Pressure mounts on Kiffin & Co.
USC has a staff of great recruiters, but they now have less margin for error
USC's punishment from the NCAA is severe, but the loss of scholarships, not the bowl ban, will make the biggest impact. That might sound odd, but all you have to do is look back less than a decade ago to Alabama during the Mike Shula years to see the impact of losing scholarships.
Alabama lost 21 scholarships over a three-year period and faced a two-year postseason ban. The Shula era -- which was from 2003 to 2006, during two of the three years of the scholarship reductions -- netted a 26-23 mark. I'm not saying that's about to happen to USC, but to put it in perspective, Alabama lost seven scholarships a year for three years. USC is going to be down 10 a year for three years.
When a program loses scholarships, it has fewer talented bodies on its roster, so there's a significant drop-off between the top player and the next player on the depth chart. In today's world of rotating in players and situational substitutions, that's huge. Coaches already complain about having only 85 scholarships. Now USC is going to be down 10 a year, and there's a trickle-down effect that will impact how the Trojans set up their rotations, their depth and how they overcome injuries to players.
This punishment makes the jobs of coach Lane Kiffin and his assistants that much harder, as their margin for error goes from small to nonexistent. Recruiting is already tough enough. Coaches have to project the physical and mental potential of a 17-year-old not only on the field but also in the classroom and away from his family. Now, USC's coaches will have to be correct nearly 100 percent of the time because they'll have fewer scholarships to give out. The pressure will rise in every meeting about every player because coaches will know they can't afford to miss on a kid.
For example, when USC missed on safety Antwine Perez and wide receiver Vidal Hazelton, who were widely considered two of the nation's top 10 players in 2006, it didn't cripple the program. The Trojans had such a deep roster of talent coming in that year that they could afford to be wrong here and there.
Not anymore. With the loss of 10 scholarships each year, Kiffin, recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron and the other top recruiters on this staff can't swing and miss. Missing on two of 20 players is one thing, but missing on two of 10 is another. That's a big demand for any staff, regardless of how well it has recruited.
The other part of this issue that gets overlooked is that after those 10 kids can't be recruited by USC, they likely will end up somewhere else, potentially strengthening a rival's roster. So this opens the door for Washington, UCLA, Cal, Stanford and other Pac-10 programs within the region and conference. It also helps national programs such as Alabama, Florida, Notre Dame and others that have regularly fought USC for the top players all over the country.
Although USC's coaches will have limited contact with recruits, they will make sure that they spin the sanctions as best as they can. But with the two-year postseason ban, what will they be selling? USC won't be able to compete for a national championship, which is always a player's biggest goal. With no BCS Championship Game to go to, the Trojans could win the Pac-10, but doing so would just lead to a nice plaque on a wall.
Kiffin & Co. will get creative as they try to sell USC to recruits. They'll still be able to say the best players will play immediately, and that's something that still matters to players. Maybe more players will redshirt so that the Trojans will have the cupboard stocked once the postseason ban ends. USC recruiters will say that the players could come to USC for the whole experience -- the school, the social life, everything the institution has to offer -- and not just the football.
It won't be easy, but doing damage control and making this work for USC is a task that Kiffin just might be up to. Kiffin was able to land a good job with few previous results, so he obviously can be convincing and persuasive and get people to buy into his vision. Still, he'll have to use every ounce of what he has to sell these sanctions in his and his staff's favor.
Think the phones are ringing for Class of 2011 USC commits such as DT Antwaun Woods, WR Victor Blackwell, ATH DeAnthony Thomas, QB Max Wittek or DE Jalen Grimble -- all four-star players -- right now? Yes, they're committed to the Trojans, but will they stay committed? Programs all over the country will view the sanctions as a window of opportunity. It won't be open forever, but while it is, other schools' recruiters have to pounce on it.
Tom Luginbill is ESPN's national director of football recruiting.
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