USC Trojans: Lamont Simmons

There’s definite reason for optimism for first-year USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox heading into spring ball. After all, he inherits some key pieces from a unit that finished the 2013 campaign ranked No. 13 in the FBS in total defense (334.9 yards allowed per game) and No. 1 in red zone defense (63 percent scoring percentage).

Still, for the defense to really take off under Wilcox in 2014, there’s one position group that will need to elevate its level of play -- the cornerbacks. Plagued by injuries, the USC corners struggled at times in pass coverage, particularly in games against Arizona State, Arizona and Notre Dame. As such, expect Wilcox and defensive backs coach Keith Heyward to hold an open audition this spring as they look to find the most productive starting duo.

[+] EnlargeKevon Seymour, Taylor Kelly
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesUSC's Kevon Seymour, who was inconsistent in 2013, has challengers for his starting cornerback spot.
Of course, with potential instant-impact freshmen Adoree' Jackson, Jonathan Lockett, John Plattenburg and Lamont Simmons all set to arrive this summer, the upcoming slate of spring practice sessions will almost certainly serve as just the first phase of a lengthy competition at cornerback that will extend through fall camp. Without those blue-chippers around to steal valuable reps, the March and April workouts will be crucial for the candidates currently on the roster to make a lasting impression on the new staff.

Josh Shaw, who started 11 games at cornerback in 2013, stands out as a virtual lock at one of the spots, but with an influx of talent on the way, might we see him make the move back to his more natural free safety position? With Su’a Cravens, Leon McQuay III and Gerald Bowman -- who is coming off shoulder surgery -- serving as the only other scholarship safeties, there is certainly a lack of depth back there, so a potential switch for Shaw seems to make sense. Having proven himself as the team’s most dependable cover man last fall, however, the USC staff might not have the luxury of making that change unless other cornerbacks prove that they can be counted on.

The primary starter on the other side in 2013 was Kevon Seymour, now entering his junior season. The Pasadena (Calif.) Muir product had his ups and downs, but he did cap off his season with an outstanding performance in USC’s Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl victory over Fresno State. The big question now is, was that an anomaly or just the beginning of something special? The answer will likely determine whether or not he remains atop the depth chart in the long run.

Fifth-year senior Anthony Brown has flashed at times, but he has never been able to put it all together on a consistent basis. A veteran with six starts to his credit, it looked like 2013 was going to be his season to make a name for himself. But he suffered a knee injury in the team’s opener at Hawaii that would keep him on the sideline for almost the entire season. He actually returned to start against Notre Dame, but his injury hampered his outing, and he wouldn’t see the field again for the remainder of the season. Standing 5-foot-9 and weighing 180 pounds, he lacks the size of some of his counterparts, but he makes up for that with his speed and quickness. It hasn’t been announced whether or not he’ll be available to practice this spring, but if he is, he'll be in the mix.

Devian Shelton is another player whose status for the spring is still unknown after having foot surgery this past fall, but he too, could factor heavily into the discussion if healthy. Listed at 6-1, he gives the Trojans a taller look, but having redshirted as a freshman, and then missing almost all of 2013, he still lacks experience. Impressing at times last fall in camp with his size, he could even conceivably make the transition back to safety -- where he saw time in high school

One of the more interesting names to keep an eye on is Chris Hawkins. Could this be the time when he emerges from anonymity into a major contributor? A highly touted Class of 2013 prospect, he spent his first season on campus learning the tricks of the trade while redshirting. Although somewhat raw, he showed plenty of ability in practice, especially as the season wore on. If his development continues on its forward path, there’s reason to believe that he has the skills to push for playing time.

Ryan Henderson and Ryan Dillard are two more contenders who have seen limited action in the past in reserve roles. Henderson’s athleticism is undeniable -- he was the 2010 SPARQ Rating National Champion -- but so far that hasn’t translated over to the football field at USC. Dillard, meanwhile, is a walk-on who has certainly held his own, but he would still appear to be somewhat of a longshot. This spring will mark an important time for both players as they attempt to make a move up the depth chart for the first time.
LOS ANGELES -- USC Trojans first-year coach Steve Sarkisian stepped to the recruiting class of 2014 home plate on Wednesday and proceeded to wallop asigning day homer, bringing home Adoree’ Jackson (Gardena, Calif./Serra), John “Juju” Smith (Long Beach, Calif./Poly) and Damien Mama (Bellflower, Calif./St. John Bosco).

