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Chip Kelly’s UCLA 2019 recruiting efforts were a squandered opportunity

Kelly’s Bruins are very picky about offers, but they also haven’t been good at reeling in the few players they do like.

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at UCLA Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

This is the third entry in a look at UCLA’s recruiting. The first two appear in reverse chronological order, below.

I’ve been chronicling what I perceived to be weird recruiting activity or strategy at UCLA under Chip Kelly for almost a year now, waiting to see how it would all work out.

It turns out that the worry over Chip Kelly’s recruiting at UCLA was completely justified.

On National Signing Day, linebacker Drew Fowler accepted a preferred walk-on spot at Washington instead of a scholarship at UCLA. And Kansas State beat the Bruins for athlete Kenyon Reed, from Long Beach (Calif.) Poly.

The Bruins finished 43rd in the national rankings, and seventh in the Pac-12. They signed only one four-star prospect.

There are 47 four- and five-star prospects in California, and again, UCLA signed one. Washington signed eight. Utah signed three. Oregon signed seven.

USC, in a year of turmoil, and entering 2019 with a head coach who could be a lame duck following the Kliff Kingsbury debacle, signed five.

As discussed previously, Chip Kelly might indeed be smarter than the recruiting rankings. Some of the three-stars he signs might turn out to be four stars. But he’s not smart enough to overcome this much of a lack of talent.

And when UCLA did pursue a prospect that the rest of the college football world considered to be elite, it whiffed in spectacular fashion: 1 for 40. UCLA offered 40 four- or five-star recruits, and signed just one.

Given that USC, just signed its worst class in the history of modern recruiting rankings (since 2003, or so), this failure to bring in elite talent by UCLA has to be looked at as a major missed opportunity.

There are several reasons for this, chronicled throughout this piece. Not offering enough players. Being way too slow and too picky to offer local players, making them feel unwanted or overlooked. Not being good at actually recruiting the players you do want.

At the All-Star events over the holidays, parents of California recruits also spoke about how some UCLA coaches, some of whom had been in the NFL and out of the recruiting game would try to call their kids, while kids preferred to text or snapchat.

“I can’t even get my own son to pick up the phone,” one parent said. “But he’ll return a text.”

Some of this is fixable immediately for the 2020 class

  • UCLA coaches can text more than they call if they sense that a prospect doesn’t like taking phone calls. Figuring out how each recruit prefers to communicate is key.
  • It can become a lot less picky. There’s no reason for UCLA to place artificial limits on itself and offer only a handful players more than Stanford. Fixing the culture is good, but without talent, it could result in a very sportsmanship-y, great teammate collection of losses.
  • And it can offer earlier in the cycle if it is being less picky.

It’s possible that UCLA turns this around in the 2020 class, but there’s little doubt the 2019 recruiting cycle will be looked upon as a missed opportunity.

December Update

In early October, I wrote an article wondering what in the heck Chip Kelly was doing on the recruiting trail at UCLA. Were they just being picky? Lazy? Were they waiting for something? Did they not want to get their hands dirty in the recruiting game? That original is included at the bottom of this one.

Since then, the Bruins have added six prospects, including a four-star, moving them all the way up to ... 49th nationally as of the morning of December 20th, or right after most Division I players have already signed.

Some caveats do apply. UCLA still has room to make up ground. The traditional National Signing Day is still six weeks away, and the Bruins still have some targets on the board.

But this does appear to be a terrible start on this recruiting trail for UCLA and Chip Kelly. UCLA signed one high school player in the top 400 nationally. One.

UCLA was too picky. Offering 76 players, the second fewest in the nation, is simply not a good strategy.

That is only two more than Stanford, a program which is limited in the offers it can throw out due to what are likely the toughest academic standards in FBS football. UCLA is a good school, but it doesn’t have the academic restrictions that Stanford has.

Even doubling the number of offers UCLA threw out would still have it in the bottom sixth of the Power 5; 76 is a laughable number.

In October, I wondered if Kelly thought he could outsmart the college football world. I still wonder about that.

I think he might be. But the question is to what extent? Can Chip Kelly make a top-50 class play like a top-35 class? I’m willing to bet that he can. He might be using data science and a very specific set of criteria by which to evaluate and extend offers to make better player judgements and be better than the recruiting rankings.

But can Kelly make a top-50 class play like a top-20 class? That’s where I have my doubts. Kelly could significantly outsmart the recruiting rankings and still put a disappointing product on the field because the starting point for UCLA in the recruiting rankings is so low.

It’s also concerning that when UCLA did offer a big time prospect, a player with whom other major programs seemed to agree with Kelly, it failed to land that recruit with alarming regularity. Just one of 36 four- and five-star players offered by UCLA signed with the Bruins.

Compare that to Stanford, a similarly picky school. Stanford offered 48 four- and five-star prospects, and signed eight of them. Stanford landed its blue-chip offers six times as often as UCLA did. Washington landed 11 of 58, a rate seven times better than what UCLA accomplished.

UCLA missed on QB Jayden Daniels, who chose Arizona State. It also whiffed on prospects like linebackers Dru Mathis (Oregon) and Ralen Goforth (USC), and offensive lineman Sataoa Laumea (Utah). Linebacker, receiver, and offensive line depth are potential trouble spots in this class.

