The Pac-12 hasn’t been all that interesting from a recruiting perspective for the past four or five years. Mario Cristobal did his best to elevate the talent level at Oregon, but it’s been kind of rough elsewhere around the league.
USC’s recruiting slipped mightily under Clay Helton. Ditto for Jimmy Lake at Washington. An NCAA investigation hampered Arizona State. Chip Kelly’s indifference limited UCLA. Kevin Sumlin didn’t do much at Arizona. And Utah developed and evaluated extremely well but was never too concerned with star ratings.
Well, it’s a new day in the league. Lincoln Riley has rejuvenated USC’s recruiting. Dan Lanning has brought the SEC mentality to Oregon. Kalen DeBoer has provided some stability for Washington. Back-to-back Rose Bowl trips have paid dividends for Utah on the recruiting trail. Deion Sanders instantly makes Colorado relevant with high school prospects. And Arizona State’s decision to hire 32-year-old Kenny Dillingham sends a clear message it wants to improve its recruiting.
“It almost feels like the Pac-12 finally just said, ‘Enough,’” 247Sports national recruiting editor Brandon Huffman said.
With recruiting seemingly on the up and up in the Pac-12, let’s take a look at some of the most prominent storylines across the conference as we enter the final weekend before the early signing period.
Note: All rankings are from the 247Sports Composite as of Thursday night.
Let’s start with the program that’s won the league title the past two years. When Huffman spoke to The Athletic in October, he had a pretty interesting declaration about Utah’s class: “I would be shocked if it’s not in the top 25 when it’s all said and done.”
That stood out for the simple fact that Utah’s best class in the modern recruiting era (dating back to 2000) is No. 30 in 2020.
Sure enough, a little more than a month later, the Utes’ 2023 class checks in at No. 21.
Utah’s been powered by a late flurry of commitments from four four-star prospects over the last few weeks — offensive linemen Spencer Fano and Caleb Lomu, edge rusher Hunter Clegg, who flipped from Stanford, and corner CJ Blocker.
After a lot of thought and prayer, I’ve decided that I’ll be flipping my commitment to the University of Utah. Go Utes!?⚪️ pic.twitter.com/TCKbmd6TXc
— Hunter Clegg (@HunterClegg) December 9, 2022
“This is what they’ve done the last four years: close with a flurry in-state and in the meantime they pick off a few guys from out of state,” Huffman said. “And they may not be done yet.”
In 2020, the Utes flipped highly touted corner Clark Phillips III from Ohio State and got defensive lineman Van Fillinger to sign after he was committed to Texas for four months. Last year, Utah received a commitment from linebacker Lander Barton in November.
To put in perspective how critical some of these recent commitments are for the Utes: Fano, Lomu and Clegg will soon be among the top 15 players to sign with Utah since 2000. Receiver Mikey Matthews, from Mission Viejo (Calif.) High, is also a quality addition, even thought he’s a three-star, and corner Smith Snowden was an important in-state get.
The big fish still remaining is four-star Folsom (Calif.) High tight end Walker Lyons, who was committed to Stanford until David Shaw’s resignation. Lyons attended Utah’s win over USC in October when tight end Dalton Kincaid caught 16 passes for 234 yards. So there are reasons for the Utes to be optimistic.
USC had an in-home visit with Lyons recently, though, and Stanford remains a threat.
“(New Stanford coach) Troy Taylor is the old Folsom head coach,” Huffman said. “He gets the job at Stanford. So there might be some Stanford impact in effect there.”
Prime time at Colorado
There’s no more interesting figure in the league than Sanders, who was hired by Colorado earlier this month. Jackson State, Sanders’ former school, ranked 67th in the 247Sports Team Talent Composite this season. JSU was ranked ahead of Big-12 champion Kansas State as well as 2022 bowl teams Kansas, Fresno State, Wake Forest, Washington State and Boise State.
So the expectation is that Sanders will raise the Buffaloes’ talent level, and do so quickly.
“Deion has made Colorado cool again without having so much as coached a game,” Huffman said.
Sanders’ first big recruiting win came last weekend when he landed a commitment from former Notre Dame pledge and four-star running back Dylan Edwards. Sanders also sent out offers to five-star offensive linemen Kadyn Proctor (Iowa commit) and Samson Okunlola (who committed to Miami on Thursday afternoon).
“They’re not going to get any of those guys, but those guys tweeted the offer,” Huffman said. “A Colorado offer means something now. … That’s a legit offer now all because of Deion.”
The Buffaloes’ recruiting class currently ranks 66th nationally. Edwards is the only blue-chip prospect in the class, but that’s still one more blue-chipper than Karl Dorrell signed with his two full recruiting classes.
There’s always a chance Sanders makes a splash or two between now and the early signing period — like he did with Travis Hunter last year — but we likely won’t learn too much about what his recruiting approach will be at Colorado until the 2024 cycle.
But with typically only two or three blue-chip prospects per cycle in the state of Colorado, it’s clear he will not be able to rely heavily on in-state talent.
