Recruiting: Continuing to Upgrade Talent

Apr. 6 -- UCLA's recruiting under Jim Mora has been unprecedented, but what does UCLA need to do in 2016 to build on the foundation and continue to upgrade the talent in the program? Part 1: Defense...

With last month’s commitments, it’s another indication that recruiting under Jim Mora is rolling.

We’ve said it before, but we’re starting to get into unprecedented territory – with Mora and his staff able to recruit at such a high level. If you imagine it as a line on a graph it would be just beginning go up, with quite a bit of potential for it to continue to grow.

Mora’s first, abbreviated class of 2012 was ranked #12 in the country; his second in 2013 was #3; in 2014, with a smaller class, it came in ranked #20; and then last year, still with a slightly smaller group, the 2015 UCLA class ranked #9 nationally.

In terms of per-star average, in 2012 it was 3.14, 2013 was 3.81, 2014 was 3.56 and the 2015 class came in with an average of 4.0. The 2013 class was 4th in the nation, the 2014 class was 9th, and the 4.0 for 2015 was #2 in the nation, trailing just Alabama.

That’s definitely an upward movement on a graph.

What was very impressive was, in the 2015 class, UCLA signed the #1-ranked quarterback, #1 running back, #1 tight end, the #1 center, and the nation’s #1 offensive line class. That’s definitely breaking new ground.

It’s early for the 2016 class, but with the two recent commitments, it looks like we can expect the 2016 class to continue to move the line up the graph. Right now, in March, UCLA already has 6 commitments, and five of the six are ranked among the top five at their position in the country (for the longsnapper rankings, we’re using those of Chris Sailer/Chris Rubio, which are considered the benchmark among specialists). If we’re using the word “unprecedented,” this would be a time this fits. Never in memory (say, the last 20 years), has UCLA started off its recruiting cycle with that level of qualify. Before the 2012 class (pre-Mora), if you go back to 2002, UCLA signed only 11 high school prospects ranked in the top five at their position in the nation total in those 10 years, and three of those were specialists.

If you think about it, too, Mora hasn’t even won anything really significant yet. What if he won a Pac-12 Championship and/or went to a College Football Playoff? Imagining how that would additionally impact recruiting is very exciting.

It’s just not about recruiting rankings, either. The classes Mora has signed have, in an unprecedented manner, fulfilled UCLA’s recruiting needs, in the type of elite way that builds elite programs. Never have the UCLA offensive line and defensive line been so talented. When UCLA needed a quarterback to replace Brett Hundley, it went out and got the nation’s #1 quarterback prospect. After the first three spring practices, the thing that really jumps out at you is how much talent there is on Spaulding Field, and how it so dramatically contrasts with the pre-Mora-era spring practices. Now, when UCLA graduates the Butkus Award- and Lott Trophy-winning middle linebacker, it gets commitments from two top-five inside linebackers. So, not only are the classes superior from a pure rankings perspective, they’ve been very good in providing the UCLA program the talent at positions of need.

This has all happened because of the way recruits view the UCLA program now. Mora has posted 29 wins in three seasons, and UCLA’s first successive 10-win seasons since 1999. He’s beaten USC three years in a row. He’s shown recruits that, on the field, they’re going to win. And off the field, Mora and his staff have shown recruits that the UCLA football culture has changed. This has all contributed to a monumental sea change in UCLA’s ability to recruit. The fact that, in March – this early in the recruiting cycle – UCLA already has five of six top-five recruits verbally committed is something you never would have envisioned just a few years ago.

The 2016 class, then, is off to such a good start it has a chance to be the Mother of All UCLA Recruiting Classes. As of right now, if you take out Scout’s star ranking of UCLA’s committed longsnapper, it would average 4.2 stars per commit, which would currently be #1 in the nation, ahead of reigning national champion Ohio State (4.13), 2013 national champion Florida State (3.85), USC (4.0) and Alabama. Of course, it’s early and these rankings don’t mean much at this point, but it does provide an indication that UCLA’s 2016 class has a good chance to be among the nation’s best and UCLA football recruiting continues to trend upward.

For UCLA recruiting to continue to do that, what would UCLA have to do with the 2016 class? That is, to not only continue to improve its class in terms of rankings but also in terms of team needs?

We break down that exact notion here, analyzing what UCLA would have to do with the 2016 class by position to continue to improve and build on its already great recent recruiting.

Note: This isn’t a comprehensive list of recruits but a recruiting analysis.

We start with Defense.

Defensive Tackle

This is perhaps the most critical position for 2016 recruiting. We’ve analyzed this numerous times, but you really can’t emphasize it enough: UCLA could lose its starting defensive tackles after this season with both Kenneth Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes being potential NFL early entry candidates, and certainly after their senior season in 2016. And, really, there isn’t a player on the roster that you would project, #1) to replace Clark at nose; not replace his level of talent and performance, just replace him position-wise, and 2) who could replace the level of talent of Clark and Vanderdoes. As is our mantra, football is won in the trenches, and for UCLA to continue to improve its performance and results, and build on the last three years, plugging in talent as good or better than Vanderdoes and Clark on the interior DL is a key component.

