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Fargas Will Be a Michigan Man

Football: Sherman Oaks Notre Dame running back picks national champion over UCLA and USC.

January 28, 1998|ERIC SONDHEIMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Justin Fargas, the nation's top-rated high school running back, spurned offers from UCLA and USC on Tuesday, announcing that he will sign a letter of intent with defending national champion Michigan on Feb. 4, the first day seniors can make their college choices official.

Fargas, from Sherman Oaks Notre Dame, thereby gave Michigan its second No. 1 football ranking in a month. With his commitment, the Wolverines can also claim a national recruiting championship.

A Parade magazine All-American who scored 82 touchdowns in his three-year varsity career, Fargas chose Michigan over L.A.'s two Pacific 10 Conference schools in a close call.

"We hugged and cried about it," said Fargas' father, Antonio, an actor who played the role of Huggy Bear on the 1970s TV drama "Starsky and Hutch."

"It was very emotional. I know what kind of weight it was for him."

UCLA, had it been able to sign Fargas, might have claimed the nation's best recruiting class. Even without him, Coach Bob Toledo, with one week to go before signing day, is on the verge of wrapping up a group that ranks among the school's best ever.

Toledo and UCLA lost out in the race for Fargas, but the Bruins are in the driver's seat for running back DeShaun Foster of Tustin, who beat out Fargas for the Glenn Davis Award as The Times' high school player of the year.

Foster rushed for 3,398 yards and scored 59 touchdowns this season. He also is considering Texas.

Whatever happens with Foster, the Bruins could have their best recruiting class since 1984, when they signed Ken Norton Jr., Gaston Green, Eric Ball, Marcus Turner, Darryl Henley and Mel Farr Jr.

All six of those players were NFL draft picks, and the Bruins played in bowl games every year during their tenure.

In his second year as Bruin coach, Toledo has managed to widen a national recruiting base that diminished in the waning years under former coach Terry Donahue.

UCLA has commitments from five players on the Sporting News' list of top 100 prep players, including the nation's No. 1 linebacker prospect, 6-foot-3, 225-pound Robert Thomas of Imperial High, and one of the top three defensive backs, free safety Lovell Houston of Denver.

The focus of UCLA's recruiting has been linemen. Six of the Bruins' recruits who already have committed weigh at least 250 pounds. UCLA is also on the short list of Mike Saffer, a 6-6, 295-pound Parade All-American from Tucson Sabino.

Among UCLA's other recruits ranked in the top 100 are defensive tackle Ken Kocher of San Diego Patrick Henry, offensive lineman Blake Worley of Mission Viejo Capistrano Valley and quarterback Cory Paus of New Lenox, Ill.

Across town, new USC Coach Paul Hackett has been successful in keeping many of the players who made early commitments before the firing of former coach John Robinson.

There was almost a panic among Trojan fans that recruits would stage a mass exodus, but Hackett has retained running back Sultan McCullough of Pasadena Muir and is waiting to hear from defensive lineman Jermaine Brooks of Rancho Cucamonga. McCullough and Brooks are rated among the top 100 prep players by the Sporting News. Also, All-American quarterback Jason Thomas of Compton Dominguez is expected to sign with USC.

McCullough, the favorite to win the state 100-meter track championship last year but who was injured in the final, rushed for 2,145 yards and scored 27 touchdowns for Muir. He is expected to add breakaway speed badly needed in the Trojan backfield.

Hackett's background as a respected quarterback coach in the NFL helped him land one of the state's top quarterback prospects, 6-5 Carson Palmer of Santa Margarita. Palmer was leaning toward Colorado until Hackett's hiring.

Give Hackett more credit for being in the final chase for Fargas, who had forged a strong relationship with Robinson and publicly criticized the handling of his dismissal.

"It kind of shook me up a little bit; I wasn't expecting it," Fargas said of Robinson's firing. "I had a little relationship with Coach Robinson, and I really liked him.

"But that's the business part of the college game. Coach Hackett and his staff, I got to know them and they're going to do a great job."

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