Some time before Saturday, USC cornerback Iman Marshall plans to send a missive behind enemy lines. Before USC and UCLA renew their rivalry, Marshall said he’ll send a text to his former teammate at Long Beach Poly, receiver Christian Pabico.
Mostly pleasantries, Marshall said.
"Check up on him, see how he's doing and everything like that,” Marshall said.
He has another motive, Marshall admitted, laughing. He wants make sure Pabico “understands that we're going to go after him.”
"We're gonna do our little talking,” Marshall said.
College football has scores of great rivalries, but none that match USC and UCLA for geographical proximity. California and Stanford surround the same city, but they are separated by an hour’s worth of traffic (if you’re lucky). Alabama-Auburn inspires life-and-death intensity, but venturing between campuses requires traversing 157 miles of barbecue-scented Alabama plains.
Only Duke and North Carolina have USC-UCLA beat on proximity (nine miles as the crow flies to USC and UCLA’s 10), but that’s a basketball rivalry, not a football one.
The result, for USC and UCLA, is something unique in college football. An astounding number of players on each side, like Marshall and Pabico, grew up playing together, either in Pop Warner, high school or both. This season, 69 players total will face a former teammate from a local high school. There are two more pairs — four more players total — if Bakersfield and Fresno are included in the tally.
Several players will be in direct confrontation. Marshall and fellow USC cornerback Jack Jones, another Poly graduate, could occasionally cover Pabico. USC safety Marvell Tell III may have to tackle UCLA running back Jalen Starks, his former Crespi teammate. USC linebacker John Houston Jr., dropping into zone coverage, may find himself chasing receiver Jordan Lasley, with whom he played from Pop Warner through Garden Serra High.
“I do have a lot of friends over there. It will be fun,” Lasley said. “But that they're not going to be my friends during the game.”
Lasley took advantage of the familiarity last season. He had just three touchdowns entering the game. He drew USC cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, the eventual Thorpe Award winner.
The pair had a history.
“Adoree’ really knew how to push Jordan’s buttons,” Serra coach Scott Altenberg said.
In high school, Jackson was cool and in control. Lasley was more volatile. Jackson would know exactly what to say, exactly when to give Lasley a nudge to make him explode, Altenberg said.
But Lasley laughed last. He’d learned. He had just two catches against Jackson last season, but both were touchdowns.
Altenberg, a lifelong UCLA fan, usually has torn feelings this time of year. He has 11 former players in the game — eight of them on USC, including Houston, defensive end Rasheem Green and receiver Deontay Burnett.
Serra leads all high schools in total players in the rivalry. Loyola is next, with eight, followed by Mater Dei (seven) and St. John Bosco (five).
St. John Bosco’s most prominent alumnus, Josh Rosen, has another USC connection: He played Pop Warner on the same team as USC coach Clay Helton’s eldest son, Reid.
"To watch him grow from an eighth grader up to what he is now, which is an NFL football player, has been a lot of fun," Helton said.
Helton, of course, let Rosen slip away to UCLA. Did he consider dropping hints about USC to the young passer?
"Not with seventh graders," Helton said, laughing.
Such proximity can get in the way of the profound animosity that often marks this rivalry.
Marshall, despite the trash talk, was thrilled that Pabico has had a breakout season, with 14 catches for 248 yards and a touchdown, and upset that Pabico is still a walk-on.
"I'm surprised it took him this long to get that man a scholarship," Marshall said.
UCLA coach Jim Mora gushed this week about USC quarterback Sam Darnold (one of four former San Clemente Tritons in the game). Mora loved Darnold’s play as a quarterback. But what really touched Mora was that Darnold still honors former UCLA and San Clemente receiver Nick Pasquale, who was struck and killed by a car in 2013.
"One of the things I love about him, I just found this out yesterday: He wears a Nick Pasquale wristband,” Mora said. “And I think that's unbelievable."
But the bonhomie ends once the hitting starts.
“Anybody who I come across that I've known for a long time, they don't get it lightly,” Tell said.
If anything, Tell said, he wants to hit Starks, his former Crespi teammate, even harder.
“It’s personal,” Tell said.