USC Trojans: Bryce Dixon

From coast to coast, at every FBS program across the country, spring football represents a time when those lesser-known performers who have waited in the wings receive the chance to emerge from the shadows.

And at USC, where a new coaching staff with fresh ideas and philosophies has created an atmosphere where every team member is starting out with a clean slate, perhaps no under-the-radar player has made a more pronounced statement with his play this spring -- at least through the first three workouts -- than junior tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick.

Showcasing sure hands and impressive athleticism to go along with a 6-foot-4 and 245-pound frame, Cope-Fitzpatrick -- who made just three receptions in his initial two seasons on campus -- seemed to reel in almost everything thrown in his direction during the first week of drills.

[+] EnlargeJalen Cope-Fitzpatrick
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsTight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick is excited about getting opportunities in the new USC offense.
“I think Jalen has really focused himself on trying to come out and having a good spring,” said USC coach Steve Sarkisian following a particularly strong showing by Cope-Fitzpatrick on Thursday. “He’s an athletic guy, he’s got tremendous ball skills and I think he’s seen a real opportunity to step up and make plays, and he’s doing it.”

That much is certain. With Xavier Grimble and his 69 career catches now off to the NFL draft and the Trojans’ other talented 2013 co-starter at tight end, Randall Telfer, still being held out of action because of injury, Sarkisian has had no other choice but to rely on Cope-Fitzpatrick, and to the former Rocklin (Calif.) Whitney standout's credit, he’s answered the call.

“I feel a lot more focused than before,” Cope-Fitzpatrick said after practice Saturday. “Now that I’m going to be a junior, an upperclassman, I feel like I have the chance to position myself into a starting role. So, I’m really trying to push myself to fill that role and to fill the need of the team, and to just kind of put my head down and work.”

Cope-Fitzpatrick has also seen his responsibilities skyrocket as a direct result of the Trojans’ new up-tempo, no-huddle offense, which places an emphasis on making use of the tight end as weapon in the passing game -- something Sarkisian did with great success at Washington with Austin Seferian-Jenkins, the 2013 John Mackey Award winner.

For Cope-Fitzpatrick, the switch from former coach Lane Kiffin’s offense, which didn’t utilize the tight end as a receiving threat on a consistent basis, to Sarkisian’s offense was welcomed, to say the least.

In fact, the only negative for Cope-Fitzpatrick so far is that Grimble -- who, along with Telfer, played an important role as a mentor throughout the last two years -- isn’t around to reap the rewards.

“I’m upset my big brother, Xavier, isn’t back,” Cope-Fitzpatrick said. “I really wish that he came back so all three of us could enjoy the fruits of this new system. It’s very tight end-friendly. I’m excited, and I think the tight ends are going to do really big things.”

Come fall camp, the Trojans will also insert highly touted Class of 2014 signee Bryce Dixon into the mix, adding another exciting piece to a group that, in addition to Cope-Fitzpatrick and Telfer, will also feature walk-ons Chris Willson, Shane Sullivan, Teddy Baker and Connor Spears.

New tight ends coach Marques Tuiasosopo has already made a positive impression on Cope-Fitzpatrick. A former Huskies quarterback who also played for the Oakland Raiders and the New York Jets before embarking on his coaching career, Tuiasosopo commands a special level of respect. Cope-Fitzpatrick was already very familiar with Tuiasosopo before he landed at USC as an assistant.

“He’s great. I definitely see a lot of Raider in him, and being a Raiders fan, I’ve always liked that attitude growing up,” Cope-Fitzpatrick said. “He’s just a positive guy, and he pushes me and really wants me to succeed. It’s great to have that kind of support. I’m really learning a lot from him, especially when it comes to the complexities of the offense. He has a quarterback’s mind, so he’s really helping me with reading defenses.”

With the promise that Cope-Fitzpatrick has shown this month, there’s certainly reason for optimism when it comes to his future. But with only three practice sessions in the books this spring, he’s not about to get ahead of himself, and he freely admits that he still has much to learn and a whole lot more to prove as he makes a bid to take on an expanded role in the USC offense in 2014.

“I just want to continue to develop,” Cope-Fitzpatrick said. “One thing that I really want to work on is just getting the offense down, just really being on top of stuff so I can play that much faster. And then once I learn the offense, I can start critiquing the little things. But right now, it’s just about taking baby steps.”

Spring position breakdowns: TE

February, 28, 2014
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Our look at position groups in the Pac-12 continues.

