All the big-name coaches with high-profile programs and adoring fans wanted Grant Pearsall on their side. His name appeared on many recruiting wish-lists, in places like South Bend, Ind., and State College, Pa.
Pearsall could have played in Boulder, Colo., or Ann Arbor, Mich., or a hundred other places. Yet, when it came time for the Villa Park High running back/defensive back to sign, he bucked a recent trend of Southland prep football standouts. He chose USC.
No need to go far from home, Pearsall said, when it makes sense to stay close.
"Everything Coach [John] Robinson and the players said to me made it an easy choice," said Pearsall, a sophomore reserve strong safety. "I knew this was where I should be."
That the fifth-ranked Trojans so easily attracted a player so talented won't raise eyebrows now. But Robinson was in his second season of his second USC stint when Pearsall was a high school senior. Despite Robinson's pronouncements of a return to glory, the Trojans still had a way to go.
Pearsall liked that too.
"I didn't think that I could get us back by myself, but I wanted to help," he said. "That was really attractive to me. I wanted to be part of the tradition here.
"The main goal of everybody here is to get back on top. We want the national championship."
Pearsall and players with similar ability should help. His contributions for Villa Park were numerous and constant.
As a senior, Pearsall rushed for 1,606 yards and 17 touchdowns. He gained at least 100 yards nine times, including a career-high 248. He caught 19 passes for 206 yards and seven touchdowns.
He was just as important on defense, making 85 tackles. Pearsall returned one of his four interceptions 52 yards for a touchdown, and scored five times on kickoff and punt returns.
Such efforts are hard to go unnoticed. SuperPrep and Blue Chip selected Pearsall to their first-team All-American teams, and he was chosen Century League MVP.
Pearsall played on special teams in all of the Trojans' games as a freshman last season.
"I didn't want to redshirt," Pearsall said. "At the end of fall camp, the coaches told me I was going to play. That was a great experience."
Having to crash into people on special teams affected his thinking. He decided he'd better add some muscle, which he has. After playing at about 175 pounds during high school, Pearsall (6-1) has added almost 30 pounds by committing himself to the Trojans' weight-training program.
"The program here is really great," Pearsall said. "Some of it was just growing into my body, but hitting the weights a lot harder helps.
"I'm comfortable playing at the heavier weight. I don't get thrown around much anymore."
His added strength was first evident during the Trojans' training camps this season, in which Pearsall excelled. So impressed were USC's coaches that they promoted him to second string behind Sammy Knight. He plays often in passing situations.
"He's come as far as any player I've ever been around," USC defensive coordinator Keith Burns said. "He put the weight on the right way. He's really gone a long way toward making himself a better player."
Dennis Thurman has helped a lot too, Pearsall said. Thurman, who coaches defensive backs, has provided many insightful tips.
"I think he's improved volumes," said Thurman, a former All-American defensive back for the Trojans. "He came in mentally prepared to play the game. His confidence is up and that shows on Saturdays."
Pearsall also derives confidence from the team's improvement. The players from Pearsall's recruiting class and last season's have made Trojan supporters' expectations surge, and Sports Illustrated picked USC No. 1.
It's what Pearsall expected all along.
"All the press stuff is a fun thing," he said. "Coach handles it well, so it helps motivate us rather than be a pressure thing. This is right where we want to be."
Brotherly bond: Although stronger, Pearsall still doesn't match up with his older brother, Brian.
A tough senior defensive end at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Brian (6-2, 265) led the Mustangs with 12 1/2 sacks last season. Brian, also from Villa Park High, has two sacks this season.
"We talk on the phone all the time," Grant said. "It's tough on our parents to make all of our games every Saturday, but they try.
"I think they're going to concentrate on his games a little more this season because he's a senior, but they should make most of my big games."
Game-breaker: Ricky Ellis (Mater Dei) emerged as a big-play threat for St. Mary's as a sophomore last season. He seems to be even more dangerous now.
Ellis leads the Gaels with six catches for 108 yards. He returned a kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown and a punt 66 yards for a touchdown.
Last season, Ellis caught 17 passes for 360 yards and three touchdowns.
Keeping Track is a regular column in The Times following the progress of former Orange County athletes competing at colleges elsewhere. Readers with information for this feature may reach Jason Reid at (714) 966-5847 or send it by fax: (714) 966-5663.