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Recruits stay true to UCLA

Times Staff Writer

When UCLA fired Karl Dorrell as football coach Dec. 3, the reverberations were felt from South Central Los Angeles to Katy, Texas.

The futures of 23 high school football players who had said they were accepting scholarships to play for the Bruins were up in the air. And, more so than ever it seemed, so was the future of UCLA’s program.

These recruits, experts said, formed the type of highly rated group capable of catapulting the Bruins up the Pacific 10 Conference standings. But if it splintered, the team might be set back even further.

A few of the players quickly sought fall-back plans, reopening talks with other schools as what was left on the UCLA coaching staff preached a please-wait-and-see approach.

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Yet, all the while, plenty of recruiting was going on behind the scenes via text messages and phone calls, the players recruiting each other.

“We kept saying, ‘Stick together,’ ” said E.J. Woods, a defensive back from Encino Crespi High.

And, as Wednesday’s signing day approaches, it appears they did. To date, Lawndale Leuzinger High linebacker Uona Kavienga is the only player to change his mind. He has announced he has switched to Brigham Young -- though some other Bruins recruits say he may switch back before he signs.

New Coach Rick Neuheisel credits the players themselves as opposed to any magic performed by him and his staff. He could sense their closeness at a meeting he called last month.

“We had a Saturday morning meeting in the team room, with all the moms and dads,” Neuheisel said. “You learn body language, and people sit apart from each other because they are not comfortable.

“All these kids came in and sat right next to each other. I was going, ‘This is really special.’ It is going to be fun to watch the progression.”

On Wednesday, about half of the Bruins recruiting class is expected to sign as a group outside a restaurant owned by the father of Jerry Johnson, a wide receiver from Venice High.

“A lot of us have played Pop Warner, either with each other or against each other,” said Johnathan Franklin, a running back and defensive back from Dorsey High. “We are from the inner city, so we were already family. There was a lot of confusion when coach Dorrell was fired. But you understand you go through struggles and, in the end, you come together because you’re family.”

Neuheisel says he feels fortunate to have landed players who “weren’t all independent contractors deciding this was the best place. It was a group that wanted to be together.”

The core of the class, those living in Southern California, has built that relationship the last nine months at cookouts at the home of Anthony Dye, a defensive back from Corona Santiago High, or during gatherings at Johnson’s restaurant.

That DeWayne Walker was retained as defensive coordinator helped. Walker was a key figure in the recruiting process, though he was quick to point out that wide receivers coach Eric Scott deserved “kudos for helping to keep the class together.” Scott is not expected to be a part of the program next season.

But the relationship the recruits and their families developed made holding together the class easier.

“The kids stayed in touch, as well as the parents,” said Mark Dye, Anthony’s father. “We would always look for things to do outside of football. Some of the guys would go watch others in track meets.

“As a parent, that’s neat. You normally drop your kid off at the doorstep of X, Y or Z university, give them a hug, then go back home and sit on pins and needles it works out. In this case, there are 20 other kids your kid already knows.”

That benefited UCLA as the month-long search for Dorrell’s replacement lurched along.

“With all the barbecues we’ve had and the different things we’ve done hanging out, I think it built a lot of friendships,” said Damien Holmes, a defensive end from Colton High. “That made it a lot easier to stick together.”

There was a lot for UCLA to lose if they hadn’t stuck together, according to those who rank recruiting classes.

Rivals.com has the Bruins ranked 12th, two spots below USC. Scout.com has UCLA ninth, six spots ahead of USC. The Bruins have not had a recruiting class higher than the Trojans since 2002.

With the amount of talent USC has stockpiled, another top-five recruiting class was hardly necessary for the Trojans. UCLA, on the other hand, was in dire need of a talent infusion, having lost 25 seniors from a team that finished 6-7.

The 2008 recruiting class was cultivated and harvested last spring, as UCLA coaches made inroads locally. In one week last March, UCLA received commitments from local players, including Compton Dominguez defensive back Aaron Hester, Dorsey defensive back Rahim Moore and Woods, all ranked in the top 10 at their positions nationally by Rivals.com.

“The work that was done before I got here was exemplary,” Neuheisel said.

Walker and Scott, who had recruited heavily in the Los Angeles area, held things together during December, telling the players and their parents to be patient. But those weren’t the only voices whispering in their ears.

According to recruits, other coaches were quick to intensify efforts to lure them away. Several took recruiting trips to keep other options available, with prize running back Milton Knox of Lake Balboa Birmingham visiting Notre Dame even as late as last weekend.

“When Coach Dorrell was fired, I kind of panicked,” Woods said. “I didn’t know if I still wanted to go there. . . . But I realized coaches come and go. You have to go to the school you like.”

And, in this case, with players who already like you.

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chris.foster@latimes.com


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