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Lane Kiffin Runs Out Of Steam As USC Closes Signing Day With A Whimper

Mike Piellucci |
February 6, 2013 | 6:45 p.m. PST

Staff Writer

Lane Kiffin's recruiting class ran out of steam on Signing Day (James Santelli/Neon Tommy)
Lane Kiffin's recruiting class ran out of steam on Signing Day (James Santelli/Neon Tommy)
All day, we waited.

With his recruiting class crumbling and his crosstown rival burgeoning, we waited for USC head coach Lane Kiffin to recruit to the level of his reputation and close with a flurry of new signings. We did that because, if experience has taught us anything at USC, it’s that there’s always a surprise on Signing Day. And so, no matter how bleak things looked, we kept on waiting for this year’s Leonard Williams or Lamar Dawson or Seantrel Henderson or Jarvis Jones, the diamond USC never should have plucked from someone else’s mine but wound up doing so anyways.

In the end, like so many coveted letters of intent, Godot never arrived.

Kiffin didn’t look defeated when he strolled into his 5:00 p.m. press conference. He instead played the part of triumphant conqueror, and in many ways he was convincing. According to Rivals.com, every one USC’s 12 commitments – 13, if you include 2012 grayshirt Darreus Rogers – was a four- or five-star recruit. Five of those 13 were five-stars, more than any other program and all but two other entire conferences. Their overall average of 4.42 stars per recruit wasn’t just the highest in the country; it was half a star more than second-place Notre Dame. Pound for pound, USC signed the best batch of recruits in America.

RELATED: All our signing day coverage.

But that group dropped a few weight classes down the stretch, leaving a program that was strapped for quality depth last season to once again face the prospect of taking the field with too few bodies. Such an outcome appeared inconceivable in August, when the class was packed to the gills and Kiffin’s staff was forced to turn away blue chippers who wanted to commit because there was no room at the inn. Back in those halcyon days, recruiting analysts trumpeted the Trojans’ haul as potentially the best recruiting class of all time, with some going so far as to suggest that the NCAA’s draconian scholarship penalties would actually benefit USC by making an offer from the Trojans that much more lucrative. Six months ago, the USC machine – the team, the recruiting, the head coach – could not be stopped.

Until, of course, it was.

We know the story of the season too well by now. It started with a flourish before hitting a bump in the road with the road loss to Stanford, only to seemingly correct course with a four-game winning streak. But then it careened of the tracks for good, and when the dust settled, the top-ranked team in the country at the start of the season was unranked with a 7-6 record.

Recruiting was supposed to ameliorate the pain and embarrassment that followed. Instead, it played out in jarringly similar fashion.

The first cracks in the class’ foundation surfaced around the start of the new year, when five players – five-stars Max Redfield and Eddie Vanderdoes, and four-stars Kylie Fitts, Eldridge Massington, and Sebastian LaRue – decommitted.

It was significant, certainly, and would spell anathema most anywhere else. Yet as recently as a week ago, it was but a minor setback, a testament to Kiffin’s most marketable skill set. He snagged another five-star, Leon McQuay III, to replace Redfield at safety while Massington and LaRue, both wide receivers, reportedly parted on more mutual terms. Vanderdoes and Fitts were still twisting in the wind but both kept USC under consideration, and each made a point to schedule an additional visit to campus. Add in a wealth of other targets on the board, and USC looked to be in position to close strong, the way they always have.

So when three more players, including coveted five-star cornerback Jalen Ramsey, decommitted on Tuesday while Fitts pledged his signature to UCLA, the ripples spread even wider than the two-deep. What Ramsey, Torrodney Prevot and Jason Hatcher – decommitting for a second time – did, in effect, was convey the message that the reality of USC’s troubling circumstances has eaten away at the perception that Lane Kiffin is the man who can fix them.

Wednesday was his chance to silence that radio static. But then Ramsey and Florida natives Matthew Thomas and Keith Bryant all committed to Florida State, clearing three crucial pieces left on the defensive board. Cornerback Jermaine Kelly, the recipient of an 11th-hour offer in a desperate attempt to fill Ramsey’s spot, signed with Washington around lunchtime, just as Texas defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson officially became a member of the Alabama Crimson Tide. The coup de grâce came at 5:00, when Vanderdoes announced that he would join Redfield in taking his talents to South Bend.

All Kiffin managed to do in response was cauterize his own wounds by retaining four-star offensive tackle Nico Falah and adding four-star linebacker Quinton Powell, himself rumored for weeks to be in the Trojans’ pocket. So often Signing Day’s proudest lions, USC exited Wednesday as its lambs.

RELATED: National Signing Day: USC Ends With Loaded, Albeit Small, Class

You have to go back to the earliest days of Pete Carroll’s tenure to encounter a similarly meek finish, and the implication is clear. Under Carroll, USC was a second-half team, with storming comebacks on the field and Signing Day fireworks off it. In 2012, overseen by Kiffin, USC operated in the first half, routinely scuffled in third quarters and sputtered to the finish line in recruiting. Carroll’s Trojans were the tortoise; Kiffin’s, the hare.

Kiffin conceded in the press conference that USC’s lackluster season directly impacted his ability to retain out-of-state recruits, which only adds credence to the lobby who believes that 2013 is a “win or else” season for the 37-year-old. Whether or not that’s true, Wednesday was more proof that nothing went according to plan in 2013, not even the area once beyond reproach for Kiffin.

After the 20-minute session ended, the media adjourned to the lobby of the McKay Center, and no sooner had Kiffin finished one-on-one camera interview ended than he was besieged with more questions, about the recent arrest of tight end Junior Pomee and possible further changes to his coaching staff. More than once, Kiffin mentioned that, to him, Signing Day was the true end of the season.

And then Lane Kiffin bustled out the door, hurrying off to a recruiting gala that he was running late to. There was no time to wait.

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