I want to start with 2 points about our recruiting. First, this is an excellent class. It addresses areas of need with high quality players. Second, it would have been even better if we had played as well last year on offense as we did on defense. We were in on other top players right to the end and if we put together a winning season in 2002, I think this staff has shown an ability to shoot for the stars next year.
This coaching staff has also demonstrated that they will play the best players regardless of seniority. They played freshmen in key positions last year and I expect to see the same pattern this year. In fact, we had three players on the freshman all-American team: Cody first string, Udeze second string and even though he was out half the season, Grootegoed third string.
Who will excel immediately in this class? It is impossible to discount anyone. There are many outstanding achievers and so many impressive and dedicated physical specimens in this class. Here is a review of where they might fit into the roster and a guess as to whether they will redshirt.
First let's take the players who are already enrolled and will participate in Spring Practice.
Punter: Tom Malone from Lake Elsinore is assured of being a starter from day one. He will be the only punter on scholarship and hopes are very high that we will see an upgrade in punting performance in 2002. His stats are so good I am almost afraid to believe them because I do not want to be disappointed. Most punters go for distance while some go for accuracy – i.e. out-of-bounds inside the 20. Apparently, he can do both. He averaged 43.4 yards last year. That is average is even more outstanding when you factor in that he was punting for accuracy and not distance on many kicks. He put 9 or 38 punts inside the 10-yard line. If that is not enough, he is a track star and runs a 4.5 40. (I keep thinking to myself that if he was our punter at ND last year and we ran the fake punt, we would have made the first down and won the game.)
Fullback: Brandon Hancock will compete for playing time immediately, IMO. He is bigger and stronger and faster than anyone we have had at that position in years – maybe ever. As he begins, he is playing behind three seniors – Pierson, Byrd and Huber. It would be logical for Kirkman to split time at the FB position since we have to look at 2003 depth. Hancock's stats at the Northern California Nike camp were the best I have ever heard of and so the remaining question was whether he also was a "football player". (we've found out the hard way that stats are not everything.) I think the answer is "yes" since in HS he has been an all-star at three positions. Last year was his first on offense and he gained over 1,200 years rushing and 400 yards receiving. Experience tells me not to make Brandon live up to this much hype, but still, he might be a regular in the lineup by the end of the season.
Wide Receiver: Jason Mitchell is big and fast. His stats from last year at LA Harbor College show that he can catch the ball and score. There is no reason to take a JC WR unless you think he can contribute immediately. The coaches must think he can and we will see him at Spring Camp. Check below for the HS WR's.
Next, the D1 and JC fall transfers who will arrive next fall:
Quarterback: Brandon Hance will transfer in from Purdue. He will not be eligible to play until 2003 but can practice with the team. I think it is safe to predict that he will run the scout team and as such, the coaches will see him almost every day playing against our best defense. According to reports, Justin Fargus and Billy Hart have used the scout team this year to showcase their abilities quite well. So, Brandon is going to have the same opportunity next year. That could be important since the big QB shootout will occur for the 2003 season.
Linebacker: Danny Urquhard for LA Southwest College. In stature (6-4 250) he looks like Chris Claiborne. Obviously he is a product of an early "coaches evaluations" because they were talking about him as their preference all last year. We must really want him since he does not offer the advantage of qualifying for spring enrollment. I think he will get a shot at starting MLB. If he earns it, then Pollard will probably move outside.
Cornerback: Ronnie Nunn from CCSF. He played corner on the national champions and won all-star recognition. The coaches must feel he can compete for a starting position. He is 5-11 or 6-0, depending on the source, so he is tall enough to hold his own against Pac10 receivers. He is supposed to be quick and agile which are qualities that PC mentions when he describes ideal cornerbacks.
Defensive End: Van Brown is somewhat of a mystery to me. He was very good at Alhambra HS and he was recognized as all-league when he played as a freshman at Pasadena CC in 2000. He did not play in 2001 and apparently was saving his eligibility and qualifying academically. The coaches must think he is special because I think he was in their plans all year. At a MMQB meeting in the fall, PC said that we would bring in one JC defensive lineman. That was surprising to me at the time since we seemed to have so much depth on the DL. Apparently, they expect Brown to contend for a starting position.
Final category for revue is a loaded class of high school football talent. Anyone of these guys could blast their way onto the 2-deep or even into a starting position.
Offensive Line. Usually the OL is considered to have the longest learning curve of any position except QB. Unfortunately, and I say this with no pleasure since I would prefer to redshirt all OL's, it could be possible that one of these freshmen could see playing time this fall. I would expect every one of them to be a starter for us during their career and I hope we do not have to burn a year of eligibility this fall. I think the coaches will field the best team regardless of seniority however, so opportunity for PT is real. Fred Matua (may play DL also), Chris Doyle and Kyle Williams and Winston Justice make up the best group I can remember in the last 15 years. They are all great football players and I congratulate the coaches for not compromising on several good but second level recruits who would have jumped at a chance to play for us. This class is an OL quality upgrade, IMO.
