USC continues to reload, and although it might not have a class comprised with as many elite athletes as last year, the Trojans filled their need along the offensive line with one of the better groups in the country. Dennis Erickson resurrected the Arizona State program on the gridiron and has also put together one of the better Sun Devils' recruiting classes in recent years, a few former Arizona commits. Oregon's success on the field coupled with flashy green uniforms has given it national recruiting success in 2008. The Ducks have put together a solid class with offensive talent who fit well in coordinator Chip Kelly's explosive spread offense. Karl Dorrell may not have produced enough wins to retain his job at UCLA, but he certainly left Rick Neuheisel a promising 2008 recruiting class. Retaining DeWayne Walker on staff has been one of his better recruiting moves thus far. In part one, here's a look at the top half of the Pac-10 based on 2007 record:
Schools in order of 2007 finish
Signing day storylines: The Trojans may have showed a few chinks in the armor last fall but demonstrated down the stretch they are still arguably the best college football program in the country. USC reloads each recruiting season with some of the better prospects in the country, and 2008 is no different.
After two losses in four weeks, including a defeat by a good Oregon team, there was speculation about the talent gap closing between Southern Cal and the rest of conference. Yet heading into signing day, USC has triple the amount of prospects with a Scouts Inc. grade of 80 or higher than all but two Pac-10 programs (UCLA and Oregon).
Nationally it slid in our latest class rankings and heading into signing day lacks the same type of elite talent represented by last year's No. 1-ranked recruiting class. However, it closed strong on signing day in 2007, and although there might not be another Joe McKnight out there, plenty of talented undeclared prospects are still looking strongly at USC. ESPN's No. 2-rated corner T.J. Bryant (Tallahassee, Fla./Lincoln), ESPN 150 linebacker Jerrell Harris (Gadsden, Ala.), explosive defensive lineman Nick Perry (Detroit/Mackenzie) and talented Long Beach Poly teammates Jurrell Casey and Vaughn Telemaque all could be signing Wednesday.
Top prospect: While there might be a few receivers in this class ranked higher than Brice Butler (Norcross, Ga.), there are arguably none who possess the elite route-running skills of this future Trojan playmaker. In conversations with Butler this fall, ESPN's No. 4-rated receiver prospect said he has been polishing up his receiving skills since middle school with the help of his father Bobby's former Atlanta Falcons teammate Stacey Bailey. The results are evident, as Butler's natural physical tools, which include good speed and a great separation burst, are complemented by perhaps the most polished receiving skills we have seen in the past few classes. The pride he has taken in improving his craft should help the No. 15 overall prospect in the ESPN 150 see early playing time on a team packed with elite skill players. A big-play and big-catch receiver all wrapped up in one package, Butler should continue the great tradition of Trojan wide receivers.
Class highlights: The rich get richer as one of the most explosive offenses in the country reloads with game breakers while also filling roster needs. Tight end was one of those positions in need of depth and a future stud with the loss of Fred Davis. We thought Blake Ayles (Orange, Calif./Lutheran) showed the skills on film to make an impact during his career at USC, but after watching ESPN's No. 1-rated tight end prospect perform as an Under Armour All-American, we think he'll get in the mix next fall. He will need to add bulk to improve in-line blocking skills but his athleticism and hands in the passing game should create major mismatches on linebackers. Joining Butler and Ayles on offense could be D.J. Shoemate (Mira Loma, Calif./Servite), the No. 5-rated athlete with the physical tools and versatility to potentially shine at receiver, running back or even on defense. Highly-coveted Joe Adams (Little Rock, Ark./Central Arkansas Christian) has perhaps even better overall skills and versatility as an athlete and is presumably Carroll's main focus down the stretch to retain.
Offensive line was an area we thought needed to be addressed in this USC class, and the Trojans are competing with Ohio State for arguably the best group in this entire 2008 class. Matt Kalil (Anaheim, Calif./Servite), Matt Meyer (Stockton, Calif./Lincoln), Tyron Smith (Moreno Valley, Calif./Rancho Verde), Daniel Campbell (Houston/Aldine) and Khaled Holmes (Santa Ana, Calif./Mater Dei) are all great pickups. Holmes, our No. 1-rated guard prospect, Kalil, Meyer and Smith are each ESPN 150 members showing the impressive selective quality.
Could see the field in 2008: Butler, Adams, Ayles, Holmes, Kalil and Shoemate.
Signing day storylines: First-year Arizona State head coach Dennis Erickson quickly resurrected the Sun Devils program on the field, but the seasoned head coach knows the schedule will only get tougher and continuing to win will take a great recruiting effort. Erickson's first class certainly shows that effort as it is comprised of far more depth and talent than in years past. The group is highlighted by some marquee names up top, but the top-to-bottom quality is perhaps what is most impressive.
