NCF Nation: USC Trojans

When asked to select my three favorite Pac-12 players from the recently released Ultimate ESPN 300, it became a far tougher assignment than Tuesday's five surprises or Wednesday's five intriguing recruitments.

Quarterbacks Andrew Luck, Matt Barkley, Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley authored so many standout moments that it was difficult to separate any of them. Stanford maulers such as David Yankey, David DeCastro and Andrus Peat, along with super tailback Toby Gerhart, helped Stanford become one of the most physically impressive teams in the nation. Pass-catchers such as Brandin Cooks, Keenan Allen and USC's duo of Robert Woods and Marqise Lee could each be the subject of feature-length highlight films.

But when it came down to it, turns out I'm just a sucker for two- (and sometimes three-) way football.

Adoree' Jackson

After a strong true freshman season, Jackson is already No. 38 in the Ultimate 300 and the No. 4 USC Trojan on the list. Jackson was USC's best cornerback in 2014, turned three of his 10 receptions into touchdowns and brought back two kickoffs for scores. Jackson's signature plays in 2014 came in the Trojans' bowl game against Nebraska, when he put USC's first points on the board with a 98-yard kickoff return touchdown, then scored the first touchdown of the second half by turning a short pass into a 71-yard score.

Shaq Thompson

Thompson was a star on both sides of the ball for Washington in 2014 and has the Paul Hornung Award -- given to the nation's most versatile player -- to prove it. Any number of plays from this past season come up when Thompson's name is mentioned, including his 100-yard fumble return against Cal, his performance against Illinois when he scored two defensive touchdowns, and his back-to-back 100-yard rushing games against Colorado and UCLA. During his junior year, Thompson rushed for 456 yards and two touchdowns, and totaled 81 tackles, four fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles, as he rocketed up from No. 231 to No. 87 in the newest Ultimate 300.

Myles Jack

As a true freshman, Jack was inserted as a tailback against Arizona, and almost immediately everything changed for Jack and the Bruins. He rushed six times for 120 yards, including a 66-yard scoring run against the Wildcats, as the legend of Myles Jack was born. He tallied four rushing touchdowns against Washington and was named the Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year in the Pac-12 in 2013. In 2014, Jack took a step back from the offensive side of the ball, but still rushed for three touchdowns. He was great again on defense, racking up 88 tackles and an interception. He checks in at No. 238 on the Ultimate 300, and like the other two listed above, he's capable of adding to his highlight tape in any number of ways.
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Many believe ESPN Junior 300 defensive Nick Bosa will be an even better college football player than his brother. That’s saying a lot because his brother is Joey Bosa, star defensive lineman for national champion Ohio State and one of the top projected picks for the 2016 NFL draft.

Pac-12 2015 recruiting in review 

February, 12, 2015
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The Pac-12 landed six top-30 recruiting classes and 47 ESPN 300 prospects as every program brought in potential immediate, impact players capable of making an impression on the 2015 season. Here, we take a look back at the recruiting cycle and signing day, and hand out some superlatives for the 2015 recruiting class.


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Teams trending up post-signing day 

February, 9, 2015
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Who needs the NFL, Los Angeles? With the way USC and UCLA are going, the city is just fine when it comes to football.

The Trojans and Bruins lead our look at programs trending up following the end of the season, the coaching carousel and signing day.


1. USC
The Trojans just signed their first full recruiting class since 2011, when they were hit by NCAA penalties. Finishing behind only Alabama and Florida State in ESPN RecruitingNation's rankings, it wasn’t just a matter of quantity for USC. Among the 16 ESPN 300 prospects signed, it added the country’s No. 1 cornerback, running back and inside linebacker. The Trojans are stockpiling at this point.

Beyond recruiting, quarterback Cody Kessler -- the country’s most underrated passer -- is back. So are sophomore stars-in-the-making cornerback Adoree' Jackson and wide receiver JuJu Smith.

Pac-12 coaches always believed the Trojans had as much talent as anyone in the country, not just the league. With the numbers bouncing back, now they have the depth to counter any rash of injuries.

Given all that, and the Holiday Bowl win against Nebraska, this is why a number of people -- myself, included -- see USC as a playoff-type team in 2015. The talent is there. Can Steve Sarkisian coach the Trojans to that level?


