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Looking back on each C-USA program’s top recruit of all time

How have the league’s top talents panned out throughout their careers?

R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl - Southern Miss v Middle Tennessee Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

“Top-rated recruit in program history.” The phrase being attached to a new commitment or signee will send a program’s fanbase into a social media jubilee, but do these types of players tend to elevate a program to new heights? Let’s take a look through the historical recruiting records for each C-USA program to identify their top-ranked recruit of all time and figure out how each player’s career ended up turning out.

Players are ranked by their 24/7 Composite rating.

Southern Miss Golden Eagles

DeAndre Brown (WR, Class of 2008) - .9931

There’s a really large gap between DeAndre Brown and any other player that has ever been recruited into C-USA. The #12 recruit in the 2008 class, Brown was the third highest-rated receiver in the cycle, falling behind a couple of guys named Julio Jones and A.J. Green.

Talent wise, there’s no doubt that Brown was worthy of his lofty evaluation. Brown completely dominated in his freshman season, catching 67 passes for 1,117 yards and 12 touchdowns. The 6’7” wideout towered over C-USA competition, however a severe broken leg injury in the New Orleans Bowl put his career on a saddening decline.

Brown signed with the Philadelphia Eagles as an undrafted free agent after leaving USM early for the draft but he was cut from the roster soon after signing.

MTSU Blue Raiders

Jeff Littlejohn (DT, Class of 2001) - .9382

It’s hard to quantify the impact of a defensive tackle but it would be hard to argue that Littlejohn was a disappointment in Murfreesboro. While his career got off to a bit of a slow start, he developed his talent each season which culminated in Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2005. Littlejohn never signed with an NFL team but he did see sustained success in the arena league.

Marshall Thundering Herd

Jaquan Yulee (LB, Class of 2016) - .9285

The former Alabama commit landed with high expectations in Huntington. At 6’2”, 240 pounds, Yulee brought a level of athleticism rarely seen at this level of play. Unfortunately things just didn’t work out for Jaquan at Marshall. While Yulee was a strong contributor, he didn’t start any games in the 2017 and 2018 seasons. After finally landing a starting job in 2019, Yulee suffered a terrible injury in the season opener which left him paralyzed for two days. Yulee entered the transfer portal last August and will attempt to make a comeback at another program in the 2021 season after fully rehabbing his neck injury.

Charlotte 49ers

Ty’kieast Crawford (OT, Class of 2020) - 0.9150

Crawford played in all six of Charlotte’s games in 2020, drawing three starts. He has since transferred to Arkansas.

Old Dominion v Florida International Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

FIU Panthers

Teair Tart (DT, Class of 2018) - .9004

After enrolling at four different junior colleges at the start of his collegiate career, Tart found a home in Miami as Butch Davis honored his scholarship offer after P5 programs pulled out following his suspension from East Mississippi’s program.

Tart had a solid 2018 season but he really made a name for himself in 2019 after earning eight starts and racking up 10.5 tackles for loss. Tart signed with the Tennessee Titans as an undrafted free agent, eventually earning a spot on the active roster.

Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

LaDarius Love (DT, Class of 2002) - .9000

Love played three seasons in Ruston, totaling 46 tackles, 6 TFLs, and 1.5 sacks.

UAB Blazers

Anthony Johnson (QB, Class of 2002) - .9000

I couldn’t find any record of Johnson every playing a snap for the Blazers.

FAU Owls

Noah Jefferson (DT, Class of 2018) - .8892

The former USC backup came into FAU way overweight and didn’t see much playing time as a junior. After cutting down to 6’5”, 310 pounds, Jefferson made a solid impact as a redshirt senior, totaling 23 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss throughout his two years in Boca.

WKU Hilltoppers

Tyrone Pearson (DE, Class of 2012) - .8820

As far as I could tell, Pearson never played college football for any program. It appears he had academic eligibility issues.

North Texas v Ball State Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

UNT Mean Green

Riley Dodge (QB, Class of 2008) - .8795

Similar to DeAndre Brown at USM, Dodge looked to be a program-changing talent early in his career. Dodge turned down an offer at Texas to play for his dad in Denton. An occasional starter, Dodge showed flashes of the ability that made him the top high school quarterback in the state of Texas but injuries kept Riley down time and time again. He moved to wide receiver due to chronic arm issues before eventually transferring to McNeese State after his father was fired as head coach.

UTSA Roadrunners

Allen Horace (TE, Class of 2020) - .8673

Horace played in seven games as a true freshman last year but has yet to draw a start or catch a pass.

Rice Owls

Gabe Taylor (S, Class of 2020) - .8643

The younger brother of Miami and NFL legend Sean Taylor, Gabe appeared in five games as a true freshman and earned a start against Southern Miss. He’s recorded five tackles thus far through his career.

Syndication: ElPaso Mark Lambie / El Paso Times, El Paso Times via Imagn Content Services, LLC

UTEP Miners

Kai Locksley (QB, Class of 2018) - .8643

A dual-threat quarterback who always looked more comfortable outside of the pocket than inside of it, Locksley was pretty much the Miners’ entire offense through the 2018 and 2019 seasons. He passed for 2,266 yards and 9 touchdowns in El Paso while also pitching in 875 yards and 11 scores on the ground.

Old Dominion Monarchs

LaMareon James (CB, Class of 2020) - .8608

Old Dominion did not play football in 2020 so James has yet to make his debut.

Takeaways

So if you weren’t keeping track on your fingers, these top-rated players have had a pretty miserable track record for C-USA. Out of the 14 players listed, Locksley, Tart, and Littlejohn are the only guys I would say lived up to their potential. And even then, they probably didn’t have the type of impact one would expect from the top recruit in program history. Obviously none of these guys are the top players in their respective programs’ histories. I don’t believe a single player listed here played four seasons with the C-USA school they signed with.

I found it interesting how many guys ended up signing with C-USA programs due to extenuating circumstances such as grades, injuries, disciplinary issues, etc. While these types of signings are risky, the reward can often be worth it. Several Conference USA programs such as Marshall and UTEP are willing to grant academic acceptance to NCAA non-qualifiers which grants them the opportunity to land top-rated players that other schools wouldn’t be able to take due to university admittance guidelines. This is a powerful tool even if the results don’t always pan out as desired.

Interestingly enough, 7 of the 14 programs landed their top-rated recruit within the past five years. I think this shows the league’s progression on the recruiting trail, even if the results on the field have yet to match the league-wide increase in talent. Hopefully some of these younger players will start to blossom in the coming years and this list looks entirely different in the next five years as the league continues to attract more competitive players.