“I think he’s going to try to treat Colorado like it’s a national brand,” Huffman said. “He’ll go down to Florida with some of his ties down there. I would imagine he’ll go down to Georgia and Mississippi, some of those southeast states where he was able to get a good chunk of his classes for Jackson State. I think he’ll obviously go to Texas. I think he’ll come to the West Coast for some guys.”
What will Dante Moore do?
When it comes to coaches, nobody commands more attention than Sanders. From a player standpoint, there may be nobody more intriguing than five-star quarterback Dante Moore, who has been committed to Oregon since July.
Moore is the No. 11 player overall and the No. 5 quarterback in the Class of 2023 and has been the centerpiece of the Ducks’ 12th-ranked class. The driving force behind that commitment was Dillingham, who served as Oregon’s offensive coordinator this past season.
When Dillingham departed for Arizona State, that left some questions about the status of Moore’s commitment. In recent months, some viewed Michigan State as a threat. But the true challenge has surprisingly turned out to be UCLA.
— Dante MOORE (@dantemoore05) December 12, 2022
Kelly has not been an effective recruiter of high school talent during his time with the Bruins. Many of his best players — running back Zach Charbonnet, receiver Jake Bobo, linebacker Laiatu Latu — were transfers this season, and he’s found a good formula in the portal. If the Bruins were to somehow flip Moore, it would be the biggest recruiting victory of Kelly’s UCLA tenure — by a wide margin. He has signed just one top-100 prospect — quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson — in the four full cycles since his hire.
“Even if they don’t get him, it kind of shows they’re willing to mix it up and go after it,” Huffman said. “Everybody says Chip doesn’t like to recruit and it’s been kind of evident at UCLA. But there was a time 10 years ago, where in consecutive years (at Oregon), he landed (high-profile) players nationally when he got Arik Armstead and when he got De’Anthony Thomas.
“He has gone after the elite, superstar, highly rated prospect everybody in the country wanted. Hasn’t really done that at UCLA. Even getting Dante Moore coming in (to visit) … even if it (turns out to be) just a leverage play, for him to bring him in shows hey, maybe, you’ve got to be a little more aggressive in high school and you cannot rely solely on the portal.”
Thompson-Robinson has exhausted his eligibility, so what makes UCLA attractive is there’s a chance to compete for the starting job next season. The same could be said for Oregon, but Bo Nix might return. Moore is from Detroit, and with UCLA moving to the Big Ten in 2024, there will be opportunities for him to actually play close to home on several occasions.
It’ll be interesting to see how Moore’s recruitment unfolds in the next few days. If he signs with Oregon, the Ducks’ class likely will stick together. Recruits tend to flock to high-profile quarterbacks, so UCLA — if it can somehow land him — could add some talented players to its class next week.
The race between Oregon and USC
The Ducks and Trojans have been at the top of the Pac-12 recruiting rankings for most of this cycle.
“It’s more of the same,” Rivals national recruiting director Adam Gorney said. “The really good teams continue to recruit really well.”
Oregon’s class currently sits atop the league. It’s 12th nationally, but obviously that hinges on keeping Moore. It’s also a national class.
Moore is from Michigan. The Ducks have a commitment from five-star receiver Jurrion Dickey, a California native. Four-star running back commit Dante Dowdell is from Mississippi, and there are other blue-chip commitments from Idaho, Washington, Texas, Colorado, Nevada and Hawaii.
“He’s recruited the West very well, but he goes to Mississippi for a running back that Ole Miss and Mississippi State wanted,” Gorney said. “He went to Hawaii to get the top player there. He went to Texas for a bunch of guys. He’s been very versatile and diverse with how he’s been recruiting and it’s a very, very good class.”
Oregon is also in the mix for several other five-star prospects such as defensive linemen David Hicks (Texas A&M commit) and Matayo Uiagalelei and safety Peyton Bowen (Notre Dame commit).
Oregon and USC (along with Ohio State, which is considered to be the favorite) are competing for Uiagalelei. The Ducks and Trojans are also in the mix for four-star corner Rodrick Pleasant.
USC’s class ranks 14th nationally with five fewer commitments than Oregon’s. The headliners are the three five-stars — quarterback Malachi Nelson and receivers Makai Lemon and Zachariah Branch — who have been committed for almost a year.
The Trojans need players with size and athleticism who can tackle, which makes the commitments of four-star linebacker Tackett Curtis and four-star edge rusher Braylan Shelby critical.
“He’s selling Southern California, but he’s also using a lot of the connections he had at his stop at Oklahoma,” Gorney said of Riley. “To go to Texas to get two four-star running backs. Huge. To go to Louisiana to get Tackett Curtis, a big jacked-up linebacker. Absolutely huge. Braylan Shelby, another kid from Texas that they got. With his comfort level and connections in that state to continue to utilize those to get kids to Southern California is huge.”
Riley hopes to dominate in Southern California, which is why Uiagalelei is a significant recruit symbolically.
