Recruiting Needs: Offensive Line

Dec. 7 -- We continue with the series that looks at the critical recruiting needs for the 2015 class, and the 2015 offensive line recruiting class is critical to pick up where the current group of starters leaves off in two years...

We continue with the series that analyzes UCLA's five biggest recruiting needs for 2015. The first in the series was:

Recruiting Needs: Pass Rushers

UCLA has been recruiting well the past three years, stocking up on a very high-level of talent, and it’s definitely been evident on the field. The offensive and defensive lines have been vastly upgraded, as have many of the positions on both sides of the ball.

Now, however, it’s time to raise expectation further in recruiting. While UCLA has clearly upgraded its talent level, it was evident this season that it’s still lacking some elite talent in certain areas. These are the primary areas of need to keep the UCLA program improving and moving forward over the next several seasons.

Offensive Line

Regardless of what year it is or how much offensive talent there already is in the program, keeping OL talent flowing in (along with the quarterback position and probably the DL) is always the #1 priority in keeping a program successful.

It’s a tough proposition, too. You need five starters at offensive line. Like with any position, it’s always a crapshoot which prospects develop into legitimate high-major players, so you always have to take far more than you can actually use. With OL demanding so many guys, you really need to recruit and bring in a huge amount of huge bodies. And it’s probably a bigger crapshoot on whether a player develops at OL more than any other position in football (except quarterback and DL) because it’s so based on physical development.

Right now, under the care of UCLA Offensive Line Coach Adrian Klemm, the state of the UCLA offensive line is in the best shape it’s been in probably 20 years – and possibly ever. It’s taken him a few years to build it, but it’s now just about built. This season he easily had his best OL group since being at UCLA, and that foundation looks like it will embark UCLA on some subsequent years where the talent and experience on the OL will be pretty much unprecedented. We recently analyzed the depth for 2015 in this story, and that laid out how UCLA can easily go 10-deep on its offensive line next year. In fact, there are some scholarship OLs in the program that aren’t even listed in this analysis, which is a far cry from a few years ago when we would have had to list a number of walk-ons to fill out such a depth chart.

For Klemm, recruiting now is different than it was when he first arrived at UCLA. He could sell recruits then on early playing time, which is a difficult proposition now. In fact, his success at recruiting and coaching might be the one thing working against him – that prospective recruits look at the depth chart and wonder if there’s playing time for them. But we’ve spoken to Klemm about, in general, the type of recruits he’s looking for now, and he admittedly is getting very picky. He repeatedly talks not just about all the physical and athletic attributes, but looks for someone who will be a good fit “inside our room.” That means he needs recruits that are very focused and dedicated – and very, very tough – to hold up mentally with the level of toughness and dedication he’s now established on the offensive line. There have been stories about some players displaying a lack of commitment one way or another and the other UCLA offensive linemen pretty much not tolerating it. So, in other words, the old axiom about recruits who don’t want to compete – and be focused, tough and dedicated at a very high level – need not apply really applies, because they won’t last long. That image of the UCLA offensive line is one Klemm is now selling, and it’s working, clearly, since he might have his best offensive line recruiting class yet in 2015.

Head Coach Jim Mora, too, realizes that having talent on the offensive line, and plenty of it, is the lifeblood of the team. Pretty much Mora gives Klemm a number of OL recruits he can take every year, but there is kind of an unwritten policy that if UCLA, for whatever reason, has scholarships open to give, Mora will opt to allow Klemm to fill them first with offensive line recruits. That’s why when we write analyses of offensive line recruiting we say sometimes that UCLA could take anywhere from 3 to 6 offensive line recruits.

Right now, for 2015, UCLA has four commitments, but with this approach, could take upward of seven offensive linemen in 2015.

Conor McDermott
The theory with OL recruiting, too, is that it’s far more difficult to find prospects who can play offensive tackle than offensive guard, and if you have too many OT types they can always slide over to play offensive guard, but vice versa not nearly as much. With offensive tackle prospects always being tougher to find, too (finding a 6-6 kid who can end up weighing 300 pounds comfortably and has the feet of a dancer and long arms of a small forward isn’t easy), it makes them a high commodity.

In terms of offensive tackles, right now, the UCLA offensive line is in very good standing, for the immediate future and down the road.

It’s not every year that you happen to find a potential NFL tackle on your own roster, and that’s pretty much what UCLA did this year with Conor McDermott. He plugged in at left tackle in the Cal game and was a complete difference-maker – perhaps the offense’s MVP behind Paul Perkins. And then, as we reported, it’s possible McDermott, who is officially a redshirt sophomore, will be granted a sixth year of eligibility since he missed the majority of his first two seasons due to injury – and that would essentially make him a redshirt freshman right now. If he is, in fact, a potential NFL prospect, he might not last six years in the program but having that extra year is a great benefit, not just to UCLA, Klemm and Mora, but McDermott himself.

Besides McDermott, UCLA also has a number of players who can very effectively play tackle – not guys who are just filling in there as an unnatural fit. Caleb Benenoch, a true sophomore, started the entire season at right tackle and did so not fully healthy. When he was healthy in spring he was really exceptional at the tackle spot (not that he wasn’t this season), and he’ll have this off-season to get 100%. There is Simon Goines, who redshirted this year due to a foot injury – who will return next season as a redshirt junior and former starter. There is Poasi Moala, who might be the most athletic of the bunch, and UCLA and Klemm have been waiting from him to develop. The word we’re hearing is that the light has turned on for him, and he’ll be a redshirt sophomore next year. There is also Kenny Lacy, a redshirt sophomore next season, who played some guard this year and every effectively, and the word is that, as he gets older and reshapes his body, his athleticism is coming out and he could very well be capable of playing tackle. We personally think Lacy is going to be an integral part of Klemm’s picture going forward, being too good to not play, and also having the versatility to play both guard and tackle. We’ve also heard that Kolton Miller, the true freshman offensive tackle, has shown some athleticism in practice and, with some physical development, has a chance to contribute down the line.