Arizona: Terrence Miller was listed on the team's depth chart as a tight end, but he wasn't a traditional tight end. After catching 40 passes for 467 yards in 2013, he's out of eligibility. Former quarterback Josh Kern backed up Miller and is one of four tight ends listed on the roster.

Arizona State: Chris Coyle (29 catches, 423 yards, 4 TD) is a big loss for the Sun Devils and his primary backup, Darwin Rogers, also is out of eligibility. De'Marieya Nelson and Marcus Washington are the most experienced of the four tight ends on the roster, which will grow by one with the addition of recent signee Brendan Landman. Landman is expected to redshirt after playing left tackle during his senior year in high school.

California: There is no tight end position in Cal's offense, which was a factor in Richard Rodgers' early jump to the NFL. Rodgers was switched from tight end to wide receiver last season upon coach Sonny Dykes' arrival.

Colorado: Senior Kyle Slavin is atop the depth chart after catching nine passes in 2013. Sean Irwin played minimally as a freshman, but his role is set to increase. Three other tight ends are on the roster, including Connor Center, who did not play football in high school.

[+] EnlargePharaoh Brown
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesOregon's Pharoah Brown made 10 catches, two for touchdowns, in 2013.
Oregon: The Ducks have a trio of players who gained significant experience in 2013 in Pharaoh Brown, Johnny Mundt and Evan Baylis. Brown started five games, Mundt had a 121-yard receiving game and Baylis started in the Civil War game against Oregon State. Koa Ka'ai and Davaysia Hagger will provide depth, but they don't appear on track to make much of an impact on the depth chart.

Oregon State: With Connor Hamlett and Caleb Smith both returning, the Beavers arguably have the best tight end tandem in the conference. Hamlett had 40 catches for 364 yards and Smith added 25 for 343 yards. Kellen Clute (19 catches, 159 yards) also contributed to the passing game and Tyler Perry, who will be a fifth-year senior, is an important run-blocker.

Stanford: A one-time strength of the Cardinal, tight ends weren't a significant factor in Stanford's offense in 2013, but the staff is hopeful that an influx of new players will change that. Stanford signed No. 1-ranked TE-Y Dalton Schultz, and he'll compete for playing time immediately. Greg Taboada, Eric Cotton and Austin Hooper -- all well-regarded tight end recruits -- are coming off redshirts and will compete with Charlie Hopkins, who started three games last season.

UCLA: There is no traditional tight end at UCLA, but Y receiver Thomas Duarte, who was recruited as a tight end, is coming off an exceptional freshman season. The 6-foot-3, 221-pound Orange County native appeared in all 13 games and tied a school freshman record with three touchdown receptions.

USC: Losing Xavier Grimble early to the NFL is a blow and just two other scholarship tight ends remain from last season: Randall Telfer and Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick. One of the nation's top tight ends, Bryce Dixon, signed with USC, but he wasn't among the group of four early enrollees.

Utah: The Utes were the only school in the country to send two tight ends -- Jake Murphy and Anthony Denham -- to the NFL combine, though Utah listed Denham at receiver. Siale Fakailoatonga, a former walk-on, was Murphy's primary backup on the final depth chart, and he caught two passes for 18 yards in 2013. Harrison Handley redshirted last season after enrolling early last spring and is a candidate to compete for playing time.

Washington: John Mackey Award winner Austin Seferian-Jenkins' departure for the NFL was expected, and how the Huskies replace him will be an interesting process. Clearly, there's not a one-man solution for what they'll lose with Seferian-Jenkins, but the combination that the returning players provide is a nice mix of different talents. Michael Hartvigson and Josh Perkins have the most experience at tight end, but they should receive a push from Darrell Daniels and David Ajamu. Daniels, a highly-regarded receiver recruit who switched to tight end, was a special-teams standout in 2013 as a freshman, while Ajamu redshirted.

Washington State: Washington State didn't list any tight ends on the roster last season, but early enrollee Nick Begg will start his career listed there. The long-term plan for Begg is likely elsewhere.

Previous positions
Quarterback
Running back
Receiver
Offensive line

Five poised to shine early at USC

February, 11, 2014
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USC head coach Steve Sarkisian had plenty to celebrate this past signing day as the Trojans closed with a flourish to finish at No. 14 in Recruiting Nation’s class rankings. And while it’s a collection that is overflowing with talent at almost every position, here’s a look at the five prospects from the group of 19 who appear most poised to make an instant impact in 2014, taking into account the team’s current depth chart, in addition to the skill set that each player brings to the table.

