2016 Recruiting Analysis: Defensive Line

Mar. 2 -- UCLA has plenty of open spots on the defensive line, with a real need on the interior...

This is the sixth in a series that gets into some deep analysis of UCLA's recruiting needs for 2016 position by position.

Already, we've published:

-- 2016 Recruiting Analysis: Quarterbacks
-- 2016 Recruiting Analysis: Running Backs
-- 2016 Recruiting Analysis: Wide Receivers
-- 2016 Recruiting Analysis: Tight Ends
-- 2016 Recruiting Analysis: Offensive Line

UCLA clearly signed a considerably talent-laden class for 2015. Plugging that into the existing talent in the program, UCLA is definitely at its most talented point in quite a long time.

In analyzing the projected depth chart after plugging in the incoming freshmen, it’s fun to nitpick and analyze what are some areas of need for the program, specifically for the 2016 recruiting class.

It definitely is a new era in UCLA football recruiting. Just a few years ago, we couldn’t write the type of article this is – where we selectively pinpointed specific needs in the program. Pretty much under the last couple of coaching staffs you didn’t have that luxury – you’d just say UCLA needed to load up on talent at every position from top to bottom.

So, here it is, what UCLA needs position by position, in 2016, and the 2016 prospects out there that UCLA has a chance to get that best fills that need.

Defensive Line

Need and Recruiting Tactic: Heading into the 2015 recruiting cycle, we considered defensive linemen, particularly defensive tackles, one of the biggest needs in the class. With UCLA signing just Rick Wade as a true defensive lineman (Keisean Lucier-South may play defensive end depending on UCLA’s scheme going forward), the need becomes even greater in the 2016 class. As it stands now, UCLA, in a worst case scenario, projects to lose Kenneth Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes next year, since they both could have big enough years to project as early round draft picks in the 2016 NFL Draft. Assuming that happens, that would leave UCLA with very limited depth and talent. Eli Ankou, Ainuu Taua, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, Matt Dickerson, Takkarist McKinley, and Wade would be the full list of scholarship defensive linemen, as of right now. That’s just simply not enough bodies for a team that’ll likely aspire for a Pac-12 championship.

So, it’s pretty clear that UCLA needs at least three defensive linemen in this cycle, and potentially ever four depending on what sort of system the Bruins will run going forward with Tom Bradley at the helm of the defense. Some combination of two defensive tackles and two defensive ends would probably be the ideal mix, and to be frank, with the way the depth chart could look in 2016, it shouldn’t be hard to pitch a talented group of linemen on early playing time.

The rosier way to look at the situation is this: Angus McClure has quickly built a pretty good resume as a developer of NFL talent. His first year, Datone Jones was drafted in the first round. His second year, Cassius Marsh was drafted in the fourth round. This year, Owamagbe Odighizuwa projects to be a first or second round pick, while Ellis McCarthy could very well be drafted in the later rounds. Assuming UCLA does project both Clark and Vanderdoes to leave as early round draft picks after next season, that’ll give McClure and UCLA potentially six defensive line draft picks in four drafts, which would be pretty incredible. If UCLA really hammers that pitch, that UCLA is where you can go to become an NFL defensive lineman, we have to imagine it would be pretty compelling for many talented linemen across the country.

So the pitch should be fairly simple: you can play early for a guy who produces NFL talent, in a scheme and defensive front that looks very much like many NFL systems. The next step is simply finding the talent to fill the spots.

Our Picks for the Right Fit:

We’ve already said a few times that he’s the most important recruit in the class, so it shouldn’t come as a shock that he’s listed first here. He is an explosive interior linemen who uses his hands exceptionally well for a high school player -- probably a product of having grown into an interior lineman after being a defensive end early in his career. He has very good quickness for his size and is very impressive in his ability to diagnose a play and keep his eyes up. He’ll often disengage from an offensive lineman and make pursuit tackles to the edge of the field since he has such good awareness and very good athleticism for his size. He bends really well, allowing him to out-leverage most offensive linemen, and he’s just a powerful guy. As he continues to grow, he could play any position on the interior of the defensive line, which makes him an ideal fit for UCLA’s scheme. In so many respects -- need, talent, versatility -- he represents the most important recruit in this class for UCLA.

We’d have to see him a bit more his senior year, but we think he could be a plug and play guy as a true freshman, similar to Clark. That’ll be critical especially if Clark and Vanderdoes do decide to go pro after the 2015 season. Tagaloa already has enough size and athleticism to play early in his career, and if he maintains his upward trajectory, he could be a potential three or four-year starter for UCLA.

