Recruiting Needs #5: Interior DL

Dec. 16 -- It's always difficult to find elite defensive tackles, and UCLA will have to replace two very good ones in Kenneth Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes soon, and possibly even sooner...

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

Recruiting Needs #4: Lock-Down Corner
Recruiting Need #3: Offensive Playmakers
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.

Interior Defensive Line

Recruiting for the interior defensive line, now that we really considered it, probably shouldn’t be the #5 priority on this list. It should always be anywhere from #1 to #3 (with the other two priorities being quarterback and offensive line).

As with offensive line, the defensive line in college football is critical. A team just can’t be good unless it has good line play on both sides of the ball. And it can’t be under-appreciated that a great deal of UCLA’s recent success has been the talent it has on the defensive line. But then the worry is (and we always have worries): how do you replace the current elite interior defensive line talent when it moves on?

Eddie Vanderdoes and Kenneth Clark

We’re probably a bit spoiled now with the likes of Kenneth Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes manning the interior DL of UCLA’s 3-4. Those are two future NFL players – and when’s the last time UCLA could say it had two NFLers playing alongside each other at defensive tackle? And not only are they potential NFL players, they’re probably first- or second-round type guys.

The upside of it all is that UCLA has had them for two years and absolutely for certain has them for one more year – next season both of them being true juniors. You’d like to imagine that you have both of them for two more years, but that might be fantasy. It’s realistic to foresee either one or both putting their name in the NFL Draft after next season. Losing one early would really hurt, but losing both is the type of blow that could alter the outcome of a season.

How realistic is that either or both leave? It’s difficult to predict, but if either of them project to be first round it’s pretty safe to say they’d leave. It’s been pointed out to me, when discussing the prospect of Vanderdoes or Clark leaving, that there hasn’t been many early entrant DTs to get drafted in the first round. We won’t do the research but, for the sake of argument, we’ll believe that statement. But our counter-argument is that we feel there is a very good chance that, after one more season, the NFL will view Clark or/and Vanderdoes as a first-round draft pick regardless, that they’re that good. We’d probably say that Clark has the better chance, since he’s a rare commodity – a pure nose-guard type with the size and athleticism to play in the NFL. Vanderdoes is more of a three-technique and, not to under-value him, but there are more of those types available. Clark is rare. Clark, too, might be more motivated financially to help support his family than Vanderdoes. And then, who’s to say that either Clark or Vanderdoes would only go pro after next season if they were projected in the first round? Clark might be hardpressed to leave and it might make complete sense of him to do it when he’s projected as a second-rounder.

Not to under-value Vanderdoes again, because he’s an exceptional player and we think will be a candidate for post-season honors next year, but from a UCLA standpoint Clark is also harder to replace. In recruiting it’s nearly impossible to find true nose guards. The caliber of nose guard that can play at the high-major level might be the rarest of recruit, regardless of position, especially if your parameters are narrowed by a higher academic standard.

There is also the factor that the main interior DL back-up, Ellis McCarthy, will be a senior next year. So, UCLA will have to replace him for 2016, and then there is the possibility it might have to replace one or both of Clark and Vanderdoes.

So, UCLA and UCLA Defensive Line Coach Angus McClure has the task of trying to, first, find the future replacement for Clark. The next-in-line back-up on the roster is Eli Ankou, who is currently a redshirt sophomore. We could actually see Ankou winning the starting nose spot as a redshirt senior, given that he’ll have so much experience under his belt. From a talent perspective, Ankou is a good athlete but just doesn’t have the pure talent of Clark, but then not many do. He also is probably more of a three-technique who would be doing time a bit out of position at the nose.

Ainu Taua, the freshman DT who is redshirting, then, is a big key to the future of UCLA’s DL. But, like with many, when we scouted him in high school we didn’t think he was big enough to project to being an every-down nose guard. He has, though, gotten bigger in his first year at UCLA. He shed some of the bad weight he had gained before coming to UCLA but put on some good weight. It could just be our imagination, too, but seeing him in person he looks taller. He used to be about 5-11 but he looks a good 6-0 now, and probably a solid 285. It’s absolutely impossible to draw any conclusions about his future from scout team in practice this season. We did hear that in scrimmages in practice he’s looked particularly good. But we’ll have to reserve judgment until spring practice, and that will give him the entire off-season to continue to improve his body. Right now we think Taua is going to have to be the nose guard of UCLA’s future, mainly because, at this moment, there’s no one else in the pipeline. He was, though, considered a very good prospect out of high school because of the combination of strength and quickness for his size, and we think with one more year of development, and getting some playing time next season, he’ll be ready to potentially replace Clark as a redshirt sophomore in 2016. Hopefully in 2016 he’ll have Vanderdoes on his side, literally.

