The announcement earlier this month that Steve Sarkisian would take an indefinite leave of absence primarily inspired concern for the USC coach’s wellbeing and also prompted questions about how the Trojans would fare on the field the rest of the season. But it wasn’t long before attention shifted to recruiting.
Hours later, one of the most highly rated linebackers in the class of 2016, Daelin Hayes, said he was backing off his commitment to the Trojans. Then Isaac Nauta, the nation’s top rising senior tight end, said he would take an official visit to Alabama instead of USC later this year. Athletic director Pat Haden fired Sarkisian the next day, and five-star prospect Mique Juarez reneged on his pledge to the Trojans.
The defections, and the times at which they were announced, cast doubt over whether the Trojans can recruit effectively in the coming months. With virtually no chance of competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff, an interim coach (Clay Helton) running the program and no clarity on when a new full-time coach will arrive, can the Trojans convince highly coveted high school players to join their ranks? There’s more cause for optimism than the initial wave of bad news suggests.
For one, it seemed possible that both Hayes and Juarez would have ended up signing with other programs even if Sarkisian remained in charge. Hayes, who committed to USC in July 2014, spoke highly of his unofficial visit to Notre Dame for the Fighting Irish’s blowout of Texas in early September and indicated he intended to return to South Bend for an official visit. Juarez had been committed to the Trojans since January, but his connection to the program was so tenuous that Rivals.com published a story in July titled, “Not a two-team race for Juarez.”
The 14 prospects in the class of 2016 who remain committed to the Trojans have offered mixed reactions. Four-star offensive lineman Frank Martin said he plans to take visits “just to see other schools just in case this plan doesn't work out,” and four-star wide receiver Velus Jones tweeted he is “still verbally committed but my recruitment is open.” Those may not be strong endorsements (it’s not surprising players would reevaluate their recruitments in the wake of a coaching change), but it seems unlikely USC’s 2016 haul will fall apart before National Signing Day on Feb. 3.
The group, which is ranked 14th in the country by Rivals.com, currently counts nine prospects based in California, including four-star offensive linemen Nathan Smith and Martin, four-star defensive back CJ Pollard and four-star wide receivers Tyler Vaughns and Trevon Sidney. There is a strong sense that those players, who grew up watching the program dominate the Pac-12, are likely to honor their pledges. “I think that the local kids, no matter what happens going forward, for the most part are going to stick,” says Chris Swanson, a publisher of Rivals.com affiliate TrojanSports.com, adding that the decommitments of Juarez and Hayes did not catch him by surprise.
There is less confidence regarding the futures of the rising seniors committed to USC who don’t reside in the Golden State. Jones, a standout at Saraland (Ala.) High, already indicated his commitment is of the “soft” variety and that he’s open to other programs. Josh Imatorbhebhe, a four-star wide receiver who attends North Gwinett (Ga.) High, said recently that he is “still committed but (feels) that it's wise to explore the other options that I have.” (Josh’s brother, Daniel, a three-star tight end in the class of 2015, transferred to USC from Florida this summer).
While the Trojans’ commits mull over their relationships to the program, the leadership void at USC—and the uncertainty that creates—will lead other schools to ramp up their pursuits. For prospects from California, that will likely mean Pac-12 programs, and crosstown rival UCLA in particular. For prospects who don’t hail from California, local programs that had been recruiting them since before they initially pledged to the Trojans could make a stronger push.
“The second that news broke out Sunday night, every recruit’s [Twitter] direct message was absolutely blowing up and high school coaches were being contacted,” says Mike Farrell, the National Recruiting Director for Rivals.com. He added, “Those kids have already heard from a bunch of schools. They’ll continue to hear from a bunch of others. They’ll take visits. When there’s uncertainty, the visits are free. It doesn’t cost you anything to listen to a pitch.”
One important issue is what will happen to members of USC’s coaching staff. The prospects who developed strong relationships with—and who made verbal commitments believing they would be playing for—certain assistants will want to know whether those assistants will be retained by the Trojans’ new head coach. For instance, Rivals.com, which named wide receivers coach/pass game coordinator Tee Martin one of the nation’s top 25 recruiters in 2015, credits Martin with helping USC secure commitments from 2016 prospects Imatorbhebhe, Pollard, Sidney and Vaughns.
“I remember many situations where the assistant coach or the position coach was more important than the head coach. And kids were like, ‘If he stays, I’m staying,’ whoever that coach may be,” Farrell says.
A review of USC’s 2014 recruiting class is instructive. That group watched as the Trojans went through a similarly chaotic midseason coaching change after Lane Kiffin was fired following a loss to Arizona State in Week 6. USC, which hired Sarkisian in early December ’13, then signed a group composed of 20 players—including nine four-stars and two five-stars—that ranked 10th in the nation, according to Rivals.com.
How did the Trojans’ top recruits react to Kiffin’s ouster? Adoree’ Jackson, the nation’s top athlete who had yet to commit to USC, said at the time that he did not “think it can affect my recruitment until I get a chance to talk to the new coach and its current staff.” Fellow uncommitted five-star prospect JuJu Smith-Schuster noted that he “already knew it was coming. So it doesn’t change anything until they do something.” Sarkisian, a former Trojans assistant, had roughly three months between his hiring and signing day, during which time he helped the program land eight commitments.
USC would do well to move forward with its coaching search quickly. Even though Sarkisian’s permanent replacement won’t take the sidelines before signing day, he could sell prospects on his vision for the future. Farrell notes that the Trojans stand to benefit if they can name a new head man by early December. In 2015, the so-called Contact Period, during which coaches can meet with players and their families off campus, begins in late November. The “Dead Period,” during which face-to-face contact is prohibited, starts in the middle of December. The longer USC’s search drags on through the Contact Period, the less time the new coach will have to shore up this class.
“The dead period runs into early January and if you hire somebody right around that time or during the dead period, you’re really scrambling to finish recruiting in like 3-4 weeks, and that’s tough,” Farrell says.
Alternatively, consider Florida’s situation last year. The Gators—another high-profile program situated in a talent-saturated state that recently produced disappointing results on the field—introduced Jim McElwain as their new head coach on Dec. 6, 2014. Between then and signing day, Florida earned verbal commitments from 16 players, including Daniel Imatorbhebhe, four-star running backs Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkrite, five star defensive lineman CeCe Jefferson and five-star offensive lineman Martez Ivey.
Even if USC falls out of the Pac-12 South race, it’s not unreasonable to suggest the Trojans could upgrade their class in December and January with a new coach in Sarkisian’s place. USC failed to meet preseason expectations before he was fired, with losses in two of its first three conference games. Some observers, including Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel, felt that the Oct. 8 defeat to Washington marked a new low point in Sarkisian’s tenure. Barring an unexpected turnaround, a parting of ways at the end of the season seemed possible.
Ultimately the biggest reason the coaching change is unlikely to cripple USC’s recruiting efforts is the program’s natural appeal. USC is, well, USC—an NFL talent-producing factory that not too long ago competed for national championships and top-tier bowl bids by bringing in the best high school players in the country. The Trojans have undoubtedly slipped since Pete Carroll left for the Seattle Seahawks, but their recruiting cachet has not eroded. Rivals.com ranked USC’s 2015 class No. 1 in the nation.
“When you build a brand that strong, like Pete Carroll did, it takes years and years to break it down, and it’s not broken down,” Farrell says. “Bottom line.”