DB/WR Adoree' Jackson (Gardena, Calif./Serra)
5-foot-11, 185 pounds
[+] EnlargeAdoree Jackson
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsAdoree' Jackson should find an initial fit on defense at USC.
Sarkisian noted last week that Jackson will start out on defense when he arrives on campus, so the stage is most definitely set for the elite standout to make a name for himself early at USC. With a glaring lack of healthy bodies at cornerback in 2013, the Trojans certainly had their struggles in pass coverage, so it stands to reason that Jackson, a lights-out athlete with unique playmaking ability, will receive every chance imaginable to step in immediately – just as Nickell Robey did back in 2010. In addition to Jackson, USC signed Jonathan Lockett, John Plattenburg and Lamont Simmons to go along with current Trojans cornerbacks Kevon Seymour, Anthony Brown, Devian Shelton, Chris Hawkins, Ryan Henderson and cornerback/safety Josh Shaw, so it’s safe to say that Jackson is going to face plenty of competition, but he is the No. 9 prospect in the ESPN 300. Sarkisian has also left the door open for Jackson to contribute on offense and special teams, so there’s reason to believe that one way or another, the Gardena (Calif.) Serra standout will make his presence felt more sooner than later.

TE Bryce Dixon (Ventura, Calif./St. Bonaventure)
6-4, 240 pounds
With Xavier Grimble opting to take his talents to the NFL and the Trojans possessing just two other scholarship tight ends in Randall Telfer and Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, Dixon was one of USC’s most crucial signings. The No. 1 player at his position in the ESPN 300, he’s a dangerous receiving threat who hauled in 64 passes this past season, making him a perfect fit in Sarkisian’s tight end-friendly offense. A phenomenal all-around talent who also impressed the new coaching staff with the athleticism that he showcased in basketball, he has a clear path to playing time, with the capability of adding a unique dimension to the offense down the line.

WR/DB John "Juju" Smith (Long Beach, Calif./Poly)
6-2, 210 pounds
Smith is yet another in a large contingent of two-way stars that the Trojans landed in this class. Slated to begin his career on offense, where he garnered a reputation as a dynamic game-breaker on the high school level, he’ll be thrown into the mix as part of a receivers group that was down to just five scholarship performers following Marqise Lee’s jump to the NFL. Nelson Agholor and Darreus Rogers are the obvious front-runners to nail down starting jobs, with Victor Blackwell, George Farmer, Steven Mitchell and the other new additions also entering the discussion. But with the unique combination of size and speed that Smith brings, on top of the fact that the Trojans will be running more of an uptempo offense that figures to get a greater number of wideouts involved, there should be plenty of opportunities for the Long Beach (Calif.) Poly star to jump right in.

Toa Lobendahn
Blair Angulo/ESPNGetting on campus early gives Toa Lobendahn a chance to compete for early playing time.
OL Toa Lobendahn (La Habra, Calif./La Habra)
6-3, 290
A mid-year enrollee, Lobendahn has the potential to become a key piece of the puzzle for an offensive line group that lost some important members from last year’s team, most notably starting center Marcus Martin and right tackle Kevin Graf. Fortunately for the Trojans, Lobendahn can line up at just about any position along the line, and more than that, he’s also given every indication that he has the physical tools to succeed at the next level. At The Opening last summer, Lobendahn went up against the nation’s most sought-after defensive line prospects and more than held his own, emerging as one of the top five offensive line performers in attendance, all while taking reps at center, guard and tackle. USC is bringing in a phenomenal collection of offensive linemen in this class, including fellow ESPN 300 members Chris Brown, Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivao, but Lobendahn gets the slight edge here with his versatility and the fact that he will participate in spring ball – a major factor in the lightning-quick development of safety Su’a Cravens and tailback Justin Davis last season.

DL Claudeson Pelon (Mesa, Ariz./Mesa Community College)
6-5, 295
During his signing day news conference, Sarkisian referred to Pelon as an “immediate impact” athlete, and it’s easy to see why. The top junior college defensive lineman on the USC coaching staff’s radar, he has hulking size to go along with an explosive burst off the line and a nonstop motor. Another new addition who will participate in spring practice, he will push for significant time right away on the interior. With players such as Leonard Williams, Delvon Simmons, Kenny Bigelow, Antwaun Woods, Cody Temple, Greg Townsend Jr. and Pelon all in the fold, it’s safe to say that the Trojans will have a formidable defensive line unit at their disposal in 2014.

Revisiting USC's 2014 resolutions 

February, 10, 2014
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Shortly after the calendar flipped to 2014, we presented five possible New Year’s resolutions for USC recruiting and new head coach Steve Sarkisian.