If you’ve been watching UCLA’s DL recruiting for 2015, you’d say that it appears they haven’t been targeting nose guards. But the reality, again, is that there just aren’t that many available who can play at this level, and none on the west coast. And then you’d have to gauge whether any out-of-the-region DTs who are talented enough will even consider coming west. You’d almost rather move over a talented three-technique and have him play out of position than you would play someone without the talent to hold up. It was one of the reasons we believe UCLA dropped Bryce English, the nose guard who verbally committed to UCLA in summer.

One of the things, too, that makes it even tougher in recruiting the interior DL is trying to predict which way a recruit’s body will go. The general rule of thumb is that they’re all going to get bigger, not only because of maturation but as a result of being in a college football strength and conditioning program. But given the recruit’s frame and family history: how much bigger? So, looking at body type, a DL coach like McClure, who doesn’t have clear-cut DTs to recruit in the west, has to try to project which recruits might end up interior DLs, and many times it’s going against what a recruit and his family themselves see him as.

Recruiting is fun, huh?

Ainuu Taua
So, given all of those limitations – a very small number of qualified DTs and having to project body types that perhaps defy a family’s strongly-felt NFL plans for their son – that doesn’t leave UCLA much for 2015 defensive tackle recruiting, especially in a particularly down year in the west (but, really, for DTs, it seems like it’s almost always a down year).

UCLA has been recruiting Joseph Wicker, the DL from Long Beach Poly, and the thought was that UCLA was leading for him. But the recruitment hit a bit of a snag recently, as we reported. Wicker and UCLA had previously agreed that he would officially visit UCLA this last weekend, but signals got crossed, and from what we understand from sources close to the situation, the signal-crossing was mostly on Wicker’s part (and not intentionally). Instead of visiting UCLA he visited Arizona. UCLA could lose patience with this kind of thing, but we just heard that UCLA has told Long Beach Poly that it will continue to recruit Wicker aggressively and bring him in for an official visit in January. It will be interesting to watch if everything stays on a good basis going forward. Wicker is probably the closest thing in the area to a defensive tackle with enough talent and size to play for UCLA, and to potentially play nose guard.

UCLA-committed Cassius Peat, from Arizona, will come into UCLA as a defensive end/linebacker, but we could see genetics and a weight program pushing him to play exclusively with his hand down. He’s probably 6-3 and 245 right now, but his father and entire family are made up of very big men; his older brother is the Stanford offensive lineman Andrus Peat, who is 6-7 and 315 pounds. After a couple of years of growth and development we could see Peat getting pretty big, and even possibly becoming a three-technique, at the least. With his quickness, if he does get considerably bigger, he'd have a chance to be big-time defensive lineman.

There is Tyrone Wheatley, the defensive end/tight end from Buffalo. UCLA was apparently doing very well with him, but he took an official visit to USC this last weekend and that, apparently, has really helped the Trojans. He is scheduled to visit UCLA In January. Even though he’s a defensive end, we include him here because he’s another guy who very well could end up playing inside. USC is recruiting him as a tight end, which is interesting because we think his best position is on the DL, either at end or perhaps interior DL eventually.

Benning Potoae (pictured above), the prospect from Lakewood (Wash.) Lakes, is a guy you would flat-out take and sort out where he plays later. He’s currently about 6-3 and 265 and still fairly lean. He projects the best at the three-technique, but it’s not unreasonable to project him, with his body type, getting to 300 pounds and being able to play nose guard. UCLA is doing very well with him, and we think currently leads Washington.

With whom UCLA has committed on the DL right now, Peat and defensive end Rick Wade (We’re leaving out Rick Wade in this breakdown because he projects almost exclusively as a defensive end), if it got Potoae it would probably be full up on its allotment for defensive line scholarships for 2015, and that would be a heck of a class -- Peat, Wade and Potoae. Now, UCLA could take more, of course, if some elite prospect wanted to also jump in the boat.

Speaking of which, UCLA very well could start to get involved with some elite DTs from outside the region. It probably wasn’t able to do this earlier in the recruiting cycle, but the program now has a little more cachet and more connections in regions where there happen to be more qualified DTs. Like Texas. As we reported, we think UCLA is going to take a run at Daylon Mack, the five-star defensive tackle from Texas committed to Texas A&M, as well as Du’Vonta Lampkin, the four-star verbally committed to Texas. We’re skeptical at this point just how much of a chance UCLA would have with either of them, but we’ve heard from Texas sources that both are a little motivated to check out other schools, particularly UCLA.

