San Diego Union Tribune

Twenty memorable moments in the past 20-years of USC football recruiting

In's 20th anniversary year, we salute and relive 20 of the most memorable storylines in USC recruiting. This is part one of a two-part feature covering in 20-years of USC football recruiting.

USC has seen a glorious, yet tumultuous 20-year period among the college football blue blood brand. 

Heisman trophy winners, national championships, first-round picks, sanctions and more first round picks have both delineated and scared the Trojan crest. Subsequently, USC football has seen its fair share of memorable twist and turns along the recruiting trail. 

Most of these events have been pieces to top recruiting classes over the past 20 years, but some storylines remain imprinted in the recruitnik’s mind like the lost 40-pound trout flailing out of a fisherman’s boat just as he poses for a triumphant Facebook photo. 

Most college football fans aren’t aware of a program’s recruiting milestones. These are neither favorite nor top moments, but rather points in time where recruiting managed to impact the casual USC fan. Otherwise known as those unfortunate folks that don't subscribe to (if that is you, we can fix that - just sign up here).

SC stands for Shaun Cody 

Many USC fans who do follow recruiting would mark the commitment of Shaun Cody as a turning point in the championship run USC put together under Pete Carroll. Cody, who held Notre Dame and UCLA as his two favorite schools throughout most of the recruiting process, was a 2000 PrepStar Dream Team All-American and USAToday All-USA Defensive Most Valuable Player from Los Altos High School. 

That meant Cody was not only one of the top rated players in the country, but a cornerstone to Carroll’s recruiting philosophy of building a wall around Southern California talent. At the time, the trend in recruiting saw many top prospects in Southern California heading out of state to play college football. Florida State, Ohio State and Tennessee were the schools prospects idolized, while USC played in a big empty stadium with an NFL also-ran as its head coach. 

Cody’s father was a Notre Dame fan himself. As legend has it, Cody’s father remarked that hold-over Paul Hackett assistant coach Ed Orgeron was wasting his time coming out to see the All-American defensive end play in person. USC was running a distant third in his recruitment and The Fighting Irish were coming off back-to-back victories over the Trojans. 

“I don’t know if the story about his dad and Ed Orgeron is true, but his dad was definitely a Notre Dame guy,” recalls Scout National Recruiting Analyst Greg Biggins. “Shaun was actually all UCLA early on, but they started to go down hill a little on the field. 

“USC — specifically Ed Orgeron and Pete Carroll — were just relentless. Shaun told me he decided to commit to USC about a week before signing day. He was really the first big-name recruit to buy into what Pete Carroll was preaching. 

“Shaun didn’t even know who Pete was when he got the job. Over the course of the year, you got to see that staff really recruit. It was like, ‘Wow, USC just pulled Shaun Cody away from Notre Dame and UCLA.’”

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Cody would go on to be a first-team Freshman All-American and consensus All-American as a senior at USC. He would be voted Pac-10 Defensive Player Of The Year in 2004. Credit for signing Cody and fellow All-American defensive lineman Mike Patterson in 2001 goes to Orgeron, who worked relentlessly as the Trojans recruiting coordinator the previous winter, despite not knowing whether he would have a job on Carroll’s new staff. This in itself gave USC a foothold in recruiting that would pay off moving forward. 

The Poly Five

Before USC established a farm team at Serra High School, Long Beach Poly was the battlefront for Southern California football recruiting. In 2002, safety Darnell Bing, defensive tackle Manuel Wright, tight end Marcedes Lewis, offensive tackle Winston Justice and running back Hershel Dennis made for one of the most talented high school football teams in the CIF history. 

This is where Pete Carroll planted his flag and imposed his will as a recruiter. Most importantly, Carroll unseated crosstown rival UCLA as a destination for a majority of the city’s best talent. While the Bruins undoubtedly landed the best player of the bunch in Marcedes Lewis, USC was able to out recruit the Bruins four-to-one. It was Winston justice who had the most memorable recruitment of the group. 

“One of the first letters USC sent to Marcedes Lewis, they spelled his name wrong,” said Biggins. “For whatever reason, his family never fully trusted or bought into the staff after that. 