ASU's defense last fall was filled with more good football players than individual stars, and we think this class as a whole reflects that. We often say good programs are built with players in the 77-79 range of the Scouts Inc. grading scale, and it boasts nine players in that range to build around its elite players like ESPN 150 athlete Gerell Robinson (Chandler, Ariz./Hamilton) and top-25 running back Ryan Bass (Corona, Calif./Centennial).
Top prospect: After watching Robinson on film, we collectively came away with one assessment -- this kid is a tremendous athlete. Erickson landed a prospect with some of the better natural tools in this class and the versatility to play many different roles during his career. He possesses good overall size and a great frame for continued physical development, and strong safety or outside linebacker is definitely a possibility with his excellent range and sound instincts for finding the football. For a taller athlete, his feet, hips and change-of-direction quickness are rare and will make it hard for the defensive coaches to steal him from offense. Still raw, Robinson could use some polish and refinement once he concentrates on one position.
Class highlights: Arizona State needed a running back in this class to add young depth and to develop as the primary ball carrier for the future. The Sun Devils got a good one in Bass; this kid runs harder than his listed measurables in-line while showing a good burst and speed in the open field. Erickson snagged two of state's highest ranked athletes in Robinson and Jarrell Barbour (Peoria, Ariz./Centennial). The 6-foot-2 Barbour excelled on offense, defense and special teams at the high school level, but we feel defensive back will be the position he shines at in Tempe with his solid run and pass support skills. Joining Barbour on defense will be tackle Lawrence Guy (Las Vegas/Western), a kid with great size and upside.
We felt offensive line was an area in need of bodies heading into this class, and ASU landed quality at tackle and a two top-20 positional prospects at guard in Zach Schlink (Peoria, Ariz./Centennial) and Andrew Sampson (Aurora, Colo./Overland). Lining up behind this solid offensive line class in the future will be Jack Elway (Englewood, Colo./Cherry Creek), a quarterback with an impressive arm passed down by his NFL Hall of Fame father John.
Could see the field in 2008: Robinson, Bass, Barbour.
Oregon State ended the 2007 season in the top half of the Pac-10, but unfortunately the Beavers will end up towards the bottom half of the conference in our final recruiting rankings. The consistent bowl berths and occasional upsets over elite programs like USC in 2006 have done little to stimulate recruiting. However, OSU's on-field success just goes to show you that there are enough good football players out there to build a program around who do not possess elite status on paper.
Mike Riley is considered a well-liked coach and recruiter and should continue to land prep players with the physical skills needed to develop in his system. The Beavers have traditionally complemented its greener prep talent with a host of JUCO prospects and 2008 is no different.
It should be noted Oregon's emergence might not greatly affect the Beavers' in-state recruiting with so few top-tier prospects to compete for but could hurt outside of Oregon, particularly in talent-rich states like California.
Top prospect: Colin Lyons-Pena (Sacramento, Calif./West Campus) is a massive tackle prospect who we project will slide inside to cover up his marginal athleticism. We thought going into this class the Beavers needed to attain some depth on the interior of their offensive line, and this kid flashes the explosiveness to fill some of that future void. The top-50 offensive guard prospect shows good initial quicks for a player with his great bulk and the nastiness you like to see finishing blocks. Lyons-Pena is a solid line prospect who represents the type of player OSU has been signing and winning with.
Class highlights: The highlights are minimal at this point, but Oregon State did fill some other needs at linebacker and running back. Jacquizz Rodgers (Rosenberg, Texas/Lamar) may lack size as a ball carrier, but he possesses great fluidity and change of direction skill in space to be dangerous. Linebacker was an area needing an infusion of talent and young depth as well and in-state linebacker Tony Wilson (Salem, Ore./Sprague) will need some bulk but is good middle run filler.
Could see the field in 2008: Probably none.
Signing day storylines: The Ducks broke out during the fall of 2007 and their success coupled with their shiny Nike uniforms and tremendous football facilities have given them a national recruiting presence in 2008. Oregon has done well consistently signing quality football players who fit and can be developed in head coach Mike Bellotti's systems. However in 2008, Oregon has put together a class filled with top-25 talent and explosive offensive skill prospects who fit perfectly in coordinator Chip Kelly's innovative spread offense, not a great sign for the rest of the Pac-10.
Oregon already has four prospects with an 80 grade or higher on the Scouts Inc. scale; it did not sign any in its previous two classes. The elite talent brought in certainly fills needs as well. Oregon's offense imploded when Dennis Dixon went down with a knee injury last fall and were left without a dual-threat, zone-read quarterback on the depth chart. The Ducks answered that need with two potential system-fitting signal callers in their current class.
