UCLA Recruiting Needs for 2016

Jul. 24 -- After some fans have questioned UCLA's recruiting results the last few months, we go in-depth about the state of UCLA's 2016 football recruiting, and who are the make-or-break targets...

UCLA fans are a bit perturbed about UCLA’s recruiting over the last several months.

There haven’t been any “big” commitments, there were two de-commitments, many prospects announced for other schools and UCLA has seemed to offer a series of players not that widely known. In fact, the one four-star commitment in the last couple of months came from a player at a position he more than likely won’t play in college.

So, what gives?

There is a confluence of factors contributing to what you would call a latency period in 2016 UCLA recruiting – and many of them are being a bit misconstrued as an indication of UCLA not recruiting well.

Some of the factors:

Breland Brandt
-- UCLA started out on fire in recruiting the 2016 class. Five of UCLA’s first six commitments were ranked in the top six at their position nationally. There was talk that, if UCLA continued at this pace, the 2016 class would be the Mother of All Recruiting Classes. But reality set in somewhat – the reality that getting a class of 25 recruits all ranked in the top ten at their position nationally might be too high of expectation. It was a matter that UCLA got some of its biggest impact recruits in the 2016 class early on. If it had, say, gotten a commitment from Krys Barnes, who is the #6-ranked inside linebacker in the nation, at The Opening, it would have seemed like UCLA recruiting for 2016 was consistently doing well. If it had gotten a commitment from Breland Brandt, the #7-ranked defensive end, recently, it would have appeared that UCLA was rolling.

-- UCLA filled some key positions with elite recruits in the 2015 class, and it would be far too much to expect that it loaded back up on many of those same positions. In 2015 UCLA had the #9-ranked recruiting class in the country, and #2 in star average at 4.0 (just behind Alabama at 4.04 and actually higher than USC at 3.88, which finished #1 overall). UCLA hauled in the nation’s #1 quarterback, running back, tight end and center and, as a unit, the nation’s #1 offensive line class. It would have been extremely difficult to get elite recruits at those positions for 2016, then. Yeah, some programs can do it – the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world. But UCLA, under Jim Mora, hasn’t won at the level of those programs yet, so it’s unrealistic to expect UCLA to recruit at that level. Given that Mora’s Bruins haven’t yet won even a Pac-12 championship, it’s pretty phenomenal that they’re recruiting at the top-ten level they are.

-- UCLA also loaded up on defensive backs in 2015, signing perhaps five to six of them, which doesn’t make it easy to recruit to the position in the following year, especially when other schools are using your depth to negative recruit against you.

-- You could say a factor that UCLA was culpable over was the setback in offensive line recruiting. UCLA was doing very well recruiting 2016 offensive line recruits early on and then offensive line coach Adrian Klemm was suspended. Being out for three months (reinstated in late June) translated to Klemm and UCLA offensive line recruiting literally starting over for 2016. If you sprinkled in a couple of commitments from four-star OLs in the last couple of months, fans might not be bemoaning UCLA’s recent recruiting results.

The primary factor in this that can’t be emphasized enough: With Mora having stocked up the program with talent over the last three recruiting classes, and then 2015 getting such elite talent at a good number of positions, the 2016 class probably didn’t have a chance to be a top five national class. The reality is that the 2016 class was probably destined to be a class in which UCLA, in a best-case scenario, filled in some of the holes it missed on in 2015 and then also used to continue to build its depth of talent.

So, on Signing Day, Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016, in judging whether UCLA did well in recruiting the 2016 class, maybe we’ll look at it from this criteria:

-- Did UCLA, indeed, fill in the few holes it has positionally in terms of top-end talent? In other words, did it fill the needs it had left over from the positions it failed to secure elite talent in for 2015?

-- Did it fill out its depth of talent, and did it sign recruits that offer other options and dynamics at certain positions?

-- Did it sign some recruits you might think are projects but that, from a good, discerning scouting eye, have a chance to be a starter in the Pac-12 down the line?

