On the field, Lane Kiffin has yet to demonstrate why he's been so sought after for high-profile coaching jobs. He's 15-11 in two seasons with Tennessee and USC.
Off the field, however, there's no denying the 35-year-old's acumen as a recruiter. That skill, combined with Kiffin's penchant for risk-taking (remember all those two-point conversions?), has an unusual and intriguing 2011 recruiting class shaping up for the Trojans.
Despite severe NCAA sanctions that many expect will cripple USC at some point in the near future, Kiffin is on the verge of landing his second straight top five recruiting class since returning to Heritage Hall. If there's a cloud surrounding the program, it didn't dissuade top-rated cornerback De'Anthony Thomas (Los Angeles) or All-American quarterbacks Cody Kessler (Bakersfield, Calif.) and Max Wittek (Orange County) from committing.
But the team rankings on various recruiting sites are about quantity nearly as much as quality, which says something about Kiffin's surprising strategy for dealing with sanctions limiting USC to 15 scholarships in each of the next three years. (Normally, teams are allowed to sign 25 players per year.) For now at least, he's ignoring the cap.
As of Jan. 24, USC had 26 reported commitments, with offers still out to several more players. Nine of the incoming recruits enrolled in January and thus can be counted toward last year's class, when the Trojans had just 14 fall enrollees (11 under the regular limit). But that still would only allow for 24 total commitments in the current class if USC were operating under the 15-scholarship limit.
Instead, Kiffin is taking advantage of the fact that the penalties can be stayed while the school's appeal is ongoing. USC officials appeared before the NCAA's Infractions Appeals Committee last weekend in Indianapolis to ask that the sanctions essentially be halved -- a one year bowl ban instead of two and five docked scholarships per year instead of 10.
The school served the first part of its bowl ban last season but is apparently putting off the scholarship penalty, even though AD Pat Haden admits the chances of a successful appeal are about "10 percent," based on previous cases. If so, Kiffin is free to sign the maximum allowable players in 2011 but in turn could just be furthering the restrictions to 2014. (Neither he nor school officials have commented specifically on recruiting numbers.)
"Generally speaking, if the original penalty is for three academic years and it is upheld by the appeals committee, then the resulting penalty will still be for three academic years," said NCAA spokesperson Stacey Osburn.
When the commitments first started piling up, confused USC fans wondered whether the school had some sort of secret knowledge that its appeal would be granted. That was never the case. Even if it had been, it wouldn't explain why the Trojans appear to be aiming higher than even the 20 grants they're seeking and may even edge back toward the 85-scholarship benchmark for the overall roster. (The penalties, once effective, restrict USC to 75 scholarships per year.)
Counting the nine early enrollees, USC currently has 60 players on its roster.
"It does look like they're trying to get more bodies in the program, because last year they were [at 71]," said USCFootball.com publisher Ryan Abraham. "From what we've seen on the recruiting front, they're not necessarily ready to stop at 20. It seems they're willing to push it to get somewhere in the 20s, which would put them somewhere in the 80s [overall]."
Kiffin's strategy makes sense on several levels. While it's impossible to say how the incoming players will pan out, by loading up now, the Trojans increase their chances of maintaining a core of veterans if and when the numbers do get to them a couple years down the road.
To the surprise of some, Kiffin used three of this year's scholarships on a kicker (Andre Heidari), punter (Kris Albarado) and long-snapper (Peter McBride). But the Trojans have struggled on special teams the past few seasons; these recruits could help shore up those spots and, more importantly, occupy them for several years, in which case USC will be able to devote its 15-scholarship classes to other areas.
Meanwhile, he also bucked the program's recent history and signed several juco players last month (offensive linemen Jeremy Galten and David Garness, safety Isiah Wiley) to fill immediate needs at two of the team's thinnest positions.
