Analysis of UCLA Recruiting Needs, Top Targets

Nov. 6 -- With some recent developments, UCLA's recruiting needs for 2016 have changed a bit. We take a deep look and rank the remaining top targets...

Because of a number of developments, in recruiting and personnel on the team, UCLA’s recruiting needs for the 2016 recruiting class have changed.

OFFENSE

Recruiting needs at quarterback, running back and tight end (Y) have pretty much remained the same.  But the needs at wide receiver and offensive line recruiting have shifted a bit.

Receivers

With the commitment of the #8-ranked receiver in the nation, Theo Howard of Westlake Village (Calif.) Westlake, receiver recruiting is now different.  Along with Howard, UCLA has commitments from Demetric Felton, from Temecula (Calif.) Great Oaks; Darian Owens from Clovis (Calif.) West; and you can probably count Dymond Lee, the WR/QB from West Hills (Calif.) Chaminade.  That doesn’t leave much room.  UCLA would probably take a commitment from one more receiver if he were elite.  Owens, too, is considered a bit of a soft verbal, so that could lead to possibly another receiver commitment.  

UCLA’s primary need at receiver was to get a big playmaker, and it got perhaps the best prospect for that on the west coast in Howard.  It also wanted to get a slot, and it got a commitment from Felton early on and he’s having a tremendous senior season. 

Still remaining as the primary possibilities are Javon McKinley, the nation’s #9-ranked receiver from Corona (Calif.) Centennial, who UCLA would still probably take if he wanted to come since he’s that good; and Damian Alloway, the four-star slot receiver from Fontana (Calif.) Summit that UCLA has been heavily recruiting for a while.

Theo Howard

Offensive Line

With some developments we’ve heard about, if there’s a unit that could garner a bit of concern when you project out a couple of years, it could be offensive line.

We’ve heard that it’s almost certain that left tackle Conor McDermott will jump to the NFL after this season.  He’s 23 years old, and he’s a legitimate NFL prospect right now; waiting would only put him in danger of injury, and with his history of shoulder injuries he wouldn’t want to take any further chances.

We’ve heard, too, that true junior right tackle Caleb Benenoch and true junior right guard Alex Redmond will seriously consider leaving for the NFL after this season.  Much will depend on their draft status, but reliable sources have indicated that there’s a decent possibility they could grade out well enough to motivate them to leave.  If UCLA lost both, it would be a huge blow to the offensive line in 2016.  If one just left, Benenoch would be the bigger hit, since the program doesn’t have many tackles on the roster currently. 

For 2016, the starting OL would be redshirt sophomore Kolton Miller, who has played well this year filling in for injury; junior returning starting left guard Kenny Lacy;  redshirt junior center Scott Quessenberry, who has sat out this season from shoulder surgery; and possibly Redmond and Benenoch.  If that were the line it’d be another very good one, with Miller being capable of replacing McDermott adequately and, from what we’ve always known, Quessenberry is potentially an elite center. 

But without Redmond and/or Benenoch, things get dicey.  Fred Ulu-Perry, who has played some this season because of OL injuries, would be the obvious choice at right guard as a true sophomore.  UCLA lost veteran tackle Simon Goines this season to a career-ending medical condition.  Andre James who is redshirting this season, would then be the primary candidate to step in at right tackle as a redshirt freshman.  He struggled some early on in fall camp, but then looked better by late August, and we’ve heard he’s developed in practice. 

So, you’d be starting a redshirt freshman who had never played previously at one position, and there is a considerable depth issue.  There is no other reliable option at tackle on the roster, with only Zach Bateman, the JC transfer, who has struggled some in his development.   Poasi Moala has played some tackle, but was moved to guard, and he still hasn’t shown he’s ready for significant playing time. 

While there are more bodies at guard, there isn’t really any proven playable depth.  Freshman Tevita Halalilo looked good in fall camp and got playing time filling in early, until he suffered a season-ending broken ankle in the UNLV game, which we’ve heard is complicated enough it could make his recovery a considerable one.  Besides Halalilo, there is John Lopez, who will be a redshirt junior and has never seen the field, and Josh Wariboko, who will be a redshirt freshman and was thought to be a bit of a project when he came in this fall. 

In other words, UCLA needs OLs for 2016.  It has one commitment in Sean Auwae, a solid get who projects as a center or inside player.  But as we said, UCLA primarily needs tackles.  It’s critical, then, that UCLA brings in at least one elite tackle prospect, and at least one more, perhaps as a developmental guy. 