There is also Kyon Clark, the younger brother of Ken Clark. He is currently verbally committed to Montana, but if UCLA offered, of course, he’d almost assuredly take it. The issue with Clark is that he needs to transform his body, currently at 6-2 and probably 340, and he’s actually lost weight, about 40 pounds. He has some good athleticism under all of that girth, and he’d be a guy you would take on as a developmental guy, greyshirt him, get him in a nutrition and conditioning program, and hope he trims down to 320-ish. We think there’s a decent possibility UCLA takes Clark. We’re skeptical, though, that he ultimately is anything more than a two-deep guy on UCLA’s level.

We think perhaps the best nose guard prospect on the west coast is already verbally committed to UCLA – as an offensive lineman. Fred Ulu-Perry is the #1 center prospect in the nation, but he has flashed the type of ability that has led at least a few to think he would be an elite nose guard. We think, too, it’s a real possibility that Ulu-Perry ends up on the defensive side of the ball. It’s not a matter, really, of whether either the UCLA offensive or defensive coaches want him; we’re sure they do. It’s a matter probably of where Ulu-Perry feels he wants to play and best projects as a pro prospect.

The three-technique is quite a bit easier of a position to fill. There are more body types that project to that position and it’s not that big of a stretch to have a defensive end move to the three-technique, kind of like Owamagbe Odighizuwa did often this season. We could see UCLA freshman Matt Dickerson project to play more three-technique (so you get a sense of what we’re talking about, it’s Eddie Vanderdoes’ position) over the end spot (Owa’s position) as he continues to get bigger and stronger. Perhaps the other true freshman, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, too. We think one of them will end up playing more three-technique, depending on their physical development. We also think there are some offensive linemen in the program that could switch over to the DL and have an impact.

To keep continuity of talent and depth at the interior DL in the next few years, UCLA looks to be in solid shape, with guys like Taua and Dickerson/Tuioti-Mariner already in the program. Getting Potoae would really be a big addition, and Wicker, too would be a good one. It’d also be good to have a developmental guy in the program like Kyon Clark. If Ulu-Perry did play nose guard, combined with the aforementioned talent, the future of UCLA’s interior DL would be looking very good. If it happened to actually get one of the Texas DTs, well, then, we could probably stop worrying about the future of UCLA’s interior defensive line a bit after Ken Clark and Vanderdoes move on.

Extra Bonus -- Recruiting Need #6: Traditional Tight End

We had intended to throw this in anyway, but we want to do it now in particular, given the recent discussion on the Football Premium Board about the need for a traditional tight end in UCLA’s offense. It’s not necessarily needed, as we’ve seen, since UCLA hasn’t had one since Joseph Fauria two seasons ago. But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t potentially be a devastating weapon and match-up nightmare, much the same way Fauria was.

Chris Clark
In UCLA’s spread offense, it’s all about getting one-on-one matchups, and the bigger the mismatch the better. A big, 6-5, 250-pound tight end is exactly that when he ends up matched up against a smaller defender like a nickel back. Plus, UCLA’s spread is more run-based than other pass-happy versions, so having the option of a very good blocking tight end gives UCLA’s offensive coaches more effective blockers in the run game. And, when he’s in the game it provides the offense an element of deception. When you line up an F receiver like Thomas Duarte it’s pretty clear the intention is for him to catch a pass. When you would line up a big, traditional tight end in UCLA’s offense, like a 6-5, 250-pounder, opposing defenses won’t believe he’s in there to catch a pass like Duarte – but they can’t assume he’s only in there to block, either.

It’s something the UCLA offense could really use in its arsenal in future years. In the 2015 class, Chris Clark, the #1-ranked tight end in the nation, fills the bill. UCLA has been recruiting him pretty aggressively, thinking they’d like to have an option if Alize Jones decided to back out of his UCLA commitment and opt for Notre Dame. As of today, if you take some things Jones changed on his Twitter account, and the fact Jim Mora and Adrian Klemm were in his home Sunday night, it looks pretty good UCLA holds on to Jones. But we’re still a long way from National Signing Day. And regardless, it shouldn’t be thought of as an either/or proposition – Clark or Jones. Put it this way: Wouldn’t you like to have both Fauria and Duarte in the same offense? We think, though, from what we’ve heard, that Clark probably isn’t buying the pitch that he and Jones could play in the same offense when, in actuality, in our opinion, it’s true. Clark probably isn’t going to come to UCLA unless Jones isn’t, from what we’ve learned.

But the bigger, more long-term picture is that, if UCLA does, in fact, get Jones and not Clark, it should be looking for a bigger, traditional-type of tight end in future recruiting classes to really give the UCLA offense another weapon and more dimension.

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