USC, UCLA land top prospects
The UCLA-USC football rivalry is definitely alive and flourishing -- in recruiting, at least.
Each school emerged from Wednesday, the first day high school football seniors could sign letters of intent, with prospect classes ranked in the national top 10.
“We’re very close [to USC], and we’ll go past them very soon,” UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel predicted.
The departure of USC Coach Pete Carroll to the NFL seemed to energize Neuheisel, who showed a closer mentality. Four top defensive recruits all announced in the middle of the day that they had signed with UCLA -- defensive backs Dietrich Riley of La Cañada St. Francis and Anthony Jefferson of Los Angeles Cathedral, linebacker Josh Shirley of Fontana Kaiser and defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa from Portland, Ore.
New USC Coach Lane Kiffin ended the day by landing the biggest and best offensive line prospect in the nation, 6-foot-8, 330-pound tackle Seantrel Henderson from St. Paul, Minn.
Henderson was among three late additions that buoyed the Trojans. Soma Vainuku of Eureka (Calif.), a top fullback, and defensive end Marquis Jackson of College of the Canyons gave USC commitments.
That push gave the Trojans the nation’s top recruiting class, according to Rivals .com. Florida was No. 2 and UCLA No. 8. Scout.com ranked Florida No. 1, UCLA No. 6 and USC No. 7. UCLA signed 22 players; USC had 19 plus the two verbal commitments.
FOR THE RECORD: Scout.com has revised its rankings following Wednesday’s signing day. USC is ranked No. 5 in the nation and UCLA is ranked No. 8.
Kiffin held on to nearly every player who’d made a commitment before Carroll’s sudden departure to the Seattle Seahawks last month.
“In every coaching change you see at least a couple guys jump ship,” said Greg Biggins, West Coast recruiting analyst for ESPNRise.com. “For them to basically bat a thousand and add Markeith Ambles and Seantrel Henderson is incredible.”
USC started fast when Ambles announced he would join other top receivers Kyle Prater, Dillon Baxter and Robert Woods. It continued with the signings of tight ends Xavier Grimble of Las Vegas, Randall Telfer of Rancho Cucamonga and Christian Thomas of Palmdale Highland.
“Three of the top TEs in the country and four 5 star receivers added to what I already have?? Feels like Christmas,” USC quarterback Matt Barkley wrote on Twitter.com.
But UCLA began picking up top uncommitted players in bunches.
The Bruins signed Riley and Shirley, both of whom were once considered locks to go to USC. They also signed L.A. Loyola running back Anthony Barr, whose father played for Notre Dame, and Westlake Village Oaks Christian defensive tackle Cassius Marsh. UCLA also out-dueled Stanford for Huntington Beach Edison linebacker Jordan Zumwalt and beat out Nebraska and Oregon for Odighizuwa, considered one of the top defensive players from the Northwest.
“I think it is clear to anybody paying attention that there are two options in this town,” Neuheisel said. “It’s important to us to become a championship-caliber team, so the option becomes even more obvious.”
Giovanni Di Poalo, an offensive lineman from Ventura St. Bonaventure who signed with USC, said he thought it would be easy to sign with the Trojans -- only to face a last-minute onslaught from UCLA.
“They made a run,” Di Poalo said of the Bruins. “They impressed me. I was conflicted, and I had to dig deep. I went to bed with a rosary in my hand, had dreams of red and yellow and woke up this morning with total confidence.”
Asked why he didn’t consider USC, Barr said, “I would have been disowned by my family if I went to USC.”
But family worked for USC when it came to landing L.A. Crenshaw linebacker Hayes Pullard, who spurned UCLA in favor of the school his late father attended.
Kiffin gushed about his incoming group of skill-position players, saying, “I don’t know that I’ve seen a skill class this good ever before coming out of high school.”
Allen Wallace, national recruiting editor for Scout .com, described the Trojans’ class as “bipolar” because there was so much talent at receiver and so few linemen and linebackers.
Hovering over both schools was Carroll, whose departure influenced at least two players. “The changing of the coaching staff and the manner that they did it, it was a little late for USC,” Marsh said.
Riley, whom Neuheisel referred to as “the gold nugget,” said he had known Carroll since he was 12, and his absence forced a reevaluation. “I felt in my gut UCLA is the right fit, and I have an opportunity to make an instant impact,” he said.
The recruiting battle isn’t close to over, either. USC has landed a blow for next recruiting season. One of the region’s top junior prospects, defensive tackle Antwaun Woods from Woodland Hills Taft, announced he had committed to USC.
Times staff writers Gary Klein and Chris Foster contributed to this story.