In a recent article we speculated about what current UCLA players would have to step up for UCLA to have a special season (go HERE). We thought it'd be good, then, to create a companion piece: What elite, difference-making recruits UCLA could have a chance to get if, in fact, UCLA did have that special season.
When we say "special," we're talking at the very least a 10-win season, and at the very best 11+ wins and some kind of title (Pac-12 South champ, Pac-12 champ).
UCLA, too, even has a history of recruiting exceptionally well based on just a good -- and not even a "special" -- season.
The primary criteria for the recruits on this list are:
1) They are elite, difference-makers that have a chance to make a big impact and also vault a recruiting class into the top ten classes in the country, at least
2) We believe they're going to wait out their recruitment and not make a decision until late in the cycle, so a big UCLA season could change or enhance their perspective
3) UCLA has a decent connection with the recruit already, but isn't leading for them
Now, just to give you some historical reference on how a big season at UCLA can affect its recruiting, the best example is the 1998 recruiting class. UCLA was coming off a 5-6 season in 1996, the first year for first-time head coach Bob Toledo. Heading into the 1997 season, the Bruins didn't have a great amount of momentum, on the field or in recruiting, and Toledo had no buzz.
But in the 1997 season, a junior quarterback named Cade McNown had a coming-out party, throwing for over 3,000 yards while leading UCLA to a 10-2 season, first place in the Pac-10, a victory over Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl and a final ranking of 5th in the polls.
It was astounding the impact it had on the 1998 recruiting class. UCLA went from looking like it would have a pedestrian class to start the season and finished with arguably the No. 1 class in the nation (while some services had UCLA at No. 2). It featured big-time recruits like running back DeShaun Foster (now currently UCLA's running backs coach), linebacker Robert Thomas, who was the nation's No. 4-ranked prospect; and the top offensive line prospect in the west, ranked No. 14 overall nationally, Mike Saffer. UCLA signed 7 top-100 players, and went national, with nine signees coming from outside California. Allen Wallace said UCLA had the best defensive line recruiting class in the nation, while Bobby Burton, then of The National Recruiting Advisor, said "UCLA basically beat the pants off USC."
A typical story from that 1998 recruiting cycle was defensive lineman Sean Phillips, who was from Sugar Land (Tex.) Dulles. To begin the season, UCLA wasn't even recruiting Phillips. Heck, halfway through the season, Phillips still wasn't on UCLA's radar. Phillips, who was ranked the No. 6 defensive lineman in the nation, was getting recruited heavily by in-state schools and by national powers. But by the time UCLA was 9-2 and top-ten in the country in November, Phillips had noticed and gave the Bruins a call. He came out for an official visit and verbally committed pretty quickly after that.
It was pretty much the same story for many recruits -- in-state and out-of-state -- that year: UCLA's big season made them notice the Bruins.
We've always maintained that UCLA, to a degree, recruits itself. There are always going to be a good amount of recruits naturally attracted to UCLA. But when you combine that with some considerable success on the field, UCLA's recruiting can be among the best in the nation.
Under Jim Mora, the trend has been similar. In Mora's first year, after going 9-5, UCLA signed the No. 3 class in the nation for 2013. After two 10-2 seasons in 2013 and 2014, UCLA signed the nation's No. 9 class for 2015, while having the second-highest star average per recruit (4.00, with Alabama No. 1 at 4.04). And this was with UCLA not winning any kind of title under Mora.
Heck, coming off a 4-8 season in 2016, which could be devastating for the recruiting outlook of many programs, UCLA still signed the No. 22 class in the nation for 2017, and is currently ranked No. 20 for 2018.
So, this isn't a fluke but a phenomenon: UCLA recruits well on its own, but when it has success on the field, it can be a recruiting juggernaut. A huge boost in recruiting could happen even if UCLA doesn't win any kind of title but has just a good season, since we've seen it before.
So, going into the 2017 season, who are the difference-making recruits UCLA could get with a big season?
These aren't complete pie-in-the-sky theories, but based on some solid inside information and a bit of speculation.
Remember, these are prospects that UCLA currently isn't leading for, so those UCLA is leading for at the moment aren't included.
**Also remember: It's early in the rankings for the 2018 class and there are only 17 prospects with five stars nationally at this time. In 2017, there ended up being 36 recruits with five stars, so some of the recruits below will end up being five-star prospects.
