UCLA Expanding Its Recruiting Influence Beyond California

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UCLA Expanding Its Recruiting Influence Beyond California
Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

UCLA head coach Jim Mora is spreading a little bit of Los Angeles to the nation via the recruiting trail, and in turn the Bruins' 2014 signing class could take on a geographically diverse look.  

The UCLA roster is largely comprised of California products, and California continues to be the program's primary supplier of talent with 12 commitments from in-state high school players in this year's class, which currently has 17 total.  

But UCLA is making a push for key prospects beyond California's borders before national signing day 2014, and its success recruiting these regions is crucial to the program's long-term mission. 

"We want to be a national player," athletic director Dan Guerrero told The Los Angeles Times in December after UCLA signed Mora to a two-year extension. 

Being a national player applies both to the pursuit of championships and on the recruiting scene. 

The program's reach outside of the Golden State has been more quality over quantity, both under Mora and predecessor Rick Neuheisel. Consider a few of the Bruins' impact players in 2013: Quarterback Brett Hundley came from Arizona; linebacker Myles Jack is from Washington and offensive lineman Xavier Su'a-Filo is from Utah and wide receiver Devin Fuller came across the continent from New Jersey. 

That same approach is reflected among the 18 recruits verbally committed to give their national letters of intent to Mora on Wednesday. Three of the class' five most highly rated commits are from out-of-state, including 4-star athletes Austin Roberts of Carmel (Ind.) and Nathan Starks of Englewood (Colo.) Cherry Creek. 

The third of that group might also be the centerpiece of UCLA's out-of-state efforts in this recruiting cycle, and that's Houston North Shore 4-star linebacker Zach Whitley.   

Whitley's commitment marks a major score for UCLA recruiting in a number of ways. Most obvious is he's another talented linebacker capable of flourishing in the Bruins' corps much the same way Akeem Ayers, Jordan Zumwalt, Anthony Barr and Jack have in recent years. 

Mora beat out recruiting savant Nick Saban and Alabama for Whitley's commitment, which is a meaningful head-to-head victory against a national powerhouse and part of the process of UCLA becoming a top-tier contender. 

Whitley is also one of three UCLA commits from Texas along with guard Najee Toran and dual-threat quarterback Aaron Sharp.  A presence in the Lone Star State is of growing importance in the Pac-12. Head coach of reigning South Division champion Arizona State and native Texan Todd Graham said last season that it was one of the three highest priority regions in his recruiting strategy.  

UCLA is also going head-to-head with conference heavyweights Oregon and Stanford for two top prospects this year: defensive tackle Trey Lealaimatafao and defensive end Solomon Thomas

UCLA's 2014 Out-of-State Commitments and Top Targets
Player Position From Star Rating Status
Budda Baker Athlete Bellevue (Wash.) 4 Oregon, UCLA, Washington
Malachi Dupre WR New Orleans John Curtis 5 Alabama, Florida State, LSU, Ole Miss, UCLA
Trey Lealaimatafao DT San Antonio Warren 4 LSU, Oregon, UCLA
Austin Roberts Athlete Carmel (Ind.) 4 Committed
Aaron Sharp QB Humble (Tex.) Summer Creek 3 Committed
Nathan Starks Athlete Englewood (Colo.) Cherry Creek 4 Committed
Solomon Thomas DE Coppell (Tex.) 5 Arkansas, Stanford, UCLA
Najee Toran OG Houston North Shore 3 Committed
Zach Whitley LB Houston North Shore 4 Committed
Kenny Young LB New Orleans John Curtis 4 Arkansas, LSU, Texas A&M, UCLA

247Sports.com

Going beyond the Pac-12's geographic footprint might be the most reliable blueprint for building a national championship-caliber program and, to that end, UCLA is also trying to break into SEC territory on this home stretch.

The Southeast isn't uncharted territory for the Pac-12—UCLA's rival USC has successfully mined Florida for some of its top talent on the 2014 roster. But it is a pipeline that is largely untapped for the conference as a whole.

A Mode Analytics breakdown of college players' home states shows the Southeast is overwhelmingly the highest producer of talent as a region. That translates to more players to be had—and with USC already operating in the region, UCLA has added incentive to find its way in. 

On a grander scale, recruiting the Southeast means recruiting against the SEC, which had a seven-year monopoly on national championships from 2006 through 2012. 

Going head-to-head with the SEC in its part of the country is a bold strategy and surely a challenge. UCLA appears to have lost out on 5-star linebacker Rashaan Evans of Auburn, Ala., who could stay at home to play with the defending SEC champion Tigers. But the strategy could pay off with 4-star New Orleans John Curtis linebacker Kenny Young.

Either way, Mora is establishing a presence nationwide opposite the programs that are competing for national championships, and doing so now will help grow the Bruins' brand in the near future. 

 

Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. Recruiting information obtained via 247Sports.com

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