Pac-12 Football: Hits and Misses from Pac-12 2014 Recruiting Classes
Every program approaches the recruiting trail in its own unique way, but the universal goal is to land prospects who can fulfill the greatest needs.
Each Pac-12 head coach has something from his respective signing class to celebrate, however, some among the conference's coaching ranks hit on a few of their programs' most pressing needs, both for the immediate future and long-term outlook.
Others missed on their opportunities.
Hit: USC's Final Push
New head coach Steve Sarkisian may have quelled some anxieties about the transfer in leadership at USC by signing the conference's top-rated 2014 recruiting class.
However, just weeks—days, even—prior to national signing day, how Sarkisian's first class would look remained something of a mystery. USC was in contention for several top-tier prospects, but the difference between contending and actually signing such players can be the difference between competing for a title and being an also-ran.
That holds particularly true for USC, a program still dealing with NCAA-mandated scholarship limitations, thus needing more immediate contributions from its recruits.
"I think we're competing for the Pac-12 South championship," Sarkisian told USA Today. "I really believe that. You watch our starting 22 take the field next fall, it's gonna be really good."
After landing letters of intent from offensive guard Damien Mama, cornerback Adoree' Jackson and safety John "JuJu" Smith on national signing day, Sarkisian's optimism is warranted.
Miss: Arizona Unable to Maintain Hot Start
Rich Rodriguez has no reason to be disappointed with his third signing class since becoming head coach at Arizona. At No. 32 in the nation, according to 247Sports, the 2014 group is Rodriguez's most highly ranked yet.
But after a torrid start on the recruiting trail that peaked with Arizona having the conference's top-rated class, the Wildcats finished national signing day ranked sixth.
The loss of 5-star cornerback Jalen Tabor to Florida just days after he announced his verbal commitment at the Under Armour All-America Game stung, and the flip of 4-star cornerback Naijiel Hale dropped Arizona's standing. The sudden reversals speak to the unique challenges coaches face on the recruiting trail.
"I like most of it," Rodriguez told CBSSports.com's Dennis Dodd. "Parts of it I don't. There are times when you feel like a school girl chasing Justin Bieber."
Hit: Oregon's Skill Position Haul
Don't expect Oregon's potent offense to take a step back any time soon. Head coach Mark Helfrich signed a recruiting class stocked with potential difference-makers at every skill position.
Ballyhooed running back Royce Freeman is the crown jewel of the class, a 4-star prospect who could make an immediate impact in the Ducks' crowded backfield that also features a returning Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner.
He’s a big physical dude, runs heavy but still has that skill-set to run out of the backfield and catch the football, to be a great returner and protect and do some of the things that our guys do. Having a bit more of a thumper absolutely can help you in goal line and short-yardage situations.
When Freeman becomes Oregon's feature back, he'll have a fellow 2014 signee ready to supply the lightning to his thunder in Tony James.
Wide receiver Jalen Brown is another 4-star prospect and an early enrollee. Brown will get an opportunity to integrate into the system quickly, and potentially give the Ducks another weapon for 2014.
Quarterback Morgan Mahalak almost assuredly won't see any game action in 2014, and may not be Oregon's starting quarterback for a few years. But while learning the position as an understudy to Marcus Mariota, the similarly skilled Mahalak could develop into the Ducks' next great signal caller.
Miss: Defensive Line Support Missing at Oregon
The most glaring weakness plaguing Oregon in its two losses last season was its inability to stop the powerful rushers Tyler Gaffney of Stanford and Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey.
Concerns about the Ducks' play in the trenches is nothing new. When former head coach Chip Kelly guided Oregon to the BCS Championship Game in January 2011, he summarized the 22-19 loss to Auburn per Sports Illustrated saying, "The matchup with our offensive line against their defensive line was really the changing point."
A program can recognize a need, but addressing is much more challenging—particularly at a position that comes at a premium. To that end, Oregon lost out on Trey Lealaimatafao to LSU, a major blow to the Ducks' crafting of a new defensive interior.
Oregon had one of the nation's best defensive tackles nearly a decade ago in Haloti Ngata, and his family tree could be key to improving the Ducks' misfortune with the position. Ratu Mafileo, the nephew of Ngata, has yet to sign and Oregon is considered the favorite to land his letter of intent per 247Sports.com.
Until he signs, Oregon is thin on new additions at the position it most needs to bulk up.
Hit: Chris Petersen Adjusts to Power-Conference Recruiting
A big question mark lingering around Chris Petersen before he ever accepted the head coaching vacancy at Washington was how his success at Boise State would translate to a power-conference program—specifically, could Petersen recruit the kind of elite talent necessary to compete in such a league?
Though Petersen initially faced a rocky start, his staff raced to the finish line to bring the nation's No. 37 signing class to Washington. Key to the Huskies' strong final week was the addition of local prospect Budda Baker, a one-time Oregon commit heavily pursued by other Pac-12 programs.
Petersen credited Washington's kick down the final stretch to one primary asset he didn't have while at Boise State—power-conference appeal.
"The university sells itself," Petersen told Adam Jude of The Seattle Times. "The facilities, where this program is headed — all those things, I think people are feeling that."
Miss: Utah Slow to Plant a Flag in Pac-12 Country
When discussing Los Angeles area recruiting, former Nebraska and USC assistant coach Marvin Sanders stressed the importance of an established presence "in the 500-mile area around your program."
Utah recruited well in its own state, but the Utes are struggling to establish much of a presence beyond it in the other regions crucial to the Pac-12. Outside of its home state, Utah landed just two recruits from other states with Pac-12 schools.
Though Utah was among the toughest teams in the front seven each of its first three seasons since joining the Pac-12, a notable issue to which head coach Kyle Whittingham has repeatedly referred is the Utah's lack of speed at skill positions in comparison to their new league counterparts.
His 2014 recruiting class isn't lacking in potential difference makers in those areas, as Whittingham told The Deseret News.
We feel we match up on the line of scrimmage with anybody in the country...But we needed to improve the speed and athleticism on the perimeter and that really is something that jumps out at you when you look at this class.
Whittingham pulled more than double the number of prospects from SEC country with five, including quarterback Donovan Isom of Destrehan, La. as it did from the Pac-12's geographic footprint.
Recruiting into the Southeast is a strategy other Pac-12 programs are attempting, but doing so more to augment classes made up primarily of players from within the recruiting base.
Establishing Utah as a Pac-12 brand starts with recruiting in Pac-12 country.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. Recruiting rankings culled from 247Sports.com. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.