Theo Howard

Evaluating the Bruin Newcomers: 2016

Aug. 17 -- It's our annual premature evaluation and ranking of the newcomers to the UCLA football program. Last year, Josh Rosen easily topped the list, but this year it's not as easy to determine the #1 prospect among the new players...

After a little over a week of fall camp, we really haven't seen enough of the newcomers to provide the type of evaluation we'd really like, but we're going to go with what we have. As we've done the last three years, this is a ranking of the newcomers as prospects and of their potential impact on the program -- so this isn't just a ranking of what they'll do this year, but what we think they'll do over the course of their careers at UCLA. So guys with tremendous upside might be ranked above guys who might play more their first year. 

In general, the 2016 class looks to have a good deal of talent and full of potential contributors.  Some of them, because of the depth ahead of them, might not be instant-impact stars, but have some tremendous upside.   It's a very deep class, the type that could lay a foundation for a program for years. 

1) Theo Howard

When we saw Howard in high school we were pretty certain he was a guy who could be a pro, with a combination of good size, some considerable quickness, speed and a very natural ability to run routes and catch passes. Watching him in spring practice, and then in an off-season workout and for the beginning of fall camp, "natural" is the best word to describe him. Many fast young guys are still awkward and raw at running routes or catching balls, but he's very fluid. In one-on-ones, that fluidity shines, and really makes him stand out among the UCLA WRs, even as just a true freshman. He's been out for a handful of practices nursing a minor hamstring injury, but we don't think it will set him back. We fully expect him to be in the receiver rotation for the season and to have some big moments as a freshman -- unlike any UCLA freshman receiver in recent memory.  With just modest improvement over his time at UCLA, Howard has a chance to be considered one of the most talented Bruin receivers of the last 20 years.

2) Nick Terry

The junior college transfer has been impressive since arriving on campus in the spring, bringing much-needed size to a line that, at times, was pushed around last season. Terry is listed at 6-feet-3, 300 lbs., and he plays with really good leverage to occupy gaps and get into the backfield, exhibiting some unique quickness for his size. He's fit in nicely with the second-unit defense backing up veteran DTs Eddie Vanderdoes and Eli Ankou, and will be in line to be a starter in 2017 when they both leave.  

3) Lokeni Toailoa

This is a pretty high ranking for Toailoa, a guy who isn't necessarily a good athlete, but Toailoa is a very good football player, with some great instincts for the ball.  He's a natural leader, too, a guy who will be a fixture in the locker room and on the field, and the perfect guy you want to be the leader of your defense at middle linebacker.  The word, too, is that he's exhibited  great work ethic since he's been at UCLA since last Winter quarter, and you can tell by how he's already transformed his body.  With Jim Mora saying that he's in the competition at middle linebacker, we think Toailoa is in the plans to play this season, and think he'll probably be too good by 2017 not to be starting somewhere on the linebacking unit. 

4) Boss Tagaloa

Tagaloa appears to be a tad undersized at the moment, but he's gotten reps with the second team and figures to have a role as a true freshman. The former Concord (Calif.) De La Salle standout has looked capable in run support, particularly on run plays up the middle, and has also had a few good moments in one-on-one battles, using his hands well to shed blockers. It's safe to assume Tagaloa will transform his body some over the course of the next couple years and should be a pillar in the trenches for at least his last two seasons in Westwood.

5) Mique Juarez

He's probably the guy with the most upside on this list, even ahead of Howard.  He's 6-2 and 250, and is a fluid athlete for that size. But, of course, there has been the drama of Juarez taking his excused absences from practice for the last five days. It was uncertain whether he'd quit football, and that uncertainty makes him less of a sure-fire bet to live up to his potential, and drops him down to #5 on this ranking. If Juarez does pursue his UCLA football career with drive and commitment, he easily has a chance to be the #1 prospect on this list and a pro. 

6) Devon Modster

Quarterbacks coach Marques Tuiasosopo was impressed from the start of camp when he threw Modster into the fire as the #3 QB and the true freshman responded by showing composure in the pocket and making some remarkable throws down field. The deep ball has been Modster's trademark through the first 10 practices, displaying a good feel for where receivers will be and beating safeties over the top. And, with the Bruins still searching for their signal caller in the 2017 class, the chances of Modster having a say in the post-Josh Rosen era have certainly gone up. All quarterbacks (except Rosen) look shaky their first week at UCLA's practice, and Modster has had his shaky moments. He'll have to improve his mechanics to make the short- to medium-range throws automatic, and improve his body to enhance his athleticism. But he's here at #6, while Matt Lynch is further down the list because we think Modster has a better chance at ultimately winning the starting spot in the post-Rosen era. 