“He committed pretty early to UCLA. Manuel Wright and Darnell Bing were locks for USC. Those were the guys who were going to USC from birth. Winston Justice, if you remember, was the one that waffled back and forth between UCLA and USC. He made his recruitment a bit of a circus. He wore a UCLA sweatshirt to school on signing day and then announced for USC. 

“Hershel Dennis committed to Oregon the night before signing day. What happened was, he thought Lorenzo Booker was going to SC. He thought Booker was their top guy, so he was set on going to Oregon. 

“Thing is, it leaked that Booker was going to Notre Dame — before his announcement. That next morning, Hershel woke up to his mom in tears because she didn’t want her son to go away to college. When Hershel saw his mom crying, and then found out that Lorenzo wasn’t going to USC, he committed there instead.”

Of course, we may never truly know how the news of Booker’s commitment leaked early. The report itself ended up being false. Booker was thought by most to be headed to Notre Dame, but called an audible at the podium and chose Florida State. Either way, it helped USC land Dennis and create a pipeline to Long Beach Poly that still exists today. 

The Push For Bush

Every Trojan fan remembers Reggie Bush pushing quarterback Matt Leinart forward for a game winning touchdown against Notre Dame in 2005, but few know the backstory in getting Bush to USC. As with Shaun Cody’s recruitment, the Trojans began the process running a distant third among his college favorites. Stanford was the school to beat early on in his recruitment, but by October of his senior year, many projected Bush to go to Notre Dame. 

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At the time, Bush was being recruited by USC running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu. What most people don’t know is that head coach Pete Carroll really pegged Bush as a wide receiver target. At 5-foot-11, 180-pounds, Bush’s exploits at Helix High School were almost exclusively set outside the hashmarks. 

“Reggie was really slight coming out of high school, and every highlight of him looked like a punt return,” said Biggins. “I mean, he would zigzag all over the field, but you rarely saw him run between the tackles.”

“UCLA actually was recruiting him as a cornerback, so it’s not hard to believe USC saw him as more of a wide receiver than a running back.”

Behind the scenes USC’s staff was torn between how to sell Bush on playing receiver. It was Polamalu who lobbied for USC to legitimately look at him as a tailback. At the time, the Trojans had a commitment from four-star running back Chauncey Washington, while still actively recruiting LenDale White and Maurice Drew. Even after White and Bush committed to USC on the same weekend in January, Carroll’s doubts about Bush playing running back resulted in USC pursuing Drew until signing day. All four players would go on to play in the NFL, but only No. 5 would go on to become iconic. 

Signing Day 2003

USC has had several top rated recruiting classes; earning the No. 1 rank nationally in 2015, 2006, 2004 and 2003. However, the first title is often the most memorable, and the 2003 class in particular holds up to this as one of the best in college football history. USC signed 30 players in 2003. Of those 30 players, 14 would go on to play in the NFL. And this was not a group of underrated players who caught on to some NFL practice squads. Nine of those players held starting roles in the pros. 

This is a class which had multiple storylines that could stand on their own as memorable moments. The class was highlighted by the three-headed monster of Reggie Bush, Steve Smith and Whitney Lewis. Emblematic of the evil twist to ranking and recruiting, the most physically impressive player of the three was Whitney Lewis. The St. Bonaventure star has 1,000-yards receiving and rushing his senior year and appeared to be poised to follow in the footsteps of his former Seraph teammate, Lorenzo Booker. 

Booker spurned USC the year before, choosing Florida State over Notre Dame on national signing day. Lewis was ready to do the same, committing silently to the Seminoles over the summer. However, Lewis’ mom had different plans and ultimately pushed him into signing with USC. At 6-foot-1, 230-pounds, Lewis was a faster version of Juju Smith in high school.

The only opportunity USC fans had to see Lewis’ true potential in a cardinal and gold uniform was the spring of his sophomore year. Mike Williams was suing the NFL to leave school a year early and freshman Dwayne Jarrett had yet to arrive on campus. 

