The USC Trojans recruit a lot of football prospects each year, and, naturally, they don’t get all of them.
There are the ones who got away, like Washington’s Chris Polk or South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffrey, skill-position players who verbally committed to the school early in the recruiting process and then de-committed before the deadline.
There are the ones who really got away, such as Arizona State’s Vontaze Burfict and Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o, linebackers who spurned the Trojans late in the class of 2009 and have gone on to star at their schools.
And then there is the one who really, really got away: Oregon’s De’Anthony Thomas. He was actively recruiting prospects from across the country to join him at USC in the class of 2011, only to visit Oregon the weekend before signing day and, in a dramatic turn, sign with the Ducks.
"It still doesn't make sense. I still never figured it out," Trojans coach Lane Kiffin said this week of Thomas’ decision. "Just a really unique situation I don't know that we’ve ever had before here.
“We had guys flop sometimes at the end, but not when they're really the leader of the class and they're the ones bringing other kids up here.”
Thomas, from Crenshaw, was the top-ranked athlete in the 2011 class by most recruiting experts. The question with him was whether he’d play on offense or defense at the next level, and the common rumor around signing day was that Kiffin and USC wanted to keep him on defense at corner.
That’s one theory for why he went to Oregon, although Kiffin denies it. Thomas has already accumulated 789 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns on 73 touches this year lining up most often as a running back, so he’s clearly capable of playing offense.
"We would have just found a way to get him the ball," Kiffin said. "We would have looked at him all over, just like we do our guys when they come in, and see where he fit best. He would be a great corner, just like he was in the All-Star game in high school.
“But there's no way you leave him over there and not give him the ball on the other side, as you can tell."
When Thomas got back to L.A. from Eugene last February, he texted USC linebacker Hayes Pullard, a former high school teammate, and told him he was going to go to Oregon.
“’What’s so different about USC and Oregon?’ I asked him,” Pullard said. “And he said his vibe was just different when he went up there, the Nike up there. And I understood. I wasn’t mad at him. Being a young kid, the first time you’d see that, it would be amazing.”
Said USC left guard Marcus Martin, another Crenshaw product: “He went where he wanted to go.” Martin added that Thomas was a big factor in his own decision to pick USC over Arizona and Colorado.
“He was very convincing,” Martin said. “He’s one of the reasons I came here.”
Aside from some crucial fumbles, Thomas has been an asset to the Ducks this season. He’s not listed on their depth chart on offense, but he finds a way to get on the field for meaningful snaps each week.
Kiffin went back to what Thomas did as a kickoff returner against Washington last month, when he broke one return for 69 yards and then had another big run called back because of a penalty.
"The only guy that I've probably seen like that was Reggie, and obviously he's not as big as Reggie,” Kiffin said of former Trojan Reggie Bush. “But when you watch those two kickoff returns against Washington, the way that he can start and stop and then how fast he can cut, he's really special.
“That's why he’s maybe the best player in the country (for his class)."
Kiffin can be liberal with his best-player designations. A little more than a year ago he called former USC running back Dillon Baxter the most talented player on the team. But he’s being as serious as can be about Thomas. He is the one who got away.
"That usually doesn't happen that way," Kiffin said. "It was very strange. At that point, you've been around him so much and seen so much of his film, you start to picture how he's going to piece in with all these other guys.
"And then all of a sudden he went a different way. It is what it is. He's a great player and he'll have a great career."