There is also another thing, however, that Klemm needs to account for in the back of his mind as he stockpiles OL talent: guys are going to transfer. It’s inevitable that there will be recruits that come in, don’t win a spot because there is a good amount of talent ahead of them and choose to leave. So Klemm, in his recruiting, has to compensate for that, and that means even considering taking more OL to safeguard against such attrition.

In the 2015 class, perhaps two of the top four or five prospects UCLA has on their board are two guys already verbally committed, JC offensive tackle Zach Bateman and offensive tackle prospect Andre James (pictured above). Bateman is good enough that he’ll be able to come in and immediately compete for playing time, and that enables Klemm to possibly move other players around a bit. Bateman gives UCLA some more potential elite talent at tackle for the next two years. James is one of the best offensive tackle prospects in the country for 2015, and a key to the future of Klemm’s offensive line. While he more than likely won’t be able to play immediately, he’ll have a very good chance of competing as a redshirt freshman and be a likely starter as a redshirt sophomore. Having James in the fold, with the capability of developing a talent of his level and then plugging him in when he’s ready to potentially then start for three years, is exactly how elite OL recruiting is done. James is key to keeping the offensive tackle talent at a high level for the next five years or so and, quietly, is one of the most important recruits in the 2015 class. James has taken an official visit to Ohio State and has one planned for hometown Utah, and it's vitally important that he sticks with UCLA. If not, Klemm doesn't have a true tackle prospect in the 2015 high school class, and would certainly struggle to find one in the next two months the caliber of James.

Ideally, Klemm wouldn’t mind having another elite offensive tackle come in for 2015. Dru Samia, the prospect from NorCal who is committed to Oklahoma, looked like he was sewn up for UCLA back in the summer – until he visited Oklahoma and opted for the Sooners. There has been some talk that Samia might be wavering, but we feel at this time that Samia will probably stick with Oklahoma. Samia had some academic issues and that might make it not worth trying to get him to flip.

UCLA, with the very playable bodies it has at tackle currently, and Bateman and James, looks pretty good at the spot for the near future. And Klemm might actually even have another long-term answer at tackle in place soon, with Keiffer Longson, the offensive tackle prospect from NorCal who will take his Mormon Mission out of high school, potentially leaning to UCLA. Even though a signed NLI doesn’t bind a player after a Mormon Mission, it would still essentially be a verbal commitment to enroll at UCLA in 2017.

Josh Wariboko
It’s funny, then, because when you start getting tackle types then it feels like you might be lacking a bit on interior types. UCLA’s interior linemen are growing up pretty fast, with Alex Redmond and Scott Quessenberry going to be juniors next year, so it’s critical that Klemm find some young talent to get into the program. He does have Najee Toran, who began the season as a true freshman starter, and you’d have to think will greatly benefit from another year of development and be good enough to figure into the competition, probably very soon. For 2015, Klemm has commitments from Tevita Halalilo and Fred Ulu-Perry, which is a better than solid result so far. Halalilo projects as a potential starter down the line, probably after a couple of years of being in the program. Ulu-Perry is a gem. Every team is always looking for its center of the future, and UCLA could very well have that in Ulu-Perry, who might be one of the best interior linemen in the nation (he certainly looked that way at The Opening last summer). The primary issue with Ulu-Perry is what side of the ball he ends up on since he has the makings of an excellent defensive tackle. We could see the UCLA OL/DL coaches fighting over him, and it might come down to Ulu-Perry’s preference – and what is a better NFL future for him. Heck, he'd be one of the best offensive guards on the roster if he decided to go that direction.

To really top off the 2015 class, getting a truly elite offensive guard prospect would do it. It’s pretty well known that UCLA is in a very good place with Josh Wariboko, the nation’s #12-ranked guard from Oklahoma, and Wariboko would be a considerable cherry. Klemm also recently went to see Maea Teuhema, the nation’s #1 offensive guard from Texas, who is verbally committed to LSU. We think it’s a longshot that UCLA would even have a chance with Teuhema, but Klemm is in a good position right now, with four commitments, and leans from Wariboko and Longson, to potentially take shots at some very big fish like this.

Klemm, too, in two years will be dealing with another factor: transition. The challenge for Klemm will be after the 2016 season, when the group of McDermott, Redmond, Benenoch Quessenberry, Bateman and Goines, or most of them, all graduate. Barring a transfer, he’ll still have probably at least one from that group, along with Moala, Lacy, Toran, and Miller ready to move up, and then the 2015 class, which could be the #1 class in the nation (as well as the 2016 class). The 2015 offensive line class, if Klemm can add Wariboko and Longson to go with Bateman, James, Halalilo, and Ulu-Perry, will really keep the cupboard stocked. It’s why the 2015 offensive line class is so important, because the recruits in that class will be redshirt sophomores and have to be prepared to take over after the current crew of sophomores graduates. So, getting potentially such a talented 2015 class is really key to the seamless transition between the current group Klemm has at the top of the OL hierarcy and the next.

The goal is always to have about 10 offensive linemen in your program who can play, and then carry 15-17 total, with those 5-7 made up of younger guys who are developing. Starting next year Klemm might actually exceed that goal, finally bringing UCLA to the point that it’s maintaining the flow of top offensive line talent coming into the program like it hasn’t ever before.

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