But it's not like the Trojans' struggles the past two seasons (they went 9-4 in 2009 and 8-5 last year) were due solely to depth issues. USC's talent level has dipped noticeably in several areas since Pete Carroll's heyday, particularly at running back, linebacker and the secondary. Carroll's last few classes occupied their usual spot near the top of the national rankings, but have thus far been defined by numerous high-profile busts.
Trojans fans are hoping it's not a coincidence those classes came after Carroll lost his two must trusted talent evaluators, Kiffin and defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, both now back in the fold.
"People questioned whether Pete Carroll was spending the proper amount of time doing evaluations during his latter time at USC," said Allen Wallace, national recruiting editor for Scout.com. "Lane said he was surprised at the lack of talent on the team [when he returned]. They didn't have enough players in the secondary. They were constantly giving up big plays."
For those reasons, Wallace agrees with the strategy to load up in the coming class, sanctions be damned.
"If you're going to go into the grave, go into the grave as healthy as possible," Wallace said. "They will have sacrificed a quicker recovery, but he's saying, OK, if we're really going to lose 30 scholarships, we're going to change the face of the team as quickly as we can."
Kiffin is certainly going about it a different way than USC fans are accustomed to. During the program's run of seven straight 11-win seasons, Carroll got to the point where he could essentially take his pick of the nation's most touted prospects. Of the 18 players in his 2007 class, 12 were among Scout.com's Top 100 players nationally.
Kiffin doesn't appear to have that luxury. His current class includes just five such players: Thomas, receiver George Farmer (Gardena, Calif.), defensive end Greg Townsend (Beverly Hills), linebacker Anthony Sarao (Absecon, N.J.) and defensive lineman Jalen Grimble (Las Vegas). But there's still more than enough talent for the class to currently rank fifth on Rivals.com, sixth on Scout.com.
USC is also still bringing in its share of local four-star players, like running back Amir Carlisle (Sunnyvale) -- one of two former Stanford commits (Sarao is the other) who switched to the Trojans after Jim Harbaugh left for the 49ers -- linebacker Tre Madden (Mission Viejo) and defensive tackle Antwaun Woods. However, USC is no longer necessarily the en vogue destination for players around the country.
"We're not playing in a BCS bowl, which is very unusual around here," Kiffin said recently. "... That has made it a little more difficult on a national scale, recruiting-wise. I have not felt that effect in Southern California, but I have felt that a little nationally. It is our job to build it back up."
He'll find out just how much pull the Trojans still have between now and Signing Day. USC is still waiting on the word of several elite prospects, most notably safety Marqise Lee (Gardena, Calif.), guards Cyrus Hobbi (Scottsdale, Ariz.) and Aundrey Walker (Cleveland, Ohio), tackle Antonio Richardson (Nashville) and tight end Junior Pomee (Moreno Valley, Calif.).
The offensive linemen's decisions will be particularly important. Kiffin previously called that area one of his two biggest concerns for next season, along with linebacker. Carroll did not sign enough o-linemen his last couple years, and only two starters return. Aside from the two juco signees, USC only has one offensive line commitment as of yet, three-star guard Marcus Martin. (Cody Temple, a three-star defensive tackle, could move to offense.)
"If there's a weakness in the class, it's that they haven't landed the elite offensive linemen that they need," said Wallace. "The guys they got, they're not the typical USC commitments."
Kiffin admits the Trojans "reached a little bit" in signing some lesser-regarded players. He's obviously concerned about USC's numbers. For the second straight year, Trojans seniors are allowed to transfer to another school without sitting out a year due to the bowl ban, and one, tight end Blake Ayles, has already left (for Miami). The question is, what happens in 2012 if the original sanctions get upheld?
USC only has 13 seniors due to graduate after next season. Others will presumably be lost to the draft or attrition. But if the Trojans do inch back closer to 85 scholarships this year, then must suddenly get back down to 75 ... well, let's just say Kiffin could be looking at a substantially smaller recruiting class this time next year.