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2016 recruits to watch in the Pac-12 

February, 6, 2015
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Signing day for the Class of 2015 just wrapped up, but coaches have been hard at work on the 2016 class for months. Oregon and USC each already have three ESPN Junior 300 prospects committed, and UCLA holds a commitment from the No. 53 overall prospect, tight end Breland Brandt.

Here are five uncommitted 2016 prospects to watch in the West region who will be of particular interest to Pac-12 programs.


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Schools that need a stellar recruiting class in 2016 

February, 5, 2015
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Now that the 2015 class is in the books, it's time to take a look at which teams need to make a big recruiting splash for the 2016 class. Here are five schools that have to recruit well to move forward and reestablish their programs among the elite:

Michigan: Coach Jim Harbaugh is not going to be judged upon his 2015 class, but the blueprint he lays out going forward -- especially in his first full calendar year -- will be crucial to revamping the Wolverines' roster. Because he was hired after the San Francisco 49ers' season ended, Harbaugh got a late start with Michigan, and his staff had only nine commits heading into February. The focus for 2016 will be on toughness, even if it means taking a kid who, athletically, isn't ideal, especially along the offensive line and at tight end and fullback. It is going to be a pretty strong year in the 2016 class in the Midwest, which is good timing for the Wolverines.

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Each of the four teams in the inaugural College Football Playoff relied on a freshman or two, and some in valuable positions.

Here are five teams that helped their playoff chances with the recruiting classes signed on national signing day.


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Stop, for a moment, at the close of another wild and unpredictable signing day, and remember these eight therapeutic words: Not a single football game was played Wednesday.

Now, proceed to lose your mind.

In possibly the final signing day of its kind, college football grabbed the spotlight for its annual, offseason showcase of the bizarre. Winners and losers emerged. Mostly, though, it went off about as scripted -- and by that, we mean totally, beautifully unscripted.

[+] EnlargeSoso Jamabo
Matt Garnett/Icon SportswireSoso Jamabo helped start signing day, and UCLA's run, with his commitment to the Bruins.
Wednesday out West, signs pointed to a raising of the stakes in the Pac-12.

UCLA won the morning with big scores over Michigan for tight end Chris Clark, Texas for athlete Soso Jamabo, Georgia for No. 2 outside linebacker Roquan Smith -- more on Smith later -- and Oklahoma for offensive guard Joshua Wariboko.

The Bruins later snagged receiver Cordell Broadus, son of Snoop Dogg, but by mid-afternoon, the fireworks shifted to the USC Trojans' side of town.

USC won out for top-ranked inside linebacker John Houston Jr., No. 1 cornerback Iman Marshall and defensive tackle Rasheem Green Wednesday, along with athlete Porter Gustin, linebacker Osa Masina and defensive tackle Kevin Scott earlier in January. The Trojans' late rush helped their class finish No. 3 overall.

National champion Ohio State of the Big Ten made a morning splash by retaining the commitment of quarterback Torrance Gibson, who gave late consideration to Auburn and LSU. The Buckeyes flipped offensive tackle Isaiah Prince from Alabama's No. 1 class, which was otherwise largely put to bed weeks ago.

Texas flipped safety P.J. Locke from Oregon to punctuate Charlie Strong's 29-man, No. 9-ranked class that might signal the return to prominence of the Longhorns.

And the SEC added its share of drama, starting with the Auburn-Florida battles, in which former Gators coach Will Muschamp loomed large.

Muschamp's new program beat his old one for linebacker Jeffery Holland and the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect, defensive end Byron Cowart of Seffner (Florida) Armwood.

Cowart, though, failed to fax his signed letter of intent to Auburn for some seven hours while reports bounced back and forth about his eventual decision.

Clearly, he was torn, feeling compelled to consider Florida coach Jim McElwain and his staff, on the job for two months.

"It's not their fault they're new," Cowart said. "In the recruiting process, [coaches] tell you what you want to hear, and when you get there, everything switches."

So ultimately, Cowart went with Auburn -- and the coach he trusted.

The Tigers, after the great start, lost No. 1 offensive tackle Martez Ivey and second-rated defensive end CeCe Jefferson to Florida and top-ranked defensive tackle Terry Beckner Jr. to Missouri.