Here they are again, with accompanying retrospective analysis that indicates how much the Trojans truly accomplished in the month leading up to national signing day:


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When Steve Sarkisian took the reins at USC in early December, he immediately began to assemble a coaching staff filled with assistants known for their prowess as recruiters, five of whom made the move from the University of Washington along with him.

But when the Trojans head coach spoke to the media on Wednesday, following a banner day in which USC closed with a fury to land the nation’s No. 14 signing class, a pair of holdovers from the previous staff drew the most praise – wide receivers coach Tee Martin and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Clay Helton.

After all, it was Martin and Helton who served as the one constant for many of the prospects committed to or considering the Trojans throughout the coaching change. And it was because of their efforts that the new staff was able to make what Sarkisian called a “seamless” transition.

“What they did with the players that were committed to us, and holding on to the relationships with the players that were not committed to us yet, and then as we brought on one coaching staff member after another, the ability of those guys to integrate together and collectively recruit what I think is a fantastic class in a short amount of time,” Sarkisian said, “those guys deserve a great deal of credit.”

[+] EnlargeClay Helton
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsClay Helton kept recruiting even when his own future at USC was unresolved, and the results showed on signing day.
Standing out in particular to Sarkisian was the fact both Martin and Helton’s commitment to the program never wavered for a second, even when their future at USC was completely up in the air.

“You know, they didn’t know if they were going to be kept on, but they continued to recruit,” Sarkisian said. “It was very clear that these guys love USC, they wanted to be a part of it, they wanted to continue to work for USC, and they did it at a really high level.”

Of course, Martin’s standing as an exceptional recruiter already was firmly established before this cycle began. Still, with what he accomplished this time around, there’s little doubt that his status was elevated even further. Primarily responsible for the Los Angeles-area targets, as well as those in Florida and Georgia, he was involved with no fewer than 11 of USC’s eventual signees, including the three ESPN 300 prospects the Trojans reeled in at the end – offensive guard Damien Mama (Bellflower, Calif./St. John Bosco), cornerback Adoree' Jackson (Gardena, Calif./Serra) and athlete John “Juju” Smith (Long Beach, Calif./Poly).

“Tee has done a fantastic job,” Sarkisian said. “Tee’s energy, his work ethic [and] his relentlessness in recruiting has been tremendous. I think he does a fantastic job of developing relationships with the high school coaches and with the recruits themselves.”

Helton doesn’t necessarily have quite the reputation in recruiting circles that Martin does, but according to Sarkisian, he was equally as impressive. He played a key part in the recruitment of at least six eventual Trojans, including the No. 1 tight end/H-back in the ESPN 300, Bryce Dixon (Ventura, Calif./ St. Bonaventure), as well as standout offensive linemen Toa Lobendahn (La Habra, Calif./La Habra) and Viane Talamaivao (Corona, Calif./Centennial).

Noticeably low key when he’s off the field and dealing with the media, Sarkisian was quick to point out that when it comes to Helton’s pursuit of top-notch high school players, he’s as competitive and intense as any coach around – something he learned first-hand when the two went head-to-head in the past.

“I’ve had to battle Clay on the other side where I’ve felt like, ‘Geez, this guy just won’t stop,’" Sarkisian said. “You know, I feel like I’ve got the kid, and then Clay just keeps coming around and around.”

In addition to their work ethic and determined mindset, Martin, who hails from Alabama, and Helton, a Texas native, also share an ability to communicate and relate to recruits and their families that Sarkisian believes stems from their down-to-earth southern backgrounds.

“They’ve got that southern hospitality about them that I think the parents, the kids, they feel Clay, they feel Tee,” Sarkisian said. “They can really connect with them. They don’t have rushed conversations. They take their time. And in the end, the time that they spend, the quality of conversation that they have with the parents and the kids holds true.”

It’s those unique traits that Martin and Helton bring to the table that adds an element of variety that Sarkisian believes is one of the recipes to a strong coaching staff.

And with Wednesday’s results serving as potential proof of that fact, it’s safe to say that he’s thankful to have both of them around.

“The end result,” Sarkisian said, “was that they had a big factor in the class that we signed.”

Crunch time for USC recruiting 

January, 30, 2014
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LOS ANGELES -- Like the final hours of a Black Friday sale after Thanksgiving, this final full week of 2014 recruiting at USC is producing the expected pandemonium of paranoia, second thoughts, and Internet rumors.

With Wednesday’s national letter of intent day rapidly approaching, USC recruiting is producing more than its share of hourly crunch time drama, and the situation is about as fluid as Niagara Falls. Verbals, once thought solidified, have joined hands with locals asking, “When did that come up?” Yes, it’s about time to squeeze the stress ball if you’re a Trojans fan.


