It wasn't always this good.
I have been covering UCLA recruiting since the spring of 2003, just months after Karl Dorrell signed his initial class for the Bruins.
Since then, watching and covering UCLA recruiting hasn't always been pleasant.
Jim Mora, though, has completely changed UCLA football recruiting in an unprecedented manner. It's a major sea change in terms of the quality and caliber of recruit Mora is bringing into Westwood compared to his predecessors, Dorrell and Neuheisel.
It also isn't just about the improved caliber of recruit, but an entirely different approach and commitment to recruiting compared to UCLA's last two coaching regimes.
Let's compare and contrast a bit.
Targeting Players and Competing
For the longest time at UCLA the talent level of the team was, along with the acumen of the coaching staff, the biggest question mark when analyzing the team’s potential. When the beat writers used to sit at practice, one of the standard traditions during fall camp was to count how many players on the team were not UCLA-level players. Generally, during the Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel eras, this number climbed into the 30s and 40s—an absurd amount of dead weight on teams that ostensibly wanted to compete for Pac-10 titles.
Most of that dead weight was due to recruiting failures—either UCLA had to settle for third-tier prospects because they struck out on more heralded names or, more often, UCLA didn’t even compete for the heralded names in the first place, rather settling for the prospects they could get without expending as much effort. Generally speaking, UCLA, historically one of the Pac-12’s best programs, spent the 2000s recruiting like a Mountain West school.
One of the biggest contrasts with the Mora era is simply how competitive the staff is in recruiting. Immediately upon arrival in late 2011, the expectation was that Mora’s staff, complete with ace recruiters Adrian Klemm, Demetrice Martin, and Eric Yarber, would need some time to get acclimated to recruiting at UCLA and build relationships with the local, big-time prospects. In fact, many expected that the impact of the new staff wouldn’t be felt on recruiting until the following cycle.
Fortunately for UCLA fans, the staff got to work immediately. Martin made it an immediate priority to go after five-star defensive lineman Ellis McCarthy, who was probably at the time the most significant uncommitted prospect in Southern California. It’s a testament to the competitiveness of the staff, and Martin in particular, that not only did Martin make McCarthy an immediate priority, but when Martin went in for the in-home with McCarthy, just nine days after McCarthy committed to Cal during the Army Bowl, he told the other UCLA coaches that not only would he flip McCarthy, but by the time he got back to the office that Monday night, McCarthy would be a Bruin. Before that night was over, McCarthy committed to UCLA.
Offensive line coach Adrian Klemm, perhaps the best recruiter in the country over the last few years, immediately got UCLA involved with several 2012 offensive line prospects who hadn’t been considering UCLA. Perhaps more importantly, he laid the groundwork with many 2013 offensive line targets very early in his time at UCLA, setting the stage for what would be one of the best offensive line classes in the country in 2013. Perhaps the biggest proof of UCLA’s turnaround is that when Klemm was approached by USC after the 2013 season with a huge raise to take over the offensive line coaching duties for the Trojans, he declined, and stayed at UCLA for less money, largely because of what he had already built in Westwood and his relationship with Jim Mora.
McCarthy’s recruitment, and Klemm’s immediate work on the offensive line, was indicative of that 2012 class. Despite arriving late on a number of prospects simply because the staff was newly in place, and with just a hair over two months to recruit or re-recruit everyone in the class, UCLA managed to secure the 12th-best class in the country, beating out USC for several recruits—an astounding feat, given that the Trojans had just finished beating UCLA 50-0.
The competitive doggedness of the staff is not just a product of the new blood; holdover Angus McClure, who spent time on the staffs of both Dorrell and Neuheisel, became the defensive line coach under Mora and has been arguably one of the most productive recruiters on staff, locking down one of the best defensive line classes in the country in 2013, and in the process of securing another top class of big guys in 2014. McClure has so many connections throughout Northern California that there’s a running joke that he’s “Uncle Angus”—being either related to or close friends with so many high school coaches and parents throughout the area. When Eddie Vanderdoes, the five-star 2013 defensive lineman, wavered on his commitment to Notre Dame, the only school the family considered was UCLA, primarily because of the relationships McClure had built over time. When Matt Dickerson, the four-star 2014 DL, wavered on his own commitment to Notre Dame, again, UCLA was the school that immediately leapt to the top of his list, again because of McClure's adeptness at building relationships and connections. Outside of Nick Saban and Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, there may not be another person who has ruined Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s day more than Angus McClure.
