Football NSD Aftermath: Is UCLA Willing to Step Up?

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

College football's National Signing Day has come and gone and the Bruins' incoming football class of 2014 is all but wrapped up. With the dust settled, we take a long look at the newest group of Bruins, what could have been, and where Coach Mora needs to go from here.

Immediate impression of this recruiting class?  Sort of a shoulder shrug.

Don't get me wrong: it's a very solid class and we brought in some future studs and stars in this group, but with all of the hype and top-tier talent linked to UCLA during the homestretch, you can't help but walk away feeling a bit underwhelmed at the end of the day.  If you forced me to give this group a letter grade, I'd probably write it up as a solid B.  There's some elite talent: four-star middle linebackers Zach Whitley (#6-ranked by Scout) and Kenny Young (#7-ranked), who we basically stole from Alabama and LSU, two of the elite programs with national title winning head coaches.  Plus, we brought in local studs in four-star safety Jaleel Wadood (#8-ranked), four-star defensive tackle Ainuu Taua (#9-ranked), and four-star defensive end Jacob Tuioti-Mariner (#14-ranked).  It's a good class, albeit it one that tilts strongly toward the defensive side of the ball.

But there were some key misses.  Our Bruins once again failed to bring in a game-changing, explosive offensive play-maker by striking out on guys such five-star WR Malachi Dupre from Louisiana, four-star WR Michiah Quick from Fresno, and five-star RB Joe Mixon from Oakley.  Yarber got some new additions to his WR corps in four-star Austin Roberts (#36-ranked) from Indiana and four-star Alex Van Dyke (#39-ranked) from Elk Grove, but it remains to be seen if the two big-bodied pass-catchers will be more like Anquan Boldin or turn out to be like Taylor "Stone Hands" Embree all over again.  And perhaps the loss of Mixon will be alleviated by the development of four-star (and once more highly-rated than Mixon) running back Nathan Starks.

Still, it's feels underwhelming.  The class finished ranked #20 by Scout, behind conference foes Southern Cal (#10), Arizona State (#16) and Stanford (#18), although when sorted by average star rating, UCLA's 3.56 was good enough for 10th, behind only Southern Cal's 3.79 in the Pac-12.  In comparison, last year's (2013) recruiting class was ranked #3, finish with an average star rating of 3.81, finishing fifth in that ranking, while Mora's first foray into recruiting by retaining Neuheisel's final recruiting class (2012), landed him the #12-ranked class with an average star rating of only 3.14 (good enough for 20th). So, all things considered, it's not the worst group that Mora brought to Westwood, although it's definitely not as great of a job as the staff brought in last year.  And it's certainly better than some of the low-lights brought in during the time of Mora's various predecessors: for example, Neuheisel's class of 2011 included two-star players like safety Anthony Thompson, offensive tackler Will Oliver, and outside linebacker Mike Orloff.

In a way, you feel like this recruiting class is a reflection of the season we had.  While Mora met some of the minimum expectations we laid out at the beginning of the season, we failed to win the Pac-12 South and return to the title game.  So while, we grabbed 10 wins, beat Southern Cal, and smashed Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl, it felt like UCLA football didn't so much take a huge leap forward in Mora's second year, but more like treading water.  It certainly wasn't a regression, but it didn't represent the leap forward into the national elite we had hoped for.  And likewise, this class reflects that season: it's a good, solid class, but on paper, it fails to measure up to last year's elite recruiting class.

More importantly, much like this past season, you get the sense that there were opportunities for Mora and this staff to take a huge leap forward, and we simply failed to capitalize on them: we were close to making that leap but just couldn't quite do it.  And that showed on the recruiting trail: we were in the mix for a lot of five-star elite talent but at the end of the day, we couldn't capitalize on the opportunities presented.  So, all-in-all, it's okay to feel a bit disappointed or underwhelmed.  It's certainly not on our newest Bruins, who we should all be very excited to have, but rather on Jim Mora, who could have made this solid recruiting class another spectacular one.  Certainly, if you look at where the top-tier talent in this class came from, you can see which coaches were more than pulling their weight on the recruiting trail.

So, we'll see what Mora can do in the next year.  It's Pac-12 championship and a trip to the college playoff or bust, especially with Heisman candidate Brett Hundley returning for one last shot at collegiate glory.  It'll be up to the staff to make sure that an elite season on the field translates into an elite season on the recruiting trail as well.  It may sound greedy, but if UCLA wants to play big-boy football, then it's time we start demanding excellence across the board (it's probably help if we could jettison that fat, lazy oxygen thief named Chianti Dan Guerrero, but I digress).

Jim Mora has done an outstanding job of changing the soft, weak culture of UCLA football, and he's gotten the Bruins to the edge of the national elite.  The question is whether or not he can step up his game, both on the field, and on the recruiting trail, and propel the Bruins into the national elite.  Otherwise, we'll continue to have solid recruiting classes, 8 or 9 win seasons, and never see the Rose Bowl unless we're playing a regular season home game.  Let's get it done.

GO BRUINS

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