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Pac-12 class rankings analysis 

January, 29, 2014
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In the final updated ESPN recruiting class rankings before national signing day, six Pac-12 schools remain among the top 40 classes in the country, and all are within striking distance of claiming the top spot in the conference. Arizona State remains No. 1 in the conference and No. 17 in the nation, and Stanford made a big jump for the second straight week, moving to No. 2 in the Pac-12 and No. 19 overall. Arizona slid one spot with Stanford's move, checking in at No. 21, and USC and Oregon remain tightly bunched at Nos. 24 and 25, respectively. UCLA rounds out the group from the Pac-12 at No. 28.


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Weekend recruiting wrap: Pac-12 

January, 27, 2014
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There were official visitors all over the Pac-12 this weekend, as conference coaches look to close out the 2014 recruiting class. But the most noise was made by a 2015 quarterback who committed to stay home for his college football career.


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Trojans capitalize on big weekend 

January, 27, 2014
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ESPN 300 prospects Damien Mama (Bellflower, Calif./St. John Bosco) and John “JuJu” Smith (Long Beach, Calif./Poly) might have headlined the list of official visitors who spent the weekend at USC, but it was a pair of teammates from Ventura (Calif.) St. Bonaventure who stole the spotlight.

Class of 2015 quarterback Ricky Town verbally committed to the Trojans on Saturday night, just hours after decommitting from Alabama, and No. 1-rated tight end Bryce Dixon re-affirmed his pledge on Sunday morning, capping a monstrous weekend that put USC in great shape with national signing day just over a week away.

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For USC head coach Steve Sarkisian, this weekend was supposed to be about sealing the deal with some top targets who were officially visiting campus, but it quickly transformed into so much more.

Most of the focus centered on a group of highly touted prospects from the 2014 class, including John Smith (Long Beach, Calif./Poly) and Damien Mama (Bellflower, Calif./St. John Bosco), as the Trojans hosted a large group of recruits with less than two weeks remaining until national signing day. Yet, the buzz shifted toward the future as Sarkisian reached into the 2015 class to make perhaps his biggest splash since arriving from Washington, securing a verbal commitment from Ricky Town (Ventura, Calif./St. Bonaventure), the No. 2-rated pocket passer who decommitted from Alabama earlier in the day.

Consider it a major coup for USC, which made Town its top priority at quarterback and managed to flip him in a short period of time.


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National signing day for the Class of 2014 is less than two weeks away, but the USC Trojans might have received some great news on Saturday in regards to next year's class.


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Key recruiting visits -- Pac-12 

January, 24, 2014
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Just two weekends of official visits remain before signing day, so it's no surprise that just about every Pac-12 program will have visitors on campus this weekend. It's a huge opportunity for USC, which will have arguably it's most important host weekend of the recruiting calendar. Other programs will have a few recruits on hand in hopes of making a big splash the following weekend. While every visit is big at this stage of the game, here are a look at 10 of the most important for the Jan. 24 weekend:

1. ATH John "JuJu" Smith (Long Beach, Calif./Poly)
Visiting: USC


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The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today’s offerings: If USC is going to close strong, landing some of this weekend’s 11 official visitors are key; even though neither are going to land him, Alabama and Oregon earned high praise for their recruiting efforts with offensive lineman Braden Smith’s coach; and Lorenzo Carter has become priority No. 1 for several of the Southeast's top teams.

11 recruits set to visit USC


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Eleven recruits set to visit USC 

January, 23, 2014
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The mother of all recruiting weekends has arrived for the USC Trojans.

With less than two weeks remaining until national signing day, seven members of the ESPN 300 are expected to be on campus beginning Friday. Head coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff hope these visits lead to success on Feb. 5.

Heading into the weekend, the Trojans have four empty slots in their 2014 recruiting class.

Here are the expected visitors:

No. 3 ATH John “JuJu” Smith (Long Beach, Calif./Poly): The four-star prospect recently narrowed his list to a final four of Notre Dame, Oregon, UCLA and USC, but the Trojans have to believe they are in the lead. Smith dropped by USC last week and, while wearing a Trojans jersey, posed for photographs that have gone viral on social media and message boards. He is being recruited at receiver by the staff, including his uncle Johnny Nansen, but Smith said he wants to sit down with defensive backs coach Keith Heyward this weekend, too. The Trojans have an opportunity to seal the deal.


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Shifting power: Los Angeles 

January, 23, 2014
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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.

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