Wide Receiver: The Norm Chow pattern from last year was to play 6 to 10 WR's in each game. If you assume PT for the following: Kelly, Mattos, Colbert, S. Fletcher, Pitts, Buchanan and Mitchell, you have 7. If you add Hale it is 8. I did not include Allmond because I think he will indeed move to an area of need in the defensive backfield. But I do not think that is written in stone yet. We have two HS WR's who apparently are good enough to challenge for PT. I suppose that nothing will be decided until they put on the pads for fall camp and we see for sure. Coming in are Mike Williams from Florida and Chris McFoy from Chino. Their credentials are well known to Trojan fans and we certainly have a lot to look forward to from both players.
Linebacker: Last year's crisis position on defense has been turned into a strength. Returning we have Pollard, Prosser, Grootegoed, Webb, Graham, Otani and Jackson. Add in the transfer of Melvin Simmons from WSU and Urquhart from Southwest JC and things look much brighter. So good in fact that the coaches might consider moving Groots back to DB and/or Jackson up to DE. An exciting LB recruit is Oscar Lua from Indio. While he was not even on the recruiting charts at the beginning of the season, when our staff evaluated him at mid-season, we offered and got a commitment. It is hard for me to image a 240 pound MLB running at 4.6 40. But when I do, it helps explain his season with 142 tackles. If he is really that good he could blow past everyone and be starting by the end of season but I would love to see him redshirt. In any case, I think we have a multi-year starter in Mr. Lua. We have another HS recruit that is probably going to be a linebacker. Dallas Sartz from Granite Bay played Safety in HS but at 6-5 215 he probably going to grow into a LB. PC likes fast Linebackers who can drop back into pass coverage when needed. Callas certainly fits that description and I expect him to redshirt.
Defensive Tackle: We thought we were going to be deep at this position, but we are not. Riley is coming back from a knee operation and may take a while to be at full speed. Then we have Cody and Patterson – great quality but not depth. Udeze could come back from DE and Daye can play DT in an emergency. A recruit with assured playing time is Manuel Wright from LB Poly. He is great now and I expect him to improve with our weight training and coaching. Definitely not a redshirt year for Manuel.
Defensive End: Returning we have Udeze, Wardlow, Nazel, and Daye. Add JC transfer Brown and we look good at DE. LaJuan Ramsey has been offered a scholarship, contingent – as I understand it – on academic qualification. Things look good for qualification we are told so I would expect Ramsey to redshirt unless we are depleted by injuries. When you look at Ramsey's numbers, it appears he could play inside also if needed. He is 6-3 260 lbs.
Tight End: Dominique Byrd is from Minneapolis, MN. He is our first recruit from MN I can remember. Big, fast and athletic he is a real plus for this class. With our depth at TE, I would normally expect him to redshirt. But he may be so good that he breaks right into the 2-deep roster. Last fall he was listed at 230 lbs, but recently he has been listed at 250. That is a good size but not phenomenal for a TE. What is phenomenal is that he high jumps 6-6 and catches everything in sight. I cannot even imagine a person that large jumping that high.
Corner back: I call this our "position of opportunity". I think it is going to be like an open tryout in spring and fall camps. We have Rideaux and Arbet who are seniors and have plenty of experience and talent. But, for one reason or another, there seem to be questions as to whether they will be our starters. John Walker will be a redshirt freshman and the coaches speak very highly about his future. John may play CB or he may play FS. Add in the JC transfer Ronnie Nunn discussed above. Also, perhaps add one or two position switchers like Darryl Poston and Marcell Allmond. From Dominguez HS, the coaches have recruited CB Justin Wyatt. They reportedly think he is absolutely great. His HS record backs that up on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Anyone who can return 2 kickoffs and 3 punts for TD's in one season has special talents. If Wyatt can make it onto the 2-deep, he will probably be starting by the end of the season. If the older players come through big then IMO, he will redshirt. But, you can say the same thing for everyone on the list.
Safety: Returning we have Polamalu, Hill, and Leach. Walker was recruited as a Safety and may in fact stay and compete for the FS position. From my own perspective, I think Allmond would be a perfect fit at FS also. Coming in from HS we have Darnell Bing who has won accolades galore and Mike Ross from Florida. Bing is big and he is fast. He hits like a ton and is in the Ronnie Lott tradition of Trojan Safeties. There has been discussion at the coaching level of using Darnell as a big back also. It would surprise me if he redshirted. Ross is another success story from our Florida recruiting effort. He comes with great credentials and is so physical that he may move up the OLB later.
Tailback: Returning we have Sultan McCullough and Justin Fargas. Also, if he does not move to the defense, Darryl Poston got some valuable experience last year. Another possibility is the return of Malaefou MacKenzie who is petitioning for a 6th year. Add to that our blue chip HS recruit Hershel Dennis from LB Poly. I think there is no doubt but that Hershel could play for us in 2002 if needed. If everything works out for the upper classmen, then redshirting would preserve four years of eligibility and makes a lot of sense. I've decided not to recite the hugely impressive stats for Hershel on the assumption that anyone reading this far into the story is a recruiting junkie and knows what remarkable talents are now in the family. Suffice it to say, I cannot wait to see him on the field in Cardinal and Gold.