USC's top 2023 football recruit, Malachi Nelson, announces his first NIL deal

MISSION VIEJO, CA - SEPTEMBER 17: Quarterback Malachi Nelson (7), of Los Alamitos.
Los Alamitos quarterback Malachi Nelson walks on the sideline during a game against Santa Margarita on Sept. 17. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

When Malachi Nelson committed last November, the five-star 2023 quarterback from Los Alamitos says he hadn’t had a single conversation with USC about its approach to name, image and likeness.

“I know there are a lot of schools out there where that’s the first thing they’ll talk about,” Nelson told The Times recently. “'We’ll give you this much, we’ll do this, whatever, just to get you here.'”

But that wasn’t part of Lincoln Riley’s pitch to convince the nation’s No. 2 recruit to follow him from Oklahoma, where Nelson had been committed since last summer. Like USC, Nelson preferred a careful approach when it came to cashing in on NIL.

“They’re taking it slow,” Nelson said. “They’re doing it the right way, so they protect themselves and us. I can’t agree with that approach more.”

Now, as USC takes its next step with NIL, so too is its top 2023 recruit.

Nelson recently struck his first announced NIL deal with The h.wood Group, a major hospitality and restaurant company with 13 restaurants and nightlife venues in the Los Angeles area, including SLAB, a popular barbecue and smoked meats spot that Nelson said ranks among his family’s favorites.

For Nelson, that connection was a crucial part of his first NIL partnership.

“A lot of people, they just see money and they take it,” Nelson said. “That’s not where my head is at. I want to take deals that align with my beliefs and what I think and what I like. Not doing things solely for the money, but something I can really connect to and be genuine in putting out.”

The specific terms of Nelson’s deal were not disclosed. But as part of that partnership, Nelson will be expected to promote the group’s restaurants on social media, partner on menu collaborations and host tailgate events featuring SLAB during the upcoming USC football season.

“It’s just about him making SLAB a part of his life,” said John Terzian, co-founder of The h.wood Group.

For Terzian, USC football has long been an important part of his own life. He was a walk-on quarterback at USC who sat behind the likes of Carson Palmer and Matt Cassel. He left just as the Pete Carroll era was underway.

Now he considers himself a diehard fan — one who suddenly has an actual vested interest in the Trojans' future quarterback.

“I don’t think too many people are doing stuff like this,” Terzian said.

In many states, such an arrangement still isn’t permitted for high school athletes. California is one of 10 that allow them to profit off their name, image and likeness. Last December, four-star Pittsburg High passer Jaden Rashada became the first known football player to take advantage when he inked a four-figure deal with a football recruiting app.

As the top 2023 prospect in the state, Nelson has had no shortage of suitors since last summer who are seeking similar deals. In addition to The h.wood Group, Nelson said his management team at Levels Sports Group is working on a deal with “a big gaming content company,” as well as other potential deals for merchandising and trading cards.

It’s quite the start to a portfolio for a quarterback who has yet to begin his senior year of high school.

He may not be on USC’s campus yet, but Nelson said he plans to put his new partnership to good use, taking other recruits to the restaurants he’s now partnered with.

It’s the kind of opportunity that sells itself to recruits interested in future NIL opportunities at USC, Nelson said.

“If I was going to Oklahoma still, this would not be a thing,” he said. “It’s all worked out perfectly.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.