DEFENSE

Projecting out the roster, it has a few personnel questions on the defensive line and at linebacker.  The secondary, though, actually looks pretty well-stocked. 

Defensive Line

It’s close to certain that defensive tackle Kenneth Clark will leave for the NFL.  That presents a pretty large hole in the middle of UCLA’s defensive line.  Eli Ankou, who will be a redshirt senior, has filled in adequately after the season-ending loss to Eddie Vanderdoes. Vanderdoes will return, and hopefully be fully recovered from his ACL by next fall, and it’s logical that Ankou, then, will step into Clark’s open spot.  UCLA just got a commitment from JC defensive tackle Nick Terry, which was a great thing to provide more bodies in that interior DL, but we still have to see if Terry can be effective at this level.

Ankou will be a senior, Vanderdoes a redshirt junior (and with a good, healthy season could jump early to the NFL), and Terry will be a junior with two years of eligibility remaining.   Ainuu Taua, who will be a redshirt sophomore in 2016, hasn’t shown he can play DT as a regular-down guy.  Former offensive lineman Najee Toran is more of a three-technique, too, and we don’t know if he’ll ever see significant time on the DL.  So UCLA needs to find its projected starting nose tackle after 2016, and that hopefully will be Boss Tagaloa, the four-star from Concord (Calif.) De La Salle, who has had UCLA as his long-time favorite.   UCLA has a commitment from Osa Odighizuwa, from Portland (Oreg.) Douglas, and we believe he’ll be a solid player in college, but don’t think he’ll be a nose tackle, but more of a three-technique. 

©M. Samek / SCOUT

With the de-commitment of five-star defensive end Oluwole Betiku, UCLA doesn’t project to having really super-elite talent at defensive end.  Returning starting defensive end Takkarist McKinley will be a senior.   Guys like Matt Dickerson and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner have proven out to be very solid guys, but so far haven’t flashed potential star status.   Rick Wade is redshirting in his true freshman year, and we’ve heard good things, but he’s still an unknown.   UCLA has a commitment from Marcus Moore, who has some potential, but he projects more as a guy in the talent realm of Dickerson/Tuioti-Mariner.  

UCLA has good depth at defensive line, certainly.  But without Betiku, it’s lacking star power.  There has been a recent flurry of offers at defensive end, a reaction to having to make up for the loss of Betiku.  We have learned never to count out DL Coach Angus McClure in recruiting, but it doesn't look like there an odds-on star among those new offers, and it will be an uphill battle coming into the recruitment this late.  It’s been obvious this season, with UCLA going primarily with a four-man rush, the scheme needs an elite defensive end who can really pressure the quarterback.  It’s also obvious that UCLA needs more traditional defensive end types, the kind you commonly see in a more conventional four-man line, those that can be physical and strong enough to consistently stop the run.  

Linebacker

Wow, this season has been tough on the UCLA linebacker ranks.   It’s shown, even if you have good, playable depth at a position, injuries can still devastate a unit.   On one hand, it’s been tough to watch, but on the other, since some guys have stepped up this year, it makes next year look less uncertain.  That is, if the unit doesn’t get hit by injuries again.  Deon Hollins will be a senior, and is set at the linebacker/DE hybrid spot.  After this season, we’d have to project UCLA’s two starting inside linebackers for 2016 would be Jayon Brown and Isaako Savaiinaea.  Both, though, will be seniors.   The other outside linebacker spot would be open and uncertain.  We’d have to say it’d be filled by Cameron Judge, given how he’s played this season, but for whatever reason Judge doesn’t seem to get much playing time. 

In terms of depth, Kenny Young is the most experienced inside. And since he was a starter last year and this year, you’d have to think he’d still be competing to start next season.  We don’t know what to do with Josh Woods.  He played outside in fall, and looked like he had potential but was very far away from seeing the field.  He then was changed to the Mike (inside) spot sometime during the season in practice.  While he didn’t look horrible in his first action against Colorado last week, he still appears to be better suited to playing that outside spot (the Judge position we talked about above, once manned by Myles Jack.   There is also Dwight Williams, who at this time doesn’t project to seeing significant time.

Luckily UCLA has secured two of the best inside linebacker prospects in the west for 2016 in Lokeni Toailoa and Krys Barnes.  You never know how a prospect does in making that leap from high school to college, but it’s hoped for that at least one of Toailoa or Barnes can provide playable depth next season.  And they fulfill the desperate need for inside linebackers beyond 2016. 

