A Bruin’s Eternal Nightmare

Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2006 | Karl Dorrell expects to hear the question the rest of his days coaching football at UCLA.

Why didn’t he successfully recruit Reggie Bush over USC? After all, Bush and Dorrell are fellow San Diegans from La Mesa’s Helix High.

“I’ll deal with that question the rest of my career,” said Dorrell with a smile and nod of resignation. “We did get burned by him the last three years.”

But no more – Bush is now a rookie with the New Orleans Saints. And Dorrell, armed with a new five-year contract while entering his fourth season as the head coach at his alma mater, is now in position to challenge USC for football supremacy in Los Angeles as well as the Pac-10.

When Dorrell was hired by the Bruins on Dec. 18, 2002, it was during an NCAA recruiting dead period, meaning no contact with athletes. It was too late in the recruiting game for him to charm Bush. The future Heisman Trophy winner – who put together highlight films against UCLA – had a stepfather urging him to pick USC (Reggie’s initial instinct was to play for Rick Neuheisel at Washington).

USC’s success with Bush continued a trend of the best USC and UCLA teams usually featuring key players from San Diego. When Marcus Allen (Lincoln), Junior Seau (Oceanside) and Reggie Bush played at USC, the Trojans dominated.

When Wally Henry (Lincoln) played at UCLA, the Bruins interrupted a streak of USC wins in 1975 and later upset No. 1-ranked Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. When Dorrell, J.J. Stokes (Point Loma) and Donnie Edwards (Chula Vista) played at UCLA, the Bruins dominated the Trojans.

USC now holds a seven-game win streak over UCLA, but take a look at their rosters and early commitments from the Class of 2007. The pendulum over San Diego’s recruiting turf may be swinging back to UCLA’s campus in Westwood.

The only San Diegan on USC’s roster is a backup junior college transfer who has yet to play a down for the Trojans, Mozique McCurtis of St. Augustine High and Grossmont College.

Cotton Warburton and Russ Saunders, pre-World War II All-American Trojans from San Diego High, must be rolling over in their graves. Saunders was the model for the Tommy Trojan statue outside Heritage Hall.

UCLA, meanwhile, has early oral commitments from St. Augustine High quarterback Chris Forcier and Mira Mesa High tight end Nate Chandler to go with returning players and a high-profile incoming freshman.

Forcier is one of the top quarterback recruits in the nation who threw for 31 touchdowns with only eight interceptions last year. He was sitting on 25 scholarship offers when he announced his commitment in April.

“I think Karl Dorrell is a great coach who has the program back on track,” Forcier said. “I like how he has an even-keeled demeanor. He’s someone I felt comfortable with.”

Chandler, a big body as a 6-foot-6, 225-pounder, plays the position like Marcedes Lewis. You remember Lewis. He’s the tall, rangy UCLA tight end who ran roughshod over San Diego State’s secondary last year and was drafted in the first round by the Jacksonville Jaguars.

UCLA’s incoming freshmen include Morse High’s Darius Savage. The 6-foot-3, 320-pound offensive and defensive lineman swept the CIF State track and field titles in June in the shot put, an event requiring brute strength, and the discus, an event requiring agility and quickness.

UCLA, which begins practice Monday, has a roster that features two starters, a backup and two promising redshirt freshmen from San Diego.

Nathan Skaggs (Rancho Bernardo) is a sophomore center who started at defensive tackle last year before injuries on the offensive line forced a switch to the other side of the ball, where the coaches now believe he has a brighter future. Nikola Dragovic (Rancho Buena Vista) is a junior defensive end who was a starter last year but is coming back from a knee surgery. Will Peddie (La Jolla) is a senior backup defensive end, Craig Sheppard (San Pasqual) is a backup redshirt freshman tailback who earned Scout Team Player of the Year honors last season (an award Donnie Edwards won in 1991); and Matt Caldwell (Helix) is a redshirt freshman cornerback.

San Diego traditionally has been easy pickings for USC and UCLA, but it is now increasingly important for the Pac-10 schools to maintain a foothold in San Diego. New San Diego State coach Chuck Long’s program is about to take off – the question is when, not if – and that will enhance his chances of keeping high-profile recruits home.

Tom Craft, Long’s predecessor, has already laid a foundation to building a fence around San Diego. Craft haters don’t want to hear that, but SDSU junior receiver Brett Swain is an example. He was on his way to UCLA before Craft gained an early oral commitment and then held on to him after UCLA and Dorrell made a second run at him just before signing day in 2003.

Recruiting is half the game in college football – maybe more – and Dorrell has shown he can recruit and make the adjustment from coaching in the NFL as an assistant with the Denver Broncos to working at the college level. After two up-and-down first two seasons, Dorrell’s third season at UCLA finished with a 10-2 record and win over Northwestern in the Sun Bowl.

“I came back to college from the NFL, where it’s more Xs and Os than relationships with the players,” Dorrell said. “In the NFL, it’s get the job done – your focus is on the result. That first year at UCLA, I was entrenched with getting in the offense and defense. I forgot about the individual players. I got the cart before the horse.

“The second year I spent a great deal of time getting to know the players. I noticed a tremendous difference between year one and year two, and I revisited it again last year. The result was we had a very good football team.”

Now the question is, can UCLA start beating USC? Depending on the frequency of an affirmative answer, Dorrell might even make people forget about that other question.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. Send a letter to the editor.

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