Antonio Morales (TheAthletic.com) — LOS ANGELES — Kennedy Polamalu and Pete Carroll were about to embark on their very first in-home visit together. The target on this day? La Costa Canyon (Carlsbad, Calif.) tight end Joe Toledo.
As Polamalu, then USC’s running backs coach, and Carroll prepared for that visit, Polamalu wanted to offer the Trojans’ new coach some pointers.
Carroll replied with reassurances. As the New York Jets’ coach, Carroll had to handle the New York media day in and day out. As the New England Patriots’ coach, he had to do the same with the Boston media.
Surely, some parents wouldn’t be an issue.
“He’s like ‘No, no. I got it.’ We went in there … (and) we just got our ass kicked in the house. He didn’t know what to say,” Polamalu recalled about his and Carroll’s visit with Toledo, who signed with Washington. “Then afterwards, we go sit in a coffee shop and he said, ‘OK, what do I need to know?’ I said, ‘Again, this is USC.’ When I went to USC, downtown was a ghost town. … You had to know where you’re at. That’s the first question parents are going to ask, the safety of their kids. They’re going to ask you why are there bars on the first floor of every apartment building and blah, blah, blah. … I go, ‘Yeah, you had the best answer if you just listened.’ He goes, ‘What was my answer?’ … (Kennedy said), ‘Your daughter goes to school here.’ He goes, ‘Oh yeah.’ To me, that was one of my favorite recruiting stories and his eyes just lit up.”
By 2003’s national signing day, Carroll was well on his way to figuring everything out. Was USC’s 2003 recruiting class — which was No. 2 in the country — Carroll’s first highly-ranked recruiting class? No, his 2002 class finished No. 8 in the national rankings. Was it the highest-ranked class he finished with? No, his 2005 and 2006 recruiting classes were both ranked tops nationally.
Was it Carroll’s best class? Yes. This recruiting class produced 13 NFL draft picks (four first-round picks, five second-round picks), two national championships (and played for a third) and a Heisman Trophy. Those players who stayed all five years compiled a 60-6 record, with three Rose Bowl victories, an Orange Bowl win and five Pac-10 titles.
Because of that, it’ll be remembered as one of the greatest recruiting classes in college football history.
USC is USC. It will always have talent. But when then-four-star defensive lineman Lawrence Jackson committed early in the 2003 recruiting cycle, the Trojans didn’t have much else.
The Paul Hackett years, which ended with an ugly 5-7 season and a last-place Pac-10 finish in 2000, were still fresh. Carroll’s first season ended with a rally to make a bowl game, but was followed by an uninspiring loss to Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Despite the setbacks, Jackson — who wasn’t too far from USC at Inglewood High School — was confident in strength and conditioning coach Chris Carlisle. He was attracted to Ed Orgeron’s track record of sending defensive linemen to the NFL, and he liked the fact Carroll coached in the NFL and knew what it took to get there.
So Jackson became one of the first big names to jump on board in that class.
“I told family and friends and it was met with disappointment quite early on. Things like, ‘You sure you want to go there, man?’ or ‘Why SC? They suck,’” Jackson said. “Because everybody was going off the last game against Utah in the Vegas Bowl. I went up there, talking to Shaun Cody, I knew what was happening. I felt the energy and all this stuff.
Polamalu said: “At that time, we weren’t winning. You’re living on your heritage. Guys who were going into the NFL, they’re not working as hard. Pete kind of helped change all that.”
After a 3-2 start, the Trojans finished the 2002 season with eight consecutive wins — five against top-25 teams — and an Orange Bowl victory against Iowa.
In that time, Jackson had already gone to work on the recruiting trail for USC. He ran into four-star defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, considered a UCLA lean at one point, and three-star defensive back Terrell Thomas, who was considered to be going to Washington State, frequently.
Since those two were legitimately considering other schools, Jackson recruited them the hardest. Those efforts culminated at the 2003 CaliFlorida Bowl — a now-defunct all-star game, which featured some top prospects from California and Florida — a few days after the Trojans’ Orange Bowl win.
“It really started prior at the CaliFlorida Bowl,” Thomas said. “There were a bunch of us there. Desmond (Reed), myself, Lawrence, Sedrick, there were a couple more people that played, and the two Ting brothers (Brandon and Ryan). We were watching the bowl games and were like, we should go play together. It was like, ‘F— it, let’s do it.’ That was just a conversation, then come the recruiting trip, that’s when I committed.”
