The battle for L.A.

Southern California remains a priority for USC and UCLA in recruiting

Originally Published: January 16, 2013
By Erik McKinney | ESPN RecruitingNation

California, and Southern California in particular, has long been one of the major hotbeds for college football recruiting. It's one of the reasons UCLA and USC have been able to establish themselves as national football brands for decades and why the Bruins and Trojans are never more than a year from a complete turnaround after a down season. But controlling the city and the region in recruiting is usually a constant battle for the two local schools and one that often serves as the first step toward controlling the Pac-12 Conference.

UCLA and USC are simply blessed with an advantage shared by the likes of Texas and the big three Florida schools. If USC coach Lane Kiffin or UCLA's Jim Mora step outside and throw a football into the air, there's a pretty good chance it's going to be caught by a high school player worthy of a scholarship offer.

In 2012, many of the marquee names for both programs -- Matt Barkley and Marqise Lee for USC and Johnathan Franklin and Anthony Barr for UCLA among them -- needed to drive less than an hour to go home for the holidays.

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Franklin
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesUCLA running back Johnathan Franklin, who had two touchdowns in the Bruins win over USC this season, went to Dorsey High School in Los Angeles.

But both schools understand that even with their advantage in such a recruiting-rich environment, L.A. is still an appealing location for top players across the country. Whether it's Daytona Beach (Fla.) Mainland's Leonard Williams at USC or Chandler (Ariz.) High School's Brett Hundley for UCLA, out-of-state recruits have and will continue to make an early impact on the field for both programs.

Recruiting out of state at the expense of in-state players is a fine line both programs seem determined to walk and have had success with to varying degrees.

Of USC's 14 verbal commitments in the Class of 2013, six are from California -- though four are among the top nine players in the state. At one point, the Trojans held pledges from eight of the top nine players in California but have seen a slew of decommitments recently.

UCLA will be able to sign a much larger class than USC this year, but the Bruins have placed an emphasis on the Golden State, with 11 of their 20 verbal commitments hailing from California. Still, UCLA reached into Texas for its top two recruits.

Both programs have had their ups and downs over the past two decades, and Bruce Rollinson, head coach at Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei for 24 years, has been there for all of them. The Monarchs have sent a number of players to UCLA and USC, but when the topic of locking down the region came up, Rollinson recalled one instance in particular.

Nicky Sualua was a standout fullback at Mater Dei in the early '90s, capable of playing anywhere in the country. During Sualua's senior season in 1992, Rollinson spoke with the coaches at USC about one of his star players.

"I begged USC to come down and look at him," Rollinson said of Sualua. "They were using a fullback at the time, but they didn't look at him."

Sualua signed with Ohio State and eventually paved the way for Eddie George to win the Heisman Trophy following the 1995 season. Nearly a decade after Sualua's escape, Pete Carroll took over at USC and immediately saw a problem.

"When Carroll got the job, he was smart," Rollinson said. "He legally brought in a bunch of the top high school coaches in the area and asked about why Southern California kids are leaving Southern California to go outside the area for college. We had a roundtable discussion on it and part of it came down to the exposure other schools have in the area and dispelling the idea that you're in this elite group in college football."

Carroll worked tirelessly to ensure that the Trojans were a presence for any notable recruit in the area. And as the dominant recruiting force in the region, USC bullied its way to seven consecutive conference championships.

Now, roughly 10 years after Carroll first made his mark on the region, Southern California remains the biggest point of emphasis for UCLA and USC.

It was no secret that, capitalizing off its run of tremendous success, USC coaches asked in-state players to work harder and prove themselves more in order to earn a scholarship offer from the Trojans. Often, they've been able to use that as an opportunity to learn even more about the recruit in question.

Mike Moschetti has been the La Mirada (Calif.) head coach for five years. He grew up in La Mirada and attended La Mirada High School before eventually playing quarterback at Colorado. He understands the advantage winning can bring to the recruiting game.

"That's the power USC has. A five-star kid can have offers from everybody, but if he doesn't camp at USC, he's not going to get an offer," Moschetti said. "They have a formula and a certain thing they look for. If you don't want to come to USC's camp, maybe they don't want you. They want the kid that is going to show up and put everything on the line to show the staff what they can do and earn that offer."

Moschetti had some first-hand experience with that this past summer, when La Mirada junior standout tight end Tyler Luatua attended a USC camp.

"Tyler was in that boat," Moschetti said. "He had 15 offers from schools across the country, but USC hadn't offered. He said, 'I'm going to go down there and compete against the best.' He went and did it and got an offer."

But Moschetti also cautioned that another year akin to the 7-6 performance the Trojans coughed up this past season could put a sizeable hole in that recruiting philosophy.

"The bottom line is they were winning," Moschetti said. "That's why UCLA beating USC this year was huge on the recruiting front. Now they can walk into houses and say, 'We beat them. We can compete with them.'"

In one season, UCLA caught USC on the field and is working to mirror the Trojans on the recruiting trail as well.

[+] EnlargeDwight Williams
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comOne of California's most sought-after prospects in the 2014 class, Watch List LB Dwight Williams, said he felt he had to go to a UCLA summer camp to earn an offer.

Watch List linebacker Dwight Williams (Gardena, Calif./Junipero Sierra) -- one of the most highly recruited California prospects in the 2014 class -- said he needed to attend a UCLA camp this past summer to earn an offer from the Bruins. He added that he and other high-profile in-state recruits aren't turned off at all by the local schools looking for in-person evaluations.

"I think that's a great thing," Williams said. "Both staffs are really great and both take their time and evaluate before offering. The competition is great."

Williams said on-field results will have little to do with his ultimate decision. Rather, as a recruit, he is far more concerned with how each coaching staff utilizes its personnel and what the linebackers do in the defensive system.

But it's difficult for recruits not to be swayed -- to whatever degree -- by a winner.

Watch List offensive lineman Viane Talamaivao (Corona, Calif./Centennial) took in UCLA's win over USC this past season and came away with a new perspective on the Bruins.

"I feel that win heightens my interest in UCLA," Talamaivao said. "I already knew they were a great team at the beginning of the season, but it speaks volumes to the coaching over there for Coach Mora and the staff to be able to turn the program around so quickly. It brings a sense of security when you think of UCLA, when you think about committing over there."

When the Pac-12 split into North and South divisions, coaches from North schools fought hard to keep a road trip to Los Angeles on their schedules because winning there goes a long way for Southern California recruits.

"The bottom line is that kids want to play for a winner," Moschetti said. "They want to play in the NFL and they want to win national championships. In the Pac-12, we've seen the pendulum swing toward Stanford and Oregon, who have been beating out UCLA and USC for some Southern California kids. The formula is that they're winning."

But fending off Pac-12 foes in addition to the constant presence of national programs such as Nebraska, Oklahoma and Florida is nothing new for the local schools.

"Whether it was the Pac-8, Pac-10 or Pac-12, those schools have always been in there," Rollinson said. "They know Southern California is a hotbed for high school talent and they are going to do everything they can to land those kids."