So, let’s break down the needs for 2016, both the primary and secondary.

Secondary Needs

Soso Jamabo
Running Back – It’s tough to sell to a 2016 running back recruit that they should come to UCLA, when you have the Pac-12 rushing leader returning as just a junior in Paul Perkins, you signed the #1 running back in the nation for 2016 in Soso Jamabo, signed a second back for 2016 in Bolu Olorunfunmi, and also have a very talented #2 running back in Nate Starks on the roster who is sophomore. It’s especially difficult when it’s a very down year for running back talent in the west. So, with so much talent at the position, UCLA decided to experiment a little with Jalen Starks, a beast of a physical specimen at about 6-1 and 240. Starks has been recruited as a fullback, but he very well could get in the tailback rotation, too, as the short-yardage guy. He could very well, too, get more playing time at tailback, with UCLA running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu loving bigger, more physical running backs. When you have the luxury of good depth at the position for a while, and there wasn’t an elite running back prospect in the west, it makes sense, then, to take Starks. If he doesn’t make it at running back perhaps such a physical athlete plugs in somewhere else, and there’s no big loss in depth at running back.

Tight End – On paper, tight end was another good situation to perhaps experiment a little for 2016, or take a promising project, since UCLA signed the #1 tight end in the nation for 2015 in Chris Clark. There are now rumors that Clark is homesick, though, and the situation could change if he doesn’t stick it out, but, on paper, the tight end/Y spot was a position UCLA could stretch for in 2016. Clark himself is actually a bit of an experiment for UCLA’s offense, since it really hasn’t had a traditional-type of tight end since Joe Fauria, and he wasn’t even that traditional of the big, beefy blocker/catcher type. Also, it’s not like if UCLA didn’t get a tight end/Y in any class they just couldn’t use one of its bigger X or Z receivers in the spot. Given all of this, theoretically, it was probably a good idea to experiment, and to get a more Y-type of receiver, more Thomas Duarte than Clark. Again, there isn’t much tight end talent in the west. The elite prospect is Devin Asiasi, and we think his best projected college position is offensive guard anyway, and he’s been a heavy USC lean for much of his life. UCLA, then, just got a commitment from Jordan Wilson this week, and we approve. While he’s only ranked a three-star, he’s a promising prospect, at about 6-5 and 215, a huge wingspan, so a great physical upside. He’s a decent athlete, not greatly explosive, but has very good pass-catching ability. So, he has a chance to be a solid Pac-12 tight end/Y. Some schools were thinking of him as a defensive end, too, so he has some potential at another position. While his offer sheet wasn’t overwhelming, we’ve heard that some SEC schools were starting to like Wilson more, so UCLA timed it well.

Offensive Line – Even before Klemm was suspended, offensive line wasn’t a huge priority for 2016 since Klemm signed the #1 class in the nation for 2015. But you can never have enough good offensive linemen. Perhaps you could say (like we did above) that the difference in perception of the 2016 class the last couple of months is really how offensive line recruiting fell off a cliff. But, given the class Klemm signed in 2015, what really are the needs for 2016? One of the big question marks will be whether Fred Ulu-Perry remains at center or switches sides to defensive tackle. On one hand, it gives a huge boost to defensive line talent over the next four years but, of course, hurts the OL talent. The DL could definitely use Ulu-Perry more, though. With or without him, looking at the projected OL depth chart for the next couple of years, the real need is another elite tackle. We think that Conor McDermott could possibly be a strong candidate to leave UCLA early, perhaps after this coming season. Caleb Benenoch and Simon Goines are both juniors. UCLA’s future tackles look like they’re Kolton Miller (redshirt freshman) and Andre James (true freshman), but you’d like to have at least one more, if not two more, on the depth chart who could potentially be elite tackles. Again, it’s going to be an uphill battle for Klemm with the 2016 class, but he’s proven to be an excellent recruiter, and he does have 6 ½ months until Signing Day.

