When Jermar Jefferson gave his mom the news, she began to cry.
It was a week before last year’s signing day and Jefferson, a senior running back and three-star recruit at Narbonne High in Harbor City, finally had received a scholarship offer from USC. It was the school he grew up idolizing, the Pac-12’s biggest program and predominant recruiting giant in the Southland, his mother Tracy’s alma mater.
Only, she wasn’t shedding tears of Trojan joy. The offer had come too late. Weeks earlier, Jefferson had committed to Oregon State. USC’s late push was tempting, but he became a Beaver anyway.
“No! Why?” Jefferson remembers his mom asking him. “I was like, I just feel like I need to get out of L.A.”
Jefferson recalled the story during Pac-12 media day last week. After a breakout freshman season in Corvallis, he can smile at the memory now.
While USC coach Clay Helton was hurled hot-seat questions and UCLA coach Chip Kelly was grilled on the Bruins’ rebuild, local products such as Jefferson — prospects who were overlooked, under-pursued or unpersuaded by the L.A. schools and have flourished as program-builders elsewhere in the conference — surrounded them.
Between 2010 and 2015, USC and UCLA combined to sign an average of five top-20 California recruits per year, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings. But in the last four classes, that average has dropped to 3.75.
Jefferson’s recruiting process unfolded slowly after a senior year transfer from Redondo Union, and “it definitely motivated me to work harder and grind,” he said. “It made me have that grit to go harder and be the best.”
In addition to Jefferson, who racked up 1,380 rushing yards (third most in the conference), 12 touchdown runs (tied for second) and the Pac-12 freshman offensive player of the year award last season, several other Southern California players took the podium at the Hollywood & Highland Center, donning the colors of the conference’s other schools.
Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello, a Rancho Santa Margarita native, and Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate, a Gardena Serra product, have become two of the league’s top signal callers after spurning offers from USC and UCLA.
California cornerback Camryn Bynum, a former three-star prospect from Corona Centennial who wasn’t offered by either L.A. school, has become an anchor of a Golden Bears secondary that led the conference in pass defense last season.
Washington center Nick Harris, a preseason all-conference first-team selection from Gardena Serra, and Arizona State center Cohl Cabral, a preseason all-conference second-team selection and Rancho Cucamonga product, also opted to leave the state. Both are expected to become NFL draft picks next spring.
“Guys are going everywhere,” Cabral said. “They can stay at home, but if they feel more comfortable somewhere else, they can go somewhere else and be comfortable.”
Washington cornerback Myles Bryant, a graduate of Loyola High in Los Angeles, was another example. The 5-foot-9 prospect received little attention from the Trojans and Bruins. But he found a home with Washington, one of several programs that have reinforced their Southern California pipeline in recent years.
“Growing up, USC and UCLA, those were the top-tier programs,” said Bryant, a preseason first-team all-conference selection. “They’re still at the top, but I think a lot of guys are seeing what you can do in other places. They’re understanding that they’re trying to get outside of the bubble and get experiences. They’re trying to see what other parts of the country have to offer.”
These stories aren’t new. Generations of L.A. players have found success after leaving home. In an area with such rich recruiting reserves, USC and UCLA can only mine so much of the talent for themselves.
But rarely have both programs been mired in such malaise — USC is 15 years past its last national title and coming off a 5-7 season, while UCLA hasn’t claimed a conference championship in more than 20 years and won just three games last fall. At the same time, many of their rivals have successfully recruited their backyard.
This year’s signing class saw the conference’s other 10 schools combine to sign more top-20 California recruits (10) than the Trojans and Bruins combined (four) for the first time this decade.
“The world has gotten smaller in general, but certainly in the recruiting world,” Washington coach Chris Petersen said. “It’s not just here, it’s everywhere. You’ve got kids all over the West going different places with the social media and the access.”
It has leveled the league’s playing field. For the first time since the Pac-12 split into divisions in 2011, neither USC nor UCLA was picked to win the South Division in the preseason media poll.
“The two local schools are still going to get really good players out of here,” Peterson said. “But it’ll be interesting to see how this thing all plays out in the long run, because ... just depending on the kid, it can be great to get out of their comfort zone and go to a different part of the country. They love it.”