Two other hybrid types are Kene Orjioke who has had a good season off the bench behind Hollins, and Cameron Griffin, who hasn’t played anything but special teams.  There is also Keisean Lucier-South, redshirting in his true freshman season, who is also projected to be that hybrid spot.  Then, UCLA has Breland Brandt coming in for 2016, who also projects to that hybrid.  It seems like UCLA is overly stocked at the LB/DE spot, and perhaps some of these guys will have to be developed at other linebacker positions to utilize them better, and perhaps prevent the devastation that can happen because of injury.

Given how the inside linebacker spots got so decimated this year, it would seem that UCLA could possibly use another 2016 prospect that could play inside.  And it definitely could use a guy who could project to filling a role like Myles Jack at that outside linebacker position, a guy who can cover.   

Defensive Backs

Like we said, the secondary looks pretty stocked, but probably deserves a mention since the depth and recruiting needs have change a bit since the beginning of the season -- and have improved.  With the injury to starting cornerback Fabian MoreauJohnny Johnson stepped in and has emerged as a real multi-year-starter level player.  That's really great news for UCLA DB Coach Demetrice Martin, who will have both of them back next season, along with the other starting corner, Marcus Rios.  Then, also, there is good depth at cornerback, so much so that UCLA could even redshirt an elite prospect like Dechaun Holiday.  Safety also looks in good shape, with UCLA's top four players at free, strong and nickel all returning for 2016, along with some guys who have emerged that look very promising, like Adarius PickettNathan Meadors and Octavius Spencer.  

PROJECTED REMAINING TOP TARGETS FOR THE 2016 RECRUITING CLASS

UCLA has 20 commitments and is looking to give out 27 or so scholarships for 2016 (and it will have to rustle up some rides to do so, but that’s a different story).   So, with the remaining rides, here are the priority prospects for 2016:

1) Mique Juarez, LB, Torrance (Calif.) North.  Scout’s #1-ranked outside linebacker, Juarez could plug in at that outside linebacker spot and compete to start immediately.  But we’re going to go out on a limb here and say that he also might project well to playing inside, say, at the "Jack" spot (Jayon Brown's position).  Given what’s happened to UCLA’s linebacker ranks, Juarez’s elite talent along with his versatility, with athleticism to cover but also great size to hold up physically playing between the tackles, makes him the #1 target remaining on UCLA’s board.  If you're looking to replace Myles Jack, get the guy who is routinely compared to him. 

2) Boss Tagaloa, DT, Concord (Calif.) De La Salle.  It’s so tough to find good nose tackles.  UCLA will really understand that once Ken Clark leaves.  It appears it will be able to hold down the spot for the short-term future, but after that it’s uncertain, and Tagaloa answers that uncertainty.

3) Tramonda Moore, OT, Oklahoma City (Okla.) John Marshall.  UCLA has now built and established a very good offensive line.  To keep that going it needs to keep plugging in talent, and right now, as we laid out above, it’s lacking at tackle in the forseeable future. Moore is the one elite tackle prospect on UCLA’s board right now that we could see UCLA getting.  

Tramonda Moore

4) Oluwole Betiku/Elite Defensive End.  We think the Betiku ship has more than likely sailed.  Like we said, UCLA has good depth at DE and the three-technique, but it would ideally like to have an elite-level talent.  There probably isn’t anyone else out there that UCLA is recruiting that fulfills that. 

5) Jack Jones/Damar Hamlin, Elite Cornerback.  While we said UCLA looks pretty stocked at defensive back, a lockdown corner is a difference-maker for a defense.  Jones and Hamlin are those types of recruits. 

6) Second Offensive Tackle.  UCLA’s depth at offensive tackle is pretty worrisome, so getting at least two offensive tackle prospects is a priority.  If it got one more ready-to-play guy like Moore, it would be fine to get a developmental one, like Alex Akingbulu, who has had a good senior season.  Mike Alves projects as a guy with some versatility who might be able to play either guard or tackle.

7) Michael Pittman, WR/Ath, Westlake Village (Calif.) Oaks Christian.  Pittman is mainly on this list because it’d be great to steal him back from USC. But also it’s clear what a big, strong possession receiver can do in UCLA’s offense (see Jordan Payton and Thomas Duarte).  


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