The Read-Option: Steve Sarkisian and USC’s National Signing Day success
One of the major surprises of National Signing Day was the rise of USC. The Trojans, under new coach Steve Sarkisian, snagged a couple of major blue-chip prospects on recruiting’s biggest day to finish 10th in Rivals.com’s team rankings. Sarkisian’s 19-member signing class was the top recruiting haul in the Pac-12, with two five-star signees and nine four-star players.
How important was Sarkisian’s first class at USC, and where do the Trojans go from here? Zac Ellis and Martin Rickman discuss the topic in this week’s Read-Option.
Martin Rickman: National Signing Day has come and gone, and one of the big stories was the late momentum of USC. The Trojans got three pretty big recruits just a couple of weeks after they had flipped top 2015 quarterback Ricky Town from his verbal commitment to Alabama. You can’t build a whole class on Signing Day surprises, but this has to be an encouraging beginning to the Steve Sarkisian era, right?
Zac Ellis: It has to be, especially given the national media’ perception of Sarkisian after he accepted the USC job: Sure, Sark is a guy who has plenty of ties to the Trojans, but don’t forget that his Washington teams were little more than average for much of his tenure in Seattle; he was a consistent winner, but he never won more than eight games there. Many pundits and fans thought that USC had gone with a safe hire over a big-time hire, even though there weren’t many other significant options out there. Sarkisian proved on National Signing Day that he has the recruiting ability the Trojans need. Were you surprised by his haul?
MR: I was a bit, but when you start to look at Adoree’ Jackson, Damien Mama and JuJu Smith, they’re all California guys, and they fit in as USC recruits. It’s not as though Sarkisian went out to Florida and stole a guy from Florida State. He got the Trojans back to doing what brought them so much success under Pete Carroll in the first place: recruiting in their own backyard. If Sarkisian is going to do that and do it well, he is on the right track. Anyone who has played an EA Sports NCAA Football game knows that you have a finite amount of resources to use for recruiting. You have to pick your spots. California has great players. USC needs to win them. I was more surprised by UCLA’s Signing Day busts, by comparison. This was Jim Mora’s chance to win L.A., and the Bruins couldn’t seal the deal on a few guys they really wanted. Is this the first sign that Los Angeles will again be USC’s sooner rather than later?
ZE: It’s at least a very good sign if you’re a USC fan, and not just because of the class itself. This was also the final class that would be affected by NCAA sanctions. The penalties didn’t matter as much this season as they did last season, when Lane Kiffin only signed 11 players, and Sarkisian will be able to bring in full signing classes starting next year. But the players he signed this year have to pan out. Don’t forget that even though the Trojans brought in five five-star players in that small 2013 class, the team still struggled early. We just don’t know what the on-field product will be yet under Sarkisian. I’m glad you brought up UCLA, because that’s the other part of what makes USC’s haul so impressive. Sarkisian went out and brought in some big names from California, while the Bruins were struggling on Signing Day. How important is that not just for the rivalry, but for the Trojans’ place in the Pac-12?
MR: It’s huge. Like you said, those guys need to produce, and it’s up to Sarkisian and his staff to put them in a position to do so. But from a morale standpoint, to go out there, win recruiting battles and keep USC in the national conversation should build some positive momentum. Simply put, it makes Sarkisian’s job a bit easier in his first year at the Coliseum. Obviously the wins have to be there — and fast — the Trojans are hardly devoid of talent, and Kiffin’s underachievement is part of why he didn’t last very long. Who from this class should make an impact, and are there any guys who we’re overlooking that arrived in 2013?
ZE: I think Mama is a guy who could make an impact immediately on the offensive line. You can never be too deep on up front, and USC just happens to be replacing two offensive line starters. Jackson could make noise early, as well, simply because of his versatility — he can play on offense, defense or special teams. I do think the defensive backs in this class have been overlooked, though. Sarkisian signed five DBs, including two four-star, in-state guys in Smith and Jonathan Lockett. That should add some necessary depth. Who do you like in this class?
MR: Jackson, for sure. Guys like him find the field quickly, whether it’s in unique packages or on special teams. The offensive line is intriguing, too. USC is at its best when it can run the ball to set up the pass. A couple of those guys are already on campus and taking classes, and coaches are more inclined to give those players early playing time. From 2013, obviously Su’a Cravens had a big year last year, and if he can avoid a sophomore slump, he should continue to make a lot of plays. And some of the other vaunted recruits that Kiffin brought in can’t be overlooked. They’ll have a shot to play, and play a lot. What’s the ceiling for the Trojans here? What are reasonable expectations?
ZE: A lot of it depends on the Pac-12 as a whole, as the conference ended up being perhaps the deepest in the country last year. Looking at their schedule, the Trojans’ conference slate is bookended by two tough road games, against Stanford, on Sept. 6, and against UCLA, on Nov. 22. But they do avoid Oregon, and they get Arizona State in L.A. USC also opens against Fresno State, which it beat by 25 in last year’s Las Vegas Bowl. Now that Max Wittek is transferring, it appears that Cody Kessler is the go-to guy at quarterback, barring a spring practice challenge from Max Browne. So Kessler will be one of 14 returning starters from a Trojans team that, somehow, ended up winning 10 games in 2013. I don’t see why USC can’t win 10 again this season. I’d be surprised, though, if Sarkisian wins any more than that. What do you think?
MR: Anything Sark does in his first year is going to be judged, fairly or not, against former interim coach Ed Orgeron. So I’m sure 10 wins is the hope here. And with the talent on that roster, it’s not too much to ask.