Three-Point Stance: Pac-12 must do a better job of keeping talent home
Rivals national recruiting director Adam Gorney looks at top prospects leaving the Pac-12 for college following the NFL Draft, some hopeful signs of elite recruits staying home and potential hazards ahead for the conference as a whole in today’s Three-Point Stance:
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1. PAC-12 TERRITORY DOESN'T HAVE A TALENT PROBLEM
The area of the country where Pac-12 teams reside doesn’t have a talent problem. That conference has a retention issue.
It struck me that the Pac-12 finished dead last among Power Five conferences in NFL Draft picks and that the SEC and the Big Ten had more than double the selections. It was particularly surprising since so much elite talent comes from the West - it’s just that not enough of them stay home.
The first two overall picks were five-star quarterback Bryce Young from Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei, who was committed to USC but flipped to Alabama, and Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., quarterback CJ Stroud, who chose Ohio State over Georgia essentially.
Either one stays home and the Trojans look much different in the pre-Lincoln Riley era.
Also in the first round were Tucson (Ariz.) Salpointe five-star RB Bijan Robinson, who chose Texas over Ohio State and, oh yeah, USC and overlooked tight end Dalton Kincaid - who actually played in Southern California but at San Diego before transferring to Utah.
The second round was a little better in retention. Northern California’s Isaiah Foskey went to Notre Dame and while four-star RB Zach Charbonnet starred at UCLA the last couple seasons, he chose Michigan out of high school. Undervalued tight end Luke Musgrave was great at Oregon State and local defensive line standout Tuli Tuipulotu shined at USC.
The third round was filled with players who absolutely could have, should have found Pac-12 homes but many of them were overlooked in the recruiting process and, honestly, in the rankings as well.
Las Vegas Bishop Gorman WR Cedric Tillman starred at Tennessee and had no Pac-12 offers. Hawthorne, Calif., linebacker Marte Mapu shined at Sacramento State and doesn’t even have a Rivals profile - he was that unknown in high school. DJ Johnson picked Miami out of high school and then transferred to Oregon.
Five-star tight end Darnell Washington from Las Vegas Desert Pines went to Georgia, four-star DL Siaki Ika chose LSU and then transferred to Baylor and four-star tight end Cameron Latu picked Alabama.
Daiyan Henley transitioned to linebacker at Washington State but was a quarterback at Los Angeles Crenshaw. Four-star receiver Michael Wilson was one of the only ones without much of a backstory as he went to West Hills (Calif.) Chaminade and then went to Stanford.
More West prospects need to follow Wilson’s lead if the Pac-12 is going to keep pace with the SEC, the Big Ten and others.
Right now, that’s absolutely not the case.
If USC played everything right and all the cards fell its way, Young would have been its quarterback, Robinson would have been the running back, Washington would have been at tight end (or Latu wouldn’t have been a bad second option) and Ika would have manned the defensive line after working out at its Rising Stars Camp. You get it.
The West is not bereft of talent. But too many elite players have left and never looked back.
2. THERE IS SOME HOPE, BUT….
The trend over the last few recruiting classes - especially as Riley took over at USC and there was hope breathed back into that program, Oregon continued to stay aggressive on the recruiting trail, UCLA coach Chip Kelly got the Bruins going, Utah continued to develop elite talent and more - is that better players are staying home a little more often.
In 2022, five of the top 10 prospects in the California state rankings signed with Pac-12 programs. Only three of the top 10 in Arizona did. But last recruiting cycle, seven of the top 10 in Arizona picked that conference and six of 10 in California did as No. 1 Nico Iamaleava left for Tennessee but five-star QB Malachi Nelson stuck with USC and five-star DE Matayo Uiagalelei chose Oregon over Ohio State and others. Five-star receiver Zion Branch had every offer available but picked the Trojans as well.
It was huge for USC that five-star tight end Duce Robinson chose the Trojans over Georgia as the top four players in Arizona’s 2023 class chose Pac-12 programs for the first time since 2017.
But 2024 is not exactly trending in the Pac-12’s favor.
There are three five-stars so far in the region: Quarterback Julian Sayin is committed to Alabama, safety Peyton Woodyard has pledged to Georgia and the Bulldogs seem to have the edge over USC and Nebraska for No. 1 overall prospect Dylan Raiola.
There are opportunities ahead but challenges abound.
3. SO WHAT’S AHEAD?
There is no predicting what conference realignment and massive changes are coming to college football because of it but we do know is that USC and UCLA will be leaving for the Big Ten in 2024. That is going to hurt massively if the Pac-12 cannot figure out something serious to counter those losses.
In the meantime, there are two considerations that could benefit Pac-12 programs. First, the influx of young coaches could spark a recruiting renaissance.
Riley can recruit anybody anywhere. Arizona State’s Kenny Dillingham is a recruiting machine with an in-state focus - finally. Washington’s Kalen DeBoer won 11 games in his first season. Oregon State’s Jonathan Smith has turned things around in Corvallis. Dan Lanning at Oregon. Jedd Fisch has people excited in Tucson. Troy Taylor should bring an exciting brand of football to Stanford. And, oh yeah, Deion Sanders at Colorado.
Secondly, the transfer portal could help. Sure, a lot of elite players from the West leave for seemingly better opportunities. But with so many players accessing the portal, many are returning.
It’s a massive opportunity that should be a major focus to reconstitute rosters and fill needs even if top local recruits head elsewhere at first.