USC recruiting coordinator Peter Sirmon helped mastermind each move, making people the focal point of the recruiting process for the Trojans.
“Overall I think our staff did an unbelievable job building relationships,” said Sirmon. “We did a good job of getting multiple coaches on each player. Philosophically, we still recruit by area, but we like to have three coaches at a point of contact for every player.
“You have the position coach, a coordinator and the area coach staying involved. When you watched Coach (Tim) Drevno move on to another opportunity, we didn’t miss a beat.
“He wasn’t the only point of contact, and with there being so much movement with coaches these days, it doesn’t make sense to have one coach running the recruitment of each player.”
Measuring and calculating the whims of teenage boys, the former Tennessee Titan linebacker is a realist when it comes to recruiting. With the college coaching carousel turning unpredictably, Sirmon’s job has become about coordinating an efficient level redundancy on the recruiting trail.
“Kids ask a lot, ‘What if you go to another school.’ I tell them, ‘If we don’t win games, you’re going to have a new coach. And if we win a bunch of games, you’ll probably have a new coach,’” said Sirmon.
“The movement of coaches is part of the process right now, and if you’re a high profile school and winning games, your assistant coaches are going to move on to coordinator and head coaching jobs — if they have those aspirations. That’s part of the developmental process of being a coach.
“We talk about the exposure and the opportunities USC has to offer as a football program, but any time you deal with people, people form relationships. I feel like when I’m recruiting a player, I become the face of the logo. I become the point of contact that recruit views as SC. Right, wrong or indifferent, that’s often how kids see it.
“That’s why the good recruiters are personable, relationship based people. There’s not a lot of life-based decisions that don’t come down to relationships. When you buy and sell a house, you most often use the same realtor. You feel comfortable with that person and you trust them. I don’t know how people don’t eventually have an impact on decisions whether it’s football or anything else.
“Look at our last two offensive line classes. We signed those classes without an on campus offensive line coach in place. From Toa (Lobendahn), who was a midyear, to the four other kids who came in. We had no o-line coach, which was the case this last class when Drev’ left in December.
“I think that speaks to the unbelievable job the staff did as a whole in creating those relationships. We had multiple points of contact in each situation and always had someone communicating what USC is about.”
With a standard class of 24 scholarships available for 2015, Sirmon also coordinated a way to get USC closer to the normal 85 scholarship roster limit Trojan fans haven’t seen since 2011.
The method of blue shirting, or as USC calls it, advance scholarships, was put in place to sign both four-star offensive tackle Clayton Johnston and three-star wide receiver Deontay Burnett to Athletic Director Scholarship Agreements.
It was a proactive plan that reflects Sirmon’s attitude toward negotiating the long, winding recruiting trail.
“We always have a long term plan for the cycle, and it’s easy to get caught up in the emotions of recruiting,” said Sirmon “The summer has it’s own life-cycle, and then you get into the season and it has it’s own impact on things.
“But once the season is over, all bets are off. You’re continuing to see a lot of movement on what a commitment means. Really, we’re recruit guys whether they’re committed to other schools or not just based upon their feedback.
“When you recruit a young man who’s committed, and he continues to call you, he’s still gathering information to see what fits him best. Once those bowl games are over, you also see a lot of staff movement, which ultimately softens up commitments.
“Nobody is winning titles in July, and we also want to make sure we’re recruiting the best high school seniors. The earlier you recruit and take commitments, the smaller your evaluation window becomes. Every kid develops at a different rate, and you don’t want to base your class solely on what players did as sophomores and juniors.
“Plus, we had a few players of our own roster who we thought would have an opportunity to leave for the NFL and then some players we thought would return to finish out their eligibility. Some of those players had different thoughts, so the roster evolved.
“There are those unforeseen situations that you have to adjust to and finish out your recruiting class accordingly.”
As what happened with the recruitment of Salem (Utah) four-star defensive end Porter Gustin.
“Anytime you have a guy take an official visit on the last weekend, and you don’t have an opportunity to see him again, that makes things nerve racking,” said Sirmon. “As you guys know, Porter isn’t the most talkative guy.
“He’s not on his phone very much — I think at one point he had 50 or 75 voice mails and instead of listening to them, he decided to delete them all. He was just tired of the telephone. So not hearing from him at different points in the process wasn’t out of form.
“We felt like we had a great relationship with his parents, John and Scarlett, and his uncle, who is his high school coach. We had good communication with the people that were around him. He just needed time to evaluate that final trip when it came time to announce his decision.”
And after making that decision at 3:15 a.m. singing day eve, Gustin called the USC coaching staff later that morning to inform them he was going to… Ohio State.
“Oh yeah, he’s got one coming to him when he gets here for that,” laughed Sirmon. “He probably played that one out longer with the silence than I would have liked. Thankfully he ended up laughing it off and telling us he was all SC.
“You always have plans, but sometimes those plans don’t go according to script,” continued Sirmon. “We thought we were going to get Porter on a trip prior to the Army game, which would have allowed him to make a decision at the Army game.
“He had some things come up that pushed his official visit back about a month. So we ended up getting Osa (Masina) committed first, although he had actually been committed sometime before he announced it publicly. That was a matter of him being comfortable with the decision and having the people that supported him through the process there to give thanks.
“I think we felt pretty good with most of the kids down the stretch. You’re never 100-percent certain, but about mid-December on, we felt like the time frame with how things happened fit the plan almost to a T.”