Safety – UCLA has a good stock of young talent at defensive back, and it’s a matter of some of that talent developing into a starter- or All-Pac-12-level player. Current starter Randall Goforth and back-up Tahaan Goodman are juniors this season, but starter Jaleel Wadood is just a sophomore, so UCLA will be looking for a starter in two years from a big pool of candidates – redshirt freshman Adarius Pickett, redshirt freshman Dwight Williams, and true freshmen Dechaun Holiday, Nathan Meadors and Octavius Spencer. True Freshman Colin Samuel, too, could end up at safety. Odds are UCLA finds a starter among those guys, but it still needs at least one guy in 2016 you could project to being a starter/All-Pac-12, and just to offset any potential attrition at the position.

Primary Needs

Defensive Line – UCLA signed just one defensive lineman (Rick Wade) in 2015, and missed on a number of guys. Projecting out the depth chart, there is a huge need on the DL, especially with the much-discussed potential early departure of starters Ken Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes, who are both juniors this season. It’s why UCLA might sign upward of six defensive linemen in 2016. UCLA’s depth at DL isn’t in a crisis, by any means, with some good young players in the ranks (Matt Dickerson, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, Ainuu Taua), but it’s not greatly deep, there aren’t clear-cut, no-argument future starters, and there is no true nose guard. Of course, that issue would be solved if Ulu-Perry switched over to DL, but it’s not certain that’s going to happen; Klemm could very much keep a tight grip on him and make him stay on the OL. Even though, in the UCLA scheme, it’s said that UCLA doesn’t necessarily need a pure nose tackle, and it very well might be utilizing more of a 4-3 in the coming years, nose tackle is still, perhaps, the biggest priority for the 2016 recruiting class. You’d also have to say that a dominant pass-rushing defensive end is right up there, too – since that is another hole in any UCLA projected depth chart.

Linebacker – With the 2015 class, UCLA signed one true linebacker in Josh Woods (another, if you count Keisean Lucier-South), but missed on its interior linebacker targets and, really, missed on outside linebackers who can cover. Once Scott White was hired as the new linebackers coach last winter he quickly filled some of those holes in a significant way, getting commitments from the nation’s #5-ranked inside linebacker, Lokeni Toialoa, and the #6-ranked inside linebacker, Krys Barnes. He also has a commitment from a LB/DE hybrid who is ranked as the #9 defensive end in the nation, Breland Brandt. So, the linebacker class is looking particularly good, with White doing a fantastic job to fill those needs. One need remains: the outside linebacker who can cover, like a Myles Jack type.

UCLA's future inside linebacking crew: Lokeni Toailoa, Krys Barnes

Wide Receiver – UCLA will lose at least five receivers in the next couple of years who have regularly been in the rotation at some time in their careers. It also missed on some guys in 2015, and with 2016 being the year of the receiver in the west, this is the year when it should be expected that UCLA signs a big WR class. A high priority for UCLA has definitely been finding a quick, slot-type guy; they think they might have one in incoming freshman Stephen Johnson, and has one committed in 2016 in Demetric Felton. Johnson has the potential to be big-time, with some top-end speed, but he’s new to the receiver position and could end up at cornerback. We like Felton but don’t think he’s necessarily a big-impact prospect. Regardless of slot-type or not, UCLA plainly needs to sign a deep and talented receiver class.

Lock-Down Corner – UCLA’s cornerbacks are getting a little old; its three top guys, Fabian Moreau, Ishmael Adams and Marcus Rios, are actually upperclassmen. Then, after them, there are some considerable question marks. First, UCLA didn’t really get an elite, pure cover corner in 2015. Will Johnny Johnson overcome his shoulder issues and live up to his promise as a high school prospect? Will Stephen Johnson end up at cornerback? Can Denzel Fisher, Will Lockett, and Colin Samuel be starter level? In a year, too (2016), when there is some exceptional talent at cornerback in the west, it would seem this would be an opportunity for UCLA to get at least one lock-down corner for 2016. It had one of the elite ones in the west, Jordan Parker, but he just de-committed, and that’s a considerable blow. With him, UCLA was almost playing with house money trying to get a second. Now, without him, it appears they could get shut out.

