LOS ANGELES -- When Jim Mora took over as UCLA coach in December, the first question asked of him was: How are you going to recruit?
Mora, who had spent 25 years in the NFL and never had to recruit before, didn't have an answer at the time, but he responded in emphatic fashion Wednesday when he announced that his first recruiting class contained a number of high profile recruits and was rated No. 19 in the nation by ESPN.com's recruiting ranker.
"A lot of hard work went into this year’s class," Mora said. "We certainly could have conceded the 2012 class because we got such a late start and focused our energies on 2013. We decided not to. We decided to attack it and try to take chunks out of it every day and the culmination of that is the players we are presenting to you today."
Highlighting UCLA's 25-player class are four members of the ESPNU 150: defensive lineman Ellis McCarthy of Monrovia, quarterback Devin Fuller of Old Tappan, New Jersey, quarterback T.J. Milleweard of Fort Worth, Tex. and Ishmael Adams of Oaks Christian in Westlake Village.
The Bruins also got a surprise recruit when Oaks Christian four-star receiver Jordan Payton signed Wednesday after going on television Tuesday and announcing he was going to sign with Washington. Other four-star players UCLA landed were linebacker Aaron Porter of La Habra, and receiver Randall Goforth or Long Beach Poly.
"I don't think anybody expect them to finish this last month the way they did," ESPN.com recruiting analyst Greg Biggins said. "They're going to have a class that is close to top 15 in the nation and I don't think anybody saw that just a few weeks ago."
That's because UCLA was a program in flux. Coach Rick Neuheisel was fired in late November and Mora came on board on the middle of December with no notable experience at the college level or with recruiting. In order to make up for that shortcoming, Mora made some strategic assistant coach hires, notably Adrian Klemm, Demetrice Martin and Steve Broussard.
Those coaches used existing relationships to help get UCLA in the door of some the recruits they signed Wednesday and made Mora's first recruiting class a success.
"They did everything, I was just along for the ride," Mora said. "It's called recruiting, but really what it is is going out and forging and building relationships and these guys are fantastic at it because they are genuine. There is nothing fake about them. So when they walk in a home, you feel the warmth that they have already created with the relationships that they have with these people."
Mora and his staff got into the game so late that it would have been easy to just sit tight and build a recruiting strategy for next year, but that wasn't in their nature. They first needed to figure out which Neuheisel recruits were still interested in UCLA and also targeted players for this year's class who were committed to other schools and then hit the road.
"One of the things I learned was how competitive the recruiting really is," Mora said. "The process of recruiting is how you accumulate your talent and it’s completely different than anything I had ever been through before in the NFL. When you draft, you’re picking players. When you’re recruiting, you’re picking players, but they have to pick you, so that’s very, very different."
Luckily he had some recruiting aces to help. Klemm, who came from Southern Methodist, Martin, from Washington, and Broussard, from Arizona State, had all built reputations as excellent recruiters. They helped Mora along in the process by teaching him the dos and don'ts of recruiting while also accompanying him on home visits and offering recruiting pitch advice.
"Some of those things were challenging because you expect your head man knows all that," Martin said. "But he’s all new to it so he had to learn fast and he did. Once he got going he became pretty good at it."
Still UCLA had other challenges. With a new staff, it's always going to be a tough sell, especially for a team coming off of a 6-8 season. UCLA was an easy target for negative recruiting, where opposing coaches point out the negatives of different schools, The coaches hit recruiting hard and expected to get a decent class, but were surprised by how things turned out.
"I thought we could have a really good class, but I thought it would be a little more shaky than it was today," Klemm said. "People were using some of that stuff against us, but a lot of kids believed in what we’re doing and bought into what coach Mora was saying when he went into their living rooms and I think the type of person that he is, they saw the genuineness when he was speaking to them. They understood that everything he was saying was true and it wasn’t a hustle."
Mora's energy had a lot to do with that. He worked tirelessly, sometimes visiting as many as four states in one day in order to meet with recruits, sit in their homes and deliver his pitch. Mora's naivety about the recruiting process also came in handy. He said he really didn't pay much attention to the fact that players had committed to another school because as far as he was concerned, if they hadn't signed a letter of intent, they were fair game.
That paid off in the form of Payton, the coveted receiver from Oaks Christian.
"I don’t even know what the word commit means quite frankly because it doesn’t mean anything right now," Mora said. "I think what’s happened is that the pressures that the media has created, especially the bowl games, is they pressure these kids to make a commitment on TV to push the rating up for a bowl game. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on these kids and they are easily swayed."
The entire process was a learning process, Mora said. He acknowledged that his initial approach to recruiting was to take the same presentation to each recruit and try to sell the school and the UCLA program. He quickly learned that each player and each family had different concerns.
"I thought I knew what recruiting was but I really didn't," Mora said.
Judging from the results, however, he picked it up just fine.
"We signed the class that we worked to sign," he said. "We signed the guys that we wanted to sign so we’re very happy about today’s results."