Recruiting Needs #3: Offensive Playmakers

Dec. 9 -- UCLA, over the next several years, will have some great talent on offense, but has a need for speed. The Bruins seem to have missed on that big-time, speedy playmaker and they're definitely in the market for one, or two...

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

Recruiting Need #2: Offensive Line
Recruiting Need #1: 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 Playmaking Talent

UCLA has added some considerable talent to its offensive ranks since Jim Mora has been coach but, objectively, is still missing a higher degree of big offensive playmakers. We’re talking guys like former Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks (who coincidentally was verbally committed to Rick Neuheisel and UCLA but Cooks ultimately opted for OSU because he didn’t want to play in the Pistol offense. You can only dream about the difference Cooks would have made in Mora’s first two seasons).

A great deal of what’s lacking is breakaway speed. UCLA doesn’t have a great deal of it, especially at receiver. UCLA has put together a good stable of receivers under Mora, but they have tended to be more of the bigger, stronger possession types. It’s true, too, at running back.

Mossi Johnson
Receiver Kenny Walker represents just about the only truly “fast” guy on offense, the type that defenses literally can’t stay with in a sprint down the field. He, though, has had some issues holding onto the ball and, after catching a big touchdown pass earlier in the season he dropped a couple passes. He then didn’t have the ball thrown his way until much later in the season. Hopefully with another year of seasoning and development Walker will be able to be on the field more consistently in the eyes of the coaches, and supply that ability to stretch defenses with his speed. There is also Mossi Johnson, the true freshman receiver, who really proved that he’s a weapon as the season went on. He’s probably quicker and shiftier than he is fast, but he brought some good playmaking ability to the offense and will probably get utilized far more next season. Redshirting this year is Jordan Lasley, and he’s been getting rave reviews from the coaches for his performance on scout team in practice. He has great ball skills, and always played the opponents’ best receiver every week on scout. He’s gotten bigger and stronger, at about 6-1, and he’s shown that he has some speed – maybe not truly elite top-end speed, but still the of the variety that might be unusual for a player his size. Austin Roberts, the freshman who sat out the year due to an ACL injury suffered last summer, won the Indiana state 100 meters championship as a high school senior. Since we haven't seen him play in person, it's tough to project him, but we have seen in person (without playing), and he's a big boy, probably 6-2 and 215, and we'd have to think that he's more of the posssesion-receiver variety.

Even if they all pan out, it’s still very prudent to bring in more speedy, playmaker types. With UCLA’s offense it needs a big number of receivers, and speed kills. But we have to say we doubt that any of the guys mentioned are really going to be that elite, big-play receiver that can change a game like Cooks.

The #1 guy on UCLA’s 2015 recruiting board that fits that criteria is Christian Kirk, the receiver/athlete from Scottsdale (Ariz.) Saguaro. Kirk is 5-11ish and 200 pounds, and built very thickly. He’s got decent speed, running in the high 4.4s, but with that thick body and explosiveness he’s tough to get a hand on when he’s made a cut and is turning up field. He, in fact, might be better as a running back on the next level, but he’s one of the guys that really isn’t a tweener, because that implies he doesn’t really fit either position. Kirk is good enough that he projects to being able to succeed at either receiver or running back. For UCLA it wouldn’t really matter what position he played since he’d be another potential option as a playmaker regardless. In his recruiting, we have to say, though, that ASU looks like the current team to beat, even though UCLA might be still hanging in, with USC eliminated, and potentially Auburn a threat.

We’ve heard from sources close to UCLA-committed Stephen Johnson, the 5-11, 190-pound speedster from San Leandro, that he’ll probably get a first shot at receiver rather than cornerback when he comes to UCLA in fall. He’s kind of been penciled in at cornerback for the last couple of months, but with UCLA not looking like it’s leading for any speedy wide receiver playmaker, Johnson could be the answer. Johnson is very fast, clocking a 4.41 at the Oakland NFTC last spring, and he has great flexibility, which lends itself well to cornerback if receiver doesn’t work out. UCLA is looking for that fast playmaker at receiver and there’s a good chance they already have it in Johnson.

Alize Jones, the tight end from Las Vegas Bishop Gorman who is considered a shaky commitment to UCLA, is a great athlete and very much a potential big playmaker. At about 6-4 and 220, he'd be used at UCLA as probably an F receiver, much in the same way that Thomas Duarte is now, and it would be exciting to see him in mismatches similar to the ones Duarte gets. Of course, whether UCLA keeps Jones in the fold is the biggest issue at this point, with Notre Dame a real threat to steal him.

