2017 Football Recruiting Analysis: Defense

Mar. 23 -- With the unmatched talent level in the west for 2017, UCLA now resonating with recruits, and UCLA's staff being the best at recruiting it's ever been, UCLA is leading for a considerable amount of elite defensive prospects...

It’s March, so it’s difficult to project the recruiting class UCLA will sign next February.  More than likely, whatever class we project now will be dramatically different than the one that signs NLIs.

But it’s fun to speculate.

The one element of UCLA recruiting that is the takeaway, though, right now is the level of talent and athleticism UCLA is now recruiting.

When Blair Angulo, BRO’s new contributor, and I were at UCLA Pro Day last Tuesday, we kept commenting on how the UCLA players looked physically.  And then walking by us was Breland Brandt, the linebacker/defensive end early enrollee, who looked about 6-5 and 215, and Blair said, “That’s the kind of athlete UCLA is now recruiting.”

Four years into Jim Mora’s tenure at UCLA, and it’s safe to say that the type of recruit UCLA is attracting – and getting – is perhaps one of the most profound changes the coach as made on the program.

It’s very evident, in fact, in UCLA’s recruiting board for the class of 2017.   It helps that the 2017 west coast class is a very athletic one, but it’s significant that so many of the best-looking athletes in the west are very high on UCLA – or flat-out have UCLA leading for them.   This is no longer an uphill battle for Mora – trying to get the attention of the best athletes in the west.  You can safely say that, after four years of a successful, high-profile program, Mora isn’t climbing the recruiting hill anymore. Yes, there are still the USC fan boys that grew up Trojan fans, but that’s becoming less of a factor as we get further away from the Pete Carroll era, and we get more of the Jim Mora era at UCLA on the books.

One thing that has to be said, too: UCLA is recruiting well, and attracting top-end athletes, without the benefit of the new football facility.  Most of you have never been in UCLA’s current football offices, but trust us – they aren’t impressive. Dated and cramped would be the way you’d describe them.  Mora and his staff are recruiting at a top-ten national level right now without the benefit of the gleaming, new facility. The most they can do is show recruits renderings and the big hole that’s just south of Pauley Pavilion where the facility is being constructed.  Competing in recruiting against other programs that do have flashy facilities to show off, it’s amazing how well UCLA recruits – and it’s incredibly exciting to think about how much the new facility will enhance UCLA’s recruiting.  

And some continued success on the field with a new, entirely different level of athlete.

As we said, what stands out overall when you look at UCLA’s potential recruiting class for 2017 is the level of athlete that UCLA is either leading for or doing really well with.  

DEFENSIVE BACK

Recruiting defense for 2017 should be a snap.  We can’t remember a year when there were so many high-level defensive recruits and athletes that had UCLA at the top of their list at this time of year. 

Let’s start with a look at defensive back. UCLA is shopping for cornerbacks, or at least guys who can play both cornerback and safety.  In a great year out west, there are four cornerback prospects from the west ranked in the Scout national top 75, and three of them have had UCLA as their leader at some time. 

http://www.scout.com/college/ucla/story/1653843-5-star-darnay-holmes-upd... One of the significant puzzle pieces that UCLA has been looking for since Mora arrived is that elite, lock-down cornerback.  This looks like the recruiting cycle in which UCLA gets its man.  Darnay Holmes from Calabasas is the #2-ranked cornerback in the nation, and as good as any cornerback prospect we’ve seen come through the west in many years.   He’s a five-star prospect and the headliner for this recruiting class overall – like Mique Juarez was in 2016.  UCLA has an edge in his recruitiment, with defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin having known Holmes since he was a kid, being as close as family.  As of right now, UCLA is leading, fending off Stanford and Nebraska mostly.  He has indicated he’ll announce his commitment in June, on his birthday.  Not to put too much pressure on this, but if UCLA didn’t get Holmes it’d be a major miss, given Martin and his relationship with the Holmes family. 

In addition, if you’re Martin, and you want cornerbacks, look who else he has on the line in the west.

Elijah Gates from Buena Park is the #9-ranked cornerback and the #73 overall prospect in the nation.  At camps and 7-on-7s so far this spring, you could make a case that Gates has been competitive with Holmes in terms of his cornerback skills.  Even though Gates wants to wait until Signing Day to announce, it’s pretty well-known that UCLA is leading for him.

http://www.scout.com/player/198203-elijah-gates?s=12

Deommodore Lenoir, from Los Angeles Salesian, is the #8-ranked cornerback in the nation and #56 prospect overall.  He was a long-time lean to UCLA until the last several months, when he started looking more out-of-state, but he recently took an unofficial visit to UCLA and we’ve heard the Bruins are back to being among the serious contenders.  Lenoir should realize that, with other very talented cornerback types in the west favoring UCLA, if he slow-plays the Bruins he could very well be locked out.

