Midnight strikes on one of the more turbulent periods in USC football history, as the harshest NCAA sanctions levied in 20 years conclude. With the proverbial handcuffs off, Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian has no excuse for not dominating the recruiting scene in the Pac-12 in the years to come.
The end of the sanctions hardly means USC is out of the woods. Returning to a full, 85-man roster will not happen with just one recruiting class, or perhaps even two, as Josh Webb of USCFootball.com notes:
Ironically, the sanctions became a double-edged sword for USC on the recruiting front. The hit the program took to its depth after three years of reduced scholarship allotment was an obvious negative, but it also meant newcomers had to contribute immediately.
Those immediate playing opportunities kept 4- and 5-star prospects coming to USC amid the turbulence. Sarkisian's predecessor, Lane Kiffin, signed classes ranked No. 9 and No. 12 nationally in 2012 and 2013.
Sarkisian continued that trend in 2014, landing the nation's No. 11-ranked class, and the best overall class in the Pac-12 despite staff turnover as Sarkisian supplanted interim head coach Ed Orgeron.
"To think, in the past six weeks, the majority of which being a massive dead period in the middle, we signed, of our 19, 12 kids who weren't committed to us," Sarkisian said in his national signing day press conference, per USCFootball.com.
Indeed, the Trojans will still need an influx of talent ready to contribute immediately from the cream of its recruiting crop. As the star prospects come in and shine early, they are typically not long for the program.
To wit, USC was tied for the most early entries into last month's NFL draft with five, despite having one of the thinnest rosters.
Wide receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee each starred as first-year players, and both left early for the NFL. Nelson Agholor enters the 2014 campaign as one of the nation's premier receivers, and could very well continue that trend.
However, Sarkisian will need a lower portion of his signing classes to contribute immediately going forward, and that's one of the true recruiting boons of the sanctions ending.
Starting in 2015, national signing day will be as much about adding depth as filling immediate, pressing needs in the starting lineup. That's already beginning to manifest in the 2015 recruiting class, currently ranked atop the Pac-12.
Sarkisian has eight commitments, including two on the offensive line—a position that had its depth noticeably depleted by the sanctions. The 2014 signing class brought in five new linemen. Some, like spring breakout performer Toa Lobendahn, must contribute immediately.
But talented prospects in the 2015 class will have more opportunity to develop without being thrown immediately into the fray.
Another boon: Sarkisian will not have to rely heavily on mid-year enrollees, as was the case for USC in the sanctioned recruiting cycles. As Sarkisian said in his signing day press conference, the final weeks were the most important in bringing together the 2014 class.
A midyear graduate exception allowed USC to sign additional recruits, but only those able to enroll early. Those scholarships were on a use-it-or-lose-it basis. The expiration of the sanctions allows Sarkisian and staff to cast a wider net, no longer having to focus on signing a particular number of early enrollees.
As recruits replenish the Trojan ranks, USC should take a big step toward once again being the Pac-12's preeminent program.
Recruiting rankings and information culled from 247Sports.com.