Commentary

Give Kiffin credit for quality class

Updated: February 4, 2010, 1:29 AM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

Lane Kiffin was here long enough the first time around that you've got to believe him when he says he knows the difference between a USC football player and a UCLA football player. Here's how he put it Wednesday evening, after he announced one of the nation's best recruiting classes -- though, arguably, not the best in his own city:

"I just think within the first five minutes of meeting them, you know who's going there and who's coming here," Kiffin said.

So, why do USC coaches even bother to recruit the Bruin types?

"I think we're just competitive, so we waste our time anyway," he said.

Kiffin wouldn't elaborate much, but here's how he characterized the USC type of player:

"Guys that want to come play with the best, guys that aren't worried about depth charts, guys that aren't worried about playing time, that want to win championships. They want to deal with great players."

It's not a stretch to extrapolate the type of player Kiffin thinks goes to UCLA: Guys happy to get a good education, guys less than willing to prove themselves against the best.

Sorry, Bruins fans. Kiffin has a point. From 2006-07, I covered Pete Carroll's USC teams for a Southern California newspaper before switching to cover the 2008 season at UCLA. You didn't have to be the world's most insightful observer to see that different kinds of players showed up for practice on the two campuses. You just had to show up with eyes and ears.

[+] EnlargeSeantrel Henderson
Josh Holmberg/Icon SMISeantrel Henderson's commitment to USC capped off a top-notch class for the Trojans.

I remember being shocked when I talked to a UCLA offensive lineman about losing his starting job and hearing him say he was just happy to be getting a good education. At USC, I saw players resort to fisticuffs while they competed for the same spot.

But Kiffin's argument cuts both ways.

When he announced he would be signing with UCLA, Portland, Ore. defensive lineman Owanagbe Odighizuwa said, "I'm going somewhere that will affect the next 40 years of my life, not just the next four."

Meanwhile, USC recruit Markeith Ambles, a Georgia wide receiver, was tweeting, "Go Trogans!" He repeated the word, "Trogan," a couple of times. Let's cut the kid some slack. He was excited and reading Homer is not exactly required in most public schools these days.

But there's one thing Kiffin might not be as attuned to after two seasons in the NFL and one at Tennessee: The landscape is changing in this town, not so subtly. You've got to give Kiffin and his veteran staff credit for putting together a top 10 recruiting class in a matter of three weeks. According to Rivals.com, it was No. 2 nationally -- this despite signing only 21 players. It might have been the best group of skill players in the nation.

On the other hand, when Kiffin turned around Wednesday, there was Rick Neuheisel, smiling that toothy grin of his.

UCLA also had a top-rated class. Who's to say this Bruins class won't produce more NFL-caliber players than Kiffin's? For a while, it looked as if the Bruins were going to make it a sorry afternoon for Kiffin. Odighizuwa's commitment started a bad run for USC. Linebacker Josh Shirley and safety Dietrich Riley spurned Kiffin to line up for Neuheisel.

All the while, Kiffin knew something not everybody knew.

"It was pretty easy because I kept thinking about that left tackle who might be coming here later in the day," Kiffin said.

That left tackle is Seantrel Henderson, a 6-foot-7, 295-pound uber-prospect from Minnesota, though late Wednesday the New York Times reported Henderson had not signed his letter of intent. His father, Sean, told the newspaper that Seantrel would wait until USC appears before an NCAA infractions committee from Feb. 19-22 to hear about possible sanctions for the program before deciding whether to sign.

But getting a verbal committment from Henderson cemented a triumphant early moment for Kiffin. It was a good pickup, but Kiffin had better get used to having some powder-blue company on the recruiting trail. And they might even be chasing a few of the same types of guys.

Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.