this good of shape in the wake of coaching turmoil and NCAA penalties? Despite the manner in which the USC image has been tarnished in the past few years by sanctions and disappointing seasons, causing the rest of the country to forget about the Trojans, talented players still want to come play here.
Part of the reason so many good players come to USC is because of its location. With the memory of cold winters and rainy springs fresh in his mind, Sarkisian is very aware of how his new school’s locale plays to his benefit.
Aside from the beaches and 70-degree weather, though, the dense population and easy access to Southern California’s blue chip recruits is the most advantageous aspect of USC’s location. Add in the fact that Los Angeles has no NFL team, and the ceiling for high school players, in terms of being exposed to big-time football, is USC. This creates a heavy presence of high school players at every USC practice — essentially it’s free airtime for Sarkisian and his assistants to sell their program just by running a smooth, exciting and fun practice.
“We’re one of those rare schools in the country that we’ve got a great deal of recruits within driving distance of our campus,” Sarkisian said. “We’re fortunate we’ve got a beautiful campus, and the kids like to come and watch. That’s one of the reasons why USC has been USC for so long. Southern California is a very populated area — there’s a lot of people and a lot of good football players, and they have an opportunity to come watch our guys work and play and feel motivated being on our practice field and being in the Coliseum. That’s all part of the process.”
For a school that never needs to worry about budget cuts and has one of the most profitable football programs in the country, money is never an issue. So it figures that the most talent-rich area in the nation just so happens to be in USC’s backyard. That means that the cost of travel for recruiting is significantly lowered — call it a case of the rich getting richer.
“A lot of schools get on airplanes to fly to Los Angeles to recruit,” Sarkisian said. “Our coaches get in cars and drive on the 405 and the 110 and the 10 freeway. There are only two of us in Los Angeles. Both of us reap some of the benefits of that as opposed to some other schools that aren’t in Los Angeles.”
Of course, recruiting in your own backyard is not some new, groundbreaking approach to college football recruiting. It’s a deeply ingrained philosophy that dates back to the beginning of the sport itself; it’s also a strategy that USC seems to have gone away from in recent years.
In USC’s class of 2014, Sarkisian’s first class, 15 of the 19 players signed were from Southern California. In the previous two classes combined, only 14 of the 27 players signed were from Southern California, which is a startlingly low ratio, especially considering the resurgence of UCLA’s program in recent years.
This is not a critique on the philosophy of USC’s previous coaching staff, which operated under a litany of mitigating circumstances. That the program is in this good of shape this quickly after NCAA sanctions have limited the past three recruiting classes is a testament to the tremendous job done largely by one man — former head coach Lane Kiffin.
One of the most reviled and openly mocked figures in college football endured his fair share of criticism while at USC, and many of them seemed to simply love hating him. But one area that the detractors stayed away from was Kiffin’s recruiting, which has always been heralded as his strength.
Kiffin’s recruiting classes always ranked near the top of every scouting service’s year-end rankings, and though he turned in mixed on-field results, USC fans should immediately fully reap the benefits of Kiffin’s efforts as Sarkisian kicks off his first season.
Kiffin and Sarkisian are longtime friends, and after years of competing against one another in the same conference, they no doubt have battled for the same recruits at one time or another. But with Kiffin gone to Alabama and Sarkisian taking his place, the former, unintentionally of course, has made the latter’s job much easier by leaving the cupboard stocked with talent.
Nick Selbe is a senior majoring in communication. His column, “Inside the 20s,” runs Tuesdays. To comment on this story, visit dailytrojan.com or email Nick at email@example.com.