Antonio Morales (The Athletic) — LOS ANGELES — Three-star offensive tackle Jeffrey Persi, the No. 2 overall offensive line prospect in California and the state’s highest-rated tackle, got things started on June 24.
That’s the day Persi, who attends JSerra (San Juan Capistrano, Calif.), tweeted his verbal commitment to Michigan. Five days later, three-star St. John Bosco (Bellflower, Calif.) center prospect Drake Metcalf, the state’s No. 3 overall offensive lineman, announced his commitment to Stanford.
Then on July 4, Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) four-star offensive lineman Myles Murao, the state’s highest-rated offensive line recruit who has played with Trojans quarterback commit Bryce Young and current USC players JT Daniels, Amon-Ra St. Brown and Bru McCoy, surprised many by committing to Washington.
Just like that, within the span of 10 days or so, California’s top three 2020 offensive line prospects (per the 247Sports Composite) had all made their decisions. And none had committed to USC.
For context, if you go back through the past 14 recruiting classes to 2006, on only two occasions have the Trojans failed to land one of the state’s top three offensive linemen: 2011 and 2015. If these commitments hold, the 2020 class will make it a third time in 15 years.
In 2011 and 2015, USC signed out-of-state offensive linemen—Cyrus Hobbi and Aundrey Walker in ’11, and Chuma Edoga in ’15—who were rated higher than the top in-state offensive line prospects. That is not the case this time around.
Why did some of these linemen choose other programs over USC? And how concerned should the fan base be?
Metcalf called it one of the best moments of his life. He was in the car with teammate and Stanford signee Colby Bowman when Stanford offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard called and offered Metcalf.
A month later, Metcalf visited Stanford’s campus in Palo Alto, and that’s when he knew.
“I just absolutely fell in love with The Farm while I was up there,” he said. “I say it a lot, but it’s just the truth. We have the same common goal in receiving an elite-level degree while playing elite-level football in the Pac-12. Stanford definitely allows you to do both things.”
Stanford’s only gone 18-9 the past two seasons but is on stable footing as a program, and there are no questions about David Shaw’s job security.
Still, USC figured to factor heavily into Metcalf’s recruitment, especially when you consider his family ties to the university. He basically grew up going to games at the Coliseum.
“It was hard to tell USC (no) because my mom went to USC, my aunt went to USC,” Metcalf said. “My cousin’s trying to get into the nursing program right now, but at the end of the day, my mom and dad realized I had to do what’s best for me. She went to USC but she even said, ‘I did my four years at USC, you’re going to do your four years wherever you want. It’s your path.’”
And the path the Trojans provide isn’t exactly filled with certainty right now. This offseason has been filled with questions about Clay Helton’s job security after USC finished 5-7 last season and athletic director Lynn Swann decided to retain his head coach despite admitting to numerous deficiencies across the program.
Metcalf’s father, Wes, experienced a coaching change during his college career when UNLV fired Harvey Hyde months before the 1986 season, and the uncertainty about Helton’s future played a role in Drake’s decision.
“(My father) said it’s the hardest thing to deal with,” said Metcalf. “I didn’t want to go to a program where I could have a possible coaching change. Say I go to USC, and Clay Helton is a terrific coach — and I love him, family guy — but say if Coach Helton were to leave and someone like Urban Meyer comes in like a lot of people talk about, well, Urban Meyer is from the Big Ten and likes big linemen. I’m not necessarily the biggest lineman. I’m kind of a center prototype and he’s used to 6-foot-5 across the board with the exception of Billy Price at Ohio State. He’s used to bigger guys.
“I want to make sure I’m at a place where I’m wanted 100 percent, and if a coaching change happens at USC, it’s not a for sure said-and-done deal I’m going to be wanted by the head coach.”
Murao said he knew Washington was his choice “a long while ago.” Mater Dei, where Murao has played with several prominent current Trojans, has traditionally been a pipeline school for USC, so it was natural to assume the Trojans would play a major role in Murao’s recruitment. But the Huskies, who signed three of California’s top 20 players in the 2019 recruiting cycle, won out.
“It just felt different up there,” he said. “The coaching, the environment, everything. Different from L.A., which is a good change for me.”
Murao said he just felt more comfortable at Washington. And after initially saying that it didn’t, he acknowledged the uncertainty surrounding USC was impossible to completely ignore.
