Crenshaw's Thomas picks better stage

LOS ANGELES -- He has been the guy in Los Angeles for the past five years. Rated and reviewed before he ever picked a high school.

He was a Pop Warner legend, affectionately nicknamed the "Black Mamba" by rapper Snoop Dogg.

If ever there was a kid USC and UCLA wanted to keep home, it was Crenshaw High's DeAnthony Thomas.

And up until 48 hours ago, it seemed the Trojans would be able to.

Then, in the recruiting equivalent of their famous no-huddle offense, the Oregon Ducks swooped in with a late pitch, wowed him on an official visit, and convinced the best player in Los Angeles to fly north.

"It was never that I didn't want to go to USC," Thomas said after a tearful press conference at Crenshaw High on Wednesday night. "I just went to Oregon and loved it.

"It's a big stage up there. Coming into that offense, and I'm coming to play running back [not cornerback as the Trojans preferred]. It's going to be a very good stage for me."

There is, on the surface, absolutely nothing troubling about Thomas' late pivot from USC to Oregon.

His skill set translates seamlessly into Oregon's spread offense. Probably better than it would in USC's pro-style attack.

He also loved the idea of experiencing a new place, away from his hometown and the legend that precedes him everywhere he goes.

"It was my decision and it came from the heart," he said. "My mom and I went over it a lot. She really didn't want me to leave. And it was hard to leave. But I was like, 'Mom, I gotta grow up sometime.'"

In the end, Thomas determined that his best option was up north, out of Los Angeles and away from home.

That's the reality that will sit like a piece of gristle in USC's stomach when it looks back on signing day 2010.

The reality that would've been unconscionable just a few years ago, before the sanctions, before Kiffin, before the Emerald Bowl.

USC is still a premium brand in Los Angeles and around the country. It just isn't the only premium brand anymore.

"Chip Kelly, he's a great coach," Thomas said. "He's only been there two years. His first year he went to the Rose Bowl. His second year he went to the national championship."

Two years in the recruiting world is an eternity. Two days is all it took to change Thomas' mind.

In those two years, Oregon hasn't just beaten USC on the football field twice and won back-to-back Pac-10 championships -- it has wrestled away the mantle of cool the Trojans used to monopolize.

Oregon hasn't just won, it's won with flash and style. The way USC used to.

It has run up scores and thoroughly confused its opponents with its video-game offense.

Its uniforms are cool. Its facilities are pristine. Even its mascot has swagger.

Kiffin took Thomas' late defection in stride. He still hauled in a top-5 recruiting class and managed to keep most of the top talent in Los Angeles home.

Kiffin said recently the Trojans' recruiting strategy while under sanctions is to "build a wall" around Southern California.

When asked Wednesday how he thought he did with this class, Kiffin said, "You'd like to be perfect, but it's hard. You're always going to have position things. You might want a kid at a certain position and they see you have too many guys at that position.

"So, I think we've done pretty well, but it wasn't perfect, no."

No matter what he said publicly, losing Thomas stung.

Symbolically more than anything.

Thomas grew up watching the Trojans rule Los Angeles and contend for national championships. He went to high school 10 minutes from the USC campus.

He also had an up-close view of Oregon's meteoric rise the past two years, and USC's decline into the middle of the pack.

"I called [Kiffin] yesterday morning and we had a long talk. I told him I wanted to be a Duck," Thomas said. "It had nothing to do with the sanctions. If I was worried about the sanctions, I would've decommitted a while ago.

"I really just felt more comfortable at Oregon."

Asked how Kiffin took the news, Thomas shrugged.

"He never gave up," Thomas said. "I was talking to him all day."

As much as Thomas loved Oregon, it was obvious the decision was gut-wrenching for him. He teared up as he announced he was leaving Los Angeles to play for the Ducks in front of about 150 friends, family and teammates. He promised to return to Crenshaw and coach the team someday.

But he still left.

"I think the emotional part about it is he's happy and sad," said Crenshaw coach Robert Garrett. "The happy part of it is he gets an opportunity to go away and be himself. The sad part of it is he's saying goodbye to the community and the neighborhood and even to USC. He has some attachment to them, too.

"But you know. He's a young man. He knows what he wants."

In the end, Thomas wanted the biggest stage. Right now, that's not in LA.

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com. ESPNLA.com's Mark Saxon contributed to this report.