Local high school football plays an integral role in the Los Angeles college football scene, and vice versa. Take the seminal moment of the 2012 UCLA-USC rivalry game, which could have played out just as naturally on a high school football Friday in Southern California as it did on a Saturday in late November.
Anthony Barr—UCLA linebacker by way of Los Angeles Loyola—broke into the backfield and sacked USC quarterback Matt Barkley, product of Santa Ana Mater Dei.
Marvin Sanders was on the Rose Bowl sidelines that day as defensive backs coach for the Trojans. Now, he's the head coach at Barr's prep alma mater, so he has unique perspective from both sides of the symbiotic relationship that exists between the Los Angeles high schools and the city's Pac-12 football programs.
"Two great institutions right in the backyard," he said. "Each school has great coaches and great programs."
Bright lights in the big city shine every fall Friday night on football fields across the Southland. Los Angeles is rife with high quality, competitive prep football. That brand of football also extends to the neighboring communities.
San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange counties make up the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section, home to such prep powerhouses at Bellflower St. John Bosco and Santa Ana Mater Dei.
Football is embedded in Southern California and the region's top high school teams, like Harbor City Narbonne, routinely help players, such as 2014 USC signee and linebacker Uchenna Nwosu, realize their goal of playing college football.
"We're kind of known for [sending players to colleges]," Narbonne head coach Manuel Douglas said. "Every year there's a good number, three-to-five kids from our program, that are going to [sign with colleges]."
The expectation that players can and will make the leap sets a high standard for
Southern California's preps, and the result is a high concentration of elite prospects as evidenced on B/R's interactive recruiting map.
Regional recruiting is a point of emphasis at any college football program. For USC and UCLA, local recruiting is a particularly high priority, as new USC head coach Steve Sarkisian addressed in his introductory press conference in December per USCTrojans.com.
"We have already began the recruiting process, we are looking for the great talent in Southern California," he said, adding: "Obviously recruiting is paramount."
Sarkisian was a fitting hire in that he was intimately familiar with USC from his time on staff, but also familiar with the Southern California high school scene. Sarkisian was himself a standout athlete at Torrance West High School.
And though he spent the last five seasons some 1,100 miles up the Pacific Coast in Seattle, Sarkisian maintained connections in Southern California. He recruited substantially in the Los Angeles area at Washington, which included signing three Narbonne players.
Sarkisian's commitment to the region over the years paid dividends on national signing day, with 15 of the Trojans' recruits coming from high schools in the Los Angeles and southern sections.
Now that he's at USC, establishing a relationship with the area's high school teams is considerably easier.
USC 5-star cornerback recruit Adoree' Jackson of Gardena Junipero Serra visited both USC and UCLA the weekend prior to his signing. Sarkisian popped in on for a surprise visit of 5-star Long Beach Poly prospect John "JuJu" Smith last week during classes.
"You’re able to have more opportunity to interact with them because they can visit your campus, and they can visit your campus a lot more frequently," Sanders explained from his time at USC. "By the time we brought them in for an official visit, I’d already seen them several times on campus."
Sarkisian landed another area commitment from 4-star Loyola guard Chris Brown, who was able to catch the attention of USC coaches in part because of the relationship between the high school and university.
"We got word out to anybody who’d listen, ‘this kid is pretty special,’" Sanders said of Brown. "[Former USC offensive line] coach [Mike] Summers came to one of our games and thought, ‘Yeah, this young man is the real deal.’
"It helped we had connections with USC, because they trusted us," Sanders added.
Brown is one of four 4-star interior offensive linemen signed to USC in this class. All are from Southern California. His recruitment is one small example of the bond local schools are able to forge with the universities. In turn, local talent fills both rosters, which adds a dimension to the Crosstown Showdown few rivalries can match.
"Our schools sit about 12 miles apart," head coach Jim Mora said when I asked him about the core of the UCLA-USC rivalry, just days before the series' 2013 installment in November. "This town is very divided between Bruin and Trojan."
Mora did his part to grow the UCLA end of the divide on national signing day, bringing aboard eight recruits from the area.
As Mora mentioned, the campuses are close. The familiarity among local recruits who make up a considerable portion of both rosters is sometimes even closer.
"A lot of these kid playing each other were playing with each other or against each other since they were little boys," Mora said. "You'd be surprised how many of our players played against or with their players since they were six years old in the Snoop [Youth Football] League and Pop Warner Leagues."
The Snoop Youth Football League is the brainchild of Calvin Broadus, better known as multi-time platinum recording artist and Los Angeles icon Snoop Dogg. Mora has tweeted photos with Broadus, recently renamed Snoop Lion, at UCLA's football offices.