The groundwork that UCLA was able to lay in the 2012 class, coupled with the nine games the Bruins won on the field, raised UCLA’s recruiting prowess into the elite stratosphere of college football blue bloods. The 2013 class might have been the best in school history, with Mora securing the No. 3 recruiting class in the country, bested only by Ohio State and Michigan. The class was stocked full of elite talent, from five-star cornerback Priest Willis to five-star defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes to four-star linebacker Myles Jack. And it was obvious from the moment they stepped on the field in summer of 2013 just how elite that class was.
If there’s any testament to the prowess of Jim Mora’s staff in recruiting it’s this: When the UCLA beat writers did their annual count of players on the roster who were not UCLA-level in fall of 2013, the number was down to four.
Having Something to Sell
Rick Neuheisel's and Karl Dorrell’s greatest sin at UCLA was simply this: they didn’t win. Dorrell, aside from one anomalous season where the stars aligned and UCLA rode two NFL talents on offense to an unlikely 10-2 season, was a .500 coach at UCLA with 35 wins in his five years. Neuheisel was worse, winning just 21 games in his four years at UCLA. Both coached unattractive, dreary styles of offense, predicated on antiquated philosophies, with Neuheisel opting for the Pistol offense after his version of the West Coast offense sputtered. The Pistol was an abject and complete failure, and was so poorly suited for receivers that it helped to steer Brandin Cooks, the 2013 Biletnikoff winner who originally committed to UCLA out of high school, into the waiting arms of Oregon State.
Combined with all of that, Dorrell and Neuheisel were often loath to play freshmen, frequently starting experienced upper classmen over wildly more talented younger players. So, not only did they not win games, they played an unattractive style of football that rarely got players on the field for considerable amounts of time prior to their third year in school. That’s not a formula for recruiting success, at UCLA or any school.
The contrast with Mora’s staff is again striking. Along with recruiting well, Jim Mora’s staff has done something no other staff at UCLA has done since the late '90s -- win. The Bruins have won 19 games through Mora’s first two years, and, while much of recruiting is based on effort and force of personality, fielding a winning team is probably the most important factor for reeling in droves of high school athletes.
What’s made an impact in recruiting, though, isn’t simply the wins, but how they’ve come. This past year, UCLA played nearly 20 true freshmen—in a year where the Bruins won 10 games for the first time since 2005. In two consecutive years, UCLA started three freshmen on the offensive line, which is a move that was theretofore unprecedented. These moves haven’t come purely out of desperation—when UCLA has had even a marginal talent difference with a freshman being even a slightly better player than a senior, the coaches have elected to play the freshman. For UCLA, that sort of thinking is revolutionary.
What has also helped has been a much more attractive style of football on both sides of the ball. UCLA, for the first time, has turned to a spread offense, formulated by Noel Mazzone, that uses the now ubiquitous three and four-wide receiver sets, along with zone reading from a mobile quarterback. Additionally, on defense, UCLA runs a 3-4 scheme that gets more speed on the field, which has led to a significant uptick in linebacker and defensive back recruiting.
The combination of these factors has certainly been noticed by recruits across the country. When UCLA opted to play true freshman Myles Jack significantly on both offense and defense during his first year, several recruits across the country had the same reaction: Wow, UCLA might ACTUALLY play me on both sides of the ball. In a world where coaches sell kids on a variety of happy promises that ultimately come to nothing, UCLA was showing the recruiting world that it would back up its pledges.
In 2004, when Dorrell went out looking for quarterbacks, he found three options: Matt Tuiasosopo (a Washington-lean UCLA thought it had a chance with), Chase Patton (a Missouri native), and Erik Ainge (an Oregon native). Shockingly, Dorrell and company brought all three in on the same weekend, which virtually ended UCLA’s chances with each before they’d even stepped foot on campus (as a general rule, when you’re recruiting for a position where there’s typically one starter for several years, and the backups rarely play, don’t bring in all of your prospects for that position on the same weekend. Ever). Within weeks of the blunder, each quarterback had committed to another school. Unfortunately, that sort of story was indicative of the relative competence of Dorrell’s recruiting staff.
