Thursday, May 30, 2024

To put bloom back on UCLA football, new coach DeShaun Foster and staff rip up Chip Kelly’s blueprint

LOS ANGELES — With an aim to be more visible, more accessible and more personable, UCLA held its spring showcase inside the Rose Bowl for the first time in nearly a decade this past weekend.

It’s an approach the Bruins have carried over to their talent acquisition efforts, too. A program which is coming off a last-place finish in the Big Ten recruiting rankings and signed only 10 high schoolers in the 2024 class has quite literally reopened its doors.

In the two months since Chip Kelly left the building on his way to Ohio State, the Bruins have charted a different blueprint. They have sent out more campus invites and have begun to offer underclassmen again. They packed the sidelines at their inaugural Friday Night Lights event, which head coach DeShaun Foster estimated drew more than 100 recruits, and that newfound buzz continued Saturday when they welcomed a loaded group of prospects back to the Rose Bowl.

“People keep telling us they feel a different energy at UCLA now,” director of player personnel Stacey Ford said. “The plan is to be as open and as inclusive as we can be for the city of Los Angeles. We want to be extremely engaging and want the whole town to see what we’re about.”

That’s a stark contrast from how distant the program felt for recruits over the previous six seasons. Under Kelly, only Clemson was offering fewer scholarships than UCLA among FBS teams, yet perhaps most damaging to his roster construction was how late the Bruins were getting involved in recruitments. By the time UCLA threw its name in the hat for a recruit, it was already three or four steps behind.

In two short months, the pace has seemingly picked up — more than 70 high schoolers in the 2025 class hold UCLA offers and nearly two dozen official visits are on the calendar for the next four weekends, according to the 247Sports database. With plenty of room and time to go, UCLA has four commitments in its 2025 class, which ranks No. 53. Its 2024 cycle slotted No. 90 nationally. 

More: Latest look at UCLA’s offensive recruiting targets in 2025 class

In order to pull the necessary strings, the Bruins revamped their recruiting office by hiring Butler Benton (general manager), Chris Carter (assistant general manager) and the aforementioned Ford, who previously spent two years as director of recruiting at Washington State and played his high school ball at Cathedral, just a nine-mile drive south from Pasadena.

The personnel department spearheads a singular push to carry out Foster’s vision for a reimagined UCLA.

“The goal is to change the narrative,” said Carter, who played seven seasons in the NFL after being a fifth-round draft selection in 2011 out of Fresno State. “We want to take UCLA back to what it was before. From a recruiting perspective we want to change the vibe.

“This is LA. We need to get back into the community and we don’t want to waste that resource, but that doesn’t mean we will be handing out offers to just anybody. Some people might not like it, but it’s no different than going to the club. Not everybody gets in. You have to be elite.”

Coveted tackle Darius Afalava is among the players who recently landed an offer from UCLA. The three-star offensive lineman from Lehi (Utah) Skyridge had more than 20 scholarship offers to his name before the Bruins entered the picture four weeks ago and, although he had to wait, said it’s a significant option in his equation.

“It really came out of nowhere,” Afalava said. “This new coaching staff really likes me and I like their intentions. I feel like it’s been even more energetic since they came in. I locked in my official visit for May 10.”

Kelly’s quarterback recruiting in Westwood was particularly puzzling. He inherited former four-star Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who had initially committed to Jim Mora, before seeing the likes of Bryce Young, Jayden Daniels, CJ Stroud and Nico Iamaleava all leave town. The Bruins did finally score a big win by flipping five-star Dante Moore from Oregon, only to lose him to the Ducks after the lone season at UCLA. For as selective and exclusive as the offers were for Kelly, the actual legwork fell short and that’s another aspect the new staff intends to improve on.

Local four-star Madden Iamaleava, the brother of Nico, has the Bruins high on his list heading into the official visits, while a handful of quarterbacks in the 2026 class, including four-star Jaden O’Neal from Harbor City (Calif.) Narbonne, have landed offers from UCLA. O’Neal ranks as the No. 6 quarterback in 2026. 

“The biggest thing for me is that DeShaun has always reached out and has always had that relationship,” said O’Neal’s quarterback coach, Ortege Jenkins. “The difference now is that the coaches have the ability to offer and ramp up their recruiting. They didn’t have that ability before. Chip was locked on the quarterbacks and maybe that’s why they missed on so many guys.

Jenkins singled out new coaches Eric Bienemy (offensive coordinator) and Ted White (quarterbacks coach). Bienemy of course comes from THE NFL, where he won two Super Bowls with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. An engaging presence, White has coached all over, from the NFL (Texans), to the Big Ten (Maryland), to the HBCU ranks (multiple schools) and even the UFL (the D.C. Defenders in 2020). 

“When we went on the tour last month, we loved the energy and transparency of the coaches,” Jenkins said. “They’re going to be more aggressive and for them to open the door makes a big difference. The culture is changing for the better.”

Top247 running back Brian Bonner, a four-star prospect in the 2026 class from nearby Valencia (Calif.), walked into the stadium on Saturday with an offer from the Bruins already in hand and walked out of there knowing he’s a top-of-the-board target for Foster, who has been presenting a personal pitch.

“I stand out to him because I am a taller running back like he was,” said the speedy Bonner, who has posted impressive track times this spring. “I feel like UCLA would be a good spot for me to be at being coached under coach Foster.”

The 44-year-old Foster has yet to coach a game, of course, so there are still many questions left to answer about the on-field product, especially considering the quality and depth of the Big Ten. Yet it’s clear the former Carolina Panthers star running back has, at the very least, provided a reinvigorating jolt to a team that desperately needed some electricity off the field.

“It’s been super awesome to see the energy from the staff and players rise to a whole other level,” said three-star linebacker Weston Port, UCLA’s first commit of the class. “There seems to be a ton of excitement surrounding the new head coaching change in the building. I had the opportunity to go to practice a couple weeks ago and as a recruit I’ve never been to a practice with so much energy and excitement.

“It’s gotten me pumped seeing how the whole staff and team is ready to take the football program to new heights.”

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