Reed, Ellis, the Tings and Thomas all ended up at USC. As the Trojans’ season ended with a loud exclamation point, and they enjoyed their first team success, the conversation around Jackson shifted.
“All of a sudden,” Jackson said, “it turned into, ‘You think you’re going to be able to play up there, bro?’ That’s how dramatic of a shift it was.”
Three days after that Orange Bowl and the day after that CaliFlorida Bowl, USC landed its headliner.
Polamalu knew he needed running backs. USC had just lost three critical parts of its backfield — Sultan McCollough, Justin Fargas and Malaefou Mackenzie — and had set its sights on securing the best running backs in the country.
Four-star running back Chauncey Washington jumped in early. Polamalu felt good about his relationship with four-star back LenDale White, who committed at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
Five-star tailback Reggie Bush, on the other hand, was a challenge. “Early on he wasn’t looking at USC that much,” longtime Southern California recruiting analyst Greg Biggins — now a national recruiting analyst for 247Sports — said. “I don’t even know if they were in his top three going into spring his senior year.”
And second, despite the fact Polamalu had been recruiting Bush for several years at that point, the rest of the Trojans’ staff was torn. Bush’s highlight tape displayed explosiveness, elusiveness and speed but Carroll wanted a one-cut runner. Bush’s running style was always much more creative than that.
“I just kept pounding the table,” Polamalu said. “I remember I was on the treadmill down in Heritage Hall. I don’t know if it was Lane (Kiffin) or Steve Sarkisian who said, ‘Hey, they’re going to cut your boy.’ They were talking about Reggie and I was like, ‘Coach, you can’t do that.’ This kid was electric.”
Carroll also preferred a physical back. Bush was listed as 6-foot and 180 pounds at the time, and a hand injury required him to wear a cast on his left hand as a senior and impacted his game.
Polamalu urged Carroll to watch the tape from Bush’s performance in the San Diego CIF title game.
“I go, ‘Coach, he’s hurt. He’s stepping out of bounds because he’s hurt.’ So we put in the championship game,” Polamalu said. “And he pitches the ball back and the other player catches it and scores a touchdown. Pete thought that was the coolest thing and that’s when he said, ‘OK. I’m in.’”
USC’s pursuit of Bush also received some help along the way.
“If Coach (Tyrone) Willingham would have never left Stanford, I still believe Reggie would have been a Stanford Cardinal,” Polamalu said. “But he left to go to Notre Dame and the next (Stanford) head coach (wasn’t as sold). Again, when you watch film on Reggie, but you had to know him in person.”
Like White, Bush announced his commitment to USC at the U.S. Army All-American Game a few days after the Orange Bowl.
“The Orange Bowl was probably one of the key things in helping us because both of them,” Polamalu said. “They watched the game and they saw all the running backs were having fun, they were supporting each other. Even though there was only one football, they realized the energy that started to turn at USC.”
The duo of Bush and White — later nicknamed “Thunder and Lightning”— terrorized defenses and turned into one of the most productive running back tandems in the history of college football.
Bush won a Heisman in 2005 and White rushed for the most touchdowns in program history (52) and they were one of the defining parts of Carroll’s dynasty.
“What Reggie and LenDale did is obviously the core aspect of who we were,” Jackson said. “It allowed for a lot of stuff to happen.”
Bush, who was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, and White, who was a second-round pick that same year, made immediate impacts at USC. But everyone else developed at their own pace.
Steve Smith was a four-star receiver, and after he contributed a bit as a freshman, he became a full-time starter as a sophomore and posted 190 career receptions, which is eighth in program history, on his way to becoming a second-round draft pick by the New York Giants in 2007.
Thomas and offensive linemen Ryan Kalil were both three-star prospects who started for several years and turned into second-round draft picks. After a redshirt season, Jackson became a four-year starter and was drafted in the first round by the Seattle Seahawks in 2008. Ellis redshirted as a freshman, was a backup his second year, became a starter as a sophomore, then turned into an All-American by the end his time at USC.
