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January 26, 2013

UCLA makes headway in SoCal recruiting war


Dallas Jackson is the National Columnist for Rivals.com. Email him your comments or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.



On his first official day as a Bruin, four-star DB Priest Willis pulled no punches.

"We're on to big things," he said at his school-choosing ceremony Wednesday. "You guys better watch UCLA football."

They should already have been watching.

During the last month, UCLA has gone on a run that has moved the program up to the No. 9 class in the country, according to the Rivals.com team rankings formula.

That has coincided with the much more publicized de-commitment freefall that USC has endured and closed the gap between the schools to just two spots heading into National Signing Day.

Rivals.com national analyst Mike Farrell said that it has been a perfect storm for the UCLA program.

"This is as much two stories as it is one, but they are happening side by side and there are things that run parallel," Farrell said. "This just wasn't the season it was expected to be for USC and the class started to unravel a little starting in late November. Then factoring in UCLA beating them on the field, and the perception of the program maybe being a little more stable under (Jim) Mora than USC is under (Lane) Kiffin pushed the two closer together.

"I think that if anyone would have said four months ago that these teams would be separated by two spots in the team rankings, no one would have bought that."

Since mid-December, USC has seen six players de-commit: five-star defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes, five-star safety Max Redfield, four-star defensive end Jason Hatcher, four-star defensive end Kylie Fitts, four-star receiver Sebastian Larue and four-star receiver Eldridge Massington.

There is speculation whether Larue and Massington left the class or were asked to leave.

Vanderdoes and Fitts could still come back, but five-star defensive back Jalen Ramsey is entertaining Florida and Florida State and could defect.

Over the same time period, UCLA welcomed Massington to be an early enrollee. It also received commitments from four-star receiver Thomas Duarte and a quartet of four-star defensive backs in Johnny Johnson, Tyler Foreman, Tahaan Goodman and Willis.

Rivals.com West region analyst Adam Gorney said that there are issues at USC but it is certainly not all a loss.

"They took some early pledges from kids far away, they didn't have a great season, and they aren't closing that strong," Gorney said. "There is something going on, but let's not forget that this class still has six five-star players.

[ RELATED: Around the West]

"When your class has six players at a five-star level and the chance to have a couple more come into the fold, I don't think there are many schools that wouldn't take some turmoil just to get who USC already has."

USC has three five-star players already enrolled: quarterback Max Browne and defensive backs Su'a Cravens and Leon McQuay III.

Joining them are a pair of four-stars in running back Justin Davis and cornerback Chris Hawkins.

And the Trojans are still chasing five-star defensive lineman A'Shawn Robinson and linebacker Matthew Thomas. While neither is expected to join the class, there is still a chance USC adds another five-star.

The Rivals.com rankings formula is based on the Top 20 commitments in each class, and despite only having 13 commitments to the 23 of UCLA, the Trojans are still ahead nationally.

However, no matter the rankings, what is happening at UCLA is deserving of extra scrutiny.

"Since his first day on campus, Jim Mora has been very aggressive in recruiting," Gorney said. "He has NFL experience, a staff that is very affable and friendly, and he has made UCLA cool again.

"Beating USC was quick proof that he can get the job done and by selling playing time, it is going to be a good place to go."

Gorney and Farrell said recruiters Demetrice Martin and Adrian Klemm have more than lived up to their reputations.

"Martin should get a ton of credit," Gorney said. "He built relationships early and got a lot of the kids on campus early and often. This defensive back class is just great.

"Klemm was a great recruiter even when he was at SMU. He was on our Top 25 recruiters list," Farrell said. "Now he has a better program and a better location to sell, so it is no shock that he is getting the kids he is."

What most in Westwood want to know is if this is an anomaly or if the staff can maintain its level of success.

Farrell believes that the answer may be tied to Mora and Kiffin.

"When Kiffin took the job at Tennessee, I had a lot of people in the industry call me and tell me he was about to be in over his head," Farrell said. "Then he goes and gets the USC job and with the problems that were left at his feet, it was just a place that was going to be hard to succeed.

"Now the speculation that he lost the team with the fight at the Sun Bowl, the sunglasses, the ball rumors, changing the jerseys, all of the baggage he has piled up may mean he isn't the guy there. Conversely, Mora has things going in the right direction and just signed on for another year. I think so long as those two are the two on the front lines, it will be a battle much more than it ever was with Rick Neuheisel.

"There are only so many kids who can get into USC. There are only so many kids who even want to go to USC. And if UCLA continues to be a strong program, then more guys will start looking there first."

If that happens there will likely be more talented players following Willis and this class to UCLA.

"It's the place for me," he said. "It's a place that we can compete for Pac-12 championships."



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