Linebacker U. may have found its next star pupil.
He comes with the requisite mean streak, can cover ground faster than a FedEx deliveryman and logged more sacks in one state high school playoff game last season than UCLA collectively did in all but one game.
Damian Sellers was the jewel of the 17-player recruiting class the Bruins announced Wednesday during the first day of the early signing period, one of seven linebackers the school brought in to offset the departure of all four starters at the position.
Sellers, a universally regarded four-star prospect from Scottsdale (Ariz.) Saguaro High, picked UCLA over Alabama, Arizona, Arizona State and Auburn. He had 4½ sacks in a semifinal victory for his high school team and will immediately challenge for a starting spot at outside linebacker, where the Bruins have an immense need for an impact player.
“He certainly has a motor,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said. “He was a highly rated kid for a reason; he’s one of the top edge rushers in the country and we’re really, really excited for him to be a part of this class.”
Sellers is expected to be joined by another four-star linebacker, Jonathan Vaughns of Bellflower St. John Bosco, during the regular signing period in February. Among the other linebackers the Bruins signed Wednesday were Caleb Johnson, a transfer from Fullerton College who might be able to contribute immediately at inside linebacker.
Kelly said linebackers Myles Jackson and Choe Bryant-Strother, who both hail from Georgia, were interchangeable at inside and outside linebacker, helping the Bruins replace the seven linebackers who departed after last season. UCLA could also sign Mesa (Ariz.) Desert Ridge linebacker Joquarri Price, who has decommitted from San Diego State, as soon as Thursday.
Pressuring the quarterback is a must for a team whose 26 sacks last season ranked tied for sixth in the Pac-12 Conference and whose defense gave up 34.8 points per game, second-to-last in the conference.
“Obviously getting to the quarterback is going to be a priority for us,” Kelly said, “something we really tried to earmark in the recruiting process.”
The Bruins may not be finished in the early signing period given that Kelly said there were a few players awaiting clearance from UCLA’s compliance department before the school could announce their signings. The coach added that he anticipated adding a few more players in February and via graduate transfers.
UCLA’s class was ranked No. 28 nationally and No. 4 in the Pac-12 as of Wednesday, a significant improvement from last year, when the Bruins’ class finished No. 40 nationally and No. 6 in the Pac-12.
“We feel really good about our class,” Kelly said.
The Bruins added just one quarterback in Parker McQuarrie, a four-star prospect from Concord (N.H.) St. Paul’s School, but Kelly said that was largely a function of the team already having six quarterbacks on scholarship. Kelly compared the 6-foot-7, 208-pound McQuarrie, at least in stature, to Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and described him as a very intelligent player.
“We’re really excited about what he can do and how he throws the football,” Kelly said.
Kelly said he expected six or seven newcomers to enroll for winter quarter in January, allowing them to participate in spring practice, and one or two more players to arrive in time for spring quarter, allowing them to join the team at that point.
UCLA added just two offensive linemen in Oakland Piedmont’s Patrick Selna and Tucson Salpointe Catholic’s Bruno Fina, but that led to something of a push with the Bruins losing just center Boss Tagaloa and guard Michael Alves to graduation.
Kelly said he was satisfied with his team’s depth along the offensive line, noting that the Bruins had only one starting spot to fill with Tagaloa’s departure.
Kelly said Christaphany Murray, Jon Gaines II, Sam Marrazzo, Duke Clemens and Siale Liku were all candidates to take over Tagaloa’s job.
“All of them will get an opportunity to show us what they can do,” Kelly said, “and then we’ll see who fits into that mold.”
Kelly clarified the status of the handful of players with remaining eligibility who walked with the departing seniors as part of a farewell ceremony before the final home game last month, saying that receiver Ethan Fernea was petitioning for an additional season of eligibility, tight end Matt Lynch intended to play one more season for the Bruins and receiver Dymond Lee was graduating and had completed his college football career.
There could be less movement among Kelly’s staff after the coach said he did not anticipate any turnover among his assistants, though Kelly acknowledged that Roy Manning departed for Oklahoma last year after signing day.
Kelly said none of his assistants had talked about retirement as part of a staff that includes quarterbacks coach Dana Bible, 66, defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro, 61, and inside linebackers coach Don Pellum, who will turn 58 in January.