“Actually, yeah,” Murao said. “All the uncertainty, stuff like that, all the coaching (uncertainty). That’s like a little bit of a factor but not a big factor to me, to be honest.”
When asked what USC could have done differently, Murao said: “Nothing. They did all that they could.”
In the end, it wasn’t enough.
So is the reality of missing on California’s three highest-rated offensive linemen as bad as the optics suggest?
“That’s a good question,” said 247Sports national recruiting analyst Greg Biggins. “I think, ideally, you want to say, ‘We have a fence built, we get the best guys in our area.’ Obviously, Myles is a high priority for them. So is Drake. But I think in their defense, they’re deep in those two spots. They already have centers who are built the same way. Myles could play guard, so could Drake but they need more tackles.”
Murao plays tackle at Mater Dei, but will likely shift to center at Washington. “As a freshman, I don’t really care,” Murao said of a position switch. “As long as I get on the field.”
The route toward that isn’t necessarily clear at USC. In 2018, the Trojans signed four-star Justin Dedich (left), who was the top-rated offensive lineman in California and the No. 2 center in the nation. As of now, the redshirt freshman appears to be the backup center behind Brett Neilon, a former four-star prospect in his own right who is just a redshirt sophomore.
At one guard spot, USC is likely to start Alijah Vera-Tucker, who is just a redshirt sophomore and was the No. 114 overall player in the 2017 recruiting cycle. At the other guard position is Andrew Vorhees, who has started the past two seasons and figures to start for his final two as well.
Could the Trojans have used Murao in this recruiting class? Absolutely, but it’s more of a long-term problem than one that will hurt immediately.
It’s a down year in terms of offensive line prospects on the West Coast and in California. Murao is the only offensive lineman from the West Coast who participated in the Opening Finals in Frisco, Texas, earlier this month.
There are no four-star tackles in the state. Persi and Cal commit Everett Johnson are the only two tackles who are ranked among the state’s top 70 players in 2019.
Persi, who declined requests for an interview, is a prospect Biggins said he would’ve gone all-in for if he were the Trojans’ decision-maker, but obviously, that ship has sailed now that he’s committed to Michigan. At 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, Persi is a player who will have to grow into his frame. That’s the type of player offensive line coach Tim Drevno has pursued, even though landing projects may not necessarily inspire a fan base accustomed to pulling in the region’s top offensive linemen.
“I’m kind of seeing (USC) go with what (247 is) doing in terms of rankings — going with an NFL draft-type model,” Biggins said. “The best high school kids who were drafted were not 300 (pounds) in high school. They were 240, 250, 260, but were athletic and could move. You look at the guys they brought in. (Three-star offensive tackle) Andres Dewerk was a big kid but (three-star guard Kyle Juergens, who may play defensive line) is 240.
“I’m still holding out hope (three-star Murrieta Valley tight end commit) Jack Yary gets converted to offensive line. For me, he’s a potential top-three-round draft pick at left tackle because he fits the mold. He’s 6-foot-6, 250 in high school and the pedigree obviously (as the son of legendary USC offensive lineman Ron Yary).”
The highest-rated lineman in the Trojans’ 2020 class is three-star Joey Wright, a 6-foot-6 tackle from Bishop Manogue in Reno.
“Joey Wright, he’s a big kid, but he’s an athletic kid,” Biggins said. “I know he’s listed at 290. I don’t think he’s that big. I think if you’re not going to get the high-end guys at the position, and there really aren’t any, you have to be really smart and strategic, evaluate and go after guys that are athletic but tough and have projectable frames.”
It’s tough to recruit offensive linemen in general. It’s tougher when your program is coming off a losing season and hasn’t performed consistently on the offensive line the past two seasons.
So if USC isn’t landing the state’s top linemen, it has to walk a fine line in its evaluations, make sure the projections are right and make sure said players develop, which is easier said than done.
“Bruce Feldman wrote a phenomenal article (about) why is everybody missing (offensive line evaluations).” Biggins said. “The reason why is they’re going after all these guys who probably already peaked in high school and you think you can lay them out when they get there but you can’t. It’s probably those guys who are more athletic kids that move around better with the frame to put on more weight. Those are the ones that end up being the surprises.
“But the hard part is it’s so hard to predict those guys. It’s like predicting the lottery.”
And until things turn around on the field, those odds aren’t likely to improve for the Trojans.