LOS ANGELES, Calif. — The fax machines cooled on Feb. 6. USC head coach Lane Kiffin sat before the media, looking exhausted from the day -- and perhaps the year -- in recruiting. He tried his best to sum up what the previous 12 months of chasing prospects had been like.
“It’s like big-game fishing,” Kiffin said. “You’re not going to get a lot of them. But you get some really big prizes and as you look at these guys, they’re the cream of the crop.”
It was an apt description for a team that shot out to a sizzling start on the recruiting trail, landing a wealth of commitments that put the Trojans at the top of Scout.com’s early rankings. USC still ended with a list of signees that would make most schools envious, but many of the elite players that made their initial recruiting returns so strong changed their minds as the season unfolded, discouraged either by USC’s struggles on the field, a head coach on the hot seat, or the difficulties of securing one of the school’s limited number of available scholarships.
“Anytime you have a bad season and job security questions, it’s going to impact your recruiting -- no matter what,” Kiffin said.
For a while, it was supposed to be the year of the comeback and the year of the takeover for USC. The Trojans went into their 2012 schedule coming off a 10-2 season and were bowl eligible once again, poised to return to the BCS for the first time in two years after surviving NCAA sanctions banning them from postseason play. A preseason No. 1 AP ranking in August solidified the belief that the Trojans were the favorite to take home the BCS National Championship trophy in January.
Their 2013 recruiting class, though limited to 18 scholarships due to the same sanctions, only added more steam to the Trojan train.
Kiffin received a whopping eight verbal commitments in July to put the program at its scholarship limit. Among those July commits were five-star defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes and five-star safety Jalen Ramsey. The class boasted seven Scout.com five-star recruits in total, including the nation’s top-rated quarterback, Max Browne, and top-rated safety, Su’a Cravens.
Six months before National Signing Day and the Trojans’ class was overloaded with talented players.
“USC is the best combination of football and academics in the country,” Browne said when he committed to the Trojans in April.
“I always wanted to be a Trojan growing up,” said Cravens during his June announcement. “USC has everything I could want in a program.”
These were common refrains among the early commits, and the Trojans’ early on-field results signaled little reason for alarm. USC started 6-1 in 2012, with the lone loss coming on the road to a Stanford team that ultimately won the Rose Bowl.
But the strength of those commitments would be tested as the season progressed. The Trojans lost back-to-back games in late October and early November, falling to 6-3 and beginning the mass exodus.
On Nov. 5, two days after a 62-51 home loss to Oregon, four-star safety Max Redfield became the first marquee commitment to re-open his recruitment. Redfield, though, remained steadfast that the Trojans’ record didn’t factor in his reasons to de-commit.
Then, in early December, four-star receiver Eldridge Massington announced that he too was re-opening his recruitment. Then it was Vanderdoes, who went from a Trojan commit to putting USC in his new top five.
Thirteen USC 2013 commits made the trip to San Antonio, Texas, to play in the Army All-American Bowl at the turn of the New Year. It was together they watched what many of them called an “embarrassing” 21-7 USC loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl. The Trojans, with all that preseason hope, finished the season 7-6 and unranked.
And the de-commitments kept coming.
Four-star wide receiver Sebastian LaRue withdrew his verbal pledge on Jan. 2, a commitment he never felt was solid from USC’s side. LaRue often told Scout.com that he didn’t feel that the coaching staff reached out to him or answered his calls as often as other recruits in the class.
Five-star quarterback Max Browne stuck with the Trojans during an up-and-down season.
Four-star defensive end Kylie Fitts was set to enroll early at USC on Jan. 10. But it was just three days earlier that Fitts learned his scholarship would not be available until the end of the year. Fitts felt no other option but to withdraw his commitment. He had already graduated from high school after spending a year and a half on the fast-track in preparation for his early departure.
“Kylie’s situation, I didn’t like it at all,” Kiffin explained during his Signing Day press conference. “We were put into a situation that was extremely unexpected by our coaching staff. We were 100 percent up-front with Kylie from the second of us knowing that … He’s a great kid. That’s a great family.”
Then came four-star defensive end Jason Hatcher, who de-committed just before Signing Day.
On Feb. 5, less than 24 hours before letters would be faxed, news came that Ramsey would be flipping from USC to Florida State, Hatcher would be faxing his letter to Kentucky, and four-star defensive end Torrodney Prevot -- the last to commit in July -- would flip to Texas A&M or Oregon.
“I think we’re just living in that world more than ever,” Kiffin said about the nature of the de-commitments. “As you look at college football recruiting, a commitment means less and less. That’s all around the country.”
USC received six National Letters of Intent on Signing Day. None from any of the players who had de-committed. The Trojans had 18 scholarships to fill and 13 letters signed (Darreus Rogers, originally in the 2012 class did not academically qualify and delayed his enrollment until 2013).
There was some good news. By the end of January, all six of USC’s anticipated early enrollees made their way to campus, including Browne, Cravens, and five-stars Kenny Bigelow and Justin Davis, locking them in to their USC commitments and ensuring a solid foundation to what was turning out to be a turbulent recruiting finish.
Kiffin had a choice to make when deciding how to recruit through the NCAA sanctions and limited scholarships. Hand out too many offers, and some kids would have to be turned away, leaving them scrambling for an alternative on Signing Day. Hand out too few, and you may not fill up your class. Kiffin opted for the latter.
“We were having kids calling us wanting to commit and we couldn’t take them,” he said. “We didn’t want to take more kids than what we had spots for.
“That hurt us late because a lot of the times when you want to go back to those kids, they aren’t there any more.”
But Kiffin’s 13 are there. And there aren’t many who can argue a point the coach was quick to bring to our attention.
“I can’t imagine there’s a better class of 13 guys -- of their top 13 -- in the country,” he said.
The kaboom! USC fans have come to expect as a traditional closer on Signing Day only boomed once this time around, with the morning announcement of four-star defensive end Quinton Powell, the only true good surprise on Feb. 6. The absence of pomp and circumstance around USC on one of the biggest days on the college football calendar could easily lead one to believe the day was a failure for the Trojans.
Despite the lower numbers, this class could still be one of USC’s biggest successes. The Trojans finished with Scout.com’s No. 18-ranked class in the country. USC tied with Ohio State for the second most top 100 players, behind only repeat BCS champion Alabama. The Trojans’ five five-star signees are second only to, once again, the Crimson Tide.
On Signing Day, Kiffin sat at the microphone in his sweatpants for nearly a half hour fielding questions, mostly about commitments lost and a job status that he admits even recruits wonder about. Behind him, a backdrop bore the Yellow Pages’ slogan – “Find it Locally.” Only two of the 13 signees in this class are from Los Angeles County. A total of four are from Southern California. An optimistic Kiffin stood firm in the belief that he found the best talent from around the country and is bringing it to Los Angeles.
“We think all of these players can come in right away and help us,” Kiffin said. “We are so excited about these 13 guys.”