And those were just the recent whiffs.

There were plenty of prospects UCLA wanted on its super exclusive offer list who didn’t give UCLA the time of day, possibly because, according to various UCLA media, the Bruins staff was not recruiting with the same fervor as other programs.

Which is the other shoe in this equation. Kelly can out-evaluate other schools all he wants, but if he and his staff get outrecruited for the truly special prospects who fit his narrow criteria, it doesn’t matter. Identification is meaningless if the coaching staff cannot close the deal.

It will be interesting to see if UCLA throws out more offers in the coming 2020 class, and if it is more active making connections with prospects early on.

What follows is the original article from October.

Perusing the national recruiting rankings this week, a major team jumped out to me: UCLA. The Bruins are 84th. The Bruins have eight commits, and no four- or five-stars.

The only Power 5 teams rated below UCLA are Utah, Kansas State, and Kansas.

That’s bad company as far as recruiting goes, especially because UCLA typically signs more four- and five-star players than those three programs combined.

West Coast teams typically add more players to their classes later in the season than teams in the Midwest and East regions. For example, eight Pac-12 teams have fewer than 15 commitments as of this writing, while only one team in the SEC does.

But by any measure, this is a bad start.

I can’t figure out what UCLA is doing on the recruiting trail.

It’s not as if UCLA is aggressively pursuing and making relationships with a lot of elite recruits. By my count, UCLA has offered only 67 players. That’s fewer than Stanford, which is historically as stingy as anybody with its offers, due to the difficulty of players gaining academic admission there. And it’s far fewer than Pac-12 foes like Utah and Arizona State, both of whom have offered more than 200 players.

It would make sense for UCLA to cast such a narrow net if it was in great spots with a lot of elite players. But the Bruins are simply not even in the running right now for many, according to multiple West Coast sources and the team’s 247Sports Crystal Ball page.

The Bruins might be able to sign four-star QB Jayden Daniels of Cajon (Calif.) thanks to the possibility of early playing time. And four-star linebacker Josh Calvert of Westlake Village (Calif.) is a possibility.

UCLA would really like to sign offensive tackle Sean Rhyan of San Juan Capistrano (Calif.), but it’s not certain if the Bruins would even make his top two at the moment.

It would be easy to ascribe the awful recruiting to the Bruins’ 0-4 start on the field, but that does not explain it.

First, while on-field results can have an impact on a class, new coaches typically do most of their work with hype and selling a vision. It isn’t until a few years into a program that on-field results sway most recruits, because at that point a coach has his players in place.

Waiting for on-field results to produce results on the recruiting trail is not a smart approach at a school like UCLA.

Second, UCLA was not recruiting well before the season. It is not as if momentum reversed.

Interestingly, those who cover UCLA recruiting don’t seem to believe UCLA is recruiting as persistently ($) as some of its rivals.

Bruin Report Online’s Tracy Pierson:

I think the staff believes it’s doing better with certain recruits than we believe.

For whatever reason, they aren’t recruiting with the persistence of other programs. It’s uncertain if they perceive it that way -- whether they believe they are recruiting as persistently as other programs or they are knowingly choosing not to.

There’s a huge difference between not wanting to play the recruiting game and not showing enough love to prospect after prospect.

Perhaps Kelly doesn’t want to play the recruiting game or be involved with high-drama recruitments.

Kelly certainly does not have a reputation as a flashy or dogged recruiter. And UCLA’s staff doesn’t deal with seven-on-seven coaches very much, according to those who know the scene. And it makes sense that he would be gunshy about that, given his missteps at Oregon.

It’s possible that UCLA is being too picky.

Given UCLA’s lack of scholarship offers, one possibility could be that the school is only going after a very select group of players. And if it doesn’t sign those players, perhaps it will take a much larger class come 2020.

It’s also possible that Kelly believes he’s smarter than everyone else.

If there was a criticism of Kelly in the NFL, it was that he was not nearly as good of a general manager as he was a coach.

But unfortunately, Kelly had two jobs in Philadelphia. One was as coach, which, as previously noted, he did well. The other was as general manager. At this role, he was an utter failure. Kelly was a disastrous magician, pulling a never-ending handkerchief of horrible decisions out of a hat. His moves looked terrible when he made them, and they turned out to be terrible.

(Side note: I was going to title this piece “What the heck is Chip Kelly doing?,” but it turns out we already have an article by that exact title from his NFL days. But I mean this headline literally, and not just as a headline device.)

It makes sense that a coach would want players who fit his system. And recruiting rankings, while predictive on the whole, are not perfect at an individual level. Kelly has a penchant for finding good players who emerge as seniors.

But the chance that Kelly can build a team on sleepers and late-bloomers that exceeds what he could build if he went after the caliber of athlete UCLA is proven to be able to sign is about zero.

There’s time, but the clock is ticking.

I spoke with several people familiar with UCLA’s recruiting. None of them could articulate how this current plan would result in UCLA recruiting at an elite level.

Maybe UCLA finds a few gems, recruits with more effort, and closes strong enough that the 2019 class is not a disaster, while saving some spots for a potentially strong class. I’m not sure that’s realistic, but it’s what I would tell myself if I were a UCLA fan.

All rankings via the 247Sports Composite.