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'Local' dominance gives USC Top 5 LOI finish

Srong LOI Day close for USC's Trojans has them cleaning up with the 'local' recruits in ways that will make geographers -- not to mention the rest of the Pac-12 -- wonder what the heck is going on here.

Shhh. Don't tell ESPN.

USC's Clay Helton is fine with the geography according to the national sports network's graphic that had its signing day map of the USA ending at Colorado. Nothing west of there, apparently. All 16 of ESPN's live recruiting broadcasts on LOI Day Wednesday were from Boulder east.

There were 10 in the SEC/ACC-shared South. Three more at Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. Two in Texas and that lonely correspondent in Boulder.

How nice that they went live to start the day at 5:45 West Coast time when the first two guys to stand up at Texas power Austin Westlake announced they were heading to Hollywood -- to UCLA for lineman Stephan Zabie in the warmup act. And then in the star spotlight following him, linebacker Levi Jones in a beautifully choreographed routine, shed his FLORIDA t-shirt, then his FLORIDA STATE t-shirt to reveal his true destination -- LA and USC.

"Thank God he texted me right before or I'd have had a heart attack," Helton said of the first top prospect that USC had gone down to signing day wire on out of six who would bounce USC's way for the rest of the day, finishing six for six.

Sure, the Trojans thought they might have had a puncher's chance at defensive tackle Aubrey Solomon out of Leesburg, Ga., who ended up at Michigan, but that was it. This was scientific and methodical and planned like clockwork.   

"There's a lot of land when you look at this country flying and come down past the Rockies," Clay said he's been telling his coaches. And even though he wouldn't come right out and say it in so many words, but here's what he's thinking.

That land -- blacked out on ESPN's graphic of America like some ancient map of the world from the Middle Ages without North or South America or Australia -- belongs to us, Clay believes. It's USC land, if you will.

"There's a lot of local talent out here," Clay said of USC's expanded local base. "You're either going to be playing with them -- or against them." USC would rather not play against them. So . . .

There are 13 "local" signees outside Southern California in USC's 23-man class. And although they may not be within daily commuting distance, they're in USC's recruiting -- as well as the Pac-12 -- footprint.   

Sorry, Arizona and Nevada, USC is taking 6-foot-3, 200-pound safety Isaiah Pola-Mao and 6-foot-6, 290-pound offensive tackle Austin Jackson. They're ours. Of course, Austin was. His grandfather, Melvin Jackson, was a top lineman for John McKay's 1974 USC national champions.

And while we're in the desert, how about a second rangy safety, 6-3, 190-pound Bubba Bolden from national champ Bishop Gorman. And for good measure, add in 6-4, 205-pound wide receiver Randall Grimes, another Vegas guy.

Why would two similar safeties come to USC and have Clay saying he'd "go to bed tonight and thank the Lord" for them?

"They wanted to come to USC to help us win championships," Clay said. And that's what this is about. Not just Rose Bowls, Championships. And in a back line that could line up in Galen, they join talented 6-4 redshirt freshman Jamel Cook. And Grimes joins a talented, if young, and physical wide receiving corps -- but more of them later.

Although Jackson may have a quicker path to the field on an offensive line that lost both starting tackles for the past three years. "It starts up front," Clay said. "Our job is to get them ready in a hurry. The best 22 will play."

And thanks, Salt Lake City, for 6-3, 295-pound defensive tackle Jay Tufele, who will make a nice bookend with Portland's Marlon Tuipulotu, who at a similar 6-3 and 295, is already enrolled after decommiting from Washington in one of those two-fer deals that hurts both Northwest states.

Then there's DT Brandon Pili, an athletic 6-4 and 320, from Westview, Ore., by way of Anchorage, Alaska, "Right here at home," Clay said, just as he did for linebacker Juliano Falaniko (6-4, 220) from Pago Pago, American Samoa. Another home-grown guy.

As to Levi Jones, who got it started, "He's an LA guy," Clay said. One of those kids who sees himself at home here even if each of his parents had a different landing spot for him but let him decide. But there were three linebackers Clay was happy to hear would be coming here and the third really is "local" -- LA Cathedral's Hunter Echols, at 6-4 and 240, this year's Porter Gustin from the edge.

But before we get back to California, there's one other non-footprint signee -- 6-5, 255-pound D-lineman Jacob Lichtenstein from Weston, Fla., keeping that pipeline open. But with Jones, that's it for the out-of-towners. Everybody else, well, they belong to us from the get-go, Clay says.

Five come from Northern California -- Kingsburg's 6-6, 290-pound offensive lineman Andrew Vorhees, already enrolled, along with a pair of pairs. There are two tight ends -- 6-6, 235-pound Josh Falo from Sacramento and 6-5, 245-pound Erik Krommenhoek from Danville, and two Bishop O'Dowd guys from Oakland -- 6-4, 300-pound offensive tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker and 6-2, 185-pound DB JeQuari Godfrey.

For those keeping score at home, that's three DB's with an average height of 6-3. Don't see that much for a single signing class.

Then there are the local "local" guys. Start with quarterback Jack Sears (6-3, 205), another early enrollee. "We had one quarterback from San Clemente so we decided to take two," Clay said. of Sam Darnold's possible successor at two schools.

Follow that up with a man with no-name, or at least Clay hopes you never hear it the way you never heard long-snapper Zach Smith's in four years here. It's Damon Johnson, a 6-0, 205-pounder from Glendora by way of Citrus JC.

Tailback Stephen Carr is next, a 6-foot, 210-pounder from Gardena has hands as good as his feet and legs. Tee Martin says he could not be more excited to get a back with Buck Allen's receiving skills in a body that Clay says reminds him of Ezekiel Elliott's, into the USC offense. And while there might have been some intrigue over a last-minute UCLA full-court press, Carr came along as advertised, dashing the hopes of UCLA fans when the livestream from his signing day came on and there were USC signs, pennants and banners everywhere.

Offensive lineman Brett Neilon, a 6-2, 295-pound solid commit from Rancho Santa Margarita, grew up in Tokyo, Japan, but was a USC legacy with a father and brother who were Trojans as well as two aunts who played golf here. He also plays basketball and baseball.

And saving the best for last since they come as a pair who hopefully will start a real pipeline from right down the street from USC's campus to the new Hawkins High. Greg Johnson is a 5-11, 195-pound athlete who may end up at a number of positions and 6-2, 205-pound wide receiver Joseph Lewis, is considered by some the nation's No. 1 prospect at his position. And in a year when there are no Mater Dei, St. John Bosco, Long Beach Poly or Serra kids, not a bad time to start a new pipeline.

And not a bad day's work for Clay & Co., who started out behind this recruiting cycle just as they did this season in September and as they ended up going into the fourth quarter at the Rose Bowl.

And somehow, they pulled it off. By being smart. Just as they did in winning nine straight. And closing on six out of six and getting pretty much all 23 targets for this class despite having to scramble at the finish and then making it look easy.

Just shows you what you can do when you stay "local" and focus on the right targets. Not a bad effort for a first-year staff.

Probably not the way they want to do it in upcoming seasons. But then if they play it right, they won't have to.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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