August 25, 2011

Neuheisel, UCLA fail to capitalize on USC trouble

LOS ANGELES - Laughter filled the crowded room when UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, clearly on the hot seat entering this season, said he was excited to be invited back to Pac-12 Media Day, happy to have one more shot at turning around the Bruins' ailing program.

"I guess you're excited to be invited to any of these things," Neuheisel said that day. "I am looking forward to the upcoming season.

"I know I say that every year, but never more so than this year."

If UCLA has another sub-par outing - the Bruins finished 4-8 last season and are 15-22 in his three seasons as coach - Neuheisel could be fired, and his tenuous job status has had considerable influence on potential recruits, especially those from southern California.

After the laughter died down at Pac-12 Media Day, Neuheisel turned serious and admitted that he's surprised at how slow UCLA's turnaround has been. Despite NCAA sanctions and a two-year postseason ban, USC remains the big dog in the Los Angeles area.

UCLA wasn't able to use the Trojans' probation to its advantage last year. The Bruins finished seventh in the league in recruiting in the most recent cycle, and signed only three four-star prospects. Two of them - wide receiver Devin Lucien and defensive tackle Kevin McReynolds - saved the class with their pledges near National Signing Day.

In all fairness, though, UCLA is off to a relatively strong start in its 2012 recruiting class. Still, none of the Bruins' commitments were seriously targeted by the Trojans.

Because of scholarship limitations, USC's signing classes will be smaller in each of the next three recruiting cycles, but Neuheisel said he hasn't seen many other differences - which should be a concern because the Bruins seemingly would be the program with the most to gain from USC's probation.

"At the end of the day, it's about us," Neuheisel said. "If we go out and play like we're capable of playing and put ourselves in postseason play and have a great showing in that capacity, people will come to UCLA because they'll be intrigued about the momentum of the program.

"When they get to UCLA, they'll say, 'Holy cow, what a beautiful campus.' They'll see the kind of kids and the character of the student-athlete that we have at the school. They'll be excited about it. Moms and dads are going to say, 'I want my son here.' That's how you get a program going. We're not far away from getting that jump-started."

That final point by Neuheisel is debatable, but what hurts UCLA is that across town, things still are going swimmingly for USC.

The Trojans had the top class in the league and the fourth-best class nationally in the most recent recruiting cycle, even as NCAA sanctions loomed.

There was some belief that the probation would cripple USC's recruiting efforts. That hasn't been the case. What has helped is that other schools - such as North Carolina, Oregon, Ohio State and now Miami - have been hit by "scandals," too.

Trojans coach Lane Kiffin's tone at Pac-12 Media Day was that it was time for USC to move on.

"As far as the appeals process, we're glad it's over," he said. "We're disappointed in the decision, but it is what it is. We worry about what we can control.

"We're moving forward, and at least we know what it is now so it's not hanging over our heads. We don't have to deal with what may happen."

Still, USC has not escaped unscathed. Westlake Village (Calif.) Oaks Christian four-star receiver Jordan Payton decided to de-commit in early July - more than a year after he originally committed - citing a concern about the Trojans' scholarship reductions.

"I'd be lying to you if I said it wasn't a big deal," Payton said at a 7-on-7 tournament in early June. "That's your future. You get 15 scholarships."

There could be other defections, as well. Four-star receivers Jaydon Mickens and Darreus Rogers and four-star defensive end Arik Armstead might take other official visits. Kiffin professes not to be worried.

"Our guys come to USC to get a degree from a private university and to go to the NFL," he said. "That's still there for them, so none of that has changed."

Other Pac-12 teams haven't necessarily received a boost because of USC's sanctions, either - at least not yet.

California has four commitments, but only Concord (Calif.) De La Salle linebacker Michael Barton was seriously recruited by the Trojans. Oregon has been a relative disappointment with its 2012 recruiting despite playing in last season's national championship game. One reason might be that the Ducks have their own issues to deal with concerning "talent scout" Will Lyles. Washington is coming off a 7-6 season and has recruited southern California well, but isn't really in the same market for talent as USC.

No other Pac-12 school can really compete with the Trojans for elite talent, and while some SoCal players leave for the SEC, Big 12, Big Ten or ACC, many - especially the city kids - would prefer to stay closer to home.

That means, in the end, USC still has an edge in recruiting. That also means that across town at UCLA, the Bruins still aren't getting the best players in Los Angeles - and no one there is laughing.

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