George Farmer a case study

LOS ANGELES -- Eight months ago, on national signing day, George Farmer was the country's most talked about prep receiver, a supposed freshman phenom.

And now, a half-year later, he isn't anymore. The start of his ballyhooed USC career was entirely overshadowed by two of his former high school teammates at Gardena Serra, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, the Trojans' two starting receivers.

And Farmer quickly disappeared down the depth chart.

Rumors of a redshirt season floated around the college football world, finding two responses. In some circles, Farmer's lack of immediate success served as validation that he was overhyped, overrated and not ready for the spotlight.

In others, it was viewed as only a continuation of a trend: Top prep prospects rarely produce right away when they get to college campuses, and his case was no different.

Farmer's unique situation, already complete with twists and turns two months in, adds some perspective as to which one of those is closer to the truth.

"When I first came in, things didn't go as planned," said Farmer, 18, keenly aware of his public perception. "I mean, look at it, a highly touted receiver coming in with all this hype and he didn't keep it up."

Most USC fan sites and message boards had penciled in Farmer as a starting receiver across from Woods even before he arrived on campus. But soon after he did, Lee, a fellow freshman, jumped over him and began fighting for the spot. Within a few weeks, Farmer was an afterthought.

"That's the norm," Trojans coach Lane Kiffin said this week. "What happened with George happens to almost all these kids around the country.

"You probably only get five to seven unique true-freshman stories around the country where guys come in and make major, major impacts, like Robert did last year. George is more [normal]. Once they get some time in the system, they get comfortable, the pressure is off of them, you see what you saw in high school."

In many respects, Kiffin is right. Not all five-star freshmen come in on fire like Woods did, and some certainly struggle. But it's also a bit abnormal to redshirt after entering college as a five-star prospect.

As an example, 12 of ESPNU's 14 five-star recruits in the 2011 class have already played this season. The only two not to log time: Farmer and Auburn offensive tackle Christian Westerman, an Arizona product who was also heavily recruited by USC.

Of those 12, three have made big-time impacts: Texas running back Malcolm Brown, Georgia running back Isaiah Crowell and LSU defensive tackle Anthony Johnson. A few others have shown flashes in game situations, including Clemson receiver Charone Peake and linebacker Tony Steward, but the rest have just sort of been there so far, nearing the halfway point of the season.

Typically, they'll get their chances. Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel looks like he'll start this week for the Gators with John Brantley out. Many LSU fans want the Tigers to start offensive lineman La'El Collins sooner rather than later.

But Farmer isn't going to get any chances this year. A few weeks back, he and his father, a former NFL receiver, met with Kiffin to figure out USC's plan for him, and the topic of a redshirt came up.

"There was definitely a low point," Farmer said. "But then I got over it. I had to bounce back.

"I had to be positive about it and I did what I could do to show what else I'm capable of."

In his case, "what else" was a different position.

A week ago, after the Trojans' first loss of the season, to Arizona State, Kiffin and the Trojans assigned Farmer to various skill-position spots on the scout team so he could emulate various tall, quick opponents. After a few days, he'd stood out enough at running back to make the coaches consider keeping him there long term.

He's still redshirting this season, but significant playing time at running back as soon as next season sounds like a real possibility.

"It all started on scout team," Farmer said this week. "The coaches asked to me play quarterback, running back, receiver, and I just got in there and did the best I could. I saw that I had a little bit of vision, that I could actually play running back, and before I knew it, the coaches mentioned it to me."

Farmer hasn't played the position in a game since his Pop Warner days. And at 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, Farmer's body doesn't lend itself too much to from-the-backfield running. But he plans to put on 10 or so pounds, which should give him enough bulk -- at this level, at least -- to absorb hits from linemen and linebackers. And he'll use an upright running style in the mold of an Adrian Peterson or Darren McFadden.

"I was surprised, having not played running back for a while, for him to go back there and look pretty natural doing it, which says a lot about what an athlete that he is," Kiffin said. "If we could ever get that where he was a real running back with that size and speed, we know what he can do outside.

"If you could do this at running back, too, it would be a nightmare matchup issue for people."

Farmer's skills already have been an issue in practice. He became USC's fastest, quickest running back as soon as he moved to the position. On Wednesday, he got a lot of snaps in 11-on-11 team drills because of the bye week, and troubled the Trojans' defense time and time again with his speed to the sideline.

And this was 24 hours after he had to leave practice early with a sprained ankle. His resolve impressed the staff.

"It really says a lot about him, to sprain his ankle and then come right back out," Kiffin said. "I wish all our guys did that."

Kiffin admitted last week that he was tempted to pull Farmer's redshirt when he saw his immediate potential at running back. But he'll stay sitting out, with time to contemplate how his freshman season has gone and why it went the way it did.

Was there too much pressure on him to succeed, more pressure than most kids his age should deal with?

Probably. But nagging injuries also are to blame, and maybe time is, too. It now appears he's coming into his own two months after fall camp began in August, which doesn't sound particularly long.

The biggest thing for top-rated prep prospects? Most, if not all of them, have the ability to succeed at the next level and can do so if given time. But judgments in the high-stakes world of college football in 2011 are made so quickly that many of them don't get that time.

Who's to say Farmer couldn't have broken out at receiver a year from now, in his redshirt freshman season? Would that be too late to make an impact at the college level?

Not at all. In his case, the move to running back might end up being temporary, but it still shines a light on how quickly college coaches are willing to abandon projects, even the most highly touted of them.

"I don't look at it like I struggled at receiver, because I feel like I still did well," Farmer said. "The coaches were telling me that I was looking good at receiver, so I think it was more to help the team. I think they saw that I could be the explosive running back that they need."

And, publicly, Farmer insists all the pressure placed on him at USC was warranted. He knew what he was getting himself into when he committed to the Trojans last December, he says.

"As a 17-year or 18-year-old, we chose to do this," Farmer said. "This is our career, this is our job, and all of that comes along with it, so if you choose to do this, you better be able to deal with what it brings."

Pedro Moura covers USC for ESPNLA.com.