It took long enough, thanks to an protracted appeals process, but the heavy-handed scholarship restrictions the NCAA dropped on USC in July 2010 are coming home to roost: The Trojans' first recruiting class under the sanctions consisted of just 17 players, the smallest crop in the Pac-12, only a dozen of whom will even count against the reduced 2012 cap. (The other five are early enrollees, who will be counted as part of the unsanctioned 2011 class.) By the start of the season, the roster will have to be culled to 75 scholarship players, ten below the usual limit.
So how is it, then, that the same roster looks essentially healthy not only for 2012, when USC will be widely favored to play for a national championship behind senior quarterback Matt Barkley, but more or less for the foreseeable future? In large part, obviously, because the depth chart is still loaded with first-rate talent. But there's something to be said for the quantity of that talent, too, according the Orange County Register's Michael Lev, thanks to whomever had the foresight to use the ongoing appeals window in 2011 to stock the cupboard for a long winter:
As things stand now, Kiffin and his staff can bring in three midyear enrollees next winter. Add those to the 15 signees allowed next February, and you've got a total of 18. That's a meaningful number.
The smartest thing Kiffin did was signing 30 players last year, then redshirting more than half of them. With 16 redshirt freshmen on its roster [in 2012], USC essentially doubles its freshman class.
Kiffin wouldn't have been able to do that if USC hadn't appealed the NCAA's ruling, thereby staying that portion of the penalties. So the appeal wasn't entirely useless after all.
By Lev's count (Kiffin certainly knows the numbers but won't confirm them), USC currently has scholarships promised to 77 players this fall — 14 seniors, 14 juniors, 19 sophomores and a whopping 30 freshmen — two of whom will have to go between now and August to get to the NCAA-mandated seventy-five. That's well within the normal rate of attrition, especially on a roster that's been shedding former blue chips — see wide receivers Kyle Prater and Brice Butler, tailback Dillon Baxter and Amir Carlisle and defensive backs Patrick Hall and T.J. Bryant, all former top-100 prospects according to Rivals — at a furious pace send the end of the last season. With that kind of "cap room," the Trojans have space to sign up to 18 players next February (15 under reduced 2013 limits, plus three early enrollees who'll fill the leftover scholarships from the 2012 class), the exact same number they signed with no sanctions whatsoever in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010.
Therein lies the greatest irony of the sanctions era: Even with the most heavy-handed scholarship penalties in 25 years, the relatively small classes that preceded his arrival left Kiffin with fewer scholarship players on the roster in his first two seasons, 2010 and 2011, than the penalties are calling for over the next three. Thanks to the huge influx of freshmen (and subsequent redshirting) last year, the Trojans will be essentially operating at replacement level for the life of the sanctions.
That's not the same as operating at "full strength" — depth will be an issue in case of injuries — but it is business as usual here: Sanctions or no sanctions, USC hasn't come close to maxing out its scholarship capacity in at least five years. When you're reeling in top-10 recruiting classes on an annual basis, how many? is never as important a question as the one about tapping the potential of the players on hand.