No-Waiting Game Works for USC Recruiting

Times Staff Writer

As one of the most sought-after high school football players in the nation, Jeff Byers composed a short list of criteria to guide him as he navigated the college recruiting process.

Byers, a center from Loveland, Colo., who is regarded as perhaps the top offensive lineman in the class of 2004, was looking for a university boasting strong academics and a football program that featured team chemistry and a knowledgeable and enthusiastic coaching staff.

Byers said he found all, or most, of those elements at every school he visited during official trips to USC, Notre Dame, Texas, Ohio State and Iowa.

But Byers, who verbally committed to USC last week, also noticed something unique about the Trojans.

"They play a ton of freshmen," Byers said by phone this week.

Though he cannot sign a letter of intent until February, the 6-foot-4, 280-pound Byers is at the head of what is expected to be another stellar Trojan recruiting class for third-year Coach Pete Carroll and his staff. For the second year in a row, USC is catching the eye of national recruits -- and pollsters -- with a team featuring about a dozen first-year players contributing to its success.

"Playing those freshmen is a big bonus to the program, because it sends out signals to the [high school] players that USC has a coach who's going to play the best guy regardless of their year in school, and kids respect that," said Allen Wallace, who has tracked recruiting since 1985 for SuperPrep magazine.

Last season, freshman Tom Malone was USC's punter from the outset, offensive tackle Winston Justice became a starter before the second game and wide receiver Mike Williams started twice and was the leading receiver. Nine other true freshmen played on special teams and as reserves.

This season, freshman tailbacks LenDale White and Reggie Bush, wide receiver Steve Smith and strong safety Darnell Bing are playing significant roles for the 8-1 Trojans, who are second in the BCS standings and positioned for a run at their first national title since 1978. Junior college transfers Will Poole and John Drake also have moved into the starting lineup at cornerback and offensive guard, respectively.

"It's not a wait-your-turn deal around here," said Lane Kiffin, USC's receivers coach. "Recruits talk about that."

USC doesn't have a game this week, giving USC coaches a final regular-season recruiting push while high school and junior college games are still being played. Several assistants will travel out of the state. Others will monitor local games.

Last season, Carroll said playing freshmen was a necessity because of a lack of depth in the program. This season, he said, freshmen are playing because of talent.

White, from Colorado, has rushed for more than 100 yards in a game three times and has scored nine touchdowns.

Bush, from La Mesa Helix, has emerged as a multidimensional threat. He has rushed for three touchdowns, including one on a spectacular, 58-yard cutback play against Notre Dame, and has caught two touchdown passes.

Smith, from Woodland Hills Taft High, won the No. 3 receiver spot during training camp. He turned the momentum in the Trojans' favor against Washington State with a 55-yard, third-quarter touchdown.

Bing, who graduated from Long Beach Poly High in 2002 but did not enroll at USC until last spring, has started every game and has intercepted two passes.

Televised images of all those freshmen making plays speaks volumes to potential recruits, Carroll said.

"It sends a strong signal that it's not talk -- it's what we do," Carroll said. "Not only do we have [freshman] guys that play, we have guys that star. That potential for the next young guy coming in is there."

White and Bush said they recognized that potential when they were being recruited last year. USC played the 2002 season with three senior running backs, all of whom went to NFL training camps, and freshman Hershel Dennis.

"I knew I would be able to come in and be a factor my freshman year and not have to sit out and redshirt," Bush said. "I didn't know if I was going to start, but I could be a factor."

Offensive coordinator Norm Chow said he rarely, if ever, relied on freshmen during 27 seasons as an offensive assistant and coordinator at Brigham Young and one season at North Carolina State. But Chow is not complaining about the young weapons who have helped the Trojans average 40.2 points a game.

"It's unbelievable, it really is," Chow said. "It's talent, plus a willingness of the head coach to do that and take a chance on guys like that."

Ed Orgeron, USC's defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator, said the Trojans are a couple of top recruiting classes away from harboring the kind of depth Miami enjoyed when he was the Hurricane defensive line coach from 1989-92.

Orgeron, however, does not expect a logjam that would adversely affect USC's ability to attract top players.

"As long as you're winning, kids want to come," he said.

Wallace, who has tracked recruiting trends for nearly two decades, said the Trojans should not worry about reaching a saturation point.

"If your biggest problem as a coach is worrying about having too much talent," he said, "that's a problem every coach wants."

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