Tennessee claimed victory with the signing of elite defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie, a longtime commitment out of California, and the late flip of offensive tackle Drew Richmond from Ole Miss to secure the nation's fifth-rated class -- No. 2 in the SEC.

Ranked No. 1 nationally, for the fourth straight year, was the Crimson Tide.

"One of the very good things about this class is we didn't have a lot of drama today," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "These guys have been committed to us for a while.
"That's not the way to get the most attention from the media, but that certainly speaks highly of what a commitment means."

LSU, with its new all-star cast of recruiters headlined by Ed Orgeron, finished with good news early in the week on defensive end Arden Key, followed by the Wednesday addition of guard Toby Weathersby -- a former Texas pledge -- and the flip of receiver Brandon Martin from Missouri.

Martin punctuated his change of heart with this hashtag on Twitter.



And then there was the case of Smith, the linebacker out of Macon County High School in Montezuma, Georgia, who announced his choice of UCLA over Georgia on ESPNU but never faxed his letter of intent.

Why? Because in the moments after signing, Smith learned from reporters at his school -- as Georgia coaches furiously called with the same news -- that UCLA defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich was up for a job as the Atlanta Falcons' linebackers coach.

Ulbrich recruited Smith, who plans to wait "a couple days to figure things out," Macon County coach Larry Harold told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Ah, there's nothing quite like signing day, which could change considerably for the next class of recruits if a proposal is approved this spring by the Division I conference commissioners to add a three-day early signing period in December.

So, if this was the last of its kind -- with the full-on drama and star power that only a once-a-year event can provide -- then signing day as we know it went out in style.
videoThe national signing day ceremonies have concluded, the ink has dried and the fax machines have been turned off. The Class of 2015 is mostly in the books. As is the case annually, there were a number of winners -- and a couple of losers -- on national signing day. Here is a look at the schools that excelled and the schools that had a rough day.

SCHOOLS THAT FARED WELL

UCLA: The Bruins began the day at No. 17 in the ESPN RecruitingNation class rankings, but they quickly moved up to No. 11 with a run of ESPN 300 commitments. No. 111 prospect Chris Clark, a tight end, got the day started and was followed by RB Soso Jamabo (No. 28), OG Joshua Wariboko (No. 105) and OLB Roquan Smith (No. 29). The day got even better in the early afternoon when No. 130 recruit Cordell Broadus, a wide receiver, picked the Bruins over Arizona State. All five of the recruits who committed to UCLA on Wednesday are from different states.

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Iman Marshall, Darqueze DennardESPN, USA TODAY SportsIman Marshall is physical in press coverage, like Darqueze Dennard.

LONG BEACH, California -- Long Beach Poly cornerback Iman Marshall, the No. 4 overall player in the ESPN 300, will be staying in Southern California after announcing he'd attend USC over Michigan, LSU and Florida State, among others.

About 20 minutes before he made his announcement on ESPNU, Marshall's decision hit the Internet by way of a music video. He'll likely pair with standout true freshman Adoree' Jackson in the USC defensive backfield, giving the Trojans one of the more dynamic cornerback duos in the conference, if not the country.

Rumors began swirling in the last week that new Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh had made a strong push. But ultimately Marshall said his roots helped him decide.

"Michigan was a strong contender, but I'm a Trojan for life," he said. "I grew up a Trojan. And to have the opportunity to play in The Coliseum, why wouldn't you take that?"

[+] EnlargeIman Marshall
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsIman Marshall, the No. 4 overall player in the ESPN 300, committed to USC on signing day.
Commitment impact: This is a massive signing for the Trojans, as head coach Steve Sarkisian and staff won a hotly contested battle for the top local recruit for the second straight year, after landing Adoree' Jackson in the 2014 class. Not only does Marshall give the Trojans another stellar cornerback to pair with Jackson, his commitment to USC gives Sarkisian and staff momentum with the 2016 class, as Marshall is a well-known commodity and can have an impact with younger players. It also continues USC’s presence at Long Beach (Calif.) Poly, where the Trojans have enjoyed plenty of success over the years, including last year, with highly recruited athlete JuJu Smith. Had Marshall escaped Los Angeles, or gone across town to UCLA, it would have been viewed as a significant loss for Sarkisian and the Trojans. Instead, it’s easily their biggest recruiting win of the year.

