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June 23, 2012
ATLANTA -- The heart of SEC country provided an odd location for the first gathering of USC's star-studded 2013 recruiting class.
Eight players verbally committed to USC are participating in this weekend's inaugural Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge.
No other school has more than five of its verbal commitments here.
Many of USC's commitments showed early signs of school spirit Saturday by flashing the "Fight On" hand signal -- raising two fingers in a "V" for victory -- while all the campers posed for a group picture during a practice break.
"We were just trying to say that we're here and we'll be the best group out there," Stockton (Calif.) Lincoln running back and Rivals100 prospect Justin Davis said. "We're trying to represent that really strong."
USC's large contingent at this event provided the latest evidence that NCAA sanctions aren't preventing the Trojans from attracting elite prospects. It also reflected a recent change in USC's recruiting strategy.
When he began his USC coaching tenure, Lane Kiffin made a clear effort to focus on in-state prospects. More than three-quarters of USC's signees in Kiffin's first three recruiting classes came directly from California high schools or junior colleges.
USC now is branching out a little more.
Four of USC's 10 verbal commitments from 2013 are from outside California, and the out-of-state recruits are scattered across the country. Sammamish (Wash.) Skyline's Max Browne, the nation's top pro-style quarterback prospect, represents the Pacific Northwest.
The East Coast is covered by five-star defensive end Kenny Bigelow, who grew up in Delaware and now plays for Elkton (Md.) Eastern Christian Academy. Mesquite (Texas) West Mesquite wide receiver Eldridge Massington gives the class a Texas flavor. The Midwest is represented by Joliet (Ill.) Catholic running back Ty Isaac.
"Traditionally, they had gone national and had extended across the country," Rivals.com West recruiting analyst Adam Gorney said. "Then they went local. I think what happened (this year) is they kind of reached out again and found success.''
Bigelow, Browne and Massington are in Atlanta this weekend.
They're joined by Davis, Redlands (Calif.) East Valley defensive end Kylie Fitts, Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) cornerback Chris Hawkins, Santa Monica (Calif.) wide receiver [/db]Sebastian LaRue[/db] and Mission Hills (Calif.) wide receiver Steven Mitchell.
The only players in USC's class missing from Atlanta are Isaac and Murrieta (Calif.) Vista Murrieta five-star safety Su'a Cravens.
"This is the first time I've been able to meet some of these guys," Browne said. "It's a cool experience. The recruiting class USC has put together so far is really special. For all of us to come together, meet each other and hang out, it's really fun."
Browne also might have met a few future teammates who aren't committed to USC yet.
Uncommitted prospects at the Five-Star Challenge considering USC include Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) safety Tahaan Goodman, Seffner (Fla.) Armwood safety Leon McQuay, Houston (Texas) Alief Taylor defensive end Torrodney Prevot, Brentwood (Tenn.) Academy athlete Jalen Ramsey and Elkton (Md.) Eastern Christian Academy offensive guard Khaliel Rodgers.
Prevot also is visiting USC next week and received a faxed message from Trojans defensive line coach Ed Orgeron after arriving at his Atlanta hotel Friday.
Although the makeup of USC's class suggests the Trojans are expanding their base again, they're doing it differently than before.
This marks the second of three years that NCAA sanctions have limited USC to 15 scholarships, though a few early enrollees should allow the Trojans to include as many as 18 players in this class. So USC is being very picky in deciding which out-of-state players merit scholarship offers.
"That's how they've kind of tweaked their recruiting," Gorney said. "They would go and take a chance on a guy from out of state before. Now they're pinpointing the guys they really want from out of state and going after those guys. They're not throwing 50 offers to out-of-state guys anymore."
USC's success rate is startling.
All four of USC's out-of-state recruits are ranked among the nation's top 150 prospects. Three of them are in the top 24: Browne (No. 5), Bigelow (No. 6) and Isaac (No. 24). USC has three of the top eight 2013 recruits overall in Browne, Bigelow and Cravens (No. 8). All 10 of USC's verbal commitments are ranked 162nd or better.
"We're probably not going to have any three-stars, which is kind of unheard of," Davis said.
How have they done it?
By going 10-2 and finishing sixth in The Associated Press poll last season, USC regained the momentum that had stalled in the summer of 2010 with the arrival of probation.
USC followed that up in February by signing the nation's eighth-ranked recruiting class.
Rather than worrying about the long-term effects of sanctions, USC's recruiting targets consider themselves honored they're among the select group to receive scholarship offers from the Trojans.
"They only had 18 scholarships," Mitchell said. "(For them) to be interested in me, that's a great feeling." USC also has found out-of-state players who didn't mind leaving home and savored the chance to play for the Trojans.
Browne said he was advised early in the recruiting process to pick the school where he'd feel happy even if football didn't exist. He found that comfort level at USC.
Bigelow picked USC after establishing a rapport with Orgeron.
Massington, a longtime Reggie Bush fan, thought USC's offense suited his game perfectly.
"USC is the best fit for me," Massington said. "I feel they'll always have a (good) quarterback. They'll always have good receivers. I feel it's the best pro-style offense. It's the best offense for me."
Massington's chances of succeeding in this offense will depend in part on how soon he establishes a rapport with Browne and his other new teammates.
He's watched plenty of video highlights online of Brown and other members of USC's recruiting class, but this marked the first time he'd seen many of them in person.
In many ways, this weekend represents the equivalent of a freshman orientation session a year ahead of schedule. "We're all in a hotel room just hanging out and becoming better friends," Hawkins said. "Some of us are more spread out (across the country). This is an opportunity for us to become better friends and get that connection we need at the next level."
They cherished the opportunity -- even if it came thousands of miles from their future home.