A regular contributor to the BRO Premium Message Board, AndersonMBA2007, recently asked us on the BRO message board: Who would you consider to be the top five recruits of the Jim Mora era so far (the 2012-2014 recruiting classes)?
It was an interesting question so we decided to turn it into a frontpage story. That doesn't mean any question you ask on the message board will make it into a frontpage story (like: Who invented liquid soap and why?) but in this case it was a provocative question that deserved a thoughtful answer.
The three of us – Tracy Pierson, Dave Woods and Brandon Huffman – all provided our individual opinions of the top five recruits in the Jim Mora era.
**Huffman based his ranking on the impact at the time of the prospect's commitment, not what they've done since being at UCLA.
1) Xavier Su'a-Filo
2) Ishmael Adams
3) Eddie Vanderdoes
4) Ellis McCarthy
5) Zach Whitley
1) Myles Jack
2) Kenny Clark
3) Eddie Vanderdoes
4) Ellis McCarthy
5) Caleb Benenoch
1) Myles Jack
2) Eddie Vanderdoes
3) Xavier Su'a-Filo
4) Kenny Clark
5) Ellis McCarthy
Here is the breakdown on why the eight players included here made the lists:
Myles Jack, 2014. If the criteria for making this list is the impact a player will make on the program due to, first, his talent on the field and, second, how he'll raise the program's media profile then Jack is the man. If you don't even consider the next two years Jack will spend in a UCLA uniform, the impact on the field and in the media last season might be enough on its own to put him on this list, and probably at the top of it. Jack was the first UCLA non-senior and non-quarterback in a very long time to get the type of media attention he did in 2013. For a few weeks during the 2013 college football season, when Jack was doing his Superman impression and playing both ways, he was a feature on just about every college football show – and just not in Los Angeles, but nationally. Heck, he was the first player in the history of the conference to be voted the Defensive and Offensive Freshman of the Year. Because his name, too, can be used for so many easy puns, it has seemingly stuck in the national college football consciousness, and easily gets repeated by recruits. In fact, many recruit can't necessarily name a bunch of current UCLA players, but they all certainly know Jack. He's a photogenic kid, too, with that Hollywood smile, and a great interview, with an ease in front of the media. And it's not as if the recognition isn't deserved – Jack is a freak. He might have had the most impressive performance in 2013 as a true freshman at UCLA than anyone in the last 20 years. So, it's not difficult to project how big of an impact and how often his name is going to be mentioned during games in the next two years. The fact, too, that might get lost a little on the national media, but isn't in recruiting circles, is that Mora snatched Jack from hometown Washington, which showed Mora's recruiting prowess just a year in to his coaching career at UCLA. So, in just about every way you look at it, if you had to project who is going to be remembered as the face of the Mora era at UCLA, Jack is probably the poster boy.
Eddie Vanderdoes, 2013. The Vanderdoes recruitment will go down as one of the most volatile in the history of UCLA recruiting. The one-time USC commit opted to open things up just prior to the Army All-American game in December, and there was word that his relationship with the Trojans may have ended on a sour note. In the ensuing weeks, UCLA actually jumped ahead for the elite defensive tackle, but then, in the last two weeks before Signing Day, Vanderdoes was enticed by the tradition of Notre Dame, and committed to the Irish on Signing Day. After several months, and due to many factors (some of which will likely never come to light), Vanderdoes opted out of his National Letter of Intent to Notre Dame and enrolled at UCLA, which was a testament to the recruiting job Angus McClure did prior to his commitment to Notre Dame. The Vanderdoes recruitment was a great example of McClure's best recruiting trait – doggedness. It also got UCLA in the news, and not just the limited recruiting news but national, college football news, showcasing an elite, five-star recruit essentially dumping Notre Dame (and USC) for UCLA. With Vanderdoes, UCLA signed an elite defensive tackle who Greg Biggins said was the best he'd seen on the West Coast in at least the last ten years. He was starting by the end of his freshman year, and figures to be a fixture on the defensive line for each of his three or four years in Westwood.
Ellis McCarthy, 2012. Getting McCarthy was the biggest coup of the 2012 class, which was Jim Mora's first in Westwood. Despite having just over a month to recruit, the Bruins, by early January, had already earned commitments from four-star cornerbacks Marcus Rios and Ishmael Adams as well as a host of three-star prospects. On January 16th, though, the first sign came that Mora could truly build something special in Westwood. Ellis McCarthy, who just two weeks prior had committed to California as part of the #CalGang movement (RIP 2011-2012), flipped his commitment to the Bruins. Demetrice Martin, the defensive backs coach, did yeoman's work convincing McCarthy to flip his commitment and join the budding UCLA program. McCarthy, the mammoth five-star defensive tackle, has had some ups and downs since arriving in Westwood, battling knee and lower leg issues. He appears to be healthy, though, heading into his junior year, and the expectation is that he'll be a mainstay in the rotation at every position along the defensive line, and is poised to prove himself this season.