Then, there is Elijah Hicks from La Mirada, who looked very good in coverage at The Opening Los Angeles, locking down receiver after receiver.  He’s currently ranked the #33 cornerback prospect in the nation, but might deserve a bump in the rankings, based on what we’ve seen of him so far this spring.  We’d be completely happy with UCLA getting Hicks. 

Trajon Cotton from Sacramento Inderkum is considered a safety, but it’s generally accepted he could play cornerback.  Currently a three-star, he’s emerging as one of the best defensive backs in the west.  He’s made it pretty clear that UCLA is his leader.

http://www.scout.com/player/204934-trajon-cotton?s=12

UCLA needs one or two safeties for 2017, and it’s priority would be bigger types that can not only hit but cover. It already has a commitment from Rhedi Short of Los Angeles Cathedral, and he’s a solid prospect, but we could easily see Short ending up elsewhere.  It would probably be fine for UCLA since because it clearly leads for the #1 safety prospect in the west, Chaz Ah You, the four-star from Saratoga Springs (Utah) Westlake, who is also currently the #104-ranked prospect overall in the nation.  At this point, with how Ah You is making it clear UCLA is his leader, it’d be stunning if he weren’t a Bruin.

We know it’s early, but with UCLA leading for so many on this list, a conservative guess at the DB class could look like this:

Darnay Holmes, 5-11, 185, #2 CB, #11 Nationally. 

Eljjah Gates, 5-11, 175, #9 CB,  #73 Nationally.

Chaz Ah You,  6-1.5, 190, #7 S, #104 Nationally. 

Elijah Hicks, 5-11, 175, #33 CB (with a •, a chance to add a star and make the Scout 300)

Trajon Cotton, 6-1, 185, #36 S (with a •, a chance to add a star and make the Scout 300)

That would include three guys all ranked in the top 10 at their positions nationally.  

And this isn’t even including out-of-state guys that have taken unofficial visits and indicated a pretty strong interest in UCLA.  It's pretty evident that UCLA has a chance at one of its best DB classes in a long time, not only in terms of talent but in fulfilling its needs. 

LINEBACKER

UCLA linebacker coach Scott White was named the Pac-12 Recruiter of the Year for the 2016 class, so what that means is that he’s got a great 2016 linebacker class and a pretty good-looking UCLA linebacker depth chart.  Given that, and that UCLA will play in a 4-3 more going forward, White can be fairly selective with recruiting linebackers for the 2017 cycle.  It’s been reflective in not many UCLA offers being proffered so far.  White will probably bring in three linebackers, possibly four if the fourth is elite.  It will also be interesting to see in spring practice if incoming freshman and early enrollee Breland Brandt ultimately lines up as a defensive end or linebacker, and that will impact White’s depth chart. 

You know things are looking good and that UCLA recruiting is on a new level when it loses a commitment from a guy like Jaquan Henderson, and it might be a positive move, meaning: White might get three recruits who are all better prospects than Henderson.

http://www.scout.com/player/197695-rahyme-johnson

A big development this spring is how UCLA commit Rahyme Johnson, from Los Angeles Salesian, has looked in camps and 7-on-7s.  For being 6-4 and about 210, he should be really physically awkward, but he has shown really good mobility in space, specifically in coverage.  Johnson is the #19 outside linebacker, and #243 prospect nationally. 

The word is that UCLA is on the verge of getting a commitment from Addison Gumbs, from Hayward Stellar. At 6-4 and 215, he’s also shown this spring that he’s a unique athlete, like Johnson, being able to move really well and burst in coverage.  Gumbs is the #5 outside linebacker and #87 prospect nationally.

http://www.scout.com/college/ucla/story/1653838-addison-gumbs-has-ucla-h... Gumbs said he’ll announce his choice at the end of April. He’ll take a couple of unofficial visits, but again, the word is that it would take a huge upset for any other school to supplant UCLA at this point. Usually when a kid says he’s going to announce in spring or summer, he’s doing it because he knows where he wants to go. 

So, if by May, UCLA has commitments from two pretty elite guys in Johnson and Gumbs they’re sitting pretty.  Both of those guys will end up 6-4 and 240-ish and have the athleticism to play multiple linebacking positions.  And then Coach White can continue to be really selective in who might be the third guy – or again, third and fourth guy.

