UCLA had just suffered its most damaging defeat of the season last Saturday, a two-point loss to Washington State that might have knocked the Bruins out of a bowl bid, but there were almost as many smiles as frowns in the locker room.
A room full of fresh-faced recruits can do that.
“Did you guys win last night?” Bruin sophomore defensive tackle Kevin Brown asked a former Long Beach Poly teammate being pursued by UCLA.
“You know it,” said the smiling recruit, referring to Poly’s victory over Lakewood on Friday.
With USC ranked first in the nation after last season’s co-national championship, the perception may be that Westwood is not a destination for top recruits.
That doesn’t seem to be the case. Although the Bruins still need a victory to become bowl eligible, with games Saturday against Oregon and Dec. 4 against USC, second-year Coach Karl Dorrell likes what he’s seeing in UCLA’s 2005 recruiting class.
“Recruiting has been going well and the reason why is that there’s been a lot of promise shown in terms of the direction of the program,” Dorrell said. “We’ve had our stumbling blocks along the way this season, but our young players have responded by showing great effort.... Recruits see that and they’re excited about an opportunity to build the program.”
With nearly three months to go before signing day in February, the Bruins have oral commitments from several blue-chip players, including Chino High safety Shawn Oatis, who announced his decision last week.
Part of the attraction is a chance to play early in their college careers. It hasn’t gone unnoticed by them that Dorrell has started defensive end Brigham Harwell, offensive guard Shannon Tevaga and wide receivers Brandon Breazell and Marcus Everett, all freshmen.
“I know that I will get an opportunity to play as a freshman,” said Aleksey Lanis, a versatile 300-pounder from Crenshaw High who is considered a top offensive line prospect. “That definitely plays a key role. Right now, you can tell that they are still learning how to finish games.”
Lanis probably will be joined at UCLA by at least two Crenshaw teammates, linebacker Reggie Carter and defensive end Chinonso Anyanwu.
The Bruins also have oral commitments from cornerback Aaron Ware of Westlake Village Oaks Christian, tight end Adam Heater of Snohomish (Wash.) High, and twins Korey and Kyle Miller, linebackers from Plano West in Texas and nephews of former Oklahoma linebacker Brian Bosworth.
“People have been watching us play and watching us compete,” said Tevaga, a former standout at La Mirada High who honored his commitment to UCLA last year, despite a late recruiting push by USC.
“They can see the coaching staff has it together and we’re getting better. Once we eliminate our mistakes, watch out.”
Last season, UCLA’s offense was atrocious. Dorrell replaced Steve Axman with Tom Cable as offensive coordinator, and the Bruins have been much stronger this season.
“It’s a three-year process with this offense and we’ve had a pretty good start in Year 2,” Dorrell said. “We’ll be lights out in Year 3. And there’s a lot of players back on that side of the ball.”
The Bruins’ problems this season have been mostly on defense, and that may take longer to fix. UCLA’s undersized defensive front has taken more than its share of beatings.
Dorrell, however, figures the poundings will not last a lot longer. Because Dorrell is recruiting more athletic defenders, who make up for lack of size with speed, the Bruins are going through a defensive makeover, starting with the line.
About his decision to play smallish defensive ends such as redshirt freshmen Bruce Davis and William Snead, Dorrell said, “They are in that 235- to 240-[pound] range and they are going against guys 280 and 290. A year from now, when they are 260 to 265 and lightning quick ... those are the type of players you want on the edge and that’s the style of athlete we want on our defense.”
The key to UCLA’s recruiting puzzle may be 21-year-old quarterback Ben Olson, the top-rated high school quarterback in the country in 2001.
Olson, 6 feet 4 and 223 pounds, spent one redshirt season at Brigham Young University before leaving on a two-year Mormon mission. He returned home last week, not certain he wanted to return to BYU, and is considering UCLA, among other schools.
Olson, who plans to enroll somewhere by January, has four years of eligibility left, starting in fall 2005. He said UCLA’s offense intrigued him and staying close to home would be a factor in his decision.
“It’s funny, but I went to a lot of UCLA games coming out of high school and Saturday’s game was the first one I attended and they lost,” Olson said. “But that doesn’t mean anything. Not at all. Everybody goes through that. What I thought was cool was how the team fought back.”
Olson, who threw for nearly 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns as a senior at Thousand Oaks High, attended UCLA’s practice Wednesday and plans to take a trip this weekend to Oregon. But he said UCLA was high on his list.
Dorrell would turn his recruiting class from good to outstanding if Olson signed with the Bruins.
“It’s too early to tell and a lot of things happen between now and February,” he said. “But we’re building on guys that we think can help us very early in their careers and be impact players for us. That’s why we’re so excited about the ones that we have so far.”