When quarterback recruiting isn't as simple as it should be for USC

2:35 | College Football
Andy Staples explains new college football rules
Monday June 26th, 2017

Heated battles, manageable competitions and easy pickups are standard fare at the highest level of college football recruiting. What happened on Feb. 5, 2016, between a highly touted quarterback from Southern California and USC is different. Not a week had passed since the Trojans signed their 2016 class, but Matt Corral, a coveted 2018 prospect, did not need any more time to deliberate his college choice, so he issued a verbal commitment. “I’ve always wanted to be a Trojan,” Corral told Scout.com.

It would have been difficult to come up with a better fit between recruit and program. Corral lives in USC’s backyard and naturally, he had been attracted to the program from a young age. Other enticements included the Trojans' illustrious track record on the field, their history of recruiting the Golden State’s top players and preparing them for the NFL, and the prestige of the quarterback position at a glamour program in a major media market.

Even with so much time left before Corral could officially sign to join USC, it felt safe to assume he would follow through on his pledge. On-field developments since then have lent more credence to that line of thinking. Head coach Clay Helton, whose hire on a permanent basis was met with widespread skepticism, guided the Trojans to a nine-game winning streak, a 10–3 record and a rousing, three-point triumph over Big Ten champion Penn State in the Rose Bowl.

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The hype train gained so much steam that USC, despite three losses, garnered some (mostly unrealistic) buzz as a long-shot College Football Playoff candidate, even though no team in the CFP’s three-year history has made it with more than one defeat. Sam Darnold’s rise from the second-fiddle quarterback in his own recruiting class to an indispensable piece on a preseason national title contender gave the Trojans a success story under Helton’s watch to sell to QB prospects.

All of this should have served to strengthen Corral’s connection to USC. Yet as he approaches his final season of high school football, Corral is a free agent after revoking his commitment to the Trojans last week. Reporting in the wake of Corral’s announcement suggests he isn’t just casually looking around with the intent of eventually mending ties with USC. According to 247Sports, Corral will “no longer consider” the Trojans in his recruitment.

The news stripped the Trojans of their quarterback of the future and, somewhat strangely, shoved the West Coast’s best prep passer into the middle of a recruiting tussle among Southeast programs. 247Sports noted that Corral’s leaders were Alabama, Florida and Georgia, and he visited Athens in April. Whether one of those SEC powers or other programs yet to enter the race, Corral should have a slew of options from which to choose.

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As Corral continues to evaluate his options in the coming weeks, one factor to monitor is the recruitment of another bluechipper at the same position. Justin Fields, a dual-threat prospect out of Harrison (Ga.) High ranked one spot ahead of Corral among quarterbacks by Scout.com, is being heavily pursued by the Bulldogs, among several other programs, after rescinding his verbal to Penn State earlier this month. Fields’s forthcoming decision could complicate Corral’s plans.

Let’s say Fields pledges to Georgia. Then Corral could shift his focus to the Crimson Tide, the Gators or a different school. Alternatively, if Fields decides to leave the Peach State for Florida, Florida State or Auburn, that could lead the Bulldogs to turn up the heat on Corral. The two signal-callers are stylistically dissimilar, but they are bound by position, star status and timing of their respective decommitments. As such, it is difficult to assess one of their recruitments independently of the other.

The program Corral picks will be getting an A-lister with the pocket presence, arm strength, throwing accuracy and physical tools to run opposing defenses ragged. The No. 3 quarterback and No. 10 player in the class of 2018, according to Scout.com, Corral passed for 3,025 yards with 22 touchdowns and three interceptions last year at Oaks Christian (Calif.) School. This off-season, he transferred to national power Long Beach Poly.

While schools on the other side of the country jostle to win over Corral, USC will go about finding a replacement for him in its 2018 class. Shorn of context, the Trojans’ pursuit of a quarterback seems pretty straightforward: With less than three months before a season it will likely begin ranked in the top five of the major polls, the West Coast’s “it” program should not have any issues convincing a local high schooler to don cardinal and gold at a marquee position.

The trouble for USC is that there aren’t a lot of great QBs available. Just three of the top 26 passers in the class of 2018, according to Scout.com, are not committed to a program. One member of that trio, Fields, reportedly did not mention USC at a 7-on-7 event this month as one of the “main schools" he’s focused on. Another one, Centennial (Calif.) High’s Tanner McKee, plans to serve a two-year LDS mission, so he should be viewed more as a 2020 prospect. The third is Corral.

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That said, USC is part of a select group of programs with the clout to flip high-caliber passers committed elsewhere. The Trojans recently offered a scholarship to Mission Hills (Calif.) High’s Jack Tuttle, but the Utah verbal told Scout.com after receiving the offer that he’s fully committed to the Utes. Another possible option is UCLA commit Dorian Thompson-Robinson, but the Bishop Gorman (Nev.) High standout told TrojanSports.com last week that he is a “UCLA guy.”

Snatching Thompson-Robinson would be a power move that not only gives USC a headliner to fill Corral’s shoes but also swipes the crown jewel of its crosstown rival’s class at a time when the Trojans’ likelihood of reeling in a top-notch 2018 quarterback prospect is in question. Operating under the assumption that that dream scenario doesn’t come to pass, it’s important for the Trojans to pivot and close on a different signal-caller.

Darnold, who is a top-five pick in early 2018 NFL mock drafts (including second overall in Sports Illustrated’s latest), could leave USC after this season. The only other scholarship quarterbacks on the Trojans’ roster are true freshman Jack Sears, a four-star prospect in the class of 2017, and redshirt freshman Matt Fink, a three-star in the class of 2016. Had Corral stuck to his pledge, he might have had a shot to compete for the starting job right away.

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It’s possible Sears or Fink show enough in workouts and whatever garbage-time snaps they get this season to eliminate any doubt about who’ll be leading the first team offense in Week 1 of 2018. USC would be putting a lot of faith in mostly unproven youngsters, and that wouldn’t change even if Corral or another top 2018 QB recruit were around. Yet the new addition would at least give the Trojans another option to roll out if Fink and/or Sears can’t handle the bright lights.

USC’s future at quarterback felt so secure once Darnold stepped to the forefront early last season. The Trojans would have an ace playmaker under center to drive a playoff push in 2017 and a hot-shot prospect ready to succeed him. The breakup with Corral shattered the second part of that plan. Now USC has to figure out how to put it back together.

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