Neuheisel was much more competent when it came to recruiting, though he, too, had his missteps, dropping Shaquelle Evans, a lifelong UCLA fan, and allowing him to go to Notre Dame (he would eventually transfer back and start at receiver for the last two years under Mora). Generally, though, what plagued Neuheisel was a combination of bad luck and bad evaluations, with several of his highly-touted recruits either suffering career-ending injuries or simply not living up to the hype.
Mora’s staff, though, has been generally free of major recruiting blunders, and Mora has shown, already in his second year, that he’s willing to make changes to his staff to improve recruiting, firing running backs coach Steve Broussard the day after the USC game this season to make room for elite recruiter Kennedy Polamalu. With Polamalu, Klemm, Martin, McClure, and Yarber, UCLA has five good-to-great West Coast recruiters on staff.
It's not arguable: UCLA now has its best recruiting staff ever.
Mora's a Natural
And you can't forget Mora himself, who has shown an exceptional knack for recruiting that shouldn’t have been natural for a guy who spent the vast majority of his coaching career in the NFL up to taking the UCLA job in 2011.
Mora has found himself sucked into recruiting. Being a bit of a softy, he's drawn into the recruits' lives, their families and their stories. He has told BRO that he never anticipated how much recruiting would mean to him personally, in getting to know the recruits and their families. He personally recruits almost every major recruit, and it means a great deal to him if he can establish a bond with the kid. He also, like any good BRO recruit-nik, has gotten caught up in the competitiveness of recruiting himself. Don't think that, privately, Mora isn't driven to out-recruit USC, especially now when he's looking across town at a familiar face in Steve Sarkisian. He takes it personally when a coveted UCLA target, for whatever reason, says in an Internet interview that they're not favoring UCLA. Mora sees no reason why he can't recruit against anyone -- the Alabamas, Ohio States and LSUs of the world -- given UCLA's natural advantages and his natural recruiting ability.
When Mora was recruiting Priest Willis, the five-star cornerback in the class of 2013, Willis and family came into Mora’s office one day. Willis’ two year-old sister entered the office like a tornado, grabbing things off of Mora’s desk to play with and generally just making a mess. Rather than telling her to stop, or even ignoring her, Mora, a father of four himself, got down on the ground to play with her. According to Willis’ stepfather, the move all but sealed the deal that Willis would end up in Westwood.
The staff and Mora have also done a good job of evaluating its needs, and not screwing up the obvious stuff. When Xavier Su’a-Filo came back from his Mormon mission in winter of 2012, he was once again a recruitable athlete despite playing his first year at UCLA before leaving on his mission. Su’a-Filo had been a star that first year at left tackle, looking like UCLA’s best lineman since Kris Farris or Jonathan Ogden in the 1990s. Despite just recently coming on the job, Mora and Klemm flew to Utah to meet with Su’a-Filo and his family immediately upon his return from the mission, and just weeks later, Su’a-Filo was enrolled back at UCLA, not seriously considering any other school after the personal meeting with his two new coaches.
Generally speaking, though, UCLA has also had a much greater hit rate on prospects under Mora than it had previously. Highly touted prospects like Eddie Vanderdoes, Myles Jack, Kenneth Clark, Alex Redmond, Caleb Benenoch, and Thomas Duarte came in with a great deal of publicity in 2013 and then started and performed well in their first year.
What’s more, UCLA has shown a greater ability to develop talent already in the program under Mora than it had shown in any of the 15 years previous. Anthony Barr, who was previously a little used F-back in Neuheisel’s Pistol offense, switched to defense just before spring camp in Mora’s first season and became a terror at outside linebacker over his last two seasons. Cassius Marsh, who never seemed to find a position that really fit him, became a force as one of the defensive ends in the 3-4. Even Keenan Graham, who always struggled to find a role in Neuheisel’s defense despite having a great deal of quickness, became a pass rush specialist in his final season, earning seven sacks.
In total, UCLA’s current staff outpaces any staff in the last two decades in Westwood in terms of recruiting approach, execution, and overall success. Mora, in his short time at UCLA, has changed the culture of UCLA, turning it into a legitimate option for blue chip prospects across the country, to the point where six UCLA commitments played in the Army All-American game just two weeks ago. With continued success on the field, and a continued commitment from this talented group of coaches, UCLA recruiting should continue to prove that there is virtually no limit to the number of people who would like to spend four years playing their college football at UCLA.
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