Two years into NCAA sanctions, USC’s football program now faces the toughest part.
For each of the next three years Coach Lane Kiffin and his staff can give only 15 scholarships, and by fall the Trojans’ roster cannot exceed 75 scholarship players. Both of those numbers are a handicap of 10 fewer than what rules typically allow.
As punishment goes, the four years of NCAA probation were more symbolic than punitive, and the two-year bowl ban, while disappointing for players, coaches and fans, is over.
But this kind of stretch without a full complement of scholarships has at least temporarily sunk programs before.
“I think this will be the most difficult stretch,” Athletic Director Pat Haden said of the limits on recruiting, “but Lane enunciated a plan over a year ago and we’re confident he will see it through.”
Haden has played a part in the recruiting effort.
The resignation of defensive backs coach Willie Mack Garza before last season left the Trojans with only eight full-time assistant coaches, one fewer than the NCAA limit. Until a new coach is hired, NCAA spokesperson Stacey Osburn said, an athletic director can fill in as a recruiter as long as he or she passes a standard recruiting exam.
Haden declined to comment on his role, citing NCAA rules that forbid coaches and administrators from speaking about recruits.
Last year, with what would turn out to be a failed NCAA appeal pending and recruiting restrictions looming, USC brought in 30 players. Eight who enrolled in January 2011 counted against the class from the previous year.
Kiffin stockpiled players so that USC might avoid the fate suffered by Miami and Alabama.
Miami lost 31 scholarships after it was sanctioned in 1995 and did not return to elite status until 2000, winning the 2001 Bowl Championship Series title.
Alabama lost 21 scholarships when it was sanctioned in 2002 and went through several coaching changes until Nick Saban was hired in 2007. The Crimson Tide went undefeated in 2009 and won the BCS title. It also won the BCS title this season.
USC appears better prepared to weather the immediate effects of recruiting sanctions, especially with quarterback Matt Barkley opting to return for a final season.
The Trojans are expected to be ranked among the top five in preseason polls and recruiting experts say USC is doing just fine.
“They’re still the gold standard when it comes to the [Pac-12] conference,” said Brandon Huffman, national recruiting analyst for Scout.com. “More this year than any other year because they have to be more judicious in how many they had to give.”
The Trojans, focusing on linemen, received good news Monday when Zach Banner, a 6-foot-8, 305-pound offensive tackle from Lakes High in Lakewood, Wash., announced that he would sign with USC.
The Trojans also have received oral commitments from offensive linemen Max Tuerk of Santa Margarita High and Jordan Simmons of Encino Crespi, receiver Darreus Rogers of Carson, linebacker Jabari Ruffin of Downey, tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick of Rocklin (Calif.) Whitney, defensive lineman Pio Vatuvei of Patterson (Calif.), fullback Jahleel Pinner of Mission Viejo and multidimensional defensive back Kevon Seymour of Pasadena Muir.
USC also announced in January that four players were scheduled to enroll for the spring semester. Those players can count against the class of 2011 if they attend classes. Linebacker Scott Starr and offensive lineman Chad Wheeler graduated early from Norco and Santa Monica highs. Safety Gerald Bowman transferred from Los Angeles Pierce College, defensive lineman Morgan Breslin from Diablo Valley College northeast of Oakland.
Defensive lineman Devante Wilson, who signed with USC in 2011 but was injured and did not attend school last fall, is attending classes, as is safety Josh Shaw, a transfer from Florida who will be eligible in 2013.
Those additions, coupled with the transfer or departure from the program of several players, leaves the Trojans with 67 scholarship players. That number is likely to be reduced to 66, pending the expected transfer of fifth-year senior defensive lineman Armond Armstead, who redshirted last season because he was not medically cleared to play by USC.
Still, if USC’s 2012 class includes 15 players, the Trojans would be over their limit of 75 by six players. Kiffin has said he has a plan to keep the roster at 75 but declined to specify how.
Regardless, it is not expected to dissuade USC from signing elite prospects on Wednesday.
Among the top prospects who have not yet announced their decisions: Offensive linemen Kyle Murphy from San Clemente High and Andrus Peat from Tempe (Ariz.) Corona del Sol, defensive lineman Leonard Williams of Daytona Beach (Fla.) Mainland and receiver Nelson Agholor of Tampa (Fla.) Berkeley Prep.
Mike Farrell, national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, said the Trojans are “not going to reach on anybody down the stretch.”
Greg Biggins, assistant recruiting editor and West Coast regional coordinator for ESPN, said the Trojans are usually good for a surprise or two.
“They always seem to have a trick up their sleeve,” he said. “You never know.”