It was a remarkable day for Sarkisian and staff, who had to fend off the likes of Florida, Oregon, Notre Dame, Alabama, and the shadow of UCLA for the trifecta. If anything, Wednesday’s successful recruiting results clearly establish that Sarkisian has re-established the recruiting foundation for a program hammered by coaching drama and one that can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel of NCAA sanctions and extraordinary coaching drama.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsSteve Sarkisian will now have to match on-field success to the recruiting heights he accomplished during his first signing as USC's head coach.
Wednesday’s signing day had its tensions as Trojans fans held their collective breaths waiting to hear from Southland prep All-Americans Jackson, Smith, and Mama. Most fans would have been pleased with two of the three high-valued talents, but to secure all three prospects was almost worthy of a parade down Colorado Boulevard.

Although it seemed as though most of the drama had subsided by the time Sarkisian stepped to the microphone for a mid-afternoon press conference, the first question posed was like an approaching hurricane.

Had Jackson’s letter of intent been received?

The Serra High superstar had made his announcement for USC well before noon, and the press conference arrived with no Jackson LOI confirmation. Rumors began flying that there might be an problem with Jackson’s father’s approval, but whatever the issue, later that evening in came Jackson’s official letter of intent and cardinal and gold smiles stretched all across Southern California.

So what does Wednesday’s recruiting victories mean to the future of the Trojans program?

Well, first and foremost it means that the Sarkisian era is off and running and the Trojans are again moving forward in a euphoric manner -- no longer burdened with the doom, gloom and crisis of previous seasons.

If perception is reality, the perception is that Sarkisian and staff have laid the foundation for even greater recruiting success for next season’s signing day when they’ll have a full complement of 25 scholarships.

The reality is that the Trojans have also served notice to the Pac-12 and the nation that USC will once again be the traditionally tough recruiting customer that they have been.

The future reality is with the 2015 commitment of all-star quarterback Ricky Town (Ventura, Calif./St. Bonaventure), Sarkisian’s program has positioned itself beautifully for a major recruiting assault on the Class of 2015 in California. The state has, by most accounts, one of its better mother loads in recent memory.

While the 2014 signing of the three prep studs was crucial to this current recruiting class, it’s probably the less heralded prep players signed by the Trojans who will provide the true worth of this class.

Sarkisian made a point during his press conference of saying that when he and his staff look at talent, they try to watch what’s on film and not how many stars a particular prospect has next to his name. For example, he pointed out incoming defensive back Lamont Simmons (Jacksonville, Florida/Raines).

“When you just turn on the film and forget how many stars and forget who else has offered [Simmons] or whatnot, and just watch his film, this guy is a fantastic player,” Sarkisian said.

Besides the obvious consensus All-Americans, the Trojans also have a history of recruits that weren’t considered high value at the time but became huge contributors.

One of those star-lacking success stories is a former recruit from Winston, Oregon. Perhaps you’ve forgotten the likes of former strong safety Troy Polamalu, a lock for both the College and Pro Football Hall of Fame?

If it wasn’t for the constant nagging of former Trojans assistant Kennedy Polamalu to former Trojans head coach Paul Hackett, Troy Polamalu, a 3-star recruit, would never have worn the cardinal and gold.

Then there is former preferred Trojans walk-on linebacker Clay Matthews. Talk about being overlooked in the “star system” of recruiting. From his Trojans walk-on freshman season to where he is today, we’re talking about an All-Pro with the Green Bay Packers, so you just never know.

And for good measure, there’s Trojans All-American linebacker Lofa Tatupu, who graduated from King Philip Regional High School in Wrentham, Mass., with underwhelming offers? Tatupu spent a freshman season at the University of Maine before transferring to USC to prove he was woefully under-evaluated.

It takes more than just 4- and 5-star players to make a successful team. As that famous female politician wrote, “It takes a village.” Sarkisian can confirm that.

So next up for Sarkisian is the hard part -- coaching and winning football games. And if Sarkisian can coach like he recruits at USC, he just might be that power hitter who legendary former Trojans coach Pete Carroll once envisioned as his successor.

Signing day wrap: Pac-12

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While it was a terrific day for the Pac-12 overall, USC stole the signing day spotlight on Wednesday, hitting for the cycle in landing its top four targets.

