Rick Neuheisel’s recruiting created the foundation for UCLA’s success
UCLA defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa was enjoying a beach day on Fourth of July, hanging out with quarterback Jerry Neuheisel, when he spotted the guy who brought him to Westwood.
Rick Neuheisel bounded over, flashing his ever-present smile, and immediately launched into the patter.
“He was like, ‘How are you doing?’ and ‘How’s your mom?’ ” Odighizuwa said. “We just talked. Man, I love him.”
The Neuheisel Era was not a golden era for UCLA football. Yet, the renaissance the Bruins have enjoyed the last two years is rooted in his handiwork.
Odighizuwa anchors the defensive line. Eric Kendricks patrols at linebacker. Safety Anthony Jefferson roams the secondary. On offense, Jordon James is looking to bounce back from an injury that sidelined him after a productive start to last season. Center Jake Brendel guides the offensive line. And quarterback Brett Hundley is widely considered a Heisman Trophy candidate.
All Neuheisel recruits. Indeed, five of UCLA’s six team captains were brought in under his regime, including linebacker Ryan Hofmeister, the special teams’ leader.
“The cupboard certainly wasn’t bare,” Coach Jim Mora said. “Rick did a hell of a job recruiting these kids.”
It was clear a change had to be made in 2011. In four seasons under Neuheisel, the Bruins had a 21-29 record.
Neuheisel came to Westwood as a prodigal son, a former UCLA quarterback coming back to restore the program as coach. But his final season included an ugly fight when the Bruins played Arizona and a 50-0 shellacking by USC just days after Neuheisel proclaimed that UCLA had “closed the gap” with the Trojans.
The Bruins have flourished under Mora, with 19 victories — including two over USC — in two seasons. And now UCLA is a preseason top-10 team, poised for even more success buoyed by the across-the-board talent brought in by Mora.
But there are 12 players remaining who signed up with Neuheisel; 10 in prominent roles.
“There are a lot of critical players on this team that came in with Coach Neuheisel,” Hundley said.
None is more critical than Hundley, who redshirted his in 2011. Neuheisel was tempted to use Hundley in the Oregon State game that season, but resisted the urge after talking the matter over with the quarterback’s family.
“I’m absolutely proud of what we assembled,” Neuheisel said. “Obviously I was disappointed we didn’t get to finish what we started, but I admire the work Jim and his staff have done.
“I take their accomplishments as a huge compliment. I love my alma mater and was disappointed things didn’t turn out as I hoped. It doesn’t take away from the fact I bleed blue and gold.”
The uncertainty of a new regime left the remaining players nervous. Even for players such as Odighizuwa, who was certain to be a part of any new plan, there was uneasiness.
He said the change of coaches was “hard because the stability is not there. When you go through different position coaches and defensive coordinators, it’s feels like you’re always restarting.”
Players on the fringe had even more reason to be concerned.
Hofmeister was an undersized linebacker recruited by Neuheisel, and when Mora took over he felt out on a limb.
“Someone like me, the thought was, ‘Am I still going to be here?’ ” Hofmeister said. “But when I talked with Coach Mora, he said I was still a guy they wanted. But that was a big question. A lot of guys were scared of what the change was going to be. A lot of guys got weeded out.”
Jefferson faced the coach switch as damaged goods. He was highly recruited out of Los Angeles Cathedral High, where he was a cornerback who ran stride for stride with the stable of receivers at Gardena Serra. “Marqise Lee, Robert Woods, George Farmer, the only guy who could give them a game was A.J.,” Neuheisel said.
A broken foot wiped out most of Jefferson’s freshman season in 2010. He then missed 2012 following back surgery. When Mora arrived, Jefferson had played three games since high school.
“I always had faith,” Jefferson said. “I had to believe in myself.”
Meanwhile, other Neuheisel recruits were still maturing. Kendricks has evolved into one of the Pac-12’s top linebackers. Brendel is second only to Hundley in importance on offense. James had 424 yards rushing in the first three games before an ankle injury derailed his 2013 season.
All had goals they brought to UCLA.
“I came here to hopefully play well, win the conference and win a national championship,” Kendricks said.
The Bruins are expected to compete for the Pac-12 title this season, and predictions by a few pundits have UCLA in the national title hunt.
To get to this point, change did have to come.
“It was pretty much the same players having success the last two years,” Jefferson said. “The only think that changed was we got a new coach. I think Coach Neuheisel deserves all the credit in the world. He got a bunch guys here and I think he did the best he could do in his time here.”
It leaves open the question, what will be Neuheisel’s legacy? The 21-29 record, or the foundation of talent he left in place?
Odighizuwa has his answer.
“He recruited a lot of talent that is going to pan out,” Odighizuwa said. “Everything he sold about UCLA was true. My goal was to be part of the process to take UCLA to the top. Unfortunately Coach Neuheisel is not part of that now. But for me, everything has come to fruition.”
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