Multiplicity starts at linebacker
USC finished out their class going three-for three in 2014 and five-for-five in 2015 with its top recruiting targets after the Christmas break. That haul included three linebacker targets Sirmon personally recruited.
“We’re trying to identify players that are extremely athletic, but also have great size and great length,” said Sirmon. “This year was a pretty unique year in that, in my opinion, we signed four difference makers.
“Each guy we signed we have identified as player for four different spots too. Their height, weight and speed makes each a little different or their skill set makes them a little different.”
More than any other position in USC’s defensive scheme, the linebacker position is where the words, multiple, versatile and hybrid are used most.
“There’s no team in a America that’s recruiting to have a group of players for a 4-3 and then a group for a 3-4,” said Sirmon. “The linebacker position is where guys have to do multiple things and then in the backend you just want guys who can cover.
“Linebacker is where you slide guys inside or outside depending upon what type of offense you face. Whether it’s a traditional running team or a team that throws the ball 80 times a game. We still have four linebacker positions; our SAM, MIKE, WILL and Rush.”
While junior Su’a Cravens is a good example of the Trojans use of hybrid athletes, his label as a SAM or strongside linebacker doesn’t change regardless of where he lines up in a given formation.
“I define our SAM as our field linebacker spot,” explained Sirmon. “A SAM traditionally is going to be the outside backer that travels with the tight end.
“In the NFL, he’s a glorified, on the ball defensive end. That’s an old school SAM linebacker. For us, it’s the Su’a position. It’s the field linebacker spot, who can play outside or even jump inside and allow the nickel to step up and play outside in certain situations.”
Who starts where
Sirmon sees Gardena (Calif.) Serra four-star linebacker John Houston filling that role at SAM in fall camp.
“I see us starting him out at that field linebacker spot, and I think that’s the hardest position to identify talent for too, ” said Sirmon. “You need guys who have the athleticism to play in space, play man-to-man, has blitz ability, and can get guys on the ground.
“John has great length for that at 6-foot-3 and he weighed in at 217-pounds when we had him for his official. You watch Serra film, and you’ll see a bunch of him playing inside backer. If I’m coaching at Serra, I do the same thing because he can make a lot of tackles all over the field. For what we need to do, and for his body type, we think he can make an impact at the field linebacker spot.”
Linebacker signee Porter Gustin oozes versatility.
Testing among the nation’s top 10 best athletes during the NIKE Camp tour last year, Gustin played quarterback for Salem Hills High School, throwing for 2,800 yards and 22 touchdowns. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Army All-American also collected 152 tackles, 29 for losses and 10.5 sacks as a middle linebacker.
“He played so many positions in high school, I think it’s going to benefit us and him early on,” said Sirmon. “I use the term, ‘Playing outside in’ with him. I think he is going to have more of an opportunity to make an impact and become comfortable in his development process playing that way.
“I think as quickly as he’s ready to get on the field, the best place will be to start him out at that rush end position. Now, on third downs, can he move inside for us? Yes, but on day one, we’re going to start him out at that outside linebacker position.”
While USC loses Hayes Pullard to graduation this season, the addition of Granite Bay (Calif.) four-star middle linebacker Cameron Smith to the roster this spring helps.
“Cam has a lot of the skills of a traditional inside backer,” said Sirmon. “With him being here during the spring, it gives him a chance to show us exactly what his strengths are. I think we have a pretty good idea of what he can do, but that extra time really helps him prove it with more reps.”
In a somewhat surprising move, Salt Lake City (Utah) five-star linebacker Osa Masina will be joining Smith as an inside linebacker in the Trojans 3-4 fronts.
“We’re going to start him at WILL backer,” said Sirmon. “I had a chance to go see one of his high school games live, and I really liked how he played behind the ball. But really, he could play multiple positions.
“All of these guys, if pressed, can probably play all four of the linebacker positions. But you have to build them from somewhere, and I don’t want to be so broad that they can’t focus on doing specific things.”
The big picture
In all, USC signed 13 players on defense with nine of those projects being in the nation’s top 100. And while Sirmon is hardly casting aside returning linebackers like Jabari Ruffin, Michael Hutchings or Anthony Sarao, the 2015 class is a benchmark for bringing the defense into the modern era of college football.
“I think it’s apparent that what we’re looking for is different that from what Coach (Lane) Kiffin and the last staff wanted,” said Sirmon. “And it’s a not a case of out with the old, in with the new. We’re excited to get guys like Jabari and Lamar Dawson back in the mix with our returning starters.
“With the state of the College Football Playoff, you don’t know what style of play you’re going to come up against that week to win it all. In our conference, you have the Cals, the Wazzus, the Arizona States the Stanfords… there is such a variety of offenses. And then Rose Bowl doesn’t have the tradition Pac-10, Big Ten match up anymore, so when the playoffs start, are you going to play Baylor, are you going to play Florida State, are you going to play Ohio State?
“So for us, it becomes so much about personnel and finding these athletes that can play multiple spots. It’s an interesting time right now in college football because you really don’t know what style of play you have to play to win.
“When you draft in the NFL, you draft to win your division, so you can get to the playoffs. Teams are built in the AFC East to beat New England. That’s who you have to go through to get to the playoffs. We’re obviously trying to win the Pac-12 South, but we want to be equipped to win the whole thing. That means finding the right body types and characteristics for us to do that.
“What we’re trying to do is win a national championship.”