Future Pac-12 Quarterback – So much has been said about trying to recruit a quarterback after you get Josh Rosen in 2015. Yes, it’s a tough recruiting situation. But quarterback recruiting and depth is the most important personnel aspect of any college football program, and it’s absolutely critical that a coaching staff over-achieve in quarterback recruiting if it hopes to have long-term success. And think out this scenario: If Rosen goes pro after his true junior season, there is no quarterback currently on the roster to replace him. UCLA has a commitment from three-star Matt Lynch for 2016, and he looks be a solid prospect – but it’s borderline uncertain of whether he has a chance to be starter at UCLA. So, again, if Rosen goes pro after the 2017 season, Lynch, as a redshirt sophomore, will be the only candidate for the starting job. Now, of course, UCLA will sign more QBs in the 2017 and 2018 classes, but they would be a redshirt freshman and true freshman. Not only is it sketchy to hand the reins of the offense to such green quarterbacks (only in very, very rare cases, like with Rosen, can it happen), there just wouldn’t be many of them to choose from on UCLA’s roster. In quarterback recruiting, if you can’t get a super elite prospect you’d better at least get many prospects with potential, to improve your odds of finding that starter. UCLA should get another quarterback in 2016, then, so by the time Rosen graduates, Lynch and this other quarterback will have been in the program long enough, competing -- two of them, better optimizing UCLA’s chances of finding the guy.

Make-Or-Break Recruits

Since we’re all about judging whether a recruiting class is a success, and we broke down the criteria for judging the 2016 class on Signing Day in February, here are the make-or-break, measuring-stick recruits for the 2016 class. These are the guys that, if UCLA gets them, or gets at least a few of them, or a yet-unnamed equivalent prospect at the same position, it makes the 2016 class.

Tagaloa is the true nose tackle, ranked #1 at his position in the west, #9 in the country and #48 in the nation overall. He’ll fill the big need at nose tackle for years to come. UCLA leads.

The super elite pass-rusher that has been missing since Anthony Barr left UCLA, Betiku is the future NFL talent UCLA needs to replace the future NFL talent of Clark and Vanderdoes. UCLA leads.

He’s the best cover corner prospect in the west in recent years, an immediate impact player that can transform a defense. It will probably come down to UCLA and USC.

Ranked #64 and #94 nationally, McKinley and Crawford represent elite local talent that UCLA should be getting, and in a year when UCLA needs to stock up on receiver talent. We could see UCLA being in it to the end.

He’s the last missing piece to linebacker recruiting for 2016 – the Myles Jack type who can do everything, including drop into coverage. The possibility of flipping him from USC might extend all the way to February.

Keeping it in Perspective

While some fans are complaining about UCLA recruiting in the last couple of months, during this “off” period, UCLA still currently has the #14-ranked recruiting class in the nation, and the 10th-best according to the average star ranking.

UCLA currently has 14 commitments and has, so far, done pretty well in satisfying its needs for 2016, too.

With just 10 scholarships or so left to give, however, it can afford to perhaps give out just a couple more to three-star project types, but not many more.

Mostly, it’d be good if UCLA kept a good number in its pocket – because if UCLA has a big season, recruiting will blow up, and the program will have elite recruits from across the nation knocking on its door. We’ve always maintained: if an elite recruit wants to come, regardless of how many commitments there are, the program will find a scholarship for him, but you still don’t want to be loaded up on too many three stars in July if there is a chance many four- and five-star could want to jump in the boat in February. We could see UCLA still taking a couple of solid offensive line prospects, and a solid defensive back type, but perhaps getting a bit pickier by the fall.

With a big season, perhaps UCLA will be able to vault themselves into the strata of a program that can re-load top-ten recruiting classes every year. There’s still a chance with 2016, especially if it gets a majority of the Make-Or-Break Recruits still on its board.

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