Amon-Ra St. Brown, , Nation's No. 1 WR
Let's be straight with you: Right now USC leads for St. Brown, and it's easy to see why, given USC's pre-season hype. But St. Brown is absolutely a guy who is going to wait probably until Signing Day to decide, and we know he does like UCLA. He visited UCLA during its spring practice and hung with UCLA receivers coach Jimmie Dougherty. USC will lose their quarterback, Sam Darnold, so when it comes down to it, when it comes to quarterbacks, St. Brown could perhaps see himself connecting better with either Devon Modster or 2018 UCLA-committed QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson than USC's 2018 committed quaterback, Matt Corral. It could be that elite receiver prospect Jalen Hall goes with his Long Beach Poly teammate Corral to be the guy at USC, and there's enough to convince St. Brown to be the guy at UCLA. We know that the St. Brown family would like to keep Amon-Ra close to home, and that the St. Brown family likes high-end academics, with one son at Notre Dame and the second on his way to Stanford. If UCLA's pro-style offense is successful, you would bet the NFL-minded St. Brown family would be very open to it.
Penei Sewell, , West's No. 1 OL
Sewell's family is unusual -- mostly because we've been told they're meticulous in their approach to recruiting, want to take their time and aren't swayed in one direction after every unofficial visit. Sewell just took an unofficial visit to Alabama and we heard the Sewell family was impressed, but they weren't close to being compelled to commit. UCLA was leading for Sewell very early on, when it was the first program to offer him, but when UCLA fired OL coach Adrian Klemm they had to start from scratch with him. USC, coming off its good season, jumped into the void. But Sewell visited UCLA's spring practice, and we heard there were some indications made that UCLA very well has a chance with Sewell. Immediate playing time, too, is a factor for Sewell, and he would have a very good chance of starting as a true freshman at UCLA in 2018, given UCLA's OL depth.
Justin Dedich, , Nation's No. 1 Center
UCLA is probably among Dedich's leaders right now as it stands, so a big season might push it over the top for the Bruins. He visited UCLA's campus during spring practice and apparently got along really well with new UCLA OL coach Hank Fraley. Immediate playing time, too, is a factor here, with UCLA's center, Scott Quessenberry, being a senior and Dedich seeing he'd have a good chance to start as a true freshman. Dedich and Sewell are close, too, so if UCLA is the place to be after a big season it's easy to project them as a semi-package deal.
Tyreke Johnson, , Nation's No. 3 Cornerback
UCLA is among Johnson's leaders, after being THE leader during his junior season. It's, of course, tough to stay in the lead when Johnson is in Florida and big-time east coast programs are recruiting him aggressively while UCLA is a continent away. A big UCLA season could combine with another factor in UCLA ultimately getting Johnson -- that is, UCLA recently offering and ultimately taking Johnson's cousin, Tyrese Ross, a DB prospect from Georgia.
Palaie Gaoteote, , Nation's No. 1 Outside Linebacker
This one is a bit of a longshot, admittedly. But we have heard some things that make the USC verbal commitment a possibility: 1) We've heard that if there was any other school he'd go to besides USC, it's UCLA. 2) If UCLA has a better season than USC it could make him reconsider which program is the one with the more promising future 3) He's close with UCLA linebackers coach Scott White, who has been recruiting him longer than anyone, and continued to go see him at Gorman this May, even after he was verbally committed to USC and 4) his teammate, Dorian Thompson-Robinson, will continue to work on him.
T.J. Pledger, , Nation's No. 3 Running Back
UCLA was the early leader for Pledger when he was at West Hills (Calif.) Chaminade, but then he went across the country and got infected by that east coast bias. Even worse than that, and having a bigger impact on Pledger, was UCLA's appalling running game last season. So, critical to this is that UCLA's running game has a good season in 2017. Pledger is verbally committed to Oklahoma, but all the guys he was going with there, quarterback Cameron Rising and a receiver he was close with, have flipped elsewhere. Plus, UCLA has a stable of big backs, and Pledger could see his niche, that of the smaller, faster change-of-pace guy. And then there would the allure of returning to his hometown area and playing college in front of his family and friends.
