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USC and UCLA struggling to attract top Southern California football prospects

Mater Dei quarterback Bryce Young runs with the ball.
Mater Dei quarterback Bryce Young is the latest high-level Southland recruit to pull back his commitment from USC.
(Dylan Stewart / For The Times)

Bryce Young continued a trend Sunday when he announced he was no longer planning to attend USC and instead had flipped his commitment to Alabama. The Santa Ana Mater Dei High quarterback became the latest high-end prospect from the Southland to choose to leave the area.

It has been a diaspora.

Five of the top 50 and 17 of the top 250 national prospects, per the 247Sports composite rankings, reside in Southern California. None are committed to USC or UCLA. Of the top 20 senior Southland players who have announced a commitment, only one is set to become a Trojan. The Bruins are being shut out after a 3-9 finish last season and a 1-3 start this season.

USC’s 20th-ranked recruiting class last year was its worst in the modern recruiting era. The Trojans are ranked No. 62, with North Texas, Vanderbilt, Louisiana Tech, Washington State and South Florida in the Nos. 57 to 61 spots, respectively. UCLA is No. 72. The top four classes from the Mid-American Conference are sandwiched between the Los Angeles schools.

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Greg Biggins, a 247Sports recruiting national analyst who has been covering Southern California extensively since 1996, said he has never seen such a mass exodus of talent from the area.

“Oh, heck no. For years and years and years, no matter how good or bad the local schools would do [on the field], especially USC, kids would go there no matter what,” he said. “I’ve always said, ‘USC can recruit itself.’ UCLA, even though they were winning five, six games, they were still bringing in top 10-20 recruiting classes every year.

“Other schools have never hit these kids harder before. Ten years ago they didn’t even try to recruit kids out here that hard. Notre Dame would. A few others would pick and choose, but now it’s almost like sharks smell blood in the water. They’re seeing a down USC with some coaching stability issues. UCLA still hasn’t won in a long, long time and now everyone’s swarming out here.”

Schools that don’t traditionally recruit in Southern California are making inroads. South Carolina, Wisconsin and Oklahoma State last year signed prospects from the area. Before December, Clemson had not signed a California prospect since 1991. The Tigers are set to sign Bellflower St. John Bosco quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, the consensus top pro-style quarterback and 247Sports’ No. 3 overall prospect. Young is Alabama’s second commit from the Southland this year after signing only three in Nick Saban’s first 13 years in Tuscaloosa.

Mater Dei quarterback Bryce Young takes part in a passing league tournament in July 2018.
Mater Dei quarterback Bryce Young takes part in a passing league tournament in July 2018.
(Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times )

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Young committed to USC in July 2018 before his junior season. The Trojans were coming off consecutive seasons with double-digit victories that included a Rose Bowl victory and a Pac-12 Conference championship with a Cotton Bowl appearance. Since then, USC is 8-8, finishing below .500 in 2018, the first time it had a losing record since 2000 and only the fourth time in 56 years.

The Trojans upset No. 10 Utah on Friday, but there continues to be uncertainty surrounding coach Clay Helton’s future status after a loss to Brigham Young, the resignation of athletic director Lynn Swann and a newly installed school president.

Young, ranked by 247Sports’ analysts as the No. 4 overall prospect in the nation, disputed that anything occurring at USC played into his commitment flip.

“There’s nothing that USC did or happened there that had anything to do with it,” Young said. “I just felt like it was personally a better fit for me and would be better for my future. I know there’s always going to be speculation and people always want to blame it on something, but truthfully, it had nothing to do with USC.”

Young said he simply fell in love with everything Alabama had to offer and felt it was the best fit for him. It has been a familiar refrain from top local prospects and one out-of-state prospects used to say about USC under Pete Carroll. Now, only one of the state’s top 15 players, Corona Centennial receiver Gary Bryant, is considered to be leaning toward USC and Young’s decision could have an effect on Bryant’s recruitment.

Young’s quarterback counterpart, Uiagalelei, chose the defending national champions.

St. John Bosco quarterback DJ Uiagalelei.
St. John Bosco quarterback DJ Uiagalelei.
(Shotgun Spratling / For the Times)

“I want to play on the biggest stage,” Uiagalelei said. “I want to play with the best players, play against the best people and right now Clemson is on the biggest stage. I feel like going there, that’s what’s going to take me to the next level.”

USC and UCLA are no longer playing on the biggest stage. Uiagalelei, Young, Jermaine Burton (Louisiana State) and Clark Phillips III (Ohio State) are all top-50 Southland prospects committed to play across the country. The top uncommitted local player, Upland linebacker Justin Flowe, has a final four of Clemson, Georgia, Miami and Oregon.

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Uiagalelei’s St. John Bosco teammate Kourt Williams felt he will be better prepared away from the West Coast. Of his final five schools, the farthest west he considered was Oklahoma.

“I just feel like I have a better opportunity making it to the next level playing in a Big 10, SEC-type schools than the Pac-12,” Williams said before committing to Ohio State. “They can prepare me better.”

But the Pac-12 hasn’t been shut out in Southern California. Oregon signed five top-100 players from the Southland in the 2019 class and is recruiting heavily in the area this year, picking up a trio of commitments from local four-star prospects. Washington has seven commitments from the area, including three four-star prospects. The state’s top lineman, Mater Dei’s Myles Murao, chose the Huskies despite having USC and UCLA as finalists.

“Kids now feel like they don’t need to stay. If they want to get seen and if they want to get developed and if they want to play on the biggest stages, in their eyes, they need to leave and go play for a Clemson, an Ohio State, a Michigan, an Alabama,” Biggins said. “That’s where they see development happening. ... That’s where they see the most competition happening. And so those kids that normally would just slam dunk go to USC, no matter what, they’re suddenly starting to maybe evaluate their options more and saying, ‘You know what, even though this is home, I think there is a better option for me,’ and they’re leaving.”


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