The day began well for new coach Steve Sarkisian, as three-star cornerback Lamont Simmons (Jacksonville, Fla./Raines) faxed over his signature, but that was only an appetizer for the Trojans. With 19 scholarships available this year -- NCAA sanctions limited the Trojans to just 15 scholarships in this class and USC was able to roll four unused rides over from the 2013 class -- Simmons took the class to 16. Left on the board were a trio of Southern California ESPN 300 prospects in No. 9 overall prospect, cornerback Adoree' Jackson (Gardena, Calif./Serra), No. 24 overall prospect, athlete John "JuJu" Smith (Long Beach, Calif./Poly) and No. 67 overall prospect, offensive guard Damien Mama (Bellflower, Calif./St. John Bosco).

[+] EnlargeJohn
Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY SportsJohn "JuJu" Smith was part of a huge signing day for USC.
Sarkisian and the Trojans were able to land all three, giving USC one of the best signing days of any program in the country. The signings give USC 19 additions in the 2014 class, including nine ESPN 300 pledges, one ESPN JC 50 prospect and impact players on both sides of the ball. There is really no way to overstate how well Sarkisian and the Trojans closed on signing day, posting what amounted to a perfect day.

The Trojans wound up with the No. 1 class in the Pac-12, but the rankings in the conference were bunched at the top.

Stanford made a huge run late, landing commitments from all six recruits it targeted over the past two months. The Cardinal added signatures from ESPN 300 defensive end Solomon Thomas (Coppell, Tex./Coppell) -- at No. 25 overall, the highest rated Stanford addition since ESPN began its rankings in 2006 -- and three-star cornerback Terrence Alexander (River Ridge, La./John Curtis Christian). Though the Cardinal lost a late commitment from defensive end Uriah Leiataua (Compton, Calif./Dominguez), it was a very strong visit and a terrific class headed to the Farm.

Alexander wasn't the only recruit from John Curtis Christian to commit to the Pac-12, as Oregon and UCLA took their biggest commitments of the day from that program. The Ducks landed ESPN 300 safety Mattrell McGraw, while UCLA picked up its lone signing day commit in Kenny Young.

Oregon missed out on Smith and defensive tackle Trey Lealaimatafao (San Antonio/Earl Warren) but was able to land safety Khalil Oliver (Meridian, Id./Rocky Mountain) in a battle against Washington.

UCLA coaches will likely be disappointed with the day. Although the Bruins did reel in Young, UCLA missed on Thomas, No. 1 overall wide receiver Malachi Dupre (River Ridge, La./John Curtis Christian) and the Southern California trio, which made matters worse for Jim Mora & Co. by committing to the Trojans. UCLA brought a very good recruiting class into signing day and did a good job of holding onto everybody, but the Bruins took some big swings at some big prospects across the country and didn't get the results they were hoping for.

Arizona State slid a few spots in the national rankings, but the Sun Devils did everything they could on signing day. Todd Graham brought a relatively full class into the day and was able to add two huge signatures in ESPN JC 50 prospects defensive tackle Dalvon Stuckey (De Funiak Springs, Fla./Pearl River CC) and cornerback Kweishi Brown (El Cajon, Calif./Grossmont). The Sun Devils were also able to hold onto another junior college standout in wide receiver Eric Lauderdale (Fayetteville, Ga./Saddleback College), who received a significant late push from Florida.

Arizona was relatively quiet. The Wildcats brought in a huge list of verbal commitments and didn't lose anybody off the top of the class, landing five ESPN 300 prospects. Defensive tackle Marcus Griffin (Bellevue, Wash./Bellevue) was the big addition, as the big lineman selected Arizona over Cal, Mississippi State and Washington State.

Oregon State grabbed a signature from offensive guard Kammy Delp (Pomona, Calif./Diamond Ranch), who will play defensive tackle for the Beavers. Utah announced defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei (South Jordan, Utah/Bingham) as a part of this class after he attempted to sign with the Utes in 2013.

Washington's big addition came Tuesday night in the form of ESPN 300 safety Bishard "Budda" Baker (Bellevue, Wash./Bellevue), but Chris Petersen and the Huskies also received a signing day commitment from intriguing 6-foot-5 receiver Brayden Lenius (West Hills, Calif./Chaminade). The Washington State Cougars closed with their second four-star commitment in this class, safety Deion Singleton (Paco, Wash./Chiawana).

But the day in the West belonged to USC, which jumped from No. 4 in the conference to landing the Pac-12's top 2014 recruiting class. Nationally, the Trojans moved from No. 24 to No. 15 overall.

