Steve Sarkisian and his
But in the next 30 days, Sarkisian has another pressing concern: Retaining star players already on the roster.
Defensive lineman Leonard Williams, quarterback Cody Kessler, tailback Javorius Allen and receiver Nelson Agholor are among 27 juniors and third-year sophomores eligible to make themselves available for the NFL draft.
FOR THE RECORD
Dec. 15, 5 p.m.: An earlier version of this article reported George Uko was not with an NFL team. He is on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice squad.
Offensive linemen Max Tuerk and Zach Banner, tailback Tre Madden, receiver George Farmer, defensive linemen Delvon Simmons and Claude Pelon, linebacker Anthony Sarao and cornerback Kevon Seymour also are draft-eligible.
The deadline for players to apply for the draft is Jan. 15.
Sarkisian said Sunday that he had met with most draft-eligible players individually and that he was confident they would not be distracted as they prepare for and then play in the Dec. 27 Holiday Bowl against Nebraska.
"They've got nearly three weeks after [the game] to form a really good decision," he said.
The number of juniors and third-year sophomores declaring for the NFL draft has risen steadily in the 25 years since they became eligible to do so.
In 1990, 28 made themselves available for the draft. In 2014, a record 98 were in the pool, 25 more than the previous year.
Six non-seniors were among the top 10 picks in 2014. But only 61 of the 98 available underclassmen were chosen in the seven-round draft.
This year, the NFL has instituted changes in the process.
In the past, any draft-eligible player could request an evaluation from the league's College Advisory Committee. This year, only five evaluations per college team will be accepted, though additional players may be evaluated subject to the approval of the committee on a case-by-case basis, NFL spokesman Michael Signora said in an email.
The evaluations categorize players in three ways: having the ability to be drafted as high as the first round; having the ability to be drafted as high as the second round; they should remain a student-athlete maturing as a potential professional prospect while continuing their education.
"Student-athletes should finish their eligibility and their education whenever possible," Signora, in an email, said in response to a question about whether the NFL had an official position on who should enter the draft and who should remain in school. "But whether or not they decide to declare as underclassmen or stay in school, they should make an informed decision."
USC has experienced its share of players leaving early to enter the draft.
Many were first-round picks, including linebacker Junior Seau, safety Mark Carrier, quarterback Todd Marinovich, receiver Curtis Conway, defensive tackle Darrell Russell, linebacker Chris Claiborne, defensive end Kenechi Udeze, receiver Mike Williams, tailback Reggie Bush, quarterback Mark Sanchez, offensive linemen Tyron Smith and Matt Kalil and defensive lineman Nick Perry.
Other Trojans juniors were selected in later rounds, but some went undrafted and signed as free agents.
In the 2014 draft, USC receiver Marqise Lee and offensive lineman Marcus Martin were selected in the second and third rounds respectively. But safety Dion Bailey, tight end Xavier Grimble and defensive lineman George Uko were not drafted.
The undrafted former Trojans signed with teams as free agents. Bailey is a member of the Seattle Seahawks practice squad, Uko the Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice squad. Grimble currently is not with an NFL organization.
Those five players left USC after a season of turmoil that included coach Lane Kiffin's firing and Ed Orgeron's bolting the program after Sarkisian was hired in early December.
Sarkisian lamented that he was not on campus long enough to develop a relationship and "trust factor" with the juniors who opted to turn pro.
"We competed to try and help them," he said recently. "Obviously, not all of them made the best decision. There are some of them that are on the street right now not playing football…. I feel bad it went down that way. I'm much more confident with this group."
Williams, who was named an All-American by ESPN.com, is projected as a possible top-five draft pick and will almost certainly make himself available for the draft.
But he said he had not made a decision, and sounded torn about leaving teammates and the college experience behind.
"In the beginning, when I found out I was going to be able to go high in the draft, obviously, that's every man's dream within football," he said. "So I was like, 'I'm definitely leaving.'
"Now that it's getting closer, it's a really hard decision."
Gil Brandt, a former Dallas Cowboys executive and longtime draft analyst, said Williams was the only Trojans player he would advise to declare for the draft.
"He's a top-five player," Brandt said. "You've got a hard time saying, 'You should stay in school.'"
Kessler was not regarded as a top NFL prospect at the start of the season, but he emerged as a possible early-exit candidate after putting together an exceptional statistical season.
Kessler has passed for 36 touchdowns, with only four interceptions. He said he told Sarkisian that if he decided to stay, the main reason would be "to come back and win a championship."
Allen seriously considered entering the draft after last season, but he returned and has rushed for 1,337 yards and nine touchdowns.
Allen said he had not made a decision about his future.
"I'm just trying to finish strong with finals and get ready for the bowl game," he said. "I'll talk to Sark about things and then go from there."
Agholor played in the shadow of Robert Woods and Lee as a freshman, and was the No. 2 option behind Lee in 2013. This season, he has 97 receptions, 11 for touchdowns. He also has returned two punts for touchdowns.
Woods' and Lee's decisions to leave after their junior seasons would not influence him, Agholor said.
"Those are two good players, but they're two separate people," he said. "I have to find my own way."
Linebacker Su'a Cravens is giving his teammates plenty of space to make their decisions. He said he would not attempt to influence them one way or the other, but he will monitor the process.
Cravens, an all-conference linebacker, is a sophomore who will face the same decision after next season.
"All I can do is watch and see what it's like," he said, "and just prepare for that."