Christian Kirk
The other possibilities to fulfill the need for a speedy playmaker are Ryan Newsome, the prospect from Texas; Paul Lucas, the running back/receiver from Arizona; and C.J. Sanders, the receiver from Sherman Oaks Notre Dame verbally committed to Notre Dame. At this point, we think the chances of UCLA getting any of the three are minimal. The best chance had been with Newsome, but we think the relationship between Newsome and UCLA is mutually fading. Lucas is one of the fastest football prospects in the country, but his grades are an issue; he’d be a special admit, and it’s a question if UCLA would use one on him. Sanders probably can’t be flipped from Notre Dame.

At running back, UCLA has two commitments for 2015, and that gives them the basis to swing for the fences in trying to get some more elite talent. UCLA has commitments from Bolu Olorunfunmi and T.J. Simmons, which is a solid to very good running back recruiting class. Olorunfunmi, at 5-11 and about 210, will provide the more smashmouth, between-the-tackles role. Simmons is a freak of an athletic and physical specimen, at about 6-0, 200, and some considerable speed. We have heard that there could be an issue with Simmons qualifying academically, that it could go either way at this point.

UCLA is hotly pursuing the #1 running back in the nation, Sotonye Jamabo (pictured above), from Texas. The word is that UCLA has a very good shot with him, probably among the leaders with Notre Dame and Texas. On any given day you can find a source that thinks he’s going to any one of the three. Jamabo, at nearly 6-3 and 205 pounds, is a physical and athletic specimen. He’s a very fluid athlete for his size, with some great maneuverability and elusiveness. In fact, he looks to be more of a finesse runner than a pound-it-out running back, which is unusual for his size. He has great hands and is very good in space, rather than running between tackles, so we could even see him end up as a receiver on the next level, perhaps a slot type. We do think, though, that he has the chance to be a big-time playmaker.

UCLA is also pursuing the #1 running back in the west, Cameron Scarlett, Portland (Ore.) Central Catholic, who is another bigger back. Scarlett took an official visit to UCLA and really liked it, and the word was that UCLA had moved ahead on his list. Stanford has always been the leader here and we think that if he gets admitted into Stanford he’ll go there ultimately.

Given the situation with running back recruiting, we could foresee a scenario in which UCLA just brings in Olorunfunmi. Or even if they bring in Jamabo, we believe there’s a chance he ends up a receiver on the next level. In other words, the possibility of finding that big-play guy at running back for 2015 is probably unlikely.

Currently on UCLA’s roster at running back is Paul Perkins, the returning Pac-12 rushing leader who will be just a redshirt junior next season. The #2 guy is Nate Starks, who showed flashes as a true freshman and we expect to be a much bigger impact type of player down the road, perhaps as early as next season. Steven Manfro suffered an ACL tear in his knee in fall camp, and missed the entire season. We wouldn’t be surprised if Manfro returned – or he didn’t, maybe moving on to another program as a graduate transfer. Don’t panic, we’re just speculating, but we have heard there were some players on the roster who might opt for the graduate transfer option and you'd have to speculate that Manfro could be a candidate.

Craig Lee
Where we’re going with this is that we think current redshirt freshman running back Craig Lee might be the big-time playmaker at running back UCLA could really use. To be candid, it appears he was in the doghouse with the staff a bit this season, not getting a single opportunity to run the ball all year. We know there have been issues with Lee grasping his responsibilities as a running back, but we think, if he sticks with the program, he has a chance to get out of the doghouse and surprise the UCLA coaches. He is the fastest running back on the roster and shows explosiveness in practice. With Jordon James gone and a spot open in the running back rotation, this spring will probably make or break his standing with the UCLA program.

If we’re speculating, we think that true freshman Adarius Pickett has a chance to move back to running back. He came to UCLA last spring, started at defensive back and was there through half of fall camp. But then the coaches moved him to running back – and he looked fantastic, given that he had just moved to the position after a few weeks of practice. He had a natural feel for it, some great elusiveness and a thick body built for it at about 6-0 and 190. He then was moved back to defensive back a few weeks into the season, as UCLA saw its running back depth was fine, even after losing Manfro, and more bodies were needed at defensive back. We’ve seen him extensively at both defensive back and running back and, taking nothing away from his DB capability, he looks entirely like his future is at running back. Now, whether he has the upside to be a big offensive playmaker is another question, but he certainly looked like he had the chance as a running back in fall camp.

Bottom line, with finding that speedy playmaker: It’s a bit up in the air. It’s not farfetched that current players Walker, Lasley or Lee step into that kind of role, or that incoming recruit Johnson is that type, probably having the best speed of anyone mentioned here (except maybe Lucas). If they actually pull out Kirk and/or Jamabo that would really be a huge coup for the program, and go a long way toward satisfying the nagging need for more big-time offensive playmakers. Right now, though, projecting out UCLA’s depth charts over the next few seasons, it still is pretty murky if UCLA will, indeed, find someone, or a few players, to fulfill the role that could help take UCLA’s offense to the next level.

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