Lewis was dominant. In every scrimmage, his size and explosiveness led many to see him as a capable replacement for Williams. Unfortunately, severe dyslexia, personality clashes with offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and fluctuating weight issues derailed his career from that point forward. Lewis was deemed academically ineligible at the end of the spring semester and never retained his place as a future star at USC. Still, even with Lewis never panning out, the class itself was fantastic.  

RIP Drean Rucker

Moreno Valley (Calif.) Canyon Spring linebacker Drean Rucker was  among the prospects USC was excited to sign in 2003. Bursting onto the scene at the Los Angeles NIKE Camp held on the campus of USC, Rucker was considered the top linebacker in Southern California accumulating 154 tackles his senior year. Committing to the Trojans in the fall, Rucker and his family embraced everything about USC. 

That dream was suddenly shattered the following summer when Rucker and some friends went to Huntington Beach (Calif.) for a barbecue. Rucker, not a strong swimmer, was reportedly pulled beyond the breakers and disappeared under water. His body was later found a quarter-mile west of the Huntington Beach Municipal Pier. Rucker’s passing was as heartbreaking as it was unfathomable. Some prospects never see through their full potential. Rucker never got the chance live out his dream as a Trojan, but he will fight on in the hearts of USC fans forever. He is still remembered and celebrated for what he did accomplish in his young life. 

Booty Call

Shreveport (La.) quarterback John David Booty was a quasi-member of the 2003 recruiting class. Doing the unheard of, Booty skipped his senior year at Evangel Christian high School to enroll at USC over the summer. It was a stunning move, but added to an already amazing haul. In some respects, Booty’s commitment and subsequent enrollment at USC happened too fast to be memorable. 

Booty was considered the top player in the 2004 class, but perhaps the best quarterback in the nation of any class passing for more than 8,000-yards in three seasons. Evangel Christian was a national power running a spread offense where Booty played in a 12-yard shotgun. The Trojans’ coaching staff was quick to get Booty on campus for an unofficial visit in the spring, and with his brother Josh already contemplating a move to the West Coast to pursue a career outside of football, everything fell into place for John David to commit. 

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Booty’s father was also the head coach at Evangel Christian, but when he stepped down to help found another high school program in Louisiana, John David collected the credits he needed to graduate a whole year early. While Booty played in a limited role as a freshman, he did not start for USC until his redshirt junior season. Booty did not win any national titles at USC, but he did go 9-0 against top 25 opponents. 

Fred In Flight

Another huge out of state recruit USC landed under Carroll was Toledo (Ohio) five-star wide receiver Fred Davis. Going into Buckeye territory for a five-star recruit, most wrote off USC as a passing fancy and gave the Trojans no real shot of landing Davis. In fact, Davis’ recruitment may have been where the concept of a “silent commitment” was first executed by Carroll. 

Davis narrowed his choices to Ohio State, Oklahoma, Miami and USC. By November, he had officially visited both Oklahoma and USC, leaving December trips for Miami and Ohio State. Toledo (Ohio) Rogers High School head coach Ric Rios handled much of Davis’ recruitment. Rios could often be found on the Ohio State website Bucknuts opining about Davis’ travels to various college campuses. 

Rios assured Buckeye fans time and time again that Ohio State was a clear leader for Davis. As December crept along and in home visits began, Rios gave Buckeye fans play-by-play of each meeting. As the story goes, USC had an in-home visit with Rios present, but later on that night Pete Carroll met with Davis one-on-one at a local restaurant. Rumors began to fly that USC was a more serious contender than Rios was leading on. Over chicken wings, Davis silently committed to USC.

As his coach continued to dismiss the Trojans chances of landing Davis the following week, sources told that the five-star receiver was on his way back out to Los Angeles. Davis had already officially visited USC, so the trip meant one thing. Davis was ready to enroll at USC. In fact, before Ohio State knew it, Davis was on campus at USC preparing to enroll in his first class. Seeing the pressure Davis would have gotten to stay home with another month of recruiting to go and that he would eventually have to play tight end, his early enrollment was blessing on all fronts. 

