UCLA football recruiting efforts erase depth question but raise others

UCLA football attracts broad pool of talented players, the question now is what can the Bruins do with them?

There was such a need at UCLA for a strong offensive line in 2012 that assistant coach and former NFL lineman Adrian Klemm might have considered suiting up himself.

Things have changed.

The Bruins return five linemen who have started at least 19 games, and some of them will have to fight to get a job. The incoming class includes five linemen, including two — center Fred Ulu-Perry Jr. and guard Josh Wariboko — ranked No. 1 at their positions by one recruiting website.

"We wanted to be dominant in the trenches," said Klemm, who has spent three seasons as UCLA's line coach. "That's where games are won."

The Bruins' recruiting efforts appear to satisfy that traditional philosophy. They also have gathered a number of defensive backs to counter the pitch-and-catch offenses that infest college football.

There will be questions heading into Coach Jim Mora's fourth season, and will be asked more often when spring practice begins in early April.

Every UCLA fan waits to see whether freshman quarterback Josh Rosen is ready. The defensive line is thin. There is a vacancy to fill after defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich jumped to the Atlanta Falcons.

And Mora will also have decide what to do with the overflow, as the Bruins currently have at least 71 players on scholarship with 19 more signing letters of intent on Feb. 4. That's 90 players, and the NCAA limits teams to 85 players on scholarship.

Depth, though, is no longer a topic.

With 18 starters returning, expectations will be as high as a year ago when the Bruins were picked to win the Pac-12 South and touted by some analysts as national championship contenders.

"We're at a place now, because of some of the success we have had on field, to be able to draw from a broader, more talented group" of players, said Mora, who has a 29-11 record in three seasons.

Now it's about what he, and his staff, can do with them.

That starts along the offensive line. UCLA did not have an offensive lineman drafted from 2000 to 2011. They have had two the last three seasons.

"We've taken it to a different level," Klemm said.

UCLA returns all five linemen who finished the season as starters, including center Jake Brendel, a second-team All-Pac 12 selection. Tackle Simon Goines, who has played 19 games, returns from knee surgery.

The Bruins are expected to have 18 offensive linemen on scholarship when training camp begins in August.

"At the end of our first season [in 2012] we had eight healthy offensive linemen left," Klemm said. "Jake couldn't take a rep off in practice for two years because he didn't have a backup. Now we can put guys in there to learn. We can send guys over with the scout team, and that makes a difference with the defense."

The blueprint Klemm said, was "to build an environment where guys had to fight for their positions going into every season."

The same situation exists in the secondary. UCLA has five defensive backs in the 2016 class and will have 19 on the roster. The Bruins return three of four starters. Safety Randall Goforth, after two shoulder surgeries, also returns.

"Guys develop at a different pace and you have injuries," defensive back coach Demetrice Martin said. "In our conference, with these quarterbacks, you got to have depth in the secondary."

The pass-happy nature of the spread offenses around the Pac-12 has altered recruiting. Open-field tackling abilities are as prized as coverage skills.

"It's almost to the point where we look at a guy's tackling first," Martin said. "A lot of coverage skills can be taught. It's like puppies. You want the one that bites a little. He'll protect you better."

The under-the-microscope issue this spring will be quarterback. Rosen enrolled last month and is expected to compete with Jerry Neuheisel, Brett Hundley's backup last season.

UCLA made a late run at Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams, who transferred to Oregon as a graduate student and will have one year of eligibility.

There have also been rumors that Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller might jump ship in Columbus and go the graduate-student route.

UCLA, though, was unable to find Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler an appropriate grad program in 2012. Guard Malcolm Bunche flunked out of a UCLA graduate program last fall. Future graduate applications could be viewed as a football-only move, which may make enrollment more difficult.


Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times