UCLA and USC fans should feel good about their recruiting haul despite their rankings
As traditional National Signing Day closed Wednesday, Los Angeles Times college football experts Ben Bolch, Ryan Kartje and J. Brady McCollough weighed in on how well UCLA and USC restocked their rosters through a mix of the recruiting trail and transfer portal.
The 2023 high school recruiting cycle is now complete for both USC and UCLA. So, how did they do?
Kartje: After signing just seven high school prospects a year ago, this is a much more conventional recruiting class for Lincoln Riley and Co. It boasts the nation’s top receiver, a top-five quarterback, and two of the top four recruits from California, enough for USC to finish with the nation’s 12th-best overall class, according to the 247Sports.com composite rankings. That’s certainly nothing to scoff at, but it’s also not a stellar signing class by USC standards, either. Since Pete Carroll left for the NFL in 2010, USC has had only three classes finish lower than 12th in the national rankings. One of those was Riley’s seven-man class in 2022.
USC missed out on some elite in-state targets, including St. John Bosco defensive lineman Matayo Uiagalelei, and ended up with only five of California’s top-30 prospects. But it loaded up its depth along the defensive and offensive lines. So we might have to wait before any final judgments on the strength of this class.
Bolch: There was some buzz not felt in Westwood for a long time after the Bruins snagged Dante Moore, the highest-rated quarterback in school history, as the heir apparent to Dorian Thompson-Robinson. It doesn’t matter that Moore basically fell into their lap because of a coaching change at Oregon, only that they got him. Moore headlined, in 100-point type, another smallish high school recruiting class that has been heavily supplemented by the transfer portal. Chip Kelly might not have liked the Transfer U tweet that went out in the fall, but it reflects the reality for a team that plugs most holes via transfers.
McCollough: There is still no enforcement of the NCAA’s guidance on NIL, which prohibits pay-for-play inducements to recruits, and until there is, programs will be playing by different rules on the trail. USC and Oregon, for instance, are playing by different rules. The Trojans do not have a fully operational collective supporting their efforts, and even if they did, it is unclear if that group would go into bidding wars for high school talent, for fear of appearances. To a certain extent, with a certain type of player, Lincoln Riley’s hands might be tied. Given that, USC hovering around the top 10 and continuing to skillfully mine the transfer portal is keeping it in the ballgame to perform like a top-10 program that is building the culture for something even better in the future.
As for UCLA, Bruins fans should be elated, mainly thanks to the sudden signing of five-star quarterback Dante Moore out of Detroit. Things fell Chip Kelly’s way when Oregon’s Bo Nix decided to return for his final year of eligibility and offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham left for the head coaching job at Arizona State. Props to Kelly and the Bruins for convincing Moore to follow Dorian Thompson-Robinson as the next great UCLA quarterback in Westwood. From there, this is a pretty predictable haul for UCLA, with a small high school group and a bunch of transfers who should help the Bruins remain in the top half of an improving Pac-12 next season.
Should USC and UCLA fans be excited about the additions to their rosters?
Kartje: Though there might not be a clear program-altering defensive prospect like USC fans clamored for in this class, USC had no issue piling up blue-chip recruits on the other side of the ball for 2023. The gem among that group is five-star and No. 1 overall receiver Zachariah Branch, an electric talent whose skillset has been likened to All-Pro NFL wideout Tyreek Hill. Even in an already deep receiver room, expect him to make an immediate impact. Adding a five-star quarterback to any class is also no small thing, so the arrival of heir apparent passer Malachi Nelson will be monitored closely; though, he won’t be full go until sometime this summer.
The cupboard isn’t entirely bare on defense in this class, either. Four-star linebacker Tackett Curtis will be one to watch closely, after Riley raved about his arrival in December. His ferocity could mean finding his way onto the field as a freshman.
Bolch: Moore could transform the Tarp Bowl back into a Rose Bowl teeming with fans from the season opener, assuming he wins the job over talented Kent State transfer Collin Schlee and incumbent Ethan Garbers, not to mention precocious redshirt freshman Justyn Martin. Another newcomer to watch will be running back Carson Steele, a Ball State transfer who has a pet alligator back home in Indiana. Steele exudes personality with his long blond hair and strongman persona as a freakishly brutish ballcarrier, probably making him an instant fan favorite. Cal transfer J. Michael Sturdivant could give the Bruins the kind of game-breaking wide receiver they haven’t enjoyed in years, as well as a reliable target for whomever wins the starting quarterback job.
McCollough: College football is a quarterback’s game. Two of the top five quarterbacks in this class, Malachi Nelson (USC) and Moore (UCLA) are headed to L.A. to usher the programs into the Big Ten era. These were the guys that Riley and Kelly had to bring in, with Caleb Williams nearly guaranteed to go pro after 2023 and DTR already gone from Westwood. Moore will have to compete with a couple of capable upperclassmen in Kent State transfer Collin Schlee and current UCLA backup Ethan Garbers, but it would be pretty shocking if Moore doesn’t take the team’s first snaps in 2024, along with Nelson for USC.
Wide receivers Zachariah Branch and Makai Lemon will draw the most headlines beyond Nelson, but the most important recruits in this class might be top-100 defenders Braylan Shelby and Tackett Curtis, whom the Trojans plucked right out of SEC country. If Riley is going to get USC to its first College Football Playoff — much less the semifinals — he’s going to need Shelby and Curtis to be program cornerstone-type players.