The Trojans need help on the D-line, but there aren’t a lot of big bodies along the defensive front on the West Coast in this cycle, so they are likely to hit the portal for those needs.
USC is also in the mix for five-star tight end Duce Robinson, but that will be a competitive battle with Georgia, Texas and a few others.
The state of Arizona
Jedd Fisch made quite the splash last cycle when he signed a top-25 recruiting class, which ranked third in the Pac-12 and included five blue-chip prospects — receiver Tetairoa McMillan (the highest-rated recruit in program history) chief among them.
“It’s going to be hard to replicate what he did last year because it all kind of fell into place,” Gorney said.
Cristobal left Oregon, which opened the door for McMillan to flip to Arizona, which also took advantage of the coaching transition at USC. Several of McMillan’s Servite (Calif.) High teammates — like four-star tight end Keyan Burnett, three-star quarterback Noah Fifita and three-star linebacker Jacob Manu — opted to play for the Wildcats as well.
Arizona’s class currently sits at 48th and includes only one blue-chip commit, four-star quarterback Brayden Dorman. With USC far more stable, the Wildcats haven’t had the same success in Southern California.
“This class isn’t as good, but I do love the top of it,” Gorney said. “Brayden Dorman is a guy who really hasn’t done a lot of national events but put up huge numbers, and that could be a quarterback who down the line could be an impactful guy.”
Through a recruiting lens, the Arizona-Arizona State rivalry hasn’t been too interesting since Fisch arrived. The Sun Devils’ recruiting had tanked because of the NCAA investigation into Herm Edwards and the uncertainty and upheaval in the program.
The Sun Devils’ class ranks 103rd right now, which is why Dillingham is hitting the portal to address roster needs immediately. But starting with the 2024 cycle, it’ll be interesting to see how much headway Dillingham can make with in-state prospects. Neither Arizona nor Arizona State has had much success keeping Arizona’s top talent home.
Dillingham has built a staff with a hyper-focus on recruiting. Receivers coach Ra’Shaad Samples and corners coach Bryan Carrington have both developed quite the reputation as recruiters over the past few years. Jason Mohns, who was recently the head coach at Saguaro High School in Scottsdale, has joined the staff as tight ends coach and should certainly help with in-state recruiting. Retaining interim coach Shaun Aguano, another former Arizona high school coach, should help with that too.
“(Dillingham is a) very bright offensive young mind,” Gorney said. “A lot of those guys have had success across the country, and he’s a guy who can recruit Arizona talent. He’s also putting together a phenomenal staff of guys who have Arizona connections. Putting Jason Mohns on the staff is a tremendous add. It’ll be interesting to see with Arizona’s relative amount of success this year and then Kenny Dillngham getting the Arizona State job, if (the two programs’ in-state struggles) will slowly change now.”
Elsewhere across the league …
Despite the poor results on the field and the coaching change, Stanford’s class still ranks 35th nationally. The Cardinal actually received a commitment from three-star quarterback Myles Jackson — who reclassified from 2024 — while they didn’t have a coach in place. Stanford took its time with the search, and Troy Taylor wasn’t announced until last weekend, giving him virtually no time to make up any ground in this cycle.
Taylor will have to focus on keeping his team together since 15 players have entered the portal since season’s end.
“The big thing with that job is going to be 100 percent based on Stanford’s ability to adapt as a program and as an athletic department in allowing for the portal to help them,” Huffman said. “Stanford’s not going to have that luxury to get double-digit (transfers). So if Stanford doesn’t give him that flexibility it might be tougher to overcome.”
Washington built most of its class before it posted an impressive 10-2 record, landing all but one of its 18 commitments before the season started.
Washington’s had success in California this cycle, but the main thing now will be trying to flip the hometown kid and four-star corner Caleb Presley, who is currently committed to Oregon.
“If they can flip Caleb Presely, that is obviously a victory on the field and off the field and that could kind of catapult them up a little more,” Huffman said. “I think they see their biggest bump a year from now coming off this season.”
The Beavers were hovering around the 60s in the national rankings nearly two months ago but have moved up to 47th. Oregon State has picked up some commitments from three-star prospects, but its jump in the rankings has been mostly about the rapid rise of quarterback Aidan Chiles, who is now a four-star prospect after flying under the radar early in the recruiting process. Credit to Jonathan Smith for the evaluation and for holding onto Chiles. With Chiles and four-star defensive lineman Kelze Howard, Oregon State is poised to sign its first two blue-chip prospects of Smith’s tenure.
Washington State is probably the hardest place to recruit to in the Pac-12. The Cougars have picked up a couple of three-star commitments and several junior college pledges this month, with three-star wideout DT Sheffield the most notable among them.
But Washington State has fallen two spots, to 64th, in the national rankings over the past few months. The Cougars have also lost both of their coordinators and some starters from last year’s team to the transfer portal. So they’ll have to hit the portal to fill some immediate needs.
Jake Dickert and his stuff had success in the portal with quarterback Cam Ward and linebacker Daiyan Henley last year.
(Photo of Kyle Whittingham: Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)