As much as Steve Sarkisian has to recruit outside of USC, he also is facing the challenge of convincing draft-eligible juniors to stay in Troy.
Since he came on board, five have declared for the pros (S Dion Bailey, DT George Uko, C Marcus Martin, TE Xavier Grimble and WR Marqise Lee), all from positions of need for the Trojans. Defensive back Josh Shaw, linebacker Hayes Pullard and running back Buck Allen are the next upperclassmen on the block who haven't made a decision yet, and keeping them at USC is critical.
Sarkisian needs to make recruiting these three a priority.
Keeping soon-to-be seniors in Troy undoubtedly has an impact on Sarkisian's ability to succeed early at USC. As USCFootball.com's Ryan Abraham points out, the Trojans are sorely lacking veterans, and losing any more could be a huge problem:
With just 11 seniors, younger players will be asked to shoulder the load. As we have seen over the past two seasons with the secondary in particular, younger players can make for headaches come Saturday. If Shaw, Pullard and Allen were to leave early, Sarkisian could find himself up the creek without a paddle before the season even starts.
On Tuesday, Sarkisian went on ESPN Radio to talk about the depth problems the Trojans are facing and how that impacts preparation for the 2014 season:
When we get to training camp, we’ll have between 65-70 scholarship players that are healthy and ready to go. When you think about that, compare it to everybody else in the country that have 85. We’re 20 players less, essentially, at practice. Practice is when most people work with the [first string] and [second string] and sometimes [third string]. We’re going [first] and maybe [second string].
Clearly, USC needs all the able and experienced bodies it can get. Fortunately, Sarkisian is in a good position to convince these three important playmakers to stay.
Sarkisian can sell Shaw on the fact that in 2014 he will only line up at safety, which is what he would play in the NFL, according to NFL.com's Charles Davis. He doesn't have a full season under his belt at that position; he has rotated between there and cornerback thus far in his career.
If Shaw stays for 2014, he can show NFL scouts what he can really do at safety and improve his draft stock. Sarkisian needs to stress to Shaw that it is in his best interest to get another year of college under his belt, because leaving for the NFL can be disastrous if done prematurely.
For Pullard, Sarkisian can sell a similar story.
As productive as he has been for USC, he doesn't have enough game-changing plays in his portfolio to leave early. In 2013 he had just one interception (and only two in his career), 50 tackles (5.5 for loss) and six deflections. He had six sacks between 2011 and 2012, but none this past year.
Like Shaw, Pullard needs another season under his belt to develop as a player, put on some more weight, and really learn how to be a mike linebacker in a 3-4 alignment. Doing these things will make him a valuable commodity in the NFL.
Since USC has managed to stay relevant during the sanctions, being a high-profile contributor on this Trojan squad will also turn the heads of NFL scouts. Furthermore, new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox's bend-but-don't-break scheme will grant Pullard more opportunities to showcase his skills in coverage. His true range as a linebacker will be put on display, and that will boost his draft stock.
Convincing Allen to stay might be the easiest job for Sarkisian; the star running back is the least experienced of these three playmakers.
Sarkisian needs to remind Allen that he doesn't have an entire year of starting experience to his name, and he needs that if he wants any kind of serious consideration at the next level. His success in 2013 was undoubtedly remarkable, but he needs to do it again and stay healthy while he's at it.
Aside from that, Allen could just use some more grooming at the collegiate level in general.
If Sarkisian can convince Shaw, Pullard and Allen to come back for one more year, he can exhale a slight sigh of relief this spring. He still has a challenge ahead of him in filling USC's 19 scholarships and dealing with the limited amount of veterans that he has inherited.
But if he can pull it off, the presence of experienced veterans could be the difference between Sarkisian turning lemons into lemonade or leaving a sour taste in the mouths of Trojan fans in his inaugural season.