And this isn’t even counting Javaris Steward, the #14-ranked outside linebacker and #180-ranked prospect in the nation from Pomona, who is considered a soft verbal commitment.  He is verbally committed to UCLA, but we consider his commitment soft because we know he’ll look seriously at other schools and he has a history of fickleness (he committed and decommitted to USC in one day). 

If White signed that class – Johnson, Gumbs and Steward, it’d be an amazing class to come in after the 2016 one.

Addison Gumbs, , 6-4, 215, #5 OLB, #87 Nationally

Javaris Steward, , 6-3, 230, #14 OLB, #180 Nationally

Rahyme Johnson, 6-4, 210, #19 OLB, #243 Nationally 

http://www.scout.com/college/ucla/story/1643745-get-to-know-2017-lb-baro... If White aspires to be Pac-12 Recruiter of the Year again it would probably take bringing in another five-star (like he did with Juarez in 2016), and he has a serious chance with the #1 outside linebacker prospect in the nation, Baron Browning, from Kennendale (Tex.).  Browning decommitted from Baylor in February, and he’s pretty open, but we’ve heard UCLA is going to be on his relative short list and will probably get a visit. Browning unofficially visited UCLA last summer and that left a big impression with him.  There are those close to the Browning camp that believe he’s a kid that will easily leave the state of Texas, and he’s a good fit for a place like UCLA. 

There is also Will Ignont, the #11 inside linebacker and #251 in the nation from Bradenton (Fla.) IMG Academy.  He continues to name UCLA among his top five, but we’re skeptical UCLA will be there for him in the end.

If UCLA loses any of Johnson, Gumbs or Steward (and looks like it’s not going to get Browning), you could see White possibly offer more prospects, like Tayler Katoa the four-star from Layton (Utah) or get harder on guys like Stanford commit Sione Heimuli-Lund, from Brighton. (It’s obvious, too, the impact that UCLA quarterbacks coach Marques Tuiasosopo is having on UCLA recruiting in Utah.)  Unless White somehow loses two of Johnson, Gumbs and Steward, he’s looking like he’ll sign another elite class, and if he adds to it with someone like Browning, it could be another Recruiter of the Year-caliber one.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Every program is always in need of defensive tackles. They’re such a hard commodity to come by.  And now if UCLA does go to a 4-3, UCLA defensive line coach Angus McClure will need more able bodies on the inside of his defensive line. 

McClure signed a big DL class for 2016 – seven guys – and will probably look to sign the standard clas in 2017, two tackles and two ends.

http://www.scout.com/player/203619-hunter-echols?s=12

He already has one committed in four-star Hunter Echols, from Los Angeles Cathedral, and that’s a huge first get.  Echols was a long-time UCLA fan, and then committed soon after Signing Day. It was great to actually then see him at the Opening Los Angeles and know that he truly is a very good prospect.  He’s ranked the #12 defensive end in the country, and #147 overall.  And you have to love his upside, at 6-4 and 220, and with long arms and a youngish-looking body that clearly could add some good weight.  Again, it’s a testament to where UCLA is now in recruiting that a recruit of Echols’ caliber grew up a UCLA fan and jumped in the boat really quickly.  It’s also a testament to how well McClure lays the groundwork for potential early commitments by establishing strong relationships with underclass recruits.

So, one down, four to go. 

Staying with DEs, at the top of the list is another life-long UCLA fan, Jaelan Phillips from Redlands East Valley, the 6-5, 230-pound four-star who is ranked the #64 prospect in the nation, and perhaps destined for a fifth star.  His recruitment, however, isn’t going to be quite as easy as Echols’.  Phillips does come from a UCLA family, with his parents being Bruin alum, but he’s a great student and Stanford is recruiting him hard, and has probably taken the lead over UCLA.  We think UCLA Is going to go really hard after Phillips, and we would expect Mora to get very personally involved in this one.  Phillips is one of the lynchpin-type recruits for the 2017 class, and we’ll see how UCLA – McClure, Mora and Martin (whose recruiting region is the Inland Empire) can do in this one when the line in the sand is drawn with Stanford.  Echols, too, is very close with Phillips, so there’s that. 

http://www.scout.com/college/ucla/story/1652066-four-star-de-johnson-blo... The nation’s #21-ranked DE is D.J. Johnson, from Sacramento Burbank, the 6-5, 240-pound prospect that is starting to get national attention.  He came to UCLA’s camp last summer, McClure has been consistently recruiting him, and UCLA was his leader, but now with the newfound attention, UCLA and McClure will have to withstand the national onslaught.