7) Brandon Stephens

He's been probably the biggest surprise of fall camp. He was a throw-in to the 2016 class, a Stanford decommitment that UCLA picked up late, so there wasn't much expectation. Most running backs look lost their first week in college practices (Soso Jamabo, if you remember, did a year ago), but Stephens has looked completely comfortable. He's had a few decision-making issues, as you'd expect while he gets to know the scheme and the run-game timing, but he's been impressive in his ability to lay one move on a would-be tackler and then get up field, and hasn't flinched when running between the tackles. Many have called him a Soso mini-me, but we think he's closer in comparison to Johnathan Franklin. He's also still pretty thin, at 190, and looks like he could easily put on another 25 pounds on his 6-0 frame. If he redshirts this year, he'd have the potential to be a two-year starter at UCLA.  

Brandon Stephens (Photo: Steve Cheng)

8) J.J. Molson

Consistency has been Molson's main calling card and the expectation is that he'll surpass the production of UCLA's last true freshman place kicker, Ka'imi Fairbairn, who hit 16 of 22 field goal attempts in 2012. Molson has a strong leg and seems to also possess the mental fortitude that is so important for specialists.  He's a potential all-conference field goal kicker, at least, and looks better than Fairbairn, a Lou Groza Award winner, did as a freshman. Fairbairn, though, continued to work hard and get better throughout his UCLA career, and we'll see if Molson has that type of approach to his game. When it comes to impact, though, being a four-year starting field goal kicker is pretty significant.  

9) Caleb Wilson

Wilson is perhaps the second biggest revelation of fall camp behind Stephens.  He was a walk-on at USC and transferred to UCLA, and it was a little suspect that UCLA immediately granted him a scholarship. But in the first week of camp it's proving to be a smart move, with Wilson showing that he's a Pac-12 level tight end, being able to get open and catch the ball consistently.  He'll need to sharpen up his route-running some, but he has a great body, at 6-5 and at least 240. And here's the bonus: He's only a redshirt freshman and will have four years of eligibility. 

Caleb Wilson (Photo: Steve Cheng)

10) Breland Brandt

There was some concern about how Brandt would get acclimated to the size and speed of the college game after not facing the stiffest competition at nearby Windward School, but he has worked his way to getting looks with the second unit at outside linebacker. Brandt brings some versatility, too, as he's got some potential as a stand-up pass rusher off the edge, and linebackers coach Scott White pegged him as one of the team's most athletic cover guys. He has got a high ceiling and his potential impact could be determined by where his body development takes him. Being pretty skinny in high school, there was some question whether he'd have the type of body that could fill out, but he's solved that mystery pretty quickly, looking like he's already thickened out pretty welll by his freshman fall camp.  Given that, it's not hard to envision him getting to 250-ish on his 6-5-ish frame. We don't want to set expectations too high, but he was compared to Anthony Barr when he was a high school prospect and, while he might not be that level of prospect, he has a chance to play that kind of role at UCLA. 

11) Jalen Starks

He's been impressive because of his size, at 6-2 and 250, but his ability to get that big body moving has been the most impressive. Would-be tacklers literally do bounce off him. It was thought he'd be a fullback coming into UCLA, but UCLA offensive coordinator and running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu cleared that up last week, saying Starks was a tailback.  It appears he could be the tailback in this year's jumbo (short-yardage) package, and the fact that he provides such a change of pace as a battering ram, we think he'll play this season.  Over the course of his time at UCLA, we could see him being the #2 tailback in the rotation in a couple of years, the thunder to anyone else's lightning. 

Jalen Starks (Photo: Steve Cheng)

12) Brandon Burton

The former two-way standout from perennial USC pipeline Gardena Serra has been one of the more impressive newcomers from a production standpoint, constantly making plays on the football and logging a few interceptions and forced fumbles working with the third-unit secondary. The problem, though, is the depth at defensive back, with the likes of Jaleel Wadood, Randall Goforth, Tahaan Goodman, Will Lockett and Adarius Pickett all set to battle for snaps ahead of him this fall. Still, Burton has done a nice job and should be a contributor down the road on the defensive side, which was a question mark given his ability to play receiver as well.

13) Austin Kent

The new freshman punter didn't do much punting last week when practice was in Westwood, but they've unleashed his leg in San Bernardino, and he's been doing well, getting off some beauties with good hang time. For  true freshman punter, he hasn't had many shanks, which young punters are prone to do, especially in their first fall camp.  He looks like a potential all-Pac-12-caliber punter, and he'll have the UCLA punter position nailed down for the next four years. 

