USC Trojans put focus on L.A. talent

LOS ANGELES -- There once was a king whose castle was built on a hill of gold. Greedy for treasure, this king spent his days traveling to distant lands in search of plunder, blind to the riches under his feet.

USC Trojans coach Lane Kiffin has young children, so he should be used to those kinds of parables.

It's kind of what was happening around USC in the final years under Pete Carroll. Trojans coaches piled up airline miles tracking down the highest-ranked high school players in America while some of the best local players kept drifting away to places like Eugene, Ore., Tempe, Ariz., and Berkeley.

Before long, instead of distancing itself from the rest of the Pac-10, USC found itself falling behind.

A few months ago, it dawned on Kiffin: It was time to stop the bleeding of local talent.

It was partly by design, but it was partly due to desperation. Kiffin doesn't mince words about that. For the second straight year but just the second time in the past nine years, USC wasn't playing in a BCS bowl this holiday season -- the Trojans played in the Emerald Bowl in 2009 and were banned by NCAA sanctions from playing in a bowl game after this past season. USC wasn't exactly the first school players in New Jersey, Georgia or Florida thought about when they let themselves dream.

But Kiffin had an easy sell when talking to kids within 50 miles of campus, many of whom had long pictured themselves scoring touchdowns, intercepting passes or leveling defenders at the Coliseum. Kiffin got tired of watching kids who grew up within an easy drive of USC's campus make big plays against his team this past season.

"Going back in time, if we would have been able to keep those guys, regardless of the great players who have come nationally, we wouldn't be playing against them in our conference and it would have shaped up a little bit different," Kiffin said.

"As long as I'm here, we're going to concentrate on Southern California."

Without crossing state lines much, Kiffin's staff has been busy assembling one of the best recruiting classes in the nation. The Trojans look like they will own the Southland on Feb. 2, the first day recruits can sign letters of intent. If Kiffin is as serious as he sounds about controlling Southern California, it could only spell continued trouble for UCLA.

USC has gotten verbal commitments from two of the top skill players in the nation, both of whom grew up within 15 miles of campus: Serra High of Gardena receiver George Farmer and Crenshaw High running back DeAnthony Thomas.

Defensive tackle Antwaun Woods of Taft High in Woodland Hills; defensive end Greg Townsend of Beverly Hills High; and quarterback Max Wittek and wide receiver Victor Blackwell, both of Mater Dei in Santa Ana, are the rest of the ESPNU 150 players who have committed verbally to play for Kiffin.

According to ESPN Recruiting, the Trojans will have the fourth-best recruiting class in the nation. Scout.com ranks it sixth, and Rivals.com puts it at No. 4. And the Trojans aren't done yet. If they land a top-rated linebacker or offensive lineman in the next two weeks, the Trojans could push even higher -- not bad for a program under NCAA probation.

To local observers, the Trojans' return to their Southern California recruiting roots isn't as surprising as their decision, under Carroll, to partially abandon it. Many people view tailback Joe McKnight's USC career as the culmination of that trend. Carroll got an 11th-hour commitment from McKnight, a Louisiana prep legend, just before signing day four years ago. For the next three seasons, critics argue, McKnight got preferential treatment.

"The universal perception was that Joe played no matter what, because Joe was a former No. 1 recruit and Pete had to make it seem like he was successful so he could get more No. 1 recruits to come here," said Garry Paskwietz, publisher of WeAreSc.com, an affiliate of ESPN.

An earlier blow to the Trojans came when blazing-fast receiver DeSean Jackson, a Long Beach kid, elected to go to Cal. Jackson later told ESPN The Magazine's Bruce Feldman that he bolted north in part because USC coaches had promised Patrick Turner, a Tennessee recruit, the No. 1 jersey he coveted.

Paskwietz said he started hearing in September that USC was again concentrating its efforts locally. He expects the strategy to remain in effect for years to come, Trojans coaches effectively trying to build a wall around Southern California. Such a strategy would be welcomed by local high school coaches, who are sometimes frustrated by the lack of local opportunities for their athletes.

"I hope his team is successful," Crenshaw coach Robert Garrett said. "He took the course of keeping the best talent right here. Back in the day, [Washington's] Don James and [Colorado] coach [Bill] McCartney started the trend of coming in here. They won with Southern California kids. I'm glad Lane is starting a new era by keeping kids at home."

The frustrating part for Garrett is that more of his players aren't recruited by colleges in general. Crenshaw went 12-2 and beat Carson in the CIF playoffs, but only Thomas and guard Marcus Martin, another USC verbal commit, were offered scholarships, Garrett said.

At last, it seems like USC isn't searching far and wide for what's right under its nose.

Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.