Kiffin deserves credit for USC's recruiting turnaround

When the letters of intent come rolling off the fax machine Wednesday, USC is expected to finish as strong as any program in the country. There are even whispers of the Trojans climbing as high as No. 2 in the ESPN RecruitingNation class rankingsInsider if everything goes USC's way. Kudos will be heaped upon coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff -- rightfully so, because they did clean up in a topsy-turvy year in Pac-12 recruiting -- but there's another person Trojans fans probably should thank.

Lane Kiffin.

Even though he was ushered out of town September 2013 after USC struggled on the field, it was Kiffin who assembled a shrewd recruiting game plan that helped USC navigate recruiting's murky waters after the NCAA's enforcement hammer came slamming down.

Kiffin was forced to recruit under a two-year bowl ban, the loss of 30 scholarships during a three-year period and a limit of only 75 total scholarships (10 fewer than the 85 maximum). But it's his 2011, 2012 and 2013 recruiting classes that helped USC get itself in position to come out the other side of the sanctions stronger on the field and without skipping a beat on the recruiting trail. The Trojans' expected strong finish on the recruiting trail Wednesday is mirrored by top five expectations for the 2015 football season.

"He was the caretaker of the program," a rival Pac-12 recruiting coordinator said. "With every move he made, he was looking at the long term so when the sanctions ended it would be exactly like it is today. In hindsight, I think a lot of USC fans should be big Lane Kiffin fans. It was his tactics on the recruiting trail that's put them where they'll be on signing day."

USC athletic director Pat Haden said Kiffin had a binder four inches thick that outlined how he wanted to handle recruiting and managing the talent on hand during the sanctions, and in many ways that involved going against the grain.

That was especially true with his 2011 class. After winning an appeal, the Trojans knew that class was going to be the last full class they would be able to sign before the sanctions hit. So they signed 31 players, a number you normally don't see in the Pac-12, and the list included players who went on to become household names such as quarterback Cody Kessler, defensive tackle Antwaun Woods, receiver Marqise Lee, running back Javorius Allen, kicker Andre Heidari and offensive linemen Aundrey Walker and Marcus Martin.

But in that 31-player class, Kiffin landed two quarterbacks and redshirted them both. He signed a long snapper, a punter and a kicker. He also bolstered line depth by signing seven offensive linemen and six defensive linemen.

Sure, not all of them went on to become stars, but it was a dramatic move away from the days of USC simply signing all of the four- and five-star players in the West regardless of what position they played. It was a shift that focused on adding depth and stockpiling talent at key positions because Kiffin knew the Trojans would have deficits in future classes.

Love him or hate him, Kiffin steered USC through some choppy waters, and his recruiting blueprint helped bring the Trojans to the point where they will be on Wednesday -- back in the national college football headlines for all the right reasons.

"A head coach with a great recruiting game is more important than a coach that has a great offensive or defensive philosophy," another Pac-12 assistant said. "It's imperative you have the players. They're the most important asset. And you have to have a good plan to get them. That's why I think so many coaches really admire what Kiffin was able to do while he was at USC. I know it's not a popular opinion with the fans, but it's the right one in hindsight."