The Double Nickel, Double Talk

The Trojans 55-19 route of Oklahoma in the 2005 Orange Bowl is a great moment in USC football history, but the victory’s aftermath had a huge impact on recruiting as well. Already working with momentum from the previous year, Pete Carroll and his staff were taking phone calls from all of the nation’s best players. Two phone calls in particular made the post-game celebration that much better. 

Long Beach (Calif.) Poly five-star wide out Desean Jackson and Warner Robins (Ga.) Houston County four-star defensive end Kyle Moore called Carroll almost immediately after the win. Exercising the silent verbal once again, both prospects continued on with the recruiting process without publicly acknowledging plans to attend USC. While Moore would visit Miami before announcing his commitment to USC a couple of weeks before signing day on FoxSports South, Jackson waited the process out to the very end. 

“Desean 100-percent committed to USC multiple times,” said Biggins. “That happened as late as two weeks before signing day. Desean was on FoxSports for his commitment and I was on the show with him standing next to his brother Byron. 

“As I’m standing next to Byron, Pete Carroll probably called three or four times. He wanted to know when Desean was announcing because USC needed to have their press release on the class. They couldn’t send that out until all of the letters were faxed in. Byron just kept saying, ‘Just watch the show, just watch the show.’

“So USC didn’t even know until Desean pulled out the Cal jersey. I was on the set with him and my mouth just dropped. He was going to SC. I mean, his dad and Byron did hint at Cal a few times, but I didn’t think much of it because I knew he already committed to SC. So when he said he was going to be a Golden Bear and started throwing out all of these Cal jerseys, I couldn’t believe it. 

“I asked them why they did it that way, and they didn’t really have an answer for me, but it was one of the crazier things I’ve seen on signing day. To see it happen right in front of me was insane.”

Jackson's recruitment is also known for a failed touchdown flip into the end zone during the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Sprinting down the field after a catch near the sidelines, Jackson flew by defenders only to cartwheel in the air a yard short on the end zone. Jackson would still win game MVP honors despite the blooper, which is used as a coaching talking point to this day. 

The Run

With USC undefeated and closing in on its third-straight national title appearance, Reggie Bush’s impact on the football team was well established. But on a cool November night against the Fresno State Bulldogs, Bush’s impact on the Trojans’ football program for years to come was coming to fruition. Running for 294-yards and two touchdowns, Bush broke the Pac-10 record for all-purpose yards with 513 that night. 

One of his shortest runs for a touchdown that night may have been his most iconic. With USC leading 34-28 in the 3rd quarter, Bush took a dive play left and accelerated untouched down the sideline. With a Bulldog’s safety taking angle to meet him at the 25-yard line, Bush stopped on a dime, cut back against the entire Fresno State secondary and sprinted into the end zone. 

It was a run that former Trojan running back target C.J. Spiller called “sick to the stomach” after his official visit to USC. The run was first on the highlight reel at Bush’s Heisman Trophy ceremony and first on the minds of recruits that would commit to USC, while citing Bush as their favorite college football player. 

Patriot Missile For Recruiting

Few, if any memorable moments in USC football recruiting history had the unforeseen and unexpected impact of our next entry. April 24, 2005 is a day that USC used to land the nation’s best quarterbacks annually. Despite not starting a game for the Trojans, USC quarterback Matt Cassel was drafted in the seventh round by the New England Patriots. 

Cassel is the only known quarterback in history to start an NFL game without ever having started in college. Ironically, Cassel would go on to have a better career in the NFL than Matt Leinart; the quarterback that starting over him at USC. Cassel’s success became a huge selling point for USC on the recruiting trail. 

Just getting a spot on Trojans roster now gave quarterbacks enough exposure to get drafted. It gave Carroll license to recruit for depth without having to promise immediate playing time. The ripple effects of Cassel being drafted encouraged recruits and players already on the roster to patiently await their turn to make an impact on the field. Academics and location have not been the driving force behind USC’s recruiting success the past 20-years. Signing top classes has always been about the Trojans’ NFL lineage and coaches who know how to sell it with passion. 

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Gerard Martinez has been covering USC recruiting for for over a decade. You can follow him on Twitter at @gmartlive.

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