For college football fans, National Signing Day is the day above all the brings the most hope and optimism for a program’s future. After National Signing Day, UCLA fans should feel justified in sharing in that hope.
Even after getting a late start on the cycle after the firing of Jim Mora, Chip Kelly and company made up some serious ground from December to February to end up among the nation’s best classes. It was a rather remarkable turnaround given the circumstances, and a 247 Sports final rank of 18 and 4th in the Pac-12 is a good sign of things to come.
After Kelly’s installation, he and his staff essentially started from scratch, losing 10 commitments in the span of 6 weeks over the early signing period. Blips in recruiting are not unusual with coaching changes, but this seemed rather dire, especially at linebacker and offensive line.
No matter. Once Kelly landed the signature of 4-star running back Kazmeir Allen, who led all of national high school football with 71 touchdowns in 2017, he was off and running. And by National Signing Day’s end, the Bruins’ 27 commitments was one of the largest classes in the country.
|Name||Position||Measurables||Star Ranking||High School/JC|
|Name||Position||Measurables||Star Ranking||High School/JC|
|Bryan Addison||WR/S||6'5, 180||4||Serra (Gardena, CA)|
|Matt Alaimo||TE||6'4, 225||3||St. Joseph Regional (Montvale, NJ)|
|Kazmeir Allen||RB||5'10, 185||4||Tulare Union (Tulare, CA)|
|Alec Anderson||OL||6'5, 285||3||Etiwanda (Rancho Cucamonga, CA)|
|Je'Vari Anderson (JC)||LB/S||5'11, 229||3||Laney College (Oakland,CA)|
|Baraka Beckett||OL||6'4, 271||3||Palisades (Pacific Palisades, CA)|
|Stephan Blaylock||S||5'10, 185||4||St. John Bosco (Bellflower, CA)|
|Bo Calvert||LB||6'4, 220||4||Oaks Christian (Westlake Village, CA)|
|Kenny Churchwell||S||6'1, 190||3||Mountain Pointe (Phoenix, AZ)|
|Chase Cota||WR||6'4, 195||4||South Medford (Medford, OR)|
|Michael Ezeike||WR||6'4, 220||4||Colony (Ontario, CA)|
|Jon Gaines||OL||6'4, 272||3||Marquette Univ. HS (Milwaukee, WI)|
|Elisha Guidry||CB||5'11, 179||3||Vista Murrieta (Murrieta, CA)|
|Delon Hurt||WR||5'11, 185||3||Servite (Anaheim, CA)|
|Martell Irby||RB||5'9, 204||3||Morse (San Diego, CA)|
|Patrick Jolly||CB||60, 186||3||Newsome (Lithia, FL)|
|Atonio Mafi||NT||6'4, 360||3||Junipero Serra (San Mateo, CA)|
|Tyler Manoa||DT||6'5, 285||4||St. Francis (Mountain View, CA)|
|Steve Mason (JC)||DE||6'8, 244||3||Southwest College (Chula Vista, CA)|
|Chris Murray||OL||6'3, 290||4||Mater Dei (Santa Ana, CA)|
|Otito Ogbonnia||DL||6'4, 303||3||Taylor (Katy, TX)|
|Kyle Phillips||WR||5'11, 175||4||San Marcos (San Marcos, CA)|
|David Priebe||TE||6'6, 220||3||Midway (Waco, TX)|
|Tyree Thompson (JC)||LB||6'3, 235||3||LA Valley College (Van Nuys, CA)|
|Dorian Thompson-Robinson||QB||6'2, 195||4||Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas, NV)|
|Elijah Wade||DE||6'4, 257||4||Arbor View (Las Vegas, NV)|
|Rayshad Williams||CB||6'4, 179||3||Whitehaven (Memphis, TN)|
But this wasn’t simply Chip Kelly throwing darts at the board to see who’d stick. There are clear trends that emerge from this class that will dictate what the Bruins will look like on the field come 2018 and beyond.
“Bigger people beat up little people”
That quote was from Kelly’s first day on the job as the Philadelphia Eagles’ head coach when describing his recruiting philosophy at Oregon, and his first UCLA class proves no different.
Take the wide receivers. Guys like Chase Cota and Michael Ezeike (both 6’4) and Bryan Addison (6’5) fit this to a T, and you can envision Dorian Thompson-Robinson tossing up passes like rebounds for his long and tall receivers to bring down. Even the two tight ends, David Priebe (6’6) and Matt Alaimo (6’4), are long and lanky, and their versatility to line up at endline or H-back will cause defensive matchup nightmares.
On defense, bigger is better too. At 360 pounds, Atonio Mafi is the prototypical nose tackle for a Chip Kelly defense that will eat gaps up like snacks. Otito Ogbonnia is just 300 pounds, but he has the size to do the same. Tyler Manoa and Elijah Wade are tall defensive ends who can rush from the edge or kick inside to shoot gaps, and Steve Mason is 6’8 and built more like a power forward than a defensive end.
With the height throughout the class, John Speraw and Steve Alford should ask Kelly if they could borrow them for the volleyball and basketball teams.
