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UCLA’s top two football recruits are tough and competitive defensive players

Jaelan Phillips, Darnay Holmes stand out

Toughness and competitive greatness are qualities Coach Jim Mora says he seeks in his UCLA football recruits. There’s little doubt that the Bruins’ 18-member recruiting class announced Wednesday is topped by two players already displaying those characteristics: defensive end Jaelan Phillips from Redlands East Valley High and cornerback Darnay Holmes from Calabasas.

Phillips, 6 feet 6 and 250 pounds, was considered the best defensive player last month at the U.S. Army All-American game, where he played before enrolling early at UCLA.

“I think he has the rare blend of size, speed, athleticism, tenacity and intelligence,” Mora said

Phillips gave a hint to his physical and mental allure, saying, “I want to be an academic All-American.”

Holmes, who said he had been a “silent” UCLA commit throughout high school, has so much versatility that Mora must decide where to play him. He also is attending classes and working out in the UCLA weight room.

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“I don’t want Darnay to have a career where he never settles into a position,” Mora said. “That would be a mistake. It also would be a mistake not to take a guy like Darnay, who has the explosive skills set with the ball in his hands, and not use it. He will have it in his hands.”

A majority of UCLA’s signees come with a defensive focus, which might leave the Bruins fan base a little disappointed considering the problems associated with the offense last season, which ended in a 4-8 record.

UCLA didn’t sign a single receiver or running back, even though the Bruins suffered one dropped pass after another and struggled running the ball. UCLA went after several top players at those positions but failed to sign them.

Mora said here are several graduate transfers that might be added to help address experience issues.

There was an attempt to add badly needed depth on the offensive line. Five linemen were signed, including the late pickup Stephan Zabie, a 6-6, 290-pound offensive tackle who played only one season of football at Austin (Texas) Westlake.

“This kid is really unique and really special,” Mora said.

Zabie grew up in the Ivory Coast and lost his mother at an early age. He moved to Philadelphia and later lived with a family in Austin.

“You could say it’s a little bit of a ‘Blind Side’ story,” Mora said, referring to the movie about Michael Oher, who landed with a foster family after a rough early life and made it to the NFL. “He’s one of the most intelligent young men that I’ve had a chance to meet.”

New UCLA offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch had recruiting ties to Zabie that helped take him away from Texas.

The strength of UCLA’s class are the defensive line and secondary recruits. Besides Phillips, UCLA signed linemen Greg Rogers from Las Vegas Arbor View and Martin Andrus from Los Angeles, plus defensive end Odua Isibor from Phoenix St. Mary’s.

“Greg is a big, physical presence. He’s going to bring a lot of physicality,” defensive line coach Angus McClure said. “Martin is just a big, raw kid that I think is going to see big improvement when he gets to UCLA. Those four guys are as good a group as any in the country.”

Holmes, Elijah Gates from La Mirada, Jaylan Shaw from Corona Centennial, Quintin Lake from Santa Ana Mater Dei and Morrell Osling from Antelope Valley form a highly regarded group of defensive backs.

UCLA also will get a lift with the addition of Mique Juarez, last year’s top linebacker recruit from North Torrance. He said Wednesday he will definitely participate in spring practice.

Juarez decided not to play last fall because of personal matters. Also, Mora said quarterback Josh Rosen is on schedule for a complete recovery from shoulder surgery.

Scout.com ranked UCLA No. 21 in its national team rankings.

“Last year was awful,” Mora said. “To go 4-8 and secure a class like this says a lot about UCLA and what it has to offer.”

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

Twitter: latsondheimer


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