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October 2, 2012

Former-five-star Ambles is moving forward

MORE: Rivals.com's Recruit of the Week

YUMA, Ariz. - Markeith Ambles is not a five-star recruit. He's not a 17-year-old prodigy being chased by every college coach in the country. He's not the next NFL-bound USC wide receiver.

That was two years ago. Today, he's just the guy critiquing the lunch offerings in a community college cafeteria.

He shrugs. "The only thing that's even close to legit here is the cheeseburger," he says. "I already ate because I don't want this."

Like most things Ambles says, the quasi-recommendation comes with a grin. His isn't the face of a man beaten down by adversity. It's also not that of a guy with everything sorted out. Ambles is trapped somewhere between a rebirth and a relapse. His Arizona Western student ID hangs around his neck on a lanyard.

He arrived here this spring and brought some grudges with him. Does he like Lane Kiffin? Not at all. He confesses to that in as many words (Kiffin declined comment for this story).

He's not pinning his unceremonious departure from USC completely on the coach, though.

"I wish I would have gone to class more and been on time to stuff," he says. "They wanted to redshirt me while I was ineligible, but I didn't want to be there anymore. I messed up my opportunity, and you only get one at a place like that."

On the field, Ambles is the same talent that had coaches salivating when he was the No. 3 wide receiver and No. 24 player overall in the recruiting class of 2010.

Away from it, life for Ambles looks completely different.

Ambles' current home of Yuma, Ariz., houses just 93,000 people. It's a workingman's city - a place where they roll up the sidewalks at 11 and serve french fries with a side of ranch. Los Angeles it is not. Ambles sees that as a positive.

To him, "boring" isn't pejorative. Not anymore. He looks up from the lunch table and surveys his surroundings.

"It's better for me here," he says. "In L.A., it's so much wilder and so much louder. There were so many other reasons for me not to do the stuff I needed to be doing. There's nothing to do here but school and football."

Here, in this sleepy military town nestled in the desert, he fights to mend his image. He speaks on the missteps that comprise his past. His falling out with Kiffin, being accused of hitting a female high school teacher, living a party-heavy lifestyle; it's all covered.

Some blame he accepts. Some he rejects. The new Markeith Ambles is a work in progress.

'I'm not that guy anymore'

Things with Markeith Ambles are rarely black and white, so it's fitting that he's dressed in head-to-toe gray. He pulls out his iPhone to check a written list of potential transfer destinations and begins to read aloud.

"Baylor, Oklahoma State, Michigan State," he says. "I've researched this time. Those schools put wide receivers in the NFL. That's where I want to be, and they can get me there."

Problem is, according to Arizona Western head coach Tom Minnick, his star receiver holds a scholarship offer from none of those schools. Instead, the current list consists of Illinois, Marshall and Arkansas State.

"He'll get more and more offers as the season goes on and coaches see him play," Minnick says of Ambles, who tied a school record last weekend with 10 catches in a game. "He can tell you this: He has to take care of his academics. That's the way it's always been with Markeith."

It's his reputation - a reputation that was born when he was accused of hitting a teacher at his first high school - that holds him back.

The situation stemmed from an iPod that allegedly vanished while in his teacher's possession. To this day, Ambles denies laying a hand on anyone. He reminisces, and the grin on his face subsides.

"I shouldn't have been listening to music in class," he says. "That was wrong. That was my fault. But when I went to get the iPod back, she had either lost it or it got stolen. So we started arguing about that. And you know how that goes. I yelled at her.

"They kicked me out because she said I hit her. She was a little lady, why would I hit her? If I did, she would have pressed charges."

He shuffles in his chair and readjusts his flat-billed Yankees cap as if to ask, "Can we talk about something else?"

Life as Hollywood

Understanding Ambles is understanding his circle. His best friend is Tim Beckham, the first overall pick of the 2008 MLB draft. Beckham's Tampa Bay Rays signing bonus alone was $6.15 million. This year, Major League Baseball suspended him 50 games for testing positive for recreational drugs.

Other professional baseball players round out Ambles' tightknit crew. The $500 watch he's wearing was a gift from one of his pals. When he discusses his peer group -- the money, the fame, the lifestyle -- Markeith Ambles seems bigger than Arizona Western for the first time.

For better or worse, his baseball-star buddies double as his mentors. He mentions Beckham's name no less than six times during the 30-minute lunch.

"Tim helps me," Ambles says. "Tim and my dad. Tim knows what it's like being an athlete and he knows what you have to do to be successful. When I go back east, I usually stay with him and we talk about what I need to be doing."

"Hollywood" was the word Ambles used to describe his personality in a Rivals.com interview conducted in 2010, when he was still viewed as a budding USC superstar. Reminded of that now, he tilts his head back and lets out a sheepish chuckle.

"I really said that?" he asks before continuing. "I'm not that guy anymore. I'm a little more laid back and not so worried about doing all those other things."

While at USC, Ambles says free nights usually consisted of "those other things." The routine was simple: a pre-party, a fraternity party and an after-hours party. In the end, it added up to a suspension, academic ineligibility and an eventual split with the football program.

The blame? He spreads that around. A little for Kiffin, a little for himself and a little for USC's cultural backdrop.

"I think the punishments Kiffin had for me were a little harsh, so I don't really like him at all." he says. "Kiffin had his guys. If his guys got in trouble for the same things as me, he wasn't as hard on them.

"It was my fault, too. I partied too much. At USC, there was always a party every night."

Ambles' plans on this 100-degree evening in Yuma include practice, weight training and a movie with a female classmate.

A different universe

Hours after lunch, Ambles is out of his cafeteria chair and into his shoulder pads. Practice will end early today because Western's soccer team uses the football field for home games. Goals are set up in both end zones. At this point, USC seems like a different universe.

The wide receiver goes to work while his coaches sing the praises of his reform. He can't hear the compliments but seems to respond to each one with a catch. Oklahoma assistant Bruce Kittle looks on from a spot in front of a small set of bleachers as Ambles does his thing.

"He's been great for us," Minnick says with a hint of lingering surprise in his voice. "We haven't had problems with him. When we first got him this spring, he tested us a little bit, but he got over that real quick. We don't put up with much stuff here. He started off a little slow academically, but he's getting there."

Just as Minnick gets the final sentence out, Ambles contorts himself to make a one-handed grab on the far sideline. A nearby Western assistant chimes into the conversation. "Those are the things Markeith does," he says.

If Ambles didn't have the attention of the Sooner representative in attendance already, he does now. As the short workout winds down, Kittle can be overheard asking questions about the once-prized recruit. See, troubled as he was and may still be, Ambles holds the trump card.

Talent.

"If he keeps his academics straight, he's going to be able to play anywhere he wants," Minnick says after Ambles hauls in yet another pass. "And you see why, right?"

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