Boss Tagaloa
Since we’re shooting high here, we think the DT class needs to have an elite national prospect to headline it. It’s regrettable that there isn’t a top-five defensive tackle prospect in the west, but the guy closest to that is Boss Tagaloa, the prospect from Concord De La Salle, who is ranked #8 nationally as a defensive tackle. Tagaloa, because of UCLA’s recruiting needs, becomes the #1 must-get target in the 2016 class for UCLA. He’s the Josh Rosen of 2016. Right now, too, from what we know, UCLA leads for Tagaloa. In fact, with how recruiting works, we’ve heard the fact that UCLA hasn’t stocked up on DTs in recent classes and Tagaloa would have a chance at immediate playing time is working in UCLA’s favor with him. UCLA clearly know it needs to dedicate a huge amount of recruiting resources to remain his leader between now and National Signing Day in 2016. Tagaloa is expected to unofficially visit UCLA Wednesday.

That would be one, and UCLA needs two elite DT types. Since the standard now is to try to either replicate or improve on the talent level of Vanderdoes and Clark, and there just isn’t that kind of talent, besides Tagaloa, on the west coast, UCLA will have to go out of the west to get it done. UCLA, as of right now, has a chance with Rashan Gary from Paramus (New Jersey), the nation’s #1 player overall in the class of 2016; and Rashard Lawrence, the nation’s #3-ranked DT from Monroe (La.) Neville. These two five-star prospects are the type of guys UCLA’s defensive line needs to continue to improve.

Both Gary and Lawrence have legit interest in UCLA and plan to visit. It’s difficult, of course, to get the #1 prospect in the country and/or a top-five DT from the state of Louisiana, but going into Mora’s fourth recruiting cycle, this is where the bar should be now. At this point, given how UCLA missed on DTs for 2014, a successful DT recruiting cycle for 2016 would have to include Tagaloa and Gary/Lawrence, or an equivalent.

Defensive End

UCLA did pretty well in 2015 recruiting at defensive end, getting a solid four-star guy in Rick Wade and then a five-star at the hybrid defensive end/linebacker spot in Keisean Lucier-South. Given UCLA’s depth at the position, it could have used one more guy there for 2015, but this is the level of recruiting UCLA needs to sustain to continue to improve the program.

Oluwole Betiku
For 2016, UCLA is off to an excellent start in sustaining that standard with a verbal commitment from five-star Breland Brandt, from Santa Monica Windward, for the hybrid role. Brandt has a chance to be an Anthony Barr-level player, and coming in a year after Lucier-South, who is that level of prospect, too, means the level of talent at the hybrid spot projects to be very good for the forseeble future.

UCLA Defensive Line Coach Angus McClure, though, will probably need two more pure DE types to add to Brandt. As Tagaloa makes the DT class, the guy that makes the DE class is Oluwole Betiku, from Gardena Serra. He the closest thing to Owamagbe Odighizuwa, and might have a little more upside because he’s just at the beginning of his football learning curve. Here’s the recruiting challenge for UCLA: Betiku goes to USC-feeder Serra, but Betiku’s guardian is LaVar Arrington, the former Penn State All-American who is very close to UCLA’s new Defensive Coordinator, Tom Bradley. UCLA needs to end, or at least severely disrupt, the Serra-to-USC pipeline, and this is the Bruins’ opportunity to do that, with Betiku. If UCLA is going to step up to true big-boy recruiting, this is a key get for 2016.

Another defensive end prospect that UCLA could prove itself with by getting in the 2016 class is Maxs Tupai, the prospect from Murray (Utah). Tupai will be kind of the Osa Masina of the 2016 class, not by player type but in recruitment, being an elite guy from Utah that every west coast program will be targeting aggressively. So the gauntlet is throw down for UCLA to see if it can beat out everyone else for him.


What new Linebackers Coach Scott White has done in recruiting since being hired last month can’t be under-appreciated. Not long after getting the job – his first job as an assistant on the college level – White got verbal commitments from the #2-ranked inside linebacker in the nation, Lokeni Toailoa, and the nation’s #5 inside linebacker, Krys Barnes. With UCLA missed on its two big inside linebacker targets in the 2014 class, getting two big-time inside linebackers for 2016 was a huge priority, perhaps as big as defensive tackle. But while we’re probably going to have to wait to see how the DT recruiting pans out, the wait is over at inside linebacker. There will be a bit of a challenge hanging onto Toailoa, since USC is going to be trying to flip him until February, but White, as of now, is looking pretty good at keeping him in the fold.

Caleb Kelly
UCLA, then, needs to get an elite outside linebacker prospect in 2016, and there are two guys on UCLA’s recruiting board that would fulfill that need – Caleb Kelly from Fresno Clovis West, and Curtis Robinson, from Santa Ana Mater Dei. Kelly is ranked the #1 overall prospect in the west, the #9 prospect nationally overall, and the #2 outside linebacker in the nation. Robinson is the nation’s #9 outside linebacker and #110 overall nationally. You could maybe even make the case, however, that Robinson could have more upside than Kelly, being taller and longer. Getting either one would put the linebacker recruiting over the top; getting both, which is a reasonable scenario, would potentially make the 2016 UCLA linebacker class the best ever, and exactly what it needs to keep improving its talent level. As of right now, it’s thought that UCLA is among the top three favorites for Kelly and was his original favorite. It’s between UCLA and Stanford for Robinson (We have a Recruiting Update on Robinson today).

