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Go...East, Young Man? Is the Pac-12 Facing A Talent Crisis?

Is the 2020 recruiting cycle showing an unprecedented number of recruits leaving the West coast?

NCAA Football: Southern California at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday, Linebacker Kourt Williams out of St. John Bosco became the 5th top-200 overall recruit from the West region to commit to Ohio State. The Buckeyes are also viewed as the heavy favorites for 5-star Arizona running back Bijan Robinson. Meanwhile, fellow Arizona 5-star Kelee Ringo who was once thought of as a potential Husky due to his Northwest ties seems like he’s headed to Georgia with Texas finishing in 2nd. Finally, local 5-star OLB Sav’ell Smalls seems set to shun the Pac-12 for the SEC or ACC.

Everywhere you look it seems like West coast high school players are jumping ship and heading to other national powers in unprecedented numbers. There’s still six months left until the late signing period and plenty could change by then. But is the Pac-12 actually seeing a massive talent drain or is the panic premature?

Let’s start by defining what I mean by the West region. I include every state that includes a current Pac-12 school as well as Alaska, Idaho, Nevada, and Hawaii. That adds up to 20% of the states but a smaller percentage than that with regards to population as well as overall football talent.

The focus for this analysis will be on higher level talent. The guys that make up the back end of the average college football roster are going to come from an area in relatively close proximity. Even if the elite programs from around the country are raiding the West coast, they aren’t going to be raiding it to take the low 3-stars. They can get those players in their own back yards. We’ll be looking at players with either a 4 or 5-star rating from the 247 Sports composite.

Obviously not every player is committed yet. In order to get a sense for where some of the elite prospects are leaning I’m using the 247 crystal ball function. But I’m only including the result if a single team has at least 75% of the submissions. For instance, Sav’ell Smalls is currently 43% to Alabama, 29% foggy, and 29% to Florida State. Even though Alabama has the plurality of the votes I am leaving that player as undecided.

For any player that is undecided I am giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming that they’ll remain in the Pac-12. Some of them will leave but I’m expecting it to largely balance out with anyone currently CB’d or committed elsewhere who winds up flipping to a Pac-12 school. With those definitions let’s look at the results over time.

Percent of 4+ Star West Region Recruits Not Entering the Pac-12

Year # of West 4+ star recruits # Committed to non-P12 schools % Leave Pac-12
Year # of West 4+ star recruits # Committed to non-P12 schools % Leave Pac-12
2020* 55 22 40.00%
2019 65 21 32.31%
2018 72 19 26.39%
2017 62 16 25.81%
2016 60 19 31.67%
2015 66 18 27.27%
2014 55 13 23.64%

The 2020 total is still in flux but using the methodology outlined above we can still expect about 40% of the 4+ star prospects in the West region to not wind up at a Pac-12 school come signing day. That would be the highest number in any of the past 7 recruiting classes. The second highest total was last season at 32.31%. That number would be even higher if I left Bru McCoy and Chris Steele as having gone to Texas and Florida when each transferred to USC this offseason before playing a single game with the teams that initially signed them. That number on signing day last year was 35.4%.

It seems pretty clear that things are trending in the wrong direction. What about if we only look at the truly elite prospects though? We’re going to look at the same numbers except only include players with a 0.965+ composite rating. That’s equivalent to roughly a top-75 national ranking in most classes.

Percent of 0.965+ Rated West Recruits Not Entering Pac-12

Year # of West 0.965+ rated recruits # Committed to non-P12 schools % Leave Pac-12
Year # of West 0.965+ rated recruits # Committed to non-P12 schools % Leave Pac-12
2020* 17 10 58.82%
2019 17 7 41.18%
2018 13 3 23.08%
2017 17 5 29.41%
2016 13 5 38.46%
2015 16 5 31.25%
2014 9 3 33.33%

We see the same trend as in the first table but even more pronounced this time around. And that 58% number doesn’t include Sav’ell Smalls or Darnell Washington, both of whom Alabama leads for in the crystal ball just not by the requisite 75% for this analysis. It also doesn’t include Elias Ricks who moved to IMG academy in Florida for his senior season after committing to LSU (but was originally from California). If all 3 were included then it’s not at all a stretch to think that fully 65% of the truly elite talent in the West region bolts for other areas of the country!

Of course crystal ball predictions can be wrong. At least one if not several of the recruits who are currently slated to leave for “greener pastures” will come to the realization that they actually want to stay closer to home when they come up against the deadline. But nothing will have a greater impact on whether the Pac-12 is able to keep up with the rest of the country than the fate of USC’s season and Clay Helton.

The Trojans currently have just two 4+ star recruits committed at the moment. That in itself isn’t all that odd. USC more than any other Pac-12 school gets signatures and commitments at the last moment. But that’s because they’re in it with the big boy recruits. That won’t be the case this season unless something changes very quickly.

5-star Justin Flowe is expected to wind up a Trojan. They already have high 4-star QB Bryce Young committed. And...that’s about it. 5-star recruits Sav’ell Smalls, Darnell Washington, and Johnny Wilson have all eliminated USC from contention. Normally you’d expect USC to bring in a 5-star running back but Bijan Robinson to Ohio State and Kendall Milton to Georgia seem all but done deals with Milton committing on Monday. USC has averaged signing 5 0.965+ rated recruits per year since Coach Petersen got here and it’s hard to see them ending up with more than 2 now.

The one thing that could turn things around though is if USC moves on from Clay Helton before the end of the year and immediately hires Urban Meyer. That move would rip out whatever shreds of a soul USC still has left but it would certainly cause folks who eliminated them months ago to take notice and reconsider.

You could argue that this talent drain isn’t necessarily a bad thing from a Washington Huskies perspective. The players that are headed to Alabama or Ohio State are guys that Washington likely wouldn’t be in contention for whether this was Pete Carroll’s or Clay Helton’s USC. There’s still room for Washington to put up top-15 recruiting classes while USC competes for the top spot in the recruiting rankings.

But there is the possibility that things snowball. What happens if Utah wins the Pac-12 at 10-3 by defeating a then 10-3 Washington and both teams go on to lose bowl games? Every year that the conference goes without a legitimate top-5 team raises the ability of other conferences to negatively recruit against the Pac-12. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy if elite recruits buy into the steel sharpens steel mindset and have no faith that a strong enough metal resides in the conference.

I think a reasonably sized proportion of the Husky fan base feels that Washington needs to win a bowl game against a true blue blood to take the next step as a program. Beating Ohio State in a Rose Bowl rematch becomes much more difficult if they have all of the high end Southern California and Arizona talent that normally under-performs at home in Los Angeles.

We’ll re-examine this subject in February once all of the ink has dried. But as each subsequent 5-star recruit leaves the region it looks a little like the Pac-12 is asleep within the coils of a boa constrictor steadily tightening around them.