Has recruiting changed for USC?
Remember when Lane Kiffin's mouth produced some of the biggest stories in the Southeastern Conference? Now, you can barely hear the guy when he speaks.
Either he's the most adaptable coach in college football or Kiffin's experiences in -- and while getting out of -- Knoxville have changed his public personality from brash to boring. He says it's the former.
Here's Kiffin's response Tuesday when I asked him about UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel's contention, to ESPNLosAngeles.com's Ramona Shelburne, that Pete Carroll's hasty departure to Seattle may be the Bruins' chance to "claim this territory."
"We have great respect for UCLA and their staff over there," Kiffin said. "But we're not worried about them or what they're doing."
Those words, practically whispered, came from the man who, within two months of being hired at Tennessee, called Florida coach Urban Meyer a cheater, ticked off South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier and got Alabama coach Nick Saban riled up? It was the second time I had heard Kiffin make those drab comments about UCLA, so I had to find out what was going on. I asked him why he sounded so different in February 2010 compared to a year ago.
"We don't need any attention. Our players don't need to gain any confidence by hearing that their head coach believes in them," Kiffin said. "Our players are confident and we're at the best program in the area.
"Usually, when you see people talk about other programs -- such as the reference to Rick you just made -- the program they're talking about is at the level they're trying to get to."
OK, that's a little better.
So, we're to believe that Kiffin's remarks a year ago were meant to spur confidence in a Tennessee team that had gone 5-7 the year before and in recruits who needed to be convinced that Tennessee would return to prominence? That's what the man says.
"Every job has a specific plan about what you need to do," Kiffin said.
Ask any coach in the country: If you can control Southern California recruiting, you will win your share of football games. It's an area with 18 million people, good weather and an urban populace. High school kids follow USC and UCLA religiously because they don't have the option of going to an NFL game (barring at least a two-hour drive).
The Neuheisel-Kiffin tug-of-war will have a somewhat definitive wrap-up Wednesday afternoon, national letter-of-intent signing day.
Both schools look as if they'll have healthy hauls of talent, but neither Kiffin nor Neuheisel looks as if he will announce the kind of top-rated class Carroll used to tout routinely. ESPN.com's recruiting guys have USC ranked No. 10 and UCLA at No. 17. Rivals has USC at No. 12 and UCLA at No. 13. Scout has USC at No. 21 and UCLA at No. 14.
When Kiffin was on Carroll's staff at USC, he was part of a group that signed three straight No. 1 classes, according to at least one of the Web sites. Neuheisel's arrival two years ago might have something to do with the newfound local parity.
"Pete Carroll never had to recruit against Neuheisel except for two years, and Neuheisel won his fair share of battles," said Rivals.com West Coast analyst Rick Kimbrel. "It's a different landscape right now. Pete's success came from, No. 1, he's a great coach, but it also came at a time that was like the perfect storm."
For most of the time Carroll was at USC, UCLA was mediocre. So were Arizona and Arizona State. Stanford was usually lousy. Washington's program hit an all-time low. Now, Kiffin is finding that outside coaches are occasionally poaching top talent from Southern California and Neuheisel is winning his share of the rest.
So much for the perfect storm.
Keep a few names in mind. Linebacker Hayes Pullard from Crenshaw High in Los Angeles, linebacker Jordan Zumwalt from Edison High in Huntington Beach, safety Dietrich Riley from St. Francis High in La Canada Flintridge and offensive lineman Giovanni Di Poalo (not to be confused with Italian Renaissance painter Giovanni Di Paolo) from St. Bonaventure in Ventura all are debating between USC and UCLA.
The whims of a few 18-year-olds can make or break recruiting classes, at least if you believe in ranking them.
Twenty-four hours before he can talk about the individual players, Kiffin said he was happy with this group. He seems to have kept the vast majority of Carroll's recruits happy while plugging a few holes with guys he had recruited at Tennessee. The Trojans' class looks strong in skill-position players, particularly receivers. They've got the No. 2 quarterback in the nation, Jesse Scroggins.
It may have looked like a scramble, with Kiffin having less than four weeks to collect commitments. But it was nothing like arriving at Tennessee from the Oakland Raiders. He hadn't talked to a recruit in three years.
"This was a very easy transition," Kiffin said.
Maybe in some ways.
Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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