John Humphrey sat among some of the best high school football players in Southern California last month at a celebratory luncheon, with colorful balloons tied to tables covered in white linens.
When the chatter at his table turned to the UCLA-USC rivalry, the future Bruins defensive back said he was not just ready to contribute but to dominate.
“I would have shut them down,” Humphrey, a lockdown cornerback from Pasadena Muir High, said of the four Trojans wide receivers who topped 100 yards in USC’s 52-35 victory over UCLA last month.
Humphrey is among the reasons the Bruins can afford a little swagger heading into the early signing period that starts Wednesday, even coming off a 4-8 season that followed a 3-9 season. The numbers are far more pleasing when it comes to the haul of recruits that UCLA is expected to sign.
While USC could be on the verge of a historically low-rated class, the Bruins’ projected class is ranked No. 29 nationally and No. 4 in the Pac-12 Conference, according to 247Sports, up significantly from its No. 76 national ranking in early October.
Four of the 20 players committed to UCLA have received four of five stars from 247Sports and the team remains in the running for a few other highly coveted prospects, such as Scottsdale (Ariz.) Saguaro High outside linebacker Damian Sellers, Gilbert (Ariz.) Higley defensive lineman Jason Harris and Ramsey (N.J.) Don Bosco Prep running back Jalen Berger.
Sellers is expected to announce his decision Wednesday, but Harris and Berger could wait until early next year and sign with their chosen schools in February.
The Bruins already have received commitments from a handful of highly rated players. Humphrey, Concord (N.H.) St. Paul’s School quarterback Parker McQuarrie, Bellflower St. John Bosco wide receiver Logan Loya and St. John Bosco outside linebacker Jonathan Vaughns all received four stars from 247Sports.
Loya and Vaughns were among six players who have committed since the start of November, allowing the Bruins to salvage what once looked like a far less impressive class.
“They rallied,” said Greg Biggins, a national recruiting analyst for 247Sports. “I think they saw the approach last year wasn’t really working and I think this year they were a lot more aggressive.”
UCLA coach Chip Kelly recently said his team’s recruiting model had not changed since his arrival two years ago, but he acknowledged that Ethan Young, the Bruins’ new director of player personnel, had enhanced the coaches’ recruiting efforts by providing a smorgasbord of information on prospects.
“From an organizational standpoint,” Kelly said, “he’s been fantastic in how he sets up everything and gives all our coaches an opportunity to maximize their time. The [prospects] that are on their desk to evaluate have already passed three or four layers” of vetting.
Kelly went on to tell the story of one unnamed player who was committed to UCLA upon the coach’s arrival who was not academically qualified to get into the school, leading to a difficult conversation.
“You have to break that news to him and then one of the questions from the family was, ‘Then why did the old staff take his commitment?’” Kelly said. “I don’t know, but I know from our admissions people he isn’t going to get in, so we’re not going to waste kids’ times that aren’t going to be able to get in here. So there’s a process that goes on at UCLA. Before we offer a kid, we have to get the A-OK from the admissions office that this kid’s OK to recruit.”
Young, who had previously worked for the NFL as part of its efforts to accumulate next-generation statistics, was not made available to discuss his role in UCLA’s recruiting.
Expect the Bruins to sign the majority of their 2020 recruiting class this week; 16 of the 20 players in the 2019 class signed in December. They will also leave room for transfers, particularly on the offensive line.
“In this day and age,” Kelly said last month, “you don’t want to sign a full class because you’re not sure what opens up after that.”
UCLA has received commitments from only two offensive linemen, leaving it well short of the five that Biggins said should be targeted at that position each year. Biggins said he considered Tucson Salpointe Catholic guard Bruno Fina and Oakland Piedmont offensive tackle Patrick Selna, who have both pledged to play for the Bruins, as recruits who could require some development before being ready to contribute.
In other words, there is more recruiting work to be done.
“They definitely need to get at least three more offensive linemen,” Biggins said. “And then in 2021, I think you have to have an impact quarterback.”
It appears that the Bruins might have already found a force at cornerback, if Humphrey can make good on his boast.
“I think I can really step in and make a difference,” Humphrey said this fall. “I will work my butt off, see what I can do.”
Times staff writer Eric Sondheimer contributed to this report.