Commentary

Kiffin makes statement on recruiting trail

Updated: February 4, 2010, 1:23 AM ET
By Bruce Feldman | ESPN The Magazine

LOS ANGELES -- The jury's still out on whether Lane Kiffin can actually win games in the fall, but in February, at least, the brash 34-year-old coach of USC is pretty tough to beat.

Last year, Kiffin snagged blue-chip recruits away from Urban Meyer and even beat LSU for Janzen Jackson, the rare all-everything local recruit, who ended up saying no to the Tigers. On Wednesday, Kiffin proved he could not only keep many of the prospects who had committed to former USC coach Pete Carroll, but he also reeled in the nation's top uncommitted big fish on signing day, offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson, and snagged a host of other blue-chippers too. Nine of the recruits who faxed in official letters of intent are among the top 60 prospects in the country, according to ESPN's Scouts Inc.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillLane Kiffin had less than four weeks to prepare for his first signing day at USC.

The 6-foot-8, 320-pound Henderson picked USC over Ohio State, Miami and Notre Dame, among others. His announcement made a huge statement for a coach prone to making big statements, especially after crosstown rival UCLA reeled in ESPNU 150 defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa. In 2009, Kiffin, who probably hadn't even learned the words to Rocky Top at the time, was able to sign Bryce Brown to Tennessee, a running back who many felt was the top recruit in the nation. This year, with an even shorter turnaround time, Kiffin's staff landed Henderson, who is deemed by many recruiting services as the country's top overall prospect.

Asked how he felt as a competitor watching on TV as a lot of highly touted recruits committed to archrival UCLA, Kiffin didn't flinch. "It's pretty easy," he said, "because I kept thinking about that left tackle that might be coming here later in the day."

On Wednesday night, The New York Times' Thayer Evans reported that Henderson's father, Sean, said his son will not sign his letter of intent until USC appears before an NCAA infractions committee later this month.

Henderson, a towering prototype tackle prospect with agile feet, fills a big need for USC. The Trojans had only one other O-line prospect in the class previously, Giovanni Di Poalo, who had selected the Trojans over UCLA earlier in the day.

"To be able to sign the No. 1 player in the country two years in a row says a lot about our staff," Kiffin said. "It sends a very powerful message."

Considering that it hasn't even been four weeks since word circulated that Carroll was heading to the NFL, it certainly has been quite a whirlwind around Los Angeles. In the wake of that bombshell, the Trojans' recruiting class appeared to be falling apart. Projected midyear enrollees WR Kyle Prater and RB Dillon Baxter no longer were sure things as rumors swirled that the USC coaching search bounced from Mike Riley to NFL coaches Jeff Fisher and Jack Del Rio. Complicating things even more was the shadow of an NCAA investigation centering around former Trojan Reggie Bush.

When Kiffin was tabbed to be the new Trojans head coach, it left a whole lot of folks arching their eyebrows, especially knowing that the one-time USC assistant had run up some well-documented secondary violations in his short run in Knoxville. On the plus side, since Kiffin will run a similar pro-style offense and the identical defense to what Carroll ran, it wasn't a tough sell to many of Carroll's recruits.

Through it all, Kiffin and his staff haven't been shy about stepping (or stomping) on some toes along the way to signing day. USC recruited several players who had been committed to Tennessee. He also plucked former UT secondary coach Willie Mack Garza from the Vols' staff in prime recruiting season and hired Tampa Bucs assistant Joe Barry, a guy who the Vols reportedly had been also chasing. Two of the first recruits to officially become Trojans on Wednesday happened to be junior college linebacker Glen Stanley and Markeith Ambles, a Georgia native ranked as the nation's No. 23 prospect. Both players had been committed to Tennessee. The Carroll staff hadn't been pursuing Ambles, but once Kiffin got the USC job, the 6-foot-3 receiver was back in play. Kiffin explained that he became sold on Ambles after the receiver came to the Vols camp in Knoxville and dominated against some SEC-caliber defensive backs.

Ambles, Kyle Prater and Robert Woods, the No. 7 overall prospect in the ESPNU 150, make up a group that Kiffin labeled as three of the top five receivers in the country -- to go with an impressive group of backs and tight ends.

"I don't think I've ever seen a skill class this good ever before," Kiffin said, adding that USC didn't sign players just to fill slots, even if it was tempting. "We didn't want to reach, to lower our standard," he said. "We know what it takes to win here."

In addition to Ambles, USC signed LB Hayes Pullard, who at one point had been leaning toward UCLA; DB Nickell Robey, who had been committed to Georgia; tight end Christian Thomas; QB Jesse Scroggins; DT George Uko; and DB Demetrius Wright. USC did lose out on several top prospects: DB Sean Parker announced he was going to Washington; OT Chaz Green signed with Florida; and a trio of defenders (LB Jordan Zumwalt, Josh Shirley and DB Dietrich Riley) committed to UCLA.