Stanford (15th), Arizona State (21st) and Arizona (23rd) all finished among the top 25 recruiting classes in the nation.

Good early news for UW, USC, Stanford

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Washington and new coach Chris Petersen started the thrills and chills of national signing day early with a commitment Tuesday evening from ESPN 300 safety Bishard "Budda" Baker (Bellevue, Wash./Bellevue), and Stanford and USC got things going early on Wednesday.

ESPN 300 defensive end Solomon Thomas (Coppell, Texas/Coppell) produced a Tree and donned nerd glasses as visual aids for his commitment to Stanford. The nation's No. 4 defensive end and No. 25 overall player picked the Cardinal over Arkansas and UCLA.

Finally, USC signed three-star cornerback Lamont Simmons (Jacksonville, Fla./Raines). He picked the Trojans over Auburn, Penn State and Arkansas.

Of course, the big battles today will involve USC and UCLA, most notably over five-star cornerback Adoree' Jackson (Gardena, Calif./Serra). He will announce his decision on ESPNU today at 2 p.m. ET.

Stay tuned. National signing day is just beginning, and much of today's intrigue is about the West Coast.

Roundtable: Signing day predictions 

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As signing day approaches, the WeAreSC staffers give their predictions on the remaining targets on the USC wish list, including players who have visited recently.


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Trojans capitalize on big weekend 

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ESPN 300 prospects Damien Mama (Bellflower, Calif./St. John Bosco) and John “JuJu” Smith (Long Beach, Calif./Poly) might have headlined the list of official visitors who spent the weekend at USC, but it was a pair of teammates from Ventura (Calif.) St. Bonaventure who stole the spotlight.

Class of 2015 quarterback Ricky Town verbally committed to the Trojans on Saturday night, just hours after decommitting from Alabama, and No. 1-rated tight end Bryce Dixon re-affirmed his pledge on Sunday morning, capping a monstrous weekend that put USC in great shape with national signing day just over a week away.

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Eleven recruits set to visit USC 

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The mother of all recruiting weekends has arrived for the USC Trojans.

With less than two weeks remaining until national signing day, seven members of the ESPN 300 are expected to be on campus beginning Friday. Head coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff hope these visits lead to success on Feb. 5.

Heading into the weekend, the Trojans have four empty slots in their 2014 recruiting class.

Here are the expected visitors:

No. 3 ATH John “JuJu” Smith (Long Beach, Calif./Poly): The four-star prospect recently narrowed his list to a final four of Notre Dame, Oregon, UCLA and USC, but the Trojans have to believe they are in the lead. Smith dropped by USC last week and, while wearing a Trojans jersey, posed for photographs that have gone viral on social media and message boards. He is being recruited at receiver by the staff, including his uncle Johnny Nansen, but Smith said he wants to sit down with defensive backs coach Keith Heyward this weekend, too. The Trojans have an opportunity to seal the deal.


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Coinciding with the emotional departure of fan favorite Ed Orgeron just over a month ago, the naming of Steve Sarkisian as USC’s new head coach wasn’t initially met with what you’d call universal enthusiasm. With what he’s accomplished on the recruiting trail in his short time back on campus, however, it’s hard not to be impressed.

Hitting the ground running from the moment he took the job, Sarkisian and the rest of his staff have done a stellar job of not only targeting some elite blue-chippers in the 2014 class -- such as recent tight end commit Bryce Dixon (Ventura, Calif./St. Bonaventure) -- he's also recognizing quality prospects who, though not necessarily possessing a five-star rating, are more than capable of filling a vital need. That’s something that former coach Lane Kiffin didn’t always appear to make a priority, choosing instead to chase high-profile superstars at any, and all costs.


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A recent string of commitments heading into the dead period has left USC with only five remaining slots in its 2014 recruiting class. The Trojans have 19 total spots to use, as long as four of them are mid-year enrollees.

Here's a position-by-position look at how USC could allocate those empty spots, with a projection of how many players at each position the Trojans will try to sign:

Offensive line: 6

The Trojans hold five commitments on the offensive line, two of those from mid-year enrollees who already have signed financial aid agreements. They might not be done, though, as a big fish is still out there and possibly leaning toward signing with his childhood favorite. If the coaching staff decides a scholarship would be more important at another position, the Trojans might have to part ways with a prospect from this bunch.


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