Brandt could float between outside linebacker and defensive end, making him a good fit for end in UCLA’s system. Think of it this way: UCLA could replace the 6’1-ish, 215 pound-ish Deon Hollins with the 6’4, 225 pound Brandt and not lose a bit in terms of athleticism (what Brandt gives up in straight ahead quickness he more than makes up for in lateral ability). Brandt is a very good athlete (in fact, he’s a pretty good basketball player as well) and, though he plays in lower level league, it’s easy to see his pass-rush ability translating to the college level. That basketball background is part of why he’s so intriguing -- he’s only been playing football for a couple of years, and has never really put in a full offseason of football weight-training, having to keep his weight down to play hoops. Projecting his frame with another 15 or 20 pounds of muscle added to it, it’s easy to see he has the makings of a big-time defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid.

For UCLA’s purposes, this past year was not a great year in terms of pass rush. Hollins and McKinley (to an extent) were the only consistent individual pass rush threats, and continuing to develop and recruit those types of players is a big priority for UCLA going forward. Brandt is an obvious fit as a potentially elite pass rusher, and depending on how his body goes and what UCLA does in terms of scheme, he could use his talents at either defensive end or outside linebacker. Brandt is already committed and solid as can be, so UCLA is already a step ahead in improving its pass rush in 2016.

With the recent hiring of Tom Bradley, Betiku has become a much more realistic option for UCLA, since his mentor, Lavar Arrington, was coached by Bradley while at Penn State. Betiku is a really intriguing defensive line prospect because, like Brandt, he’s still fairly new to football, having grown up playing mostly soccer and basketball. He’s a well-built 6’3 or 6’4, looking like he’s already 235+ pounds, and he moves very well (as you might expect from a guy who grew up playing soccer). He’s shown the ability to penetrate into the backfield at the high school level, with an explosive first step, but he’s still very raw in terms of technique. He looks like he’d be a nice fit at end, with a frame that looks like it could get to 250+. He has an excellent motor and does a great job of pursuing plays that run away from him. As he continues to refine his technique, he should continue to improve in terms of production.

Betiku would, like Brandt, substantially improve the pass rush with his athleticism, and if he ends up growing significantly beyond his present 235 pounds, his strength and athleticism would make him an interesting option on the interior at one of the defensive tackle positions. Assuming he stays around his current weight, though, he’d be a really good addition to the end rotation.

Rand is a big defensive tackle who you could reasonably project as a nose tackle for UCLA, even though he’s not yet that kind of size (he’s probably in the 270 range right now). He’s a good enough prospect that even if he doesn’t end up 300 pounds, he projects well at the other interior positions. He is very strong, which is probably his best asset, and his bull rush is very hard to contain. He already gets a good amount of double teams at the high school level and has shown the ability to disengage from blocks to make tackles. He’s not the explosive athlete that Tagaloa is, but he easily projects a space-eater who can clog up the running lanes on the interior and make plays off of blocks.

It would be quite the coup for UCLA to snag both the No. 1 and No. 2 defensive tackles in the West in the 2016 class, but given UCLA’s needs, we have to figure the UCLA staff will be able to make a strong pitch. Rand and Tagaloa are different enough players that there should be room to pitch them both on starting early, or at least playing significantly early. If the Bruins snag both, that’ll put UCLA in excellent shape on the interior for the foreseeable future.

Others Who Could Fit

Odighizuwa obviously has the bloodlines, though he projects as more of an interior lineman than his brother. At about 6’2, 240 right now during wrestling season, Odighizuwa has the frame to add some real weight -- maybe he won’t ever be 285 pounds, but he could potentially fit in as a 270-pound three-technique. Odighizuwa is very strong, with some of his brother’s power, and he’s quick off the snap for an interior lineman. The big thing for him will be continuing to refine his technique. As it stands, he gets by to a large extent on his strength and athletic gifts, and he won’t be the strongest or most athletic player in college, so developing more from that standpoint will be key.

For UCLA’s purposes, in a not-so-great year for defensive linemen in the West, Odighizuwa represents an interior lineman with obvious talent and a clear connection to UCLA that shouldn’t make it too difficult of a recruitment. While he probably doesn’t project as a nose tackle, he has the ability to play a few of the different line spots (anything from three-tech to 4i) which should make him a pretty attractive piece for UCLA.

The 6’7, 250 pound Murphy fits the absolute mold of what UCLA would like a 3-4 defensive end, with great length, good athleticism, and the frame to add plenty of weight. He moves really well for a guy his height, and just looking at him physically, he looks like the type of player who would move just as well with 20 more pounds on him. Combined with Rick Wade, Murphy could give UCLA a very Stanford-like look on its defensive line, with two long-armed, big-framed linemen with good athleticism book-ending the nose tackle.

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