14) Audie Omotosho

Omotosho was a rather late addition in the 2016 recruiting cycle and is nowhere close to being a finished product at wideout, but he has shown some really good flashes through the first 10 days. He's a bit slight at the moment, but has room to add weight without losing much of his speed or athleticism. The native Texan also runs routes fairly well for a newcomer and has shown a good set of hands, particularly while fighting off defenders in traffic. We thought he'd be far more raw than he is, but he's shown a good set of receiver skills.  

15) Alex Akingbulu

We don't mean to sound like we were discounting some of these newcomers as high school prospects, but Akingbulu has also been a bit of surprise in fall camp. In high school he was about 230 pounds, and didn't necessarily show that he was lightning quick -- and he should have been when he was that light. So we had some skepticism. But now he's a good 270, and it sits well on his frame (it appears he'd be able to easily get to 290-ish), and he actually looks like he's more athletic than he was in high school.  He has good feet and lateral mobility, and combined with his length he actually has shut down some experienced pass rushers in the one-on-ones. We've also heard that he has a very good attitude and work ethic.  So, penciling in Akingbulu in the depth chart is now a promising endeavor as opposed to a completely uncertain one. 

16) Krys Barnes

Barnes has been solid, but probably has generated the least amount of buzz among the incoming linebackers. But that shouldn't be a knock by any means, especially since Barnes has demonstrated good technique on the outside and getting to ball carriers in open space. He's moved well in the drills, coming in to the program and going through the linebacker drills seamlessly, like a vet.  Given that he he both physically and performance-wise looks like he belongs, he's made it pretty clear he has a chance to be an important piece down the road.

17) Jordan Wilson

Going into his high school senior year, Wilson looked like a small forward, about 6-5 and 215. Then he shows up on UCLA's campus and he looks more like a power forward, at 6-5 and a good 250-ish.  He has some guns on him, and that physical development will go a long way to getting him on the field this year. What also might get him on the field: he's looked good catching the ball. He's pretty raw with his pass-catching, and his route-running needs refinement, but when the ball's near him he's shown good hands in corraling it.  He looks like he's been part of the tight end rotation so far in camp, even though it appears in the last few days that he's been getting less reps. No matter. We wouldn't mind if he redshirted, giving him time to refine his game, become a better blocker and have a big impact at the tight end position for four years.  

18) Jake Burton

Burton hasn't seen much action at defensive end and we wouldn't be shocked if there was a position switch at some point in the future. There was some feeling that Burton would be open to moving to tight end, a position he thrived in when in high school.  We could eventually see one more step inside to offensive tackle, especially with UCLA's need for it. He's already 6-5+ and 272 pounds, and that's without really trying to add much weight -- and he has a wide frame and looks fairly lean right now. One of the reasons it was believed Burton could make the move to tight end was his ability to block anyway, and the athleticism he could bring to offensive tackle could really make him something special.  Of course, the kid would have to want to do it. Regardless of position, he's bound to redshirt this fall as he continues to gain strength and gets used to the speed at this level. 

19) Matt Lynch

This was a difficult one. We like Lynch; he's been very effective for a true freshman in fall camp.  Obviously coming in early and getting that experience in spring helped, but he's shown some great maturity, composure and awareness in team drills, which makes you feel that the game isn't too big for him. The only thing holding us back in really jumping on the Lynch bandwagon is the throwing motion -- the short, shot-put-like stroke.  In the long run we have to wonder if he'll be able to make all the throws. What's interesting, though, like we've said before, if you don't pay attention to the motion and just watch where his ball goes, it does tend to get there adequately. He actually throws a long ball well.  So, we're torn over Lynch. He might have more of the intangibles than Modster to win the post-Rosen starting quarterback job, but obviously from this ranking we're thinking it's going to be Modster. We're really shaky about own decision here, though, thinking Lynch is the kind of kid you don't want to underestimate. 

Matt Lynch (Photo: Steve Cheng)

20) Damian Alloway

The other receivers have raved about Alloway through the first half of fall camp and for just reasons. The former Scout 300 prospect has good speed, runs smoothly and has game-breaking ability when he has the ball in his hands. But, for Alloway, it comes down to putting it all together and finding a way to gain separation on a consistent basis. It should be interesting to see if he finds a role on special teams this season. 

21) Osa Odighizuwa

You would think that being ranked this low would be essentially saying that a player isn't UCLA caliber, but that's absolutely not the case.  Odighizuwa, we think, is a Pac-12 level prospect. He's shown good agility when we watch him in the practice drills, and it's clear there is athleticism there. In high school, he always had to keep lean because he needed to maintain his weight to wrestle (three state individual wrestling championships in Oregon, winning 131 consecutive matches), but it was holding back the natural way his body should go -- and that's bigger. He's now already 285 pounds, and that's after just a few months at UCLA. He doesn't have the leaner body of his brother, but a much wider, thicker one, and we wouldn't be surprised if he ended up 300+ by his redshirt freshman year. With his body going that way, he's clearly projected to be a defensive tackle, probably a three-technique, and he'll have to continue to get stronger to play inside, even though he's pretty strong already.  He's a pretty raw football player, but the materials (size, strength, athleticism, smarts) are there, so after a couple of years we could see Odighizuwa being a fixture in the DT two-deep. 

