USC handles tough recruiting challenges

LOS ANGELES -- Lane Kiffin has long had a reputation for pushing the boundaries of recruiting, but he heard some things this winter that made even him take a step back, blink a few times and shake his head.

"Before, we didn't have to deal with coaches going into homes and reading, line by line, the NCAA sanctions to our recruits," Kiffin said. "We faced a new set of challenges."

More than ever, USC had a target on its back this winter, the first since the NCAA came down with severe sanctions last June. The penalties became a focal point for other coaches trying to sway recruits leaning toward USC. With national signing day just hours away, the negative recruiting appears to have been largely in vain.

Depending on a few last-minute changes of heart, the Trojans figure to land about 24 players Wednesday and many of them are considered among the best in the nation. ESPN.com ranks this class No. 4 in the country. It should be a top-10 class while under duress and that ranking might be more impressive than those No. 1 overall classes when the Trojans were riding high a few years ago.

Kiffin's recruiting style at Tennessee was that of a carnival barker, so it's amazing how quiet USC's pitch was this year. With so many other people yelling the negatives at his recruits, all he and his staff had to do was whisper the positives.

They talked about the value of an education at a highly regarded, expensive private university. They emphasized the high level of competition in practice and the coaching staff's NFL ties. Los Angeles and 75-degree weather sell themselves, so that part was easy. The only new pitch was a slideshow of the John McKay Center, which will house fancy new football facilities starting in these players' sophomore season.

In some cases, it probably didn't require as much effort as the coaches expended.

The crown jewel of the 2011 class could be wide receiver George Farmer from Serra High in Gardena, No. 12 on the ESPNU 150, who was leaning toward USC all along. His father, George Farmer III, had an idea what they were getting into because he was once in his son's shoes before he attended Southern University and then played four seasons in the NFL.

"These coaches will tell you whatever they think you want to hear," he said.

They may have overestimated the Farmers' willingness to hear about USC's penalties. They live 10 miles from campus, so there's probably not a lot of news another school was going to break to them about what had been happening since Reggie Bush took all that forbidden fruit six years ago.

USC can't play in a bowl game or compete in a Pac-12 title game in 2011 and will be under probation and scholarship limits through 2013.

"The negativity started right away against USC," George Farmer III said. "I don't know if they realized it, but that just kind of turned us off. There wasn't one school that didn't come in here with that. I asked one, 'Did you come here to hate on SC or come to sell us your program?'"

Palmdale defensive end Steve Dillon didn't have as many stars by his name and, consequently, didn't deal with the barrage of coaches' calls that Farmer did, but those who came after him made an issue of the sanctions. Dillon's final three schools were USC, Cal and Utah.

"It doesn't matter how the sanctions go," Dillon said. "SC is just the type of program they are. People know how they produce good players and their history and everything like that. Everyone wants to be part of USC, especially the Cali boys."

The local players seemed the least susceptible to negative recruiting. Of the top seven players listed as USC commits by ESPN.com recruiting experts, six went to high school within 25 miles of campus. Twenty of 25 players on the list are from California.

One of those players from outside the state, Arizona offensive lineman Cyrus Hobbi, sounded swayed by the talent level on the practice field.

"I'm going to play with a lot of guys who are very, very good football players -- a lot better than me," Hobbi said. "Hopefully, I can make myself better."

This class also represents a sizable gamble for Kiffin, who estimated he could land as many as 33 new players, nine of whom have already enrolled and count against last year's scholarship count. If an NCAA committee rejects the Trojans' appeal, which it heard last month, Kiffin could face even stiffer limits in the coming years. A larger-than-usual percentage of this year's class figures to redshirt.

The scholarship limits are stayed pending the outcome of the appeal, which figures to come later this month.

"Obviously, our president has said we don't want to talk about our future plans until the appeal is decided," Kiffin said.

These days, his actions are speaking louder than his words.

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