We’ve also heard that UCLA, when it comes down to it, will have a very good chance with at least a couple of other elite outside linebacker prospects, even some that aren’t necessarily talking about UCLA at this time, for understandable reasons.

UCLA scoring a big haul in their 2016 linebacker class is particularly important since the 2017 class isn’t a great one in the west.


UCLA got a solid defensive backs class in 2015, one with a couple of guys who have a chance to be elite, and it filled out what you would expect to be some playable depth. So, with that foundation, UCLA definitely needs to take its talent in the secondary to another level if it wants the program to go there.

Under Mora, UCLA has had only decent talent in the secondary. It’s been generally very young, and it will be better as it develops and matures. To be candid, the actual recruiting itself by Defensive Backs Coach Demetrice Martin has been outstanding, but some of the recruits that just about everyone thought would be elite haven’t lived up to expectation at UCLA just yet. The 2013 class of Priest Willis (#4-ranked CB in nation), Tahaan Goodman (nation’s #7-ranked safety), Johnny Johnson (nation’s #8-ranked corner), and Tyler Foreman (nation’s #8-ranked safety) all haven’t panned out to expectation yet, with Willis and Goodman playing but not at an elite level, Johnson being injured and Foreman transferring because he couldn’t earn playing time. That was the class that was supposed to take UCLA’s secondary over the top and stock it with elite talent, but it hasn’t happened.

Jack Jones
That has left a definitely fall-out in talent. The play of true freshman Jaleel Wadood in 2014 (nation’s #8-ranked safety) has softened it a bit, since he is living up to expectation, but there’s still a fairly good-sized void.

Where it’s been felt primarily has been at cornerback. If you watched UCLA’s defense last year, it was repeatedly evident that UCLA was really lacking a big-time, lock-down cornerback. It missed on that guy in 2015, and now it’s up to 2016 class recruiting to bring him in. The guy is Jack Jones from Long Beach Poly (Pictured Above), who is currently ranked the #8 cornerback in the nation – but we have to say, we really want to see numbers 1 through 7. We’ve now see Jones a number of times this spring and summer, including just a week ago in the Passing Down 7-on-7, and we don’t think we’ve seen a better cornerback prospect in the west in a very long time and think he’s that potential elite cornerback prospect. He said about a month ago that UCLA leads for him and, even though he recently backed off that publicly, we know it’s probably still true. He’ll take another unofficial visit to UCLA in the next couple of weeks for spring practice.

Luckily, there is a great deal of talent in the west at cornerback for 2016, and UCLA is doing well with it. We particularly like David Long, from Los Angeles Loyola, and think he has a chance to be an elite cover corner, as well as Jordan Parker, from Pittsburg (Calif.)

Getting two of these three (or other top-10 corner talent) is what UCLA needs to continue to upgrade its secondary.

The safety depth chart projects out to be in pretty good shape over the next several years. As we said, Wadood has shown he’s going to be a very good one, and we think the 2015 signees of Dechaun Holiday and Colin Samuel are going to prove to be very good safeties (even though they might be labeled cornerbacks now). UCLA already has a commitment from the #1 safety in the west and #3 nationally in Michael Pittman, and if he actually plays safety in college it would provide a very great chance of sustaining talent at safety. As we’ve written previously, it’s really up in the air what position Pittman plays in college, however. If his body doesn’t get too big, he has a chance to be an excellent safety, since he’s shown a great penchant for the position in high school. After Pittman, there isn’t a truly elite prospect that’s an obvious target for UCLA. But the Bruins have signed quite a few safety types in the last two classes, so if it can just get two more high-end players from Holiday, Samuel, Nathan Meadors (who enrolled early and is looking pretty good in spring practice) and Octavius Spencer, it’d be set at safety for the forseeable future without needing an elite prospect for 2015.


UCLA could very likely replace all three of its scholarship specialists – the field goal kicker, punter and longsnapper, in the 2016 class.

When you’re talking expectation for UCLA specialists, the bar is set pretty high, with UCLA always seemingly having excellent kickers, punters and longsnappers.

It currently has a commitment from the #2 longsnapper in the country, Johnny Den Bleyker. It’s probably leading for the #1 kicker in the nation, J.J. Molson, and will undoubtedly be involved with an elite punter. It will be interesting to see if UCLA does, in fact, take a scholarship punter for 2016. It could go with walk-on redshirt-sophomore-to-be Adam Searl for perhaps a year, instead of dedicating three scholarships to specialists. Searl is pretty good, and has continued to improve. If we’re talking what UCLA needs to do to continue to upgrade its talent, going with a walk-on might not be it but, from another perspective, you could interpret it as doing just that, since it would be opting to use the scholarship elsewhere.

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