22) Keyon Riley

Riley looks like the prototypical Demetrice Martin defensive back, with the long arms and frame to slide around at various spots in the secondary. As a pure cover corner, Riley has struggled against some older, more physical receivers, but he's had a couple of good days in San Bernardino, which could suggest he's growing more comfortable.  He is just a true freshman cornerback right now and is destined to get abused this year, so it's promising that he's flashed a bit.  We had thought he'd be a candidate to move to safety, but there have been some moments that he looked very natural as a cornerback.  We'll admit, we thought taking Riley might have been a bit of a stretch in the 2016 class, but so far in fall camp he looks like he belongs. 

23) Chigozie Nnoruka

This was an under-the-radar recruitment, with UCLA bringing in Nnoruka late.  The plan originally was for him to grey shirt, but a spot opened up for him to sign in February and come in this fall.  We had seen him on tape, and wondered about how he'd fit on the Pac-12 level.  He looked athletic, but looked to be 6-3-ish and 240-ish. Then he steps on campus and we get a load of him, and realize he's a load, at about 285 pounds. On the practice field he looks like a defensive tackle all the way.  He's already built out some, so he might not be able to get much beyond the 300-pound mark, but that's probably adequate. He is just a true sophomore, too, so he'll almost certainly redshirt this season and then have three years left in the program, and that's a long time to develop.  In practice so far, he's impressed, showing some nice, raw athleticism and power. He might be on the Eli Ankou path toward having a role, working with the 2s and 3s for a couple of years and then being a solid contributor by his junior and senior seasons. 

24) Leni Toailoa

The converted linebacker worked mostly at safety in the spring but doesn't appear to be done growing, so the move into the box makes sense. He's now already about 220 pounds and, don't forget, he's a year younger for his class. He has shown some deficiencies in pass coverage, but he's developing while learning a new position and could turn into a versatile defender in that group later on.  He has on one hand got the ire of linebackers coach Scott White, when he didn't have any idea what he was doing, but he's also made some pretty impressive plays, especially against the run.  You wouldn't think a 17-year-old who came to UCLA a year early as a safety and then switched to linebacker would make much noise in his first fall camp, but it's encouraging that he hasn't disappeared. 

25) Johnny Den Bleyker

He was one of the best long-snappers in the nation, and the quality of the long-snapping has taken a massive jump since he arrived in fall camp. UCLA was using walk-on linebacker Willie Green as its longsnapper in spring, and Green actually isn't bad, but Den Bleyker is a potential pro. It's made the entire mechanics of a field goal or punt a bit different, since his snaps come considerably quicker and with quite a bit more velocity. It's all good, obviously it gives the kickers more time to get off their kick. What's been really encouraging is that we don't think we've seen Den Bleyker muff a snap so far this fall. One of his goals clearly is to get physically bigger, at 6-0 and 200 pounds, just so he doesn't get bowled over after the snap. 

26)  Michael Alves

Alves hasn't been featured much as he's been bothered by a sore right knee and, on Monday, he spent some time at the trainers' tent while dealing with the desert heat. It remains to be seen if he'll become a factor in the future based on what he's shown early on.  He physically looks good, but while he passes the eyeball test, we've heard he'll need to get considerably stronger, and his feet aren't top-end quick.  He's a guy that will have to put in a ton of work to improve to be someone the staff is confident can play for them.  

N/A Guys: QB Dymond Lee, OL Paco Perez, DL Marcus Moore, WR Demetric Felton

These evaluations and rankings are based on what we've seen of players in spring and fall camp, so since we haven't seen the following guys we're not evaluating them.  If we had to guess, we'd probably say that Perez has the earliest chance to play, based on the feedback we heard from teammates in how he looked in the off-season. The plan is for him to start practicing when the team returns to UCLA next week (and practices are closed, so we won't see Perez) and we expect him to immediately get plugged in with the second-string offensive line.   Moore is another we won't see practice, since he'll probably start next week.  We've seen Lee at quarterback, of course, and that's reinforced that we think he'll end up at receiver at UCLA but, since he hasn't run one route yet in practice, we don't have enough to project him.  Felton is out for the season and hasn't practice this fall.

Paco Perez

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