Speed still kills
Not everyone in the class is a tall freak of nature. Bigger people may beat up little people, but if those little people are fast, then the big people won’t catch up.
Speed was the defining feature of Chip Kelly’s Oregon teams, especially on offense. Receivers like Josh Huff and backs like LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner flew past defenses that were already gassed from Oregon’s warp-speed tempo.
In 2018 and beyond, UCLA will look no different. The previously mentioned Kazmeir Allen, he who averaged 5 touchdowns per game and 13 yards per carry, also ran a 10.5 100 meter dash on the track. He and Martell Irby look primed to be a lightning and thunder duo in the backfield. Wide receivers Chase Cota and Kyle Phillips, the latter of whom is already on campus and will go through spring practice, both run 4.5 40 yard dashes. Phillips very well may be UCLA’s starting slot receiver after spring with that much speed.
On defense, Kelly and staff found speed as well. Linebacker Bo Calvert ran a 4.68 40 yard dash at spring camps last year - while being 6’4 and 220 pounds. Once he recovers from a broken leg sustained last season, his speed will be valuable in nickel and dime packages. Though he’s just 5’11, safety Kenny Churchwell made up for his height with blistering shuttle times throughout camps, and he and St. John Bosco’s Stephan Blaylock are future thumpers at safety.
The future is now
Three words can describe why UCLA’s class is among the upper echelon:
The next in a great line of UCLA quarterbacks signed on Wednesday when Thompson-Robinson (DTR) put ink to paper on his NLI. And UCLA fans should be ecstatic.
After waiting his turn behind now Ohio State quarterback Tate Martell, DTR took the reins and and scorched everyone in his wake. DTR threw for 38 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions, the last of which came 5 months ago in September. He completed 68% of his passes, and oh yeah, he ran for 7 touchdowns as well.
Did you know he was a starting receiver last season? Having 4.7 40 speed will allow for that.
He is what football labs would create when tasked with making the perfect Chip Kelly system quarterback, a mix of Brett Hundley’s legs and Josh Rosen’s arm strength and oozing with talent. And though he will not enroll until fall, he could be too good to keep on the sidelines.
Above all, he is a Bruin through and through. After committing to UCLA with former offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, DTR never wavered amid the coaching change and was one of UCLA’s best recruiters himself.
Blocking in front DTR (or Devon Modster or whomever wins the starting quarterback battle next season) will likely be Chris Murray, one of California’s best interior linemen from Mater Dei. He’s a nasty finisher and looks like an immediate starter at center after Scott Quessenberry’s graduation. Murray was a crucial piece to the recruiting class. UCLA’s offensive line is razor thin already, and with just 4 commitments (Murray, Alec Anderson, Jon Gaines, Baraka Beckett), Kelly and line coach Hank Fraley will have to get creative to fill the two-deep. It’s a reasonable area of concern given the line’s struggles to keep Josh Rosen upright at times last season.
But for now, Murray looks destined to be a linchpin for the offense for the next 3 years. DTR and others might get the headlines, but Murray could end up being the most important piece of Kelly’s first class.
Given that he and his staff had so little time to build up relationships with players and coaches, Kelly’s first UCLA recruiting class was a successful one. The speed with which he restocked the class after so many de-commitments after Jim Mora’s firing is especially impressive.
The wide receivers look to be the deepest group. Receivers coach Jimmie Dougherty is one of the Pac-12’s best recruiters, and bringing in Cota, Phillips, Delon Hurt and Ezeike proved why Kelly was smart to retain him. It won’t be a shock to see Phillips, Cota and Ezeike all get run in the receiver rotation in 2018.
The linebacker and offensive line groups seem a little thin, especially given the former’s struggles last season and how few scholarship linemen are in the program. Junior college transfers like Je’Vari Anderson and Tyree Thompson may jump into the two-deep quicker than some would anticipate.
But nonetheless, there is good reason for optimism for Chip Kelly’s UCLA. His recruiting philosophy - recruiting traits you can’t teach like height and bulk and speed and leaving the rest to coaching - was clearly on display. Guys like 6’4 safety Rayshad Williams and cornerback/running back/athlete Patrick Jolly are the epitome of flyers Kelly is taking and hoping to develop into big-time players in a few years’ time. Same with Elisha Guidry, son of former UCLA great Javelin Guidry, who is the same size and run just as fast as prized USC commit Olaijah Griffin. With coaching from Kelly and Paul Rhoads, Guidry could grow into a key contributor down the line.
What’s more, Kelly and staff kept things close to home, with 17 commitments coming from California and another 4 (Wade, Churchwell, DTR, Cota) coming from its immediate border states. Only Jolly, Williams, Priebe, Alaimo, Ogbonnia and Wisconsin offensive linemen Jon Gaines are not from the Pacific Time zone. This trend should only continue and grow given just how much talent there is on the West Coast.
And with all the elite high school football in UCLA’s backyard, the program will never want for talent. Now it might finally have the coach to put that talent to its best use.