The players who did sign with the Trojans, Kiffin says, are USC's kind of guys: "Not one of these guys ever asked about a depth chart, and those are the kinds of guys we want here."

Despite all of the drama that surrounded Kiffin's return to USC, he said the transition has actually been easier than it was for him at Tennessee last winter. "It was a lot harder then," Kiffin said. "I was coming from the NFL. We had a lot of coaches who had come from the NFL. We didn't know what was out there. Here, we already had some committed recruits. We knew the university. We knew what we were selling."

Justin Hunter
Cliff Welch/Icon SMITennessee landed touted WR Justin Hunter on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Kiffin's former school, Tennessee, put together a very impressive class of its own. In fact, Vols fans should be elated. Like him or loathe him -- and we know how Tennessee fans feel -- Kiffin had UT's recruiting class in good position when he bolted. Already in place before Derek Dooley was named the Vols' new coach was a handful of elite recruits who had enrolled early, led by QB Tyler Bray, WR Matt Milton, OT Ja'Wuan James and DE Corey Miller. Dooley also addressed two of UT's biggest holes: the O-line and wide receiver. UT beat Alabama to get OT James Stone, a recruit who admitted he wouldn't have been coming to Knoxville if Kiffin were still the coach. At receiver, the Vols got Justin Hunter, a freakish 6-4 long jumper who once was committed to LSU, and Da'Rick Rogers, who was supposedly locked up by Georgia. They didn't get Ambles, and they also lost out on J.C. Copeland, a fierce pass-rusher who decommitted to sign with LSU, but otherwise it was a near perfect day in Knoxville.

"Tennessee has so much to sell," said Dooley. "So it wasn't as hard as people think to go out there and convince some of these young men to come to Tennessee. It was just a matter of me getting in front of them and selling who I am and what I believe; selling our coaching staff and selling where we are headed with the program."

The best news of all for the Vols ultimately may prove to be the hiring of former Boise State coach Justin Wilcox as UT's new defensive coordinator.

The other new coaches

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
AP Photo/Joe RaymondBrian Kelly recruited well in the Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky area.

Brian Kelly, the new Notre Dame coach, had about a month longer than Dooley and Kiffin to sign his class. Things also got off to a rocky start, with a few top prospects decommitting. Defensive end Chris Martin switched to Cal, DE/OLB Blake Lueders signed with Stanford, cornerback Toney Hurd Jr. committed to Texas A&M and running back Giovanni Bernard left for North Carolina. Many Irish fans also had hoped Notre Dame would get ESPNU 150 athlete Anthony Barr, who has family ties to ND, but he opted to sign with UCLA.

The Irish, though, did retain several promising recruits who had committed to Charlie Weis' staff and also hung on to 320-pound Louis Nix, the nation's No. 6 defensive tackle recruit, exactly the kind of pocket-crushing presence ND had failed to sign in previous years. Credit Irish assistant Tony Alford, the lone holdover from Weis' staff, for convincing Nix to commit even when Notre Dame didn't have a head coach.

"He saw the value of a Notre Dame education," Kelly told ESPN. "He took that leap of faith and Tony built that relationship."

Kelly compared Notre Dame's other big holdover, WR Tai-ler Jones, to his former Cincinnati star Mardy Gilyard.

Kelly's experience building Cincinnati, as well as his work at Central Michigan, should be something Irish fans keep in mind. Gilyard was once a two-star recruit. Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour, whom Kelly recruited, was also just a two-star. Tony Pike, his quarterback at Cincinnati, was unrated. Translation: Brian Kelly was won a lot of games with guys who weren't four- and five-star recruits.

"We just wanted to make sure we recruited guys that loved to play the game," said Kelly, who also addressed a big need by signing three quarterbacks for a roster that had only one scholarship quarterback (Dayne Crist). Two of those signees, Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix, are highly touted by rival coaches. Kelly also did well to land 6-7, 290-pound Matt James, the nation's No. 14 OT prospect.

First-year head coach Jimbo Fisher assembled a class that looks like one of the old vintage Bobby Bowden groups for FSU. The Noles, who have to resolve major issues on defense, signed seven defensive players who are ranked in the top 13 at their respective positions. The best of the bunch: CB Lamarcus Joyner and linebackers Christian Jones and Jeff Luc.

A bit off the radar, Louisville's new coach, Charlie Strong, turned some heads. The Cardinals signed Preston Brown and Dominique Brown, who had been previously committed to Cincinnati. They also got prized defensive end B.J. Butler and added speed in WR Michaelee Harris and RB Corvin Lamb, a pair of coveted prospects from powerful Miami Northwestern. New U of L recruiting coordinator Clint Hurtt praised Strong, saying he was blown away by the impact the coach has on people. "Charlie commands so much respect from people," said Hurtt. "He might be the only guy in coaching who I've never heard anyone say a bad word about. The guy is such a rock star."

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."