If UCLA could get one of Phillips or Johnson to go along with Echols it would be a stud defensive end class.  Heck, if all three wanted to come we suspect McClure would take the trio. 

With Phillips probably leaning to Stanford and Johnson’s recruitment probably going to be a long haul, we could see UCLA offering more DEs coming out of the spring evaluation period (which goes from mid-April to the end of May). 

Defensive tackles are always difficult to find, especially in the west, for some reason. This year, however, could be one of the best crops of defensive tackles – or the deepest crop.  UCLA has offered seven defensive tackle types from the west, and that’s probably a first, at this time of the year.

http://www.scout.com/player/188281-greg-rogers?s=12

The headliner is probably Greg Rogers, the 6-4, 300-pounder from Las Vegas Arbor View.  He’s the Boss Tagaloa of the 2017 class, ranked the #3 DT in the nation and #35 prospect overall, and will probably have a good chance at a fifth star.  UCLA was a long-time leader for him, and we’re still hearing the Bruins are probably in the lead, but it’s going to be a long battle with USC for him. 

http://www.scout.com/college/ucla/story/1651893-ucla-newest-offer-for-4-... We’d say the guy UCLA most likely will get is Marlon Tuipulotu, the four-star prospect from Independence (Ore.) Central, who is the #14-ranked DT and 217th prospect overall. Tuipulotu recently took an unofficial visit to UCLA and we heard it went exceedingly well, with Tuipulotu giving some strong indications that UCLA was his leader.

We’d give UCLA a pretty good chance with Popo Aumavae, the four-star from Stockton St. Mary’s, who is the #25-ranked DT.  Aumavae is in McClure’s recruiting region, where McClure has some deep ties and connections, and the Bruins were one of the first to offer him.  We know Oregon will also probably be a big consideration for him, since it is a childhood favorite.  He’s supposed to visit for spring practice. 

Martin Andrus is another four-star, and the #6-ranked DT in the nation, from Los Angeles High.  He didn’t have a great Opening Los Angeles, but we’ve seen him enough to still consider him a good prospect. UCLA was the first to offer and recruit heavily, so it’s still believed the Bruins are among his favorites, if not his favorite.

http://www.scout.com/player/196185-noah-elliss

UCLA recently offered four-star Noah Elliss from Highlands Ranch (Col.) Valor Christian, who is a four-star prospect, #18 DT and #249-ranked prospect nationally overall.  We’ve heard that UCLA is one of his favorites now because of the offer, and he plans to visit UCLA for spring practice.

Four-star Jay Tufele, the #4-ranked DT in the nation from South Jordan (Utah) Bingham, just took an unofficial visit to UCLA, and the Bruins are on his list of favorites. He visited USC, too, and we’ve heard that the Trojans could have a slight edge for him over UCLA, with Utah, Michigan, Oregon and others involved.  

But man, that’s an incredibly deep list of DTs in the west, and gives UCLA perhaps an to get two top-25 level DTs in the same class without having to leave the west. 

If McClure could just get the two guys its leading for – Rogers and Tuipulotu – it’d be a major win.

Hunter Echols, , 6-4, 220, #12 DE, #147 Nationally

D.J. Johnson, , 6-5, 240, #21, #257 Nationally

Greg Rogers, 6-3, 300, #3 DT, #25 Nationally

Marlon Tuipulotu, , 6-3, 285, #14 DT, 217th Nationally

If Andrus or Aumavae wanted to come, too, we could see UCLA taking any three of those four.  


So, overall, this class has:

-- 1 Five-Star, 9 Four-Stars and 2 Three-Stars, for an average of 3.91 stars.  

-- Four top-100 prospects, ten top-300 prospects, and ten that were ranked top 20 at their position nationally.

And it's a very realistic class listed here.  There isn't one prospect projected here that is from outside of the west, so it's conservative, since UCLA has consistently signed out-of-the-west recruits every year.  It's also not a "dream" class, or a stretch, including only recruits that we know UCLA is leading for at this time.

Also, UCLA has Demetrice Martin, Scott White and Angus McClure giving it easily the best-recruiting trio of defensive coaches it’s had in recent memory.   With their recruiting acumen, a very deep year in the west for talent, UCLA football now resonating with recruits and the Bruins leading for an unprecedented number of them at this time of year, UCLA could perhaps secure its best defensive class since Mora has been UCLA’s coach. 

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