What he brings:


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John Houston, Jaylon SmithESPN, Icon SportswireJohn Houston Jr.'s ability to play in space, especially against spread teams, will be a huge asset at the college level.

The nation's No. 1 inside linebacker is staying home for college, as John Houston Jr. announced his commitment to USC in a signing day ceremony at his school. Though the Trojans were leaders for the nation's No. 56 overall prospect since close to the beginning of his recruitment, USC still needed to hold off pushes from Arizona State, Miami, Oklahoma and a hard charge from Oregon, which impressed Houston and family on an official visit but couldn't quite overcome the Trojans.


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Pac-12 signing day primer

February, 3, 2015
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We’re now just one day away from national signing day as recruits across the country prepare to sign their national letters of intent with the school of their choice. ESPNU and Watch ESPN will provide 11 hours of continuous coverage throughout Wednesday beginning at 8 a.m. ET, and ESPN’s RecruitingNation will provide one-stop shopping for breaking news, announcements and a day-long chat. Fans of Pac-12 programs will be especially interested in the televised announcements on Wednesday, as of the 17 recruits scheduled to announce on ESPNU, Pac-12 programs are potential destinations for 10. While a majority of each conference class will sign on Wednesday without any drama, there are still several top prospects who could shake up the conference rankings and signing day is always good for a few interesting twists.

For team-by-team coverage of the Pac-12, check out the conference’s recruiting pages:
Arizona
Arizona State
California
Colorado
Oregon
Oregon State
Stanford
UCLA
USC
Utah
Washington
Washington State

One storyline to watch: All eyes will be on the two Los Angeles programs, as UCLA and USC have a chance to dominate the televised announcements. The Bruins are contenders for tight end Chris Clark, athlete Soso Jamabo, linebacker Jeffery Holland, offensive guard Josh Wariboko, outside linebacker Roquan Smith, wide receiver Cordell Broadus and defensive tackle Joseph Wicker. The Trojans are finalists for linebacker John Houston Jr. and defensive tackle Rasheem Green. And both schools are among the finalists for cornerback Iman Marshall. In 2014, signing day finished on two completely different notes for the crosstown programs, as UCLA swung big and missed at a number of out-of-state recruits, while USC scored with its three top local targets. This year, save for Marshall perhaps giving one program the edge, there could be plenty of happy coaches in Los Angeles.

One recruit to watch: Marshall. It’s unlikely many recruits have frustrated more fan bases than Marshall during this recruiting cycle, but that’s mostly because he’s been so difficult to read and still has so many options on the table. With six schools left -- and perhaps all of them feeling as though they have a shot at landing the nation’s top cornerback -- Marshall could have just about everybody guessing when it’s his time to announce on Wednesday. He would be a significant addition to either Los Angeles program, and would give either Jim Mora and UCLA or Steve Sarkisian and USC bragging rights when it came to landing the region’s top prospect in this class. But Florida State, LSU, Michigan and Notre Dame remain in the mix as well.

One signing day surprise: It might sound like something of a cop-out, but the surprise of signing day in the Pac-12 could turn out to be just how few surprises there actually are. In terms of commitments into the conference, there could be fireworks all day, with a number of ESPN 300 prospects and dynamic three- and four-star recruits set to make their decisions. But when it comes to shocking flips between conference programs, it appears that Wednesday could be relatively quiet. The recruiting carousel spun rapidly throughout the Pac-12 in January, but the music appears to be slowing and just about everybody appears to have found a seat, with very few committed prospects having taken official visits elsewhere and seriously considering a flip. If there is a shock, it could come from the state of Texas, where UCLA holds a commitment from ESPN 300 wide receiver Ryan Newsome. While it would be surprising if Newsome made the flip, it can be difficult to go through with going away to school when the hometown team comes charging late.

Scout's Take: Porter Gustin to USC 

February, 3, 2015
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Porter Gustin, Dillon LeeIcon SportswireESPN 300 athlete Porter Gustin starred on offense and defense in high school, like Alabama linebacker Dillon Lee.
Porter Gustin removed himself from the ranks of the uncommitted on Tuesday morning, announcing his commitment to USC in a ceremony at his high school. Gustin selected the Trojans over Arizona State, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Utah.