Should fans be concerned about any UCLA or USC departures?
Bolch: Not yet. The early departures were going to be buried on the depth chart amid the influx of talent. But keep in mind that the transfer portal reopens after spring practice and the odds are that the Bruins will lose at least one quarterback with such a logjam at the position.
McCollough: It was a great sign for the health of UCLA’s program and the culture that Kelly has created the last five years that the Bruins did not lose any of their key cogs to the transfer portal after this season.
Kartje: USC lost two former top-10 receiver prospects from its crowded receiving corps, as Gary Bryant Jr. and Kyle Ford entered the transfer portal. But USC was already stacked at receiver and only got better in this recruiting class with the addition of Branch and top-50 receiver Makai Lemon. Any other losses to the portal have already been mitigated.
What are the USC and UCLA’s biggest needs and can they fill them before the 2023 season starts?
Kartje: Continuing forth with a familiar plan, USC has already plugged most of its holes via the portal. Any concerns about losing three starting offensive linemen were soothed when the Trojans added three transfers up front with Power Five starting experience. They also beefed up the defensive front with a former five-star edge rusher in Anthony Lucas, an All-Pac-12 interior lineman in Kyon Barrs and an All-Big 12 middle linebacker in Mason Cobb. Where the Trojans could still stand to get stronger is in the secondary, where top corner Mekhi Blackmon is off to the NFL, leaving a lot of unproven talent in his wake.
Bolch: Kelly has admirably filled most of the glaring holes at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, linebacker and on the offensive line, but some more secondary help would be great. That’s the biggest need with the departures of Stephan Blaylock and Mo Osling III.
McCollough: USC needs to find a pass rusher to fill the massive voids left by Tuli Tuipulotu and by cornerback Mekhi Blackmon. We really won’t know how the Trojans did in replacing them until September, but it’s time for five-star recruits Korey Foreman and Domani Jackson to play to their reputations in 2023.
UCLA won’t be able to remain relevant if it doesn’t find adequate production to replace Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Zach Charbonnet. Can MAC transfers in Schlee and Ball State running back Carson Steele make the jump to the Pac-12 seamlessly? We’ll see.
USC and UCLA fans had concerns about their defensive coordinators’ performance last season. Where do those positions stand?
Kartje: Riley has been clear about his confidence in Alex Grinch, but the shelf life of that endorsement remains to be seen. Grinch will have to show marked improvement in USC’s defense next season, and that won’t be easy, considering some of the top talent the Trojans have lost on that side of the ball. Replacing a top corner and the nation’s leader in sacks will have to be a group effort, and for Grinch, that means making major progress at all three levels of the defense. Good luck with that.
Bolch: Bill McGovern has said he “absolutely” plans to return for the 2023 season after unspecified health issues forced him to miss the final five games of the regular season. It’s my understanding the Bruins would love to have him back in his current role as long as he’s capable of withstanding the pressures of such a high-stress job in the wake of what happened last season. Clarity should come before spring practice.
McCollough: This is Grinch’s last chance to follow through on Riley’s continued belief in his ability to build a great defense. I can see why he chose continuity over making a change this early in his tenure, but it’s unlikely he would do so again unless USC’s defense makes major improvements.
My gut tells me that Kelly is going to need more youthful energy out of his defensive coordinator than what he’s gotten from Jerry Azzinaro and now Bill McGovern, who missed five games last year because of health problems.
Hey, maybe Grinch will be available next year at this time.
Looking at a combination of the schedules and the rosters, do you think UCLA and USC are poised to contend for a Pac-12 championship during their final season in the conference?
Kartje: After falling just short of a Pac-12 title and the College Football Playoff this past season, there’s no reason to think USC won’t find itself in the same position next fall. Caleb Williams will be back to defend his Heisman Trophy, and his weapons, while not quite as experienced, have only gotten more explosive. No one is expecting USC’s defense to suddenly dominate, but if Grinch is able to find some answers, the Trojans should find themselves well positioned to make one final run in the Pac-12.
Bolch: It’s tough to win a championship with a freshman quarterback, but Moore isn’t just any freshman quarterback. The bigger question is whether the Bruins’ defense will take a huge step forward — no matter who is running it — after another disappointing showing in 2022. If UCLA can pair a slightly above-average defense with what figures to be another elite Kelly offense, it could be the surprise of the Pac-12.
McCollough: USC should be just as explosive offensively, if not more, and surely the Trojans will be more sound defensively in Year 2 under Grinch. But the schedule is far more brutal in 2023. USC will be favored to start 6-0 for the second straight year, but the Trojans then play Notre Dame, Utah, Washington, Oregon and UCLA in five of their last six. USC probably will have to sweep the Utes, Huskies and Bruins at the Coliseum to find its way back to the Pac-12 title game — a tall task even at home.
UCLA should take a step back next year, but the Bruins benefit from avoiding Oregon and Washington. Still, road trips to Salt Lake City, Oregon State and USC will be tough to escape. Unfortunately, 2023 seems unlikely to be the year Kelly breaks through for his first 10-win season in Westwood.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.