Broadus' youth program has grown to be one of the biggest in the state, and a generation of Angelenos who cut their teeth in the Snoop Youth Football League are moving on to the city's universities—players like safety Jaleel Wadood, a former Compton Viking and 4-star safety who signed with UCLA on Wednesday.
Broadus' son Cordell is another in Los Angeles' long line of highly sought-after prospects, a 2015 4-star wide receiver who played last season at Diamond Bar. Like other highly rated Los Angeles-area prospects, both UCLA and USC are recruiting Cordell Broadus.
The familiarity players share from spending time together in the youth leagues and high school carries over into the UCLA-USC rivalry in a unique way matched by few college series.
"That’s what’s really good about being here in the city," Sanders said. "Guys grow up knowing each other, whether you’re from Pasadena or Inglewood."
It's the only rivalry between two Division I power conference programs in the same metropolitan area. And since Los Angeles has no professional football franchise, UCLA and USC are the only game in town.
As a result of the recruiting split, former teammates become rivals. UCLA's 2014 lineup features three players from Gardena Junipero Serra, a program led by head coach Scott Altenberg. Altenberg's father Kurt lives in UCLA lore for catching the game-winning touchdown pass from Heisman Trophy winner Gary Beban in the 1965 rivalry game.
USC's 2014 roster has four players from Serra and says farewell to a fifth in NFL-bound wide receiver Marqise Lee. When Lee reaches the league, he'll join fellow Serra alum-turned-Trojan wideout-turned-pro Robert Woods.
Bellflower St. John Bosco is also well-represented in both programs. Mora signed two from there in the 2014 recruiting cycle: Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Wadood. Sarkisian also landed two: Damien Mama and Malik Dorton.
Conversely, recruiting heavily from the area schools brings prep rivals together as collegiate teammates—even if they proudly support their high school alma maters.
"It starts on your own team in practice," Sanders said. "They’re involved on Friday night. I remember Dion Bailey, when Lakewood played Crenshaw, and Hayes Pullard was there. They were talking about it."
None of it is new—the proximity to talent, the heavy influence of Southern California on both rosters, the competition for recruits. The tradition both programs have for bringing in and molding local talent has become something of a self-perpetuating process.
"When [high schoolers] see Anthony Barr as a [potential] first-round draft...that’s always a good barometer," Sanders explained.
UCLA and USC athletes also contribute directly to the cycle, as Mora pointed out in his press conference on national signing day via UCLABruins.com.
You can't recruit without the players...They've been so great through this process. They drop what they're doing on Friday nights and Saturday nights to host official visits...They take time from their personal lives to get involved in the recruiting process.
That too is nothing new. The difference is that both the Trojans and Bruins are now top-25 programs at the same time. Each is a winner of 10 games in the past season and on the cusp of competing for championships in the immediate future.
USC has a legacy and reputation that sells itself, which can be a built-in disadvantage for UCLA. When today's recruits were first becoming interested in football, the Trojans were dominating the Pac-12 and competing for national championships and UCLA had just one 10-win season.
Even that 10-win campaign in 2005 ended with a 66-19 beating when the Bruins visited USC in the final week of the regular season.
When UCLA last won the conference championship in 1998, today's recruits were sporting onesies and binkies, not shoulder pads and mouthguards. USC coaches have been able to show tangible results to prospects; UCLA coaches have pitched a dream.
The dream is closer to reality.
With NCAA sanctions reducing USC's scholarship allotment and Mora's change of course at UCLA, the Bruins have won the past two Crosstown Showdowns—which is one more than they won in the previous 13 years.
The 2012 victory sealed the Bruins' Pac-12 South divisional championship, and this year's win put them on course for 10 wins for the first time since that 2005 campaign.
USC had its own 10-win campaign in 2013, and Sarkisian's conference-leading recruiting class is building a buzz that the Trojans may be ready to compete for the Pac-12 championship after a half-decade layoff.
With the programs running neck-and-neck on the field, every advantage one can gain on the other is a boon in wooing local talent.
Douglas summarized it best: "Commit to a school, not a coach," he said.
Fields of study and academic standing can certainly help in the football recruiting process, but the Los Angeles rivalry is one that extends to the classroom. To wit, U.S. News and World Report ranked UCLA the nation's 23rd-best academic institution in 2013. Tied with it? USC.
The rivalry is evident in just about every facet imaginable, and its presence will continue to impact the local recruiting scene. Likewise, the high schools and players who make up that scene will shape the future of the rivalry itself.
"When you play a team like UCLA and played against those same guys for years, that's a true rivalry," Sanders said.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Recruiting rankings culled from 247Sports.com.
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