Bookie Radley-Hiles, , Nation's No 8 Cornerback
Radley-Hiles is committed to Nebraska, and an individual close to Radley-Hiles told us: "He isn't going to end up going to Nebraska. It's just not him." We know UCLA was his leader for a long time, but there is also a big recruiting connection between his former high school, Calabasas, and Nebraska. We could easily see the more big-city Radley-Hiles ultimately wanting to go to big-city UCLA as opposed to Lincoln, and play alongside his former teammate and friend, Darnay Holmes. And, it's reasonable to think that Pledger and Radley-Hiles, two Cali kids at IMG, could decide this together.
Mustapha Muhammad, , Nation's No. 3 Tight End
We've heard that Muhammad plans on waiting before making a decision, but some other sources think he could pull the trigger at any time. UCLA has a chance, from what we've heard, even if he does pull an early trigger. Muhammad has always liked UCLA, having camped there last summer and visiting again this last weekend. If UCLA has a big season and Muhammad watches how much the tight end is integral to UCLA's new offense, with UCLA's Caleb Wilson being among UCLA's top receivers for 2017, we could see Muhammad being a Bruin.
Trevor Trout, , Nation's No. 10 Defensive Tackle
We're hearing that UCLA has a decent chance with Trout as it stands. The inside word is that he wants to leave the midwest, and when you have a midwesterner wanting to do that the allure of California can be pretty strong. While UCLA is recruiting well at DT, not only with the 2017 class but having commitments from two DTs so far in 2018, Trout can easily see that he's the true nose UCLA is missing, and that he would have a chance for immediate playing time at that spot. There are many indications UCLA already looks good with Trout, but a big season could put it over the top.
Bo Calvert, , Nation's No. 4 Outside Linebacker
Another USC commitment makes the list, which makes sense: If UCLA bests USC with a superior season you could see recruits looking from South Central to Westwood. Calvert makes even more sense in other ways: 1) USC covets a few other uncommitted linebackers and Calvert could be the odd-guy out, with both mutuall parting ways. And that would be good, because we feel Calvert is probably better than the guys USC might covet more than him, and 2) From what we've heard, Calvert is more of a UCLA than a USC type of kid.
Eyabi Anoma, , Nation's No. 13 Defensive End
We're kind of throwing this one in on a whim. We've actually heard, too, that his academics aren't stellar, but passable. But there are some compelling reasons to think UCLA would have a very good chance with a good season. First, the reason why UCLA would want him: We haven't seen Anoma, but from what we've been told, he's an athletic freak. He's been kind of late to the party in terms of getting evaluated and scouts have only recently seen him, but we're told if there's a guy who physically and athletically has all the makings of a five-star prospect it's Anoma. He's a basketball player who just recently started playing football, so that contributed to him being under the radar until recently. He has said he wants to visit UCLA this summer, and when an out-of-state recruit visits UCLA on his own dime that means the Bruins have a legitimate chance. UCLA defensive line coach Angus McClure has been clued in on him and recruiting for a while. Apparently, too, UCLA getting OL grad transfer Sunny Odogwu will help with Anoma's recruitment.
Prospect You Might Expect Would be on the List But Aren't:
Brevin Jordan -- You would think the nation's No. 1 tight end, who had UCLA as his leader and is friends with Thompson-Robinson would make the list. But we've heard the addition of Devin Asiasi to UCLA's tight end corps was a big factor in him verbally committing to Miami, and we don't see that changing.
Tanner McKee -- The nation's No. 4-ranked quarterback is probably destined to sign with BYU, and a big UCLA season probably won't sway that. But that doesn't mean, if UCLA has put it together over the next two years, that McKee might not seriously consider UCLA after his Mormon mission.
Chase Cota -- From what we've heard, the elite receiver is pretty locked in to Oregon, where is father was once a defensive star.
Talanoa Hufanga -- The No. 1-ranked athlete in the nation, this is the guy we'd most like to add to the list, but we've heard it would be almost impossible to get him out of the state of Oregon.
Solomon Tuliaupupu -- While the nation's No. 2 inside linebacker isn't verbally committed to USC, we've heard he's more locked into the Trojans than Gaoteote.
Olaijah Griffin -- The west's No. 1 cornerback isn't looking at UCLA seriously, and we've heard a big factor is UCLA's depth chart at corner, with Holmes and four-star guys Jaylan Shaw and Elijah Gates all a year ahead of him. That depth isn't going to change, and could get more loaded.