Top prospect: The national recruiting presence was certainly highlighted with the commitment from ESPN's No. 11-rated athlete Chris Harper (Wichita, Kan./Northwest), the No. 2-rated player out of the state of Kansas who previously committed to Kansas State. The first ESPN 150 prospect since the prestigious list's existence, Harper is a rare athlete with great size, speed and a burst in space to develop into a potential playmaker at the next level. The main question is where his impressive skills will be employed in Eugene next fall. Oregon currently has some existing depth to develop on its current roster and already has good spread quarterback prospects committed in this class. There is no doubt he could be developed there as well but could also grow into an outstanding receiver or tight end with some polish. Look for Harper with his elite blend of size, speed and athleticism to be inserted early at any of the Oregon's skill positions that become pressing needs.
Class highlights: Potentially battling Harper at quarterback will be Darron Thomas (Aldine, Texas), a great athlete who possesses the creativity and playmaker skills with the ball in his hands to be dangerous in this offense. The offensive weapons continue as the Ducks landed a pledge out of Arizona from tight end Dion Jordan (Chandler, Ariz.). While he currently lacks the bulk of current Oregon tight end Ed Dickson, his receiving skills and overall athleticism in space when matched up on linebackers could be greater over time.
LaMichael James (Texarkana, Texas/Liberty Eylau) is a top-25 running back who could eventually replace some of the production left by Jonathan Stewart. A great multi-purpose back, he's a home-run threat in space and extremely slippery to wrap up, skills to give future Pac-10 defensive coordinators headaches in this offense. Keep your eye out for Kenjon Barner (Riverside, Calif./Notre Dame) in the backfield as well. This kid possesses great foot-quickness in space and could be overlooked due to his lack of size, which will be masked in this wide-open spread.
The talent continues on defense with a pledge from Jamaar Jarrett (San Marcos, Calif/Mission Hills), ESPN's No. 12-rated defensive end prospect who possesses good speed and a great frame for future physical development.
Could see the field in 2008: Harper, Thomas (as an athlete).
Signing day storylines: Unfortunately, Karl Dorrell did not produce enough wins on the gridiron last fall with 20 returning starters to retain his job, but off the field, he was putting together quite a recruiting class for the Bruins. Comprised of four ESPN 150 members and six prospects with a Scouts Inc. grade of 80 or higher, Rick Neuheisel has to be pleased with the class he inherited in his return to Westwood.
The former UCLA coach and player's best recruiting job to date was retaining assistant coach DeWayne Walker during the coaching turnover. Most of the recruits we spoke with after Dorrell's firing boldly stated they would remain firm with their pledge if the Bruins' defensive coordinator was retained on staff.
While Dorrell left a great group of prospects in 2008, last year's smaller class was a bit disappointing and the roster shows many holes that need to be filled beyond what the Bruins hope to sign on February 6.
Top prospect: Aundre Dean (Katy, Texas) was a major land for the Bruins out of the state of Texas. For a taller running back Dean possesses great foot quickness and rare lateral mobility to make defenders miss. He will need to run with lower pad level in college, but this top-10 running back prospect shows good balance, explosiveness and burst between the tackles. In the open field he possesses the second gear and top-end speed needed to separate. The only question mark we have when projecting for the next level is durability from the hits he could be exposed to with his height and lack of great body tilt, though backs like Adrian Peterson and Darren McFadden to squash that stereotype.
Class highlights: There is a promising offensive nucleus with Dean and quarterback Nick Crissman (Huntington Beach, Calif./Edison). Neuheisel has a good pedigree in grooming quarterbacks, and he could have a future gem in Crissman. The No. 10 quarterback has the frame, arm strength and polished tool at the high school level to blossom. The offensive class needed young depth at tight end and landed another top-10 positional prospect in Cory Harkey (Chino Hills, Calif.), a physically impressive athlete with great hands in traffic.
There are future voids at both defensive back and wide out, and although the Bruins brought in some quality depth at receiver, they lack an elite prospect with skills that safety E.J. Woods (Culver City, Calif./Crespi Carmelite) brings to the table. The No. 6 rated prospect at his position, Woods possesses good size, range and run support skills. He will be joined by perhaps the fastest safety in this class, Rahim Moore (Los Angeles/Dorsey). Cornerback also got some quality depth and versatility with ESPN 150 prospect Anthony Dye (Corona, Calif./Santiago).
Special teams got a big boost with the commitment of Jeff Locke (Glendale, Ariz./ Mountain Ridge). The Under Armour All-American should contribute early in the kicking game with his strong leg and versatility as a punter and kicker.
Could see the field in 2008: Dean, Woods and Locke.
Billy Tucker is a recruiting coordinator for Scouts Inc. and has close to a decade of coaching experience at the college and high school level. Tucker has served as a recruiting coordinator for two nationally ranked Division II colleges. Most recently, he was the associate head coach and defensive coordinator for Merrimack College, which advanced to the Sweet 16 in the 2006 NCAA Division II playoffs.