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USC-ND heats up on recruiting trail

10/16/2009 - College Football

The USC-Notre Dame rivalry has been brutally one-sided on the field in the past decade. Since Pete Carroll lost to ND in his debut season, the Trojans' average victory margin over their archrival is almost four touchdowns.

As lopsided as the series has been, however, the Irish have done a remarkable job of winning some of the significant recruiting battles, even when the Trojans are in the mix, and even when the battle is waged in USC's own backyard.

Charlie Weis' first recruiting win against USC came in 2006, when all-everything offensive tackle recruit Sam Young chose the Irish over USC and Florida, among others. At the time, Young cited his relationship with then-Irish line coach John Latina. Young's decision was a big deal to the Irish staff because it wasn't just that they landed the 6-foot-8, 300-pounder, but it was whom they beat to get him.

"It was our first full class," said Rob Ianello, Notre Dame's recruiting coordinator. "And so for us to get a guy of Sam's caliber, it made a huge statement that we want to be a player and that we're gonna be a player on the national recruiting scene."

The Irish made an even bigger statement a few months later, in April, when Notre Dame landed the commitment of QB Jimmy Clausen, a celebrated passer from Southern California whom the Trojans (along with seemingly every other program in the nation) had been recruiting hard. The hype around Clausen was unprecedented. His private quarterback coach, Steve Clarkson -- the same guy who groomed USC great Matt Leinart -- called Clausen the "LeBron James of high school football."

Of course, it is worth pointing out that many factors go into a recruit's decision-making process. USC already had Mark Sanchez in the program when Clausen was looking at schools, so the path into the starting lineup wasn't as clear at USC. Still, Clausen's announcement really resonated around the college football world, especially since he had his press conference at the College Football Hall of Fame the same weekend as the Irish's spring game.

"It really was a huge, huge thing for us," Ianello said of Clausen's commitment. "That made a statement about us and the direction we were headed."

It may have, but the reality was that the Trojans were still winning most of the time they went up against the Irish for recruits. The Trojans beat the Irish for such blue-chippers as safety Taylor Mays, linebacker Chris Galippo, offensive tackle Tyron Smith, receiver Brice Butler and a host of players who took official visits to Notre Dame: linemen Everson Griffen and Butch Lewis, linebacker Malcolm Smith, and most recently defensive backs Jawanza Starling and Byron Moore, among others.

A source inside the USC program acknowledged that the Irish have done a good job recruiting. Two years ago, the Irish also beat the rest of the country -- and USC -- for the promising defensive lineman Ethan Johnson from Oregon. USC also looked closely at Armando Allen, Notre Dame's top running back.

Notre Dame's prowess on the recruiting trail, though, has had little effect on the outcome of these games, at least so far. The Trojans have won the previous two matchups by a combined score of 76-3. Still, in the wake of those lopsided defeats, the Irish did manage another coup of sorts last February when Manti Te'o, ESPN Scouts Inc.'s top linebacker, chose the Irish over USC, stunning many recruiting observers. After all, the Hawaiian's official visit in November hardly seemed ideal. The Irish lost to Syracuse, one of the country's worst teams, in a snowstorm. There were rumblings that Weis might get fired.

USC not only had weather on its side, but it also could tout that it had to replace its entire linebacking corps. Oh, and by the way, all of them were set to become first-day draft picks. The Trojans also had a former NFL star linebacker in Ken Norton to coach Te'o. The Trojans staff couldn't help but think: "Why wouldn't he come?" But the Irish staff had a good feeling when they did their final in-home visit with Te'o in Hawaii, and sure enough, they had reeled in perhaps their biggest defensive recruit in a generation. It felt even better knowing who came in second for him.

"A lot of times, kids are looking for different things," Ianello says. "Winning is one component, but they want to be in a good environment. We went 3-9 one year, and recruiting went very well. I think a lot of that has to do with our players because they really are outstanding ambassadors for our program."

Asked whether he could understand why it would probably surprise some folks that the Irish are winning some of these battles, despite the way the series has gone, Ianello didn't hesitate: "Maybe some people would be surprised, but those people don't know Notre Dame or what it's about."

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. You can read his daily updates on his college football blog, or check out his latest book, "Meat Market: Inside the Smash-Mouth World of College Football Recruiting."