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Thursday, January 23, 2014
Shifting power: Los Angeles

By Erik McKinney

It's tough to imagine one college football player changing the fortunes of his program and its closest rival over the course of more than a decade.

But that might just be the case with Reggie Bush, whose on-field actions helped USC become the dominant recruiting force in Southern California between 2006 and 2012, and whose off-field actions largely led to the NCAA taking 30 scholarships away from USC for the 2012-2014 seasons and creating a hole in the Southern California recruiting scene large enough for UCLA to climb through.

When the heavy sanctions were brought down upon USC in the summer of 2010, it was thought to be a now-or-never situation for UCLA. The Trojans were 10-1 in the previous 11 games against the Bruins and had the virtual first pick of just about any recruit in the region.

The now-or-never situation facing UCLA certainly seemed fully tilted to never.

Things seemed even worse for the Bruins following a 50-0 beating by USC late in 2011. It was impossible to predict how quickly things changed following their hiring of Jim Mora that December.

Jim Mora
Jim Mora has changed UCLA's role in the recruiting battles with USC.
Mora and his staff were able to win some significant recruiting battles within the 2012 class -- none more notable than beating out USC for ESPN 150 defensive tackle Ellis McCarthy. Mora also landed local standouts Ishmael Adams, Jordan Payton and Randall Goforth, convincing all three to stay home after each looked headed to a different Pac-12 rival.

But Mora's success at UCLA has been equal parts on and off the field. The family atmosphere that is constantly mentioned by prospects at any successful recruiting power is now prevalent at UCLA.

"I like what Jim Mora is doing," ESPN 300 athlete John Smith said. "He's a great coach, with great character and personality."

And in the what-have-you-done lately world of college football recruiting, that feeling shared by local recruits when they visit Westwood is beginning to outweigh their memories of watching Bush in the Coliseum.

ESPN 300 athlete Jaleel Wadood (Bellflower, Calif./St. John Bosco) committed to Mora and the Bruins after backing away from pledges to Arizona State and Cal. Wadood was courted significantly by USC before selecting UCLA.

"Since I live five or 10 minutes away from the Coliseum, I grew up a Trojan fan," Wadood said. "Growing up, USC has always been the big brother to UCLA -- the guy who steals the remote from you type of thing. But Coach Mora helped turn the program around in so many ways. It's the way they carry themselves now. They aren't scared of them."

Wadood isn't the only UCLA victory over USC in the 2014 recruiting class. Fellow California products Adarius Pickett (El Cerrito, Calif./El Cerrito), Matt Dickerson (San Mateo, Calif./Junipero Serra), Jordan Lasley (Gardena, Calif./Serra) and Denzel Fisher (Compton, Calif./Centennial) all selected the Bruins over offers from the Trojans. The 2015 class has already seen one significant UCLA win as well in ESPN 300 tight end Alize Jones (Las Vegas/Bishop Gorman). The Bruins could also make a huge statement this spring or summer by landing a commitment from the No. 1 quarterback in the 2015 class, Josh Rosen (Bellflower, Calif./St. John Bosco), who is leaning significantly toward UCLA.

In just two years of on-field results, Mora has turned a commit selecting UCLA over USC from a shock into a legitimate option.

"It came more with the second win," Wadood said of UCLA posting back-to-back double-digit victories over USC for the first time since 1983 and 1984. "Two straight wins let it be known that UCLA is a team to be reckoned with. It doesn't necessarily bow down to USC anymore."

Mora's 2013 class finished as the top-ranked group of recruits in the Pac-12 -- the first time UCLA topped USC in that regard since ESPN began ranking classes in 2006. And half of the Bruins' ESPN 150 commits -- Priest Willis, Tahaan Goodman, Kylie Fitts, Eldridge Massington and John Johnson, not to mention Eddie Vanderdoes, who enrolled at UCLA after signing with Notre Dame -- were high-profile USC targets or one-time USC commits.

Of course, breaking recruiting in Southern California down to a seesaw that leans heavily toward whichever school won the previous game is far too simple and not entirely accurate. Just as in baseball, where momentum is only as good as tomorrow's starting pitcher, momentum on the college football recruiting trail can be just as fickle.

Steve Sarkisian
Steve Sarkisian has made some recruiting progress since becoming USC coach.
With Steve Sarkisian taking over at USC, the battle is on for recruiting in the region. Already in the 2014 class, Sarkisian has flipped John Plattenburg (Houston/Lamar) -- a defensive back who spent his sophomore and junior seasons in Southern California -- away from UCLA. The Trojans have also landed UCLA targets in ESPN 300 tight end Bryce Dixon (Ventura, Calif./St. Bonaventure) and ESPN 300 offensive tackle Chris Brown (Los Angeles/Loyola) since Sarkisian's arrival.

For recruits in the area -- perhaps most notably Smith, the nation's No. 24 overall prospect -- Sarkisian is the closest USC could have come to bringing back Pete Carroll.

"Now you have Sark, who basically called the plays for USC back then, and what he did at Washington was even greater," Smith said. "Now he has better players at USC, so it will probably be even greater."

In fact, the 2014 class might help illustrate exactly what kind of mountain Mora was facing on the recruiting trail. Facing the final year of sanctions, the Trojans still have a recruiting class ranked higher than the Bruins, though UCLA is climbing quickly. ESPN 300 wide receiver Rahshead Johnson (Long Beach, Calif./Cabrillo) is a perfect example of why it could take a few more wins on the field in order for Mora and UCLA to shift perception completely.

"USC was always the school I liked growing up, and Reggie Bush was the one guy who made me really like USC," said Johnson, a former Washington verbal commitment. "But Sark was there when Pete was there and he knows what it takes to win. He can follow the same path, because he knows how to win.

With Mora a proven commodity in Westwood and Sarkisian bringing momentum into USC's final season under sanctions, the recruiting landscape in Southern California hasn't been this wide open in more than a decade.