Let me start with a statement that (hopefully) we can all agree on: every recruit UCLA signed this past Wednesday is wonderful and we wish them all the best.
That also makes the rest of this article more challenging.
See, I am a writer covering sports on the internet, which means it falls on me to overreact as quickly and with as much emotion as possible, and, boy, are recruiting classes RIPE for overreaction. After all, every school could and should have done better at getting recruits and the fact that your school didn’t is a sign that your coaching staff should be on notice. (This obviously doesn’t apply to Alabama, which managed to have a 4-star recruit grayshirt instead of taking any number of scholarship offers from other schools. Alabama is on another level and even attempting a comparison to them is unfair.) With that said, it’s time to judge how UCLA did in this recruiting cycle, and unfortunately, UCLA managed to both exceed and fail to live up to expectations.
You see, in a vacuum, this recruiting class was much better than it had any right to be. Let me put it this way: a team that had just gone 4-8 the previous year managed to get a consensus top-20 recruiting class that includes the 247 Composite #1 overall recruit, a consensus top 3 cornerback, and even managed a NSD surprise on the offensive line despite hiring a new Offensive Line Coach a few weeks prior. That’s ridiculous. At the same time, this is the worst-ranked recruiting class of the Jim Mora era, and the general feeling is that UCLA missed at a few positions that the previous season showed they absolutely could not miss on.
Thus, overachieving and underachieving.
Let me start with the underachieving first, if only because I really want to gush about that defense. Now, part of the overall problem this cycle was that UCLA experienced a ton of turnover in the offensive coaching staff. This turnover was necessary (you don’t get to turn in an offensive S&P ranking of 82 with the talent UCLA possesses and get to keep your job), but it still undoubtedly had an effect. Seriously, let’s run this down:
Offensive Coordinator Kennedy Polamalu - Fired Nov. 27
Offensive Line Coach Adrian Klemm - Fired Jan. 15
QB Coach Marques Tuiasosopo - Hired by Cal Jan. 21
Wide Receivers Coach Eric Yarber - Hired by LA Rams Feb. 2 (ok this was after NSD but considering the complete lack of WR in this class it totally counts)
The only offensive coach still around from the beginning of last season is Tight End Coach Rip Scherer; coincidentally, the best position group coming in offensively is the tight end group. Now, look at when the replacements were hired:
Offensive Coordinator Jedd Fisch - Hired Jan. 5
Offensive Line Coach Hank Fraley - Hired Jan. 21
Running Back Coach Deshaun Foster - Hired Jan. 21
Combine all this turnover late in the recruiting cycle with a bad offensive performance the previous year and it’s not shocking that offensive recruiting was lacking. Still, this was an offense that needed immediate help on the offensive line and more quarterback depth and it’s hard to grade one whole side of the ball as the success it needed to be.
And like I stated, this was the worst-ranked recruiting class UCLA has brought in under Jim Mora. Now, to be fair, ending up with the 247Composite ranking of #20 considering the year the Bruins just had is still pretty damn good. But to put this in a larger perspective, this is the lowest ranked recruiting class since 2011. Again, #20 is still pretty good, but considering the recent history of UCLA recruiting, the effects of going 4-8 continue to reverberate.
But, enough of all that, because I could spend months talking about this recruiting class and how it has no business being as good as it was. Seriously, my first major writing assignment for this site was taking over the Eye Test, so consider it my well-studied opinion that last year’s season was a train-wreck. And yet there’s still so many great pieces in this class, from immediate impact players to great prospects, so let me focus on a few of those talents right here.
Let’s start with our NSD pick-up Stephan Zabie. For as lacking as offensive line recruiting has been relative to the needs of the team, getting a commit from the 4-star offensive tackle from Texas was huge. Let me give you an idea of how good Zabie is as a prospect: Zabie only has one year of football under his belt, didn’t play this past year, and was still a 4 star prospect with offers from Texas, Ole Miss, Florida, LSU, Oklahoma, and USC. The additional benefit is that, with how raw he is, Zabie’s development will be a good test of new coach Hank Fraley’s abilities, but it has to be considered a positive sign that he was able to pull Zabie away from Texas this late in the recruiting cycle.
The defensive class is where the stars are shining brightest, and should alleviate any concerns of a possible drop-off after losing playmakers like Takkarist McKinley, Jayon Brown, Fabian Moreau, and others.
Jaelan Phillips is so obviously the star of this recruiting class and I’m still not sure I can do him justice here. The dude is THE instant-impact guy who should be slotting in to Takk’s spot almost instantly. It also helps that the defensive line also added a top-5 DT in the West in Greg Rogers, the top DT in California in Martin Andrus, and the West’s #10 DE in Odua Isibor. Seriously, this line class is ridiculous.
There was only one linebacker recruit this class (if you’re not counting the return of Mique Juarez which is understandable), but if you’re only going to get one, Rahyme Johnson is a fantastic pick-up. Johnson was actually the first UCLA commit of the 2017 cycle when he committed back in July of 2015, but decommitted in May of 2016, wanting to fully explore his options. In this case, absence made the heart grow fonder, and the Bruins ended up with a really-good linebacker prospect to go along with their treasure trove of options at the position.
Finally, let’s look at the defensive secondary group, and you have to start with Darnay Holmes. In any other year, Holmes would have been the obvious crown jewel of the class, but he’s still a vitally important piece that UCLA could not afford to miss on. For the past few years, the Bruins had missed on a pure shut-down cornerback, as they’ve watched the string of players like Adoree Jackson, Iman Marshall, and Jack Johnson all ended up across town, but UCLA finally won one of these battles. Holmes is joined by another top DB in the West in Elijah Gates, to go along with the highly-rated Jaylen Shaw, Quentin Lake, and Morell Osling.
At the end of the day, Bruin fans should be excited about the quality of players coming in to the program. But in the back of their minds, there should be the question of “What if?” And, more importantly, the attention will now fully turn towards seeing if this coaching staff can finally put the pieces together. Only time will tell on that front.