CHARLOTTE – The first time D.J. Uiagalelei attended a game at Clemson, he spotted the first tailgaters about 20 minutes outside the stadium. He knew Clemson’s Memorial Stadium held more than 85,000 people, but he was in awe of the tens of thousands without tickets who just came to hang out. It especially impressed him considering the town has less than 17,000 residents.
“I’ve never seen nothing like that in my life,” said Uiagalelei, who grew up in the Inland Empire in Southern California. “Just opened up my eyes, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’”
Uiagalelei enters his sophomore season as Clemson’s full-time starter, and he’s one of the faces of a trend that will likely define this college football season.
Much like Southern California leads the nation in sunshine, starlets and selfies, the area has long been one of the country’s most prolific incubators of top quarterback talent. As college football opens this weekend, Uiagalelei is one of the four starters on the teams in the Associated Press top five coming from Southern California. All five quarterbacks of the top-five teams, if you include Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler, an Arizona native, come from the Pac-12 footprint.
“USC football is USC football, and I love USC football, Southern California. But I think it’s a different dynamic down here in the South,” Uiagalelei said.
A confluence of reasons contributed to this exodus, including Georgia starter J.T. Daniels (Irvine, California) transferring from USC after getting beaten out for the starting job. But the bottom-line reality is that when No. 3 Clemson faces No. 5 Georgia in the marquee college football game of the weekend, both quarterbacks will be playing more than 2,000 miles and three time zones away.
Alabama starter Bryce Young (Pasadena, California) decommitted from USC and is now expected to make more than $1 million in endorsements before ever making a start. C.J. Stroud (Empire, California) debuted on Thursday night for Ohio State, throwing for 294 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-31 win over Minnesota.
“There’s different reasons why they left, but the bottom line is that all the best quarterbacks in the country are from California and they’re all not playing in California,” Rivals.com recruiting analyst Woody Wommack said in a phone interview.
USC starter Kedon Slovis can be blamed for some of this. He seized the USC starting job in 2019 by winning the Pac-12 freshman of the year award after Daniels tore his ACL in the season opener. The emergence of Slovis prompted Daniels to transfer. Daniels played high school ball at Mater Dei in Santa Ana, the gilded high school with a quarterback pipeline to USC that’s included Matt Leinart, Matt Barkley and Todd Marinovich.
Slovis’ rise also meant that if Young kept his commitment there, he’d have to unseat an incumbent starter that the coaching staff raved about. Young’s father, Craig, stresses that there’s no animosity toward USC and the decision to decommit from there was agonizing for Bryce.
Other factors loomed. Craig Young points to the evolution in football where passing offenses began to transcend the West Coast. When top SEC and ACC games embraced the spread and heavier throw games, it gave quarterbacks like Bryce Young the ability to both play with the best athletes and linemen and still develop in a pass-centric system.
“You don’t have to make a choice or sacrifice one or the other,” Craig Young said. “Along with the ability to compete at the highest level and to play for the national championship. It’s not lost on [high school] players that the Pac-12 schools aren’t playing for the national championships.”
One factor that didn’t come into play for Young, who decommitted from USC in September 2019, was the ability to make money off his name, image and likeness. That legislation didn’t get passed until nearly two years later. But Young has become one of the faces of the potential in that space, as he has the ability to sign deals worth more than $1 million in NIL deals before ever starting a game for the Crimson Tide.
It’s no secret that a majority of the most lavish NIL deals have come to players at the most decorated programs. They include but aren’t limited to: Uiagalelei’s deals with Dr. Pepper and Bojangles; Rattler with Raising Canes; Daniels’ Zaxby’s deal; and Young has a CashApp deal and an NFT. All have lucrative memorabilia deals or the potential to sign them.
But none of them signed or transferred out of California with the certainty that they’d be able to make big money as players. The winning amplifies the opportunity, which is what gives the potential for top players to keep fleeing the Pac-12 footprint.
“I think as long as the elite quarterbacks feel like their best chance to win or compete for a championship is to go elsewhere, then, yes, I think the exodus will continue,” Craig Young said.
This is something new Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff is keenly aware of and irked by. He knows the best solution to keeping players in the Pac-12 footprint is winning, as the Pac-12 hasn’t won a College Football Playoff game since Oregon in 2014. (Or, when current recruits were about 10.)
Kliavkoff mentioned the league having an advantage in owning its own network, which will allow it to license player highlights to NIL companies. He also said the Pac-12 story needs to be told better, including 11 of the NFL’s top 100 being from the Pac-12, along with both the league’s MVP (Cal’s Aaron Rodgers) and rookie of the year (Oregon’s Justin Hebert).
“Kids that grow up in our footprint who are great football players in the Pac-12, [staying there] is a very important initiative for the conference going forward,” Kliavkoff said.
What’s difficult for the Pac-12 to replicate is the passion that permeates from places like Ohio State and the hotbeds in the Southeast. With the world becoming more flat, it’s easier for recruits to hop around the country and visit places outside the home footprint.
“Football is a deep passion in this area,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “There’s not a lot of distractions around here. There’s no pro sports in Alabama. There’s no pro sports in South Carolina. College football is huge in Georgia. …These kids, they come to be part of great programs and compete at the highest level.”
Clemson deputy athletic director Graham Neff said there’s only a few months of empirical evidence as to whether small college towns like Clemson, South Carolina, would offer more NIL options to recruits than schools in big markets like Southern California or more modest-sized cities without a heavy pro sports presence like Columbus or Louisville.
But with Uiagalelei already doing national deals before his first year as a full-time starter, there’s certainly a muscle flex for Clemson’s brand nationally. Every national commercial doubles as an advertisement for top recruits to attend the school.
“It really comes down to what your brand is about,” Neff said. “The success stories at a place like Clemson gives coaches another notch in the ladder in recruiting — you can come here and do that.”
What Kliavkoff and the Pac-12 coaches need to fight is the next wave of elite quarterbacks and high-end players following this group’s lead out of the Pac-12 footprint.
Oklahoma already has a commitment from Malachi Nelson, a quarterback from Los Alamitos, California, who is the No. 2 player in the Class of 2023. Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Adam Gorney sees that and the rest of top recruits fleeing the area as another sign that the top Southern California kids don’t just automatically sign with USC anymore.
“The next group of guys are so much more open to leaving now,” said Gorney, who is based in California. “A lot of the top quarterbacks and players out here have visited Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson and Florida State. They’re just far more open to it than they used to be.”