Jaleel Wadood types may become a rarity around
The Bruins' rise from mediocrity has been rooted in three quality recruiting classes under third-year Coach Jim Mora. Plenty of freshmen immediately saw significant game action.
Wadood, a freshman safety, did exactly that this season. A year ago, he was helping Bellflower St. John Bosco win a state championship. In September, he was in the starting lineup when the Bruins played Texas.
"After that first start, I felt like I was ready," Wadood said. "Playing became kind of natural to me again. Those jitters were gone."
Wadood has played in all 12 of UCLA's games, starting seven. His path will be increasingly difficult to follow.
UCLA used 11 first-year freshmen in 2012 and 16 in 2013. By the end of last season, there were three freshmen starting on the offensive line — which is almost unheard of in major-college football.
This season, eight freshmen have played, but only five logged significant time.
"It tells me that we have a little bit more depth than we had last year," Mora said. "We were such a freshman-heavy team last year. Those guys were all really good players, so it was a little harder to break into the lineup this year."
It could be even harder next season.
There was a talent gap when Mora arrived in Westwood that allowed him and his staff to use a play-immediately pitch with recruits. It was a successful formula. The Bruins have a 28-11 record under Mora, 9-3 this season.
But play-now is becoming a tougher sell.
"The talent Jim inherited wasn't very good," said Greg Biggins, a recruiting analyst for Fox Sports. "Once you fill depth, you don't want to play a lot of freshmen. You don't want to waste a year of eligibility."
Wadood was too good to waste. Although he is relatively short at 5 feet 11, if he had a pick-on-me look, it lasted only until opponents tested him.
"He's not big in stature, but he is a tough kid," Mora said. "He's not afraid to get in there and mix it up."
Wadood, who is listed at 175 pounds, is sixth on the team with 51 tackles. He also has the speed to run with top-flight receivers.
"I loved his heart, his want-to," defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin said. "He has a natural ability to make plays. I call it his football GPS. He finds the ball."
Wadood was a reserve in UCLA's first two games. When safety Randall Goforth required season-ending shoulder surgeries, Wadood's role was increased.
"Just getting on the field with all these great athletes we have on defense was a special thing," Wadood said.
That surrounding talent helped nurture Wadood.
"One of the things you face when you come out of high school is playing against older guys on a bigger stage," said senior safety Anthony Jefferson, who played in three games as a freshman in 2010 before he was injured. "You have to have the right mindset and be confident. I've tried to help him with that."
Linebacker Kenny Young and running back Nate Starks were freshmen who also gained needed experience that could lead to bigger roles next season. UCLA's other freshmen received only cursory looks.
Guard Najee Toran started the season opener because center Jake Brendel was injured, but he has not played since. Receiver Alex Van Dyke played in two games and has yet to catch a pass. Linebacker Zach Whitley played four games but has not been at practice the past month, though Mora said he is still on the team.
There were 10 freshmen who sat out as redshirts and have four years of eligibility remaining.
"We don't bring many guys here with the thought we're going to redshirt them," Mora said. "I don't want guys here who think they want to redshirt. We want guys who want to compete and play right away."
The Bruins have oral commitments from 17 high school seniors, including high-end prospects Josh Rosen, a quarterback from St. John Bosco, and Keisean Lucier-Smith, a linebacker from Orange Lutheran.
UCLA also has 18 starters returning and a roster bulging with 50 sophomores and freshmen.