Kickoff for Steve Sarkisian's first season as USC head coach is still more than seven months away, but the pressure on him to score big will reach a game-day pitch on national signing day 2014.
Scoring big on the recruiting trail is obviously a significant measure of any coach's performance, but for Sarkisian, the responsibility carries particular weight.
USC is in its third year of scholarship limitations, and the impact of the previous two years' reductions have rendered the Trojans' ranks particularly thin. Add the departure of five underclassmen for May's NFL draft, and the importance of Sarkisian signing a class not only rife with potential, but also stocked with players capable of immediate contribution is paramount.
The process of preparing a new crop of Trojans is underway, with five early enrollees: offensive tackle Jordan Austin, dual-threat quarterback Jalen Greene, defensive ends Don Hill and Claudeson Pelon and guard Toa Lobendahn.
In an interview on ESPN Radio's The Herd with Colin Cowherd, via CoachingSearch.com, Sarkisian alluded to the importance of establishing depth for the conference schedule.
They’re going to look great on day one, day two, day three, day four. I’m worried about how they’re going to look in mid-October. Make sure we’re fresh and healthy, feeling good about ourselves in mid-October and November, when we’re on a championship run.
Sarkisian's problem isn't just that USC lacks depth. The coach introduced a hurry-up, no-huddle offensive scheme last year at Washington, and the Huskies scored 37.9 points per game as a result.
While signing the athletes capable of running a hurry-up offense is crucial, it may actually be more important for USC to bolster its defensive ranks. The uptempo brand of football requires the defense to spend more time on the field. USC ranked No. 10 in time of possession nationally last season at 33:04 running a traditional offense. Sarkisian's Washington team ranked No. 93 at 28:41.
Those extra four-plus minutes per game can take their toll, particularly on a defense that did not—could not—go deep into its reserve lineup, most notably playing just 13 against Stanford in November. Preparing at least some of the eight current defensive prospects committed will play a part in the Trojans' identity by conference play.
|2014 USC Commitments (as of Jan. 19)|
|Player||Pos./Star Rating||Previous School|
|Jordan Austin||OT/3-Star||Claremont (Calif.)|
|Chris Brown||OG/4-Star||Los Angeles Loyola|
|Bryce Dixon||TE/4-Star||Ventura (Calif.) St. Bonavenutre|
|Malik Dorton||DE/3-Star||Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco|
|Jalen Greene||QB/3-Star||Gardena (Calif.) Serra|
|Ajen Harris||WR/2-Star||Los Angeles Crenshaw|
|Don Hill||DE/3-Star||Boise Timberline|
|Rahshead Johnson||WR/4-Star||Long Beach (Calif.) Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo|
|Toa Lobendahn||OG/4-Star||La Habra (Calif.)|
|Jonathan Lockett||CB/4-Star||Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei|
|Austin Maloata||DE/3-Star||Corona (Calif.) Centennial|
|Uchenna Nwosu||S/3-Star||Harbor City (Calif.) Narbonne|
|John Plattenburg Jr.||CB/3-Star||Houston Lamar|
|Claudeson Pelon||DE/4-Star||Mesa (Ariz.) College|
|Viane Talamaivao||OG/4-Star||Corona (Calif.) Centennial|
|Olajuwon Tucker||LB/3-Star||Gardena (Calif.) Serra|
With seven total 4-star prospects, USC matches Stanford and Oregon and has one fewer than rival UCLA. It's a strong class to be sure, though being so evenly deadlocked with other Pac-12 programs is somewhat new ground for the Trojans.
Dating back to 2002, the first year 247Sports ranks in its database, USC signed the Pac-12's top recruiting every year through 2011.
|Top-20 Ranked 2014 Pac-12 Signing Classes (as of Jan. 19)|
|Team||No. Of Commits||4-Star Commits||National Rank|
The good news for USC is Sarkisian and his staff aren't done. Over the weekend, USC hosted 4-star athlete Michiah Quick, a target of rivals UCLA and Notre Dame. Quick could be the next impact wide receiver, but is also a possible addition in the secondary with cornerback Josh Shaw and standout 2013 freshman safety Su'a Cravens.
Quick tweeted an Instagram photo with a star of Trojans defensive end Leonard Williams.
A push for 4-star offensive lineman Damien Mama also ensues in the final weeks before national signing day, and landing the prospect from nearby St. John Bosco in Bellflower, Calif., would be a major coup for this class. USC already has a verbal commitment from Mama's prep teammate, defensive end Malik Dorton, and Mama paid his official visit to campus on Jan. 17.
St. John Bosco coach Jason Negro told The Los Angeles Times "the kids are excited" about Sarkisian's hire, and the USC coach's preexisting relationship with some of the prep powerhouses in Southern California certainly helps in that process.
It's a presence Sarkisian had while a USC assistant and continued in his time at Washington.
"Getting to know Sark at UW was a big deal, but having him come back to [USC] was pretty awesome," Mama told B/R's Trenise Ferreira.
For an offensive line already adding three 4-star prospects—Lobendahn, Chris Brown and Viane Talamaivao—welcoming Mama into the fold would certainly bolster a unit that was one of USC's more problematic areas through the early portion of 2013.
Compared to other Pac-12 signing classes, USC is holding steady with or without Mama. Landing him would move the currently third-ranked Trojans signing class closer to a position the program has grown accustomed to: atop the conference and among the nation's best.
Sarkisian isn't simply recruiting against the Pac-12, or even the SEC, which has nine top-20 ranked classes. Meeting the expectations set at USC since the 2000s—an era Sarkisian contributed to as an assistant—is another benchmark the new head coach must reach.
Returning to the top of the recruiting mountain means establishing a national base.
"The focus starts in Southern California, but we will reach across the country,” Sarkisian told The Daily Trojan. “We’ve got a brand that can reach from the West Coast to the East Coast and everything in between."
As significant as USC's many conference-leading signing classes were to the program's dominance from 2002 through 2008, other highly regarded classes fell short of expectations. From 2009 through 2013, coming off of seven years of double-digit wins and BCS bowls, the Trojans failed to reach 10 wins three times.
Sarkisian can stockpile all of the highly rated prospects his scholarship allotment allows, but it equates only to potential until the coaches unlock it.
To that end, USC's 2014 signing class cannot be accurately gauged until it takes the field. Still, the initial outlook is promising. There's more Sarkisian can do, but ending national signing day with a top-20 haul is a big potential building block for the Trojans' future.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. All recruiting information obtained via 247Sports.com.