The nation's No. 92 overall prospect and No. 7 athlete never officially narrowed his list, but took official visits to those five schools, with a whirlwind January travel schedule that included trips to Arizona State, Utah and Ohio State in a 10-day span.

A three-sport standout in baseball, basketball and football, the 6-foot-4, 238-pound Gustin can do a little bit of everything on the football field, starring at both quarterback and linebacker for his high school team.

The Trojans long held the lead in this race, as Gustin followed up a late November unofficial visit with a January official visit. His commitment means USC reeled in the top two prospects in the state of Utah -- Osa Masina committed in late January -- and is closing in on a 6-for-6 finish with its final targets. With Masina and Gustin in the fold, ESPN 300 prospects Iman Marshall, Rasheem Green and John Houston Jr., along with defensive tackle Kevin Scott, remain on the board heading toward signing day.

What he brings:

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When the letters of intent come rolling off the fax machine Wednesday, USC is expected to finish as strong as any program in the country. There are even whispers of the Trojans climbing as high as No. 2 in the ESPN RecruitingNation class rankings Insider if everything goes USC's way. Kudos will be heaped upon coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff -- rightfully so, because they did clean up in a topsy-turvy year in Pac-12 recruiting -- but there's another person Trojans fans probably should thank.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonWhile his success on the field wasn't enough to keep his job, Lane Kiffin's shrewd recruiting moves have USC poised for another big class.
Lane Kiffin.

Even though he was ushered out of town September 2013 after USC struggled on the field, it was Kiffin who assembled a shrewd recruiting game plan that helped USC navigate recruiting's murky waters after the NCAA's enforcement hammer came slamming down.

Kiffin was forced to recruit under a two-year bowl ban, the loss of 30 scholarships during a three-year period and a limit of only 75 total scholarships (10 fewer than the 85 maximum). But it's his 2011, 2012 and 2013 recruiting classes that helped USC get itself in position to come out the other side of the sanctions stronger on the field and without skipping a beat on the recruiting trail. The Trojans' expected strong finish on the recruiting trail Wednesday is mirrored by top five expectations for the 2015 football season.

"He was the caretaker of the program," a rival Pac-12 recruiting coordinator said. "With every move he made, he was looking at the long term so when the sanctions ended it would be exactly like it is today. In hindsight, I think a lot of USC fans should be big Lane Kiffin fans. It was his tactics on the recruiting trail that's put them where they'll be on signing day."

USC athletic director Pat Haden said Kiffin had a binder four inches thick that outlined how he wanted to handle recruiting and managing the talent on hand during the sanctions, and in many ways that involved going against the grain.

That was especially true with his 2011 class. After winning an appeal, the Trojans knew that class was going to be the last full class they would be able to sign before the sanctions hit. So they signed 31 players, a number you normally don't see in the Pac-12, and the list included players who went on to become household names such as quarterback Cody Kessler, defensive tackle Antwaun Woods, receiver Marqise Lee, running back Javorius Allen, kicker Andre Heidari and offensive linemen Aundrey Walker and Marcus Martin.

But in that 31-player class, Kiffin landed two quarterbacks and redshirted them both. He signed a long snapper, a punter and a kicker. He also bolstered line depth by signing seven offensive linemen and six defensive linemen.

Sure, not all of them went on to become stars, but it was a dramatic move away from the days of USC simply signing all of the four- and five-star players in the West regardless of what position they played. It was a shift that focused on adding depth and stockpiling talent at key positions because Kiffin knew the Trojans would have deficits in future classes.

Love him or hate him, Kiffin steered USC through some choppy waters, and his recruiting blueprint helped bring the Trojans to the point where they will be on Wednesday -- back in the national college football headlines for all the right reasons.

"A head coach with a great recruiting game is more important than a coach that has a great offensive or defensive philosophy," another Pac-12 assistant said. "It's imperative you have the players. They're the most important asset. And you have to have a good plan to get them. That's why I think so many coaches really admire what Kiffin was able to do while he was at USC. I know it's not a popular opinion with the fans, but it's the right one in hindsight."
It’s always fun to look into the history books to see how certain players lived up to their rankings. With signing day fewer than 24 hours away, here’s a look at the last five No. 1 and where I think they would rank stacked up against each other.


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