In the immediate aftermath of Southern California coach Steve Sarkisian’s indefinite leave of absence, a five-star linebacker de-committed from the Trojans and the top tight end in the Class of 2016 changed his mind about an official visit, putting a spotlight on the initial recruiting challenges the program faces.
The assistant coaches need to retain as many of those players as possible during this period of uncertainty but also keep the interest of players they had targeted, such as Florida tight end Isaac Nauta.
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USC’s recruiting class for 2016 stands at 15 players following the loss of Ann Arbor (Mich.) linebacker Daelin Hayes and was ranked No. 1 in the Pac-12 and No. 6 nationally by 247Sports.
“The toughest thing to overcome in recruiting is uncertainty, even more so than sanctions,” ESPN national recruiting analyst Craig Haubert said Monday. “With sanctions, you know what you’re dealing with, you can map out a game plan and how to approach commits and parents … here you don’t know what you’re dealing with. The coach is asked to take an idefinite leave. How long is indefinite? Everybody hopes he gets the help he needs and comes out doing well on the other side, but there are probably a lot of people wondering if he will still be the guy when he comes back. It puts questions in recruits’ minds and allows other programs to create doubt in prospects’ minds.”
Haubert said USC still has substantial clout in its backyard and he expects that to continue. Eight of the 15 members of the Class of 2016 are from Southern California. USC is only able to sign 20 players in this class because, coming off NCAA sanctions last year, they brought in five “blueshirts,” players who could be eligible this season but count against the Class of 2016 total.
“When it’s a tough time, you want to circle the wagons,” Haubert said. “Circling the wagon for USC is maintaining its status in Southern California where there is plenty of talent to work with.”
When asked if his opening up his recruitment had anything to do with the Sarkisian situation, Daelin Hayes texted USA TODAY High School Sports’ Jim Halley, saying:
“No. It was me and my family’s decision that we felt was best for my future.”
Hayes had already been wavering since his July commitment, and attended Notre Dame’s season opener. The five-star linebacker is scheduled to make his official visit this week.
His de-commitment presents a potential NCAA situation because USC already announced that he would be an early enrollee after Hayes signed his financial aid papers. The school also announced that tackle Nathan Smith (Murieta Mesa, Calif.) and safety C.J. Pollard (Serra High; Gardena, Calif.) would enroll in January.
Nauta, from IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) also did not mention Sarkisian. He announced that he will take an official visit to Alabama for the LSU game rather than a visit to USC.
“For USC, it’s more about the brand and fact they can put guys into the NFL. That is the core of their recruiting strength,” said Ryan Abraham, the publisher of USCFootball.com, part of the Scout.com network. “The biggest issue when they have something like this or when they are losing football games are the out-of-state highly ranked recruits. Those are the ones that usually you are going to see some fallout form.
“I don’t see this an an enduring thing that will have a major impact. If he comes back or they get a new coach, they can usually right the ship.”
A number of USC commits and their families publicly expressed support for Sarkisian.
“Our prayers are with Coach Sarkisian and the USC program during this time,” the family of offensive line recruit Keanu Saleapaga said in a text message. “Keanu is very focused on his final school year and finishing his season strong… As of today we are still USC committed.”
Sarkisian’s leave comes at a time when few of the top prospects are making commitments. The players who wanted to commit before their senior season began have done so and the remainder are using the fall to make official visits and won’t commit until after their seasons.
“If things aren’t resolved by after the season and moving toward the all-star games then it could become a problem, especially for out-of-state kids,” said Adam Gormley, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com “A lot of kids didn’t commit because of Steve Sarkisian. If they bring in a coach they like, it won’t be an issue. They want some idea of how this will play out.”
USC went through a period recently of four coaches in a calendar year and Abraham said he expects interim coach Clay Helton and the staff to use a similar approach to what interim coach Ed Orgeron did in 2013.
“The staff still goes out and recruits and they recruit to the school more than the staff,” Abraham said. “They are selling USC the brand, not what Sarkisian wants to do. The individual coaches will recruit their players like they’re going to be back. At some point, something will change.”
All the recruiting analysts pointed to a tipping point when USC needed a decision, either Sarkisian remains the coach or a new coach is coming in. Sarkisian was hired at USC in December 2013, was able to put together a solid recruiting class in his first year and then had the No. 1 class in the nation last spring.
“I’d say sometime in December or January,” Abraham said. “If they have a coach in place by then, he should be able to secure the current commits and finish off the class.”