With National Signing Day in the books, it makes sense to take one last look at the incoming class of UCLA Bruins to get a better handle on who is coming to Westwood. With this piece, focusing on the defensive recruits, I’ll be looking at who the headliner is, who could break out as soon as next season, and who to watch out for down the line. Let’s get started.
Headliner: Shamar Martin
This was difficult, as there wasn’t a clear-cut standout among the defensive recruits, but there were a handful of guys who had a chance to take that spot. Ultimately, I went with Martin here, because I think he has the best chance at growing into a star and will also get the time to develop at his own pace in a strong secondary.
This is not to say Martin isn’t already a good player, because he absolutely is. Martin, who was high school teammates with current UCLA RB Martell Irby, had 29 tackles and two interceptions this past year, which doesn’t tell the whole story, as opposing offenses instead chose to avoid his side of the field as the season went on. He’s a fast runner while also being a big body, which makes him an ideal cornerback for what Paul Rhodes wants in the secondary. Depending on how things go, it would not surprise me to see him get some reps as the season progresses, but look for Martin to really make an impact starting in 2020.
Honorable Mentions: John Ward, Datona Jackson
One to Watch: William Nimmo
Again, I watched a lot of Mater Dei games last year and Nimmo was a really underrated aspect of those teams. The Monarchs have two stellar prospects at the corner positions, but Nimmo was the glue at safety that made everything hum and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Monarchs struggled a bit defensively when Nimmo went down with a knee injury to cut his season short. Fortunately, the injury wasn’t serious and Nimmo became one of UCLA’s five early enrollees for winter quarter, which means he’ll have a head start on developing into a college player. Nimmo plays similarly to Adarius Pickett in many aspects. He’s solid in coverage, a willing participant in run defense, hits hard, and is a solid tackler in space. I don’t know if he will become a defensive star, but he has the makings to become a favorite player of UCLA fans.
Honorable Mentions: Siale Liku, John Ward
Best Position Group: Secondary
This goes to the secondary by virtue of not being the linebackers or defensive line. To be fair here, the secondary was already operating from a position of strength, only really needing a few recruits and able to grab projects that could sit and develop in a strong depth chart. But the secondary got solid recruits. It says a lot that the two guys that caught my eye the most for both standout spots are a corner and safety prospect and that ignores that the other safety prospect, Bakersfield High School product Carl Jones, is himself a solid prospect with position flexibility to play safety or corner at the next level. This is the only defensive position group that felt honest about the strength of the current roster and the only one that recruited accordingly.
Honorable Mention: None
Biggest Miss: Linebacker
I don’t really want to rehash all of the things I wrote last Wednesday regarding the linebackers, so let me just say that this was a disaster of a class. UCLA only brought in two specific linebackers in this class and, after the departure of Rahyme Johnson announced last Wednesday, they will only have 5-6 linebackers (depending on where you think Noah Keeter slots in) from the past three years of recruiting with two of those being JC transfers who will be gone in a year. Forget star ratings, that’s just not good from a basic math standpoint. John Ward, the linebacker prospect from Palmdale, should be good and he has the body type that could lead him to contribute right away, but he’ll still need time to develop and get up to speed with the college game. But the only other true linebacker prospect who got a scholarship offer, Hayden Harris, was in conversations to be a PWO at UCLA when the Bruins instead pivoted to an actual scholarship after UCLA whiffed on a host of other prospects. I’m sure Harris is a great kid and, maybe he develops into something down the line, but the situation regarding his recruitment is more emblematic of what a poor job the UCLA coaching staff did in this cycle.
Honorable Mention: DL Depth
This is a small recruiting profile for players who weren’t mentioned above.
Siale Liku - When you run a 3-4 defense, you can never have enough big nose-tackle type bodies and, while Liku isn’t completely there yet, he possesses the frame to get there. More importantly, UCLA can afford to give him a year to develop, given the breakout of Atonio Mafi and Otito Ogbonnia last year. I put him as an honorable mention for sleepers in this class for a reason, because I think he can grow into an impact player down the line.
Datona Jackson - On the flipside of Liku, Jackson is a prospect who should make an impact right away. It certainly helps that he’s a JC transfer. So, he’s more developed and it certainly helps that UCLA has seen a few transfers from the defensive end spot. So, Jackson will likely see the field as soon as possible. The good news is that he’s more than capable, showing a solid motor and speed to go along with a great size so that he won’t be abused against the rush.
Noah Keeter - A stand-up defensive end/outside linebacker, Keeter was set to be a preferred walk-on at Florida before he immediately jumped on UCLA’s scholarship offer. Like many of the other project recruits, he’ll need at least a year before he’s ready to see the field.
Hayden Harris - Let’s be fair and give Harris a bigger look down here. Harris has the prototypical length you’d want from an outside linebacker, but he needs a lot of growth in the strength and speed department going forward. He also needs experience. Harris rotated through a host of positions in high school before eventually settling on the defensive side his senior year.
John Ward - Let’s also give Ward a longer due here, because there’s a good chance you’ll see him on the field next year. Ward already has a college-ready frame and was extremely productive through his high school career. He has the ceiling of an Eric Kendricks, which is some of the highest praise I can give.