Kenny Clark 2013. Here's a big statement: Among recruits brought in by Mora in his first five years, Clark might end up the highest NFL Draft pick. Heck, Clark has a chance to be the highest-drafted player to come out of UCLA since Mora took over, and that would include Anthony Barr and Brett Hundley. That could be a bit of a stretch, but the fact that it's a possibility is astounding. Clark was a bit of an under-the-radar recruit, even being four-star and ranked the #20 defensive tackle in the national class of 2013. It's clear after just a freshman season that he's better than that, and a potential first-round NFL pick. First, physically, when you see Clark in person, he really stands out – even on Spaulding these days when so many Mora-era players look physically like NFL players. Clark, more than just about anyone on the field now, looks like an NFL player right now. He's just huge, at 6-3 to 6-4 and 315, well-put together pounds. He really does look like a man among boys. Heck, it looks like his head is too big to fit into a helmet. But what got the coaches realizing Clark was going to play as a true freshman when they first saw him in San Bernardino last summer was the explosiveness for his size. By the end of the 2013 season, Clark had probably become UCLA's best defensive lineman, on a line loaded with U.S. Army All-Americans. And, again, he was just a true freshman. Defensive tackles almost never play as true freshmen, it's just too demanding physically, but Clark did, and it's near-scary to think about what he's going to develop into in the next two years. Not only will he impact the team on the field, but when in two years he's a first-round NFL draft pick, it will confirm that if you're a defensive line recruit and you come to UCLA you're going to get coached up by the likes of Mora and McClure, guys who know how to get you to the League.
Ishmael Adams, 2012. Adams wasn't the first player to commit to UCLA after Jim Mora was hired. That was Marcus Rios. He wasn't even the first player from Southern California to commit to the Bruins. That was Tayor Lagace. But he was certainly the biggest of the pre-All-American game commits. Adams' verbal was huge on several levels. First, he was favoring UCLA and Cal for most of his recruitment, but during the 2011 season, Cal had moved ahead while Rick Neuheisel was on his way out. So for UCLA to get a commitment from him, and not much more than a week after Mora was announced, was a big deal. He was one of the premier players in Southern California, a U.S. Army All-American and a top 10 corner nationally. UCLA had lost longtime lean Stefan McClure a year before to Cal, so to lose Adams the next year would have hurt them. But immediately, you could see the dividends that Demetrice Martin and Adrian Klemm would pay. SMU was the first school to offer Adams, doing so when he was early in his junior year when Klemm was coaching in Dallas. Washington was his second offer, with Martin the primary recruiter for Adams. Still, Adams had no reason to commit to UCLA. Especially since at that point, all signs pointed to Cal and #CalGang was ramping up. So when Adams committed to UCLA right after Christmas and just days before he got to San Antonio, it was a big jolt of positive news for the Bruins. That Adams starred in the game (winning MVP honors by Scout.com) was a bigger jolt. But more importantly, all week, Shaquille Thompson, Ellis McCarthy and Jordan Payton were working on Adams to flip his commitment to Cal and announce for the Bears during the Army Bowl. Not only did Adams not flip his commitment, but all three of the announcements for Cal would end up elsewhere, with McCarthy joining Adams a couple weeks later and Payton, his Oaks Christian teammate, following suit on Signing Day.
Xavier Su'a-Filo, 2012. It was serendipity for Mora and his staff that Su'a-Filo fell from heaven into their laps in 2012. He had returned from his two-year LDS Mission, and UCLA's offensive line looked a bit like the movie "Little Giants." It's not all completely luck; the fact that Mora and Offensive Line Coach Adrian Klemm impressed Su'a-Filo in their "recruitment" of him, making him feel that returning to UCLA, where he played as a true freshman, was a smart thing had quite a bit to do with it. It's easy to say that, then, without Su'a-Filo the last two years, the UCLA offensive line would have been close to a disaster, and UCLA wouldn't have had nearly the success it's had in Mora's first two years in Westwood. Given the state of the UCLA OL, It wouldn't be a stretch to say that Su'a-Filo's impact on the field was probably second to Hundley in the last two seasons. Without the on-field success, Mora, who is an excellent recruiter, would still be selling pure upside, as opposed to what he can sell now – results. Su'a-Filo's development also sends a message to offensive line prospects that Klemm will get you to the NFL – if they didn't already know that.
Caleb Benenoch, 2013. Benenoch's recruitment wasn't a topsy-turvy one, at least by modern standards. Benenoch committed to Michigan State fairly early in the process, but decommitted the summer before his senior year. That's when Adrian Klemm came calling. The offensive line coach performed one of his best recruiting jobs, convincing Benenoch to make the move from Texas to Los Angeles, pitching him on the idea that the decision was one he should make with his life goals in mind, rather than just for football. The pitch worked, and despite already having commitments from offensive linemen Scott Quessenberry, John Lopez, Poasi Moala, Alex Redmond, and (then) Sean Dowling, the Bruins were able to seal the deal on what has become the early crown jewel of that offensive line class. Benenoch started most of his first season in Westwood, and will likely start at left tackle for the next three years after making the switch (and a big body transformation) in the off-season.
Zach Whitley, 2014. UCLA doesn't steal elite, out-of-state players from big-time programs that often. At least before Mora arrived. And Whitley wasn't just an out-of-state prospect, he was from a whole other region, a region that had sent a couple of elite players down to the SEC to star in previous years, from a state that provided those same SEC schools key players in their championship endeavors. For UCLA to steal him from Alabama when he was supposed to enroll at Alabama a week later? After he had been committed for months to the Tide, the alpha dogs in college football? While he was at the Army Bowl, with several Alabama commits and recruits? Whitley announced his commitment late on the Friday evening before the Army Bowl, and thought he talked with BRO, he wouldn't talk to the rest of the media until after the Army Bowl. UCLA still had to weather one more week of uncertainty, with there being a nine-day gap from his announcement to when he was set to arrive on campus. And the weekend before he was supposed to end up in Westwood, Texas A&M was making a pitch to keep him close to home while Alabama was still trying to get him back on board. But Whitley never wavered after flipping to the Bruins. You can tip the cap to Najee Toran, who's flip from Oregon State to UCLA, but ensuing recruitment got Whitley interested in UCLA and vice versa. Even though the final days of 2014's class were disappointing, getting Whitley was big. It showed the rest of the country that UCLA was willing to recruit with the big boys. And Jim Mora didn't fear Nick Saban.