Ellis was drafted No. 7 overall by the New Orleans Saints in 2008. Players like Washington, Drew Radovich and John David Booty had to wait their turn for several years before they earned starting roles.
“Those guys developed through the competition on the field,” said former USC tailback Petros Papadakis, who hosts a daily sports talk radio show in Los Angeles. “They developed by going after each other in practice. That was the key to their success, to me, the way they practiced against each other and the way they were coached on the field by those assistants. That brought the level up and made them, in a very top-heavy Pac-10 back then, made them seemingly unbeatable of because the way they played against each other.”
Of course, some players never fully developed. The highest-rated player in this class — five-star receiver Whitney Lewis — turned out to be the biggest miss.
Lewis was the No. 2 overall player in the country, but never found his footing at USC and barely played before he transferred to Northern Iowa after three seasons.
“The question was could they get Steve Smith and Whitney Lewis? Whitney was rated a little higher. Florida State was where he wanted to go,” Biggins said. “That was his dream school. Mom wasn’t having that, said ‘Nope, you’re going to USC.’ Kind of on signing day, he ended up choosing USC. I kind of feel in hindsight that was never really his first choice. I think that kind of took away his desire to play.”
Tragically, Drean Rucker’s talent was never on display. The four-star linebacker signee drowned while swimming at Huntington State Beach two weeks before the Trojans were set to report for camp.
While a lot of attention was placed on the talent in this class, the staff that recruited it was pretty loaded, too. Carroll is recognized as one of the best recruiters in recent college football history.
Orgeron, then USC’s defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator, was recognized as a phenomenal recruiter then, recruited well as the head coach at Ole Miss and is about to pull in another top-10 recruiting class at LSU.
Kiffin was coaching receivers and Sarkisian was coaching quarterbacks. Both have shown their strengths on the recruiting trail, as assistants and head coaches, as well. Polamalu was a great recruiter, too.
“Obviously, Lane and Sark, you know how good they were. Pete was probably the best recruiter from a head coaching standpoint I’ve ever seen. I know people will say Saban and Urban Meyer but I think Pete was even more hands-on,” Biggins said. “He was so competitive with it. He loved the chase. I think you could make the case Ed Orgeron is a top five recruiter of all-time. Kennedy Polamalu was phenomenal. Rocky Seto was awesome, he was a grinder. They had four or five guys who were just A-plus, the best you could find on one staff. But Pete set the tone.”
Carroll’s enthusiasm and energy permeated throughout the program. Having an exciting offense, which put its players in the best positions to succeed, and an aggressive defense also helped the brand.
Under most circumstances, USC can recruit itself, but Biggins joked that staff recruited with the relentlessness of a mid-major program.
“It’s the Trojans, man,” Seto said. “Once there’s a spark about SC, that’s all people were really waiting for. Once we were able to get the Orange Bowl, Coach Carroll was developing that culture, people could feel it.”
The ’02 team may have provided USC with that spark. The ’03 recruiting class helped turned it into a flame.
They helped USC claim its first national title in 25 years as freshmen, cemented the program’s return to prominence with an outright national title in 2004 and served as the backbone for one of modern college football’s greatest dynasties.
Each member who made it to the NFL experienced varying degrees of success. Bush and Ellis won a Super Bowl as teammates on the New Orleans Saints. Smith and Thomas were members of different New York Giants teams that won the Super Bowl. Four years ago, Kalil played in a Super Bowl with the Carolina Panthers.
Kalil, the three-star prospect who was too small to play left tackle but turned into a three-time All-Pro center, ended up having the best professional career of the bunch. On Dec. 30, Kalil retired after 12 seasons with the Panthers, which closed the book on the NFL careers of those players in the ’03 recruiting class.
Fittingly, he went out with a win.
“We referred to each other as dynasty members,” Thomas said. “When you think about the work we put it in, that’s the thing that probably stood out the most, what the hell were we doing? Why were we pushing each other, ourselves, our bodies to the max every day? Not just when it counted, but every day. Everybody was trying to get a competitive advantage to a certain extent.
“I would say just looking back at the younger us, we just really went after each other and never took it personal and that’s rare that you’re able to joke to the bone to try to hurt somebody, more importantly try to run them over, crush them on the field and then go eat cheeseburgers and play video games all night long. It was just a true brotherhood. These type of groups don’t come along often.”