UCLA has fighting chance in battle for L.A.
As Paul Knox readied for his 28th football season at inner-city Dorsey High School in Los Angeles, the coach received a phone call from Pamela Andrews, mother of UCLA running back and former Dorsey standout Johnathan Franklin.
Andrews invited Knox and his team to the Rose Bowl for the Bruins' home opener under first-year coach Jim Mora on Sept. 8 against Nebraska. They could receive tickets as part of UCLA's community relations program.
Sure, Knox told her, though he wondered if his players would enjoy the idea of watching UCLA, largely absent from their collective consciousness after the Bruins endured four losing seasons in the past five years. Dorsey, after all, is alma mater to USC legend Keyshawn Johnson, and the Trojans had generated all the buzz around L.A. over the summer, as usual, with talk of a national championship and the embarrassment of riches in their under-construction class of 2013 recruits.
UCLA? If people considered them at all, Knox said, they expected a .500 finish this fall.
"And that would be good," the coach said. "Acceptable."
Well, a strange thing happened on the way to mediocrity: The Bruins beat nationally ranked Nebraska and 10 weeks later sit 8-2 and No. 17 in the BCS standings -- one spot ahead of 7-3 USC, by the way -- as the Pac-12 rivals meet at 3:05 p.m. ET Saturday at the Rose Bowl.
On that warm September night in Pasadena, to the surprise of Knox, his players got excited about UCLA. They cheered from their seats in the south end zone. Maybe it was the frenetic pace of the 36-30 win or that Franklin danced his way to 217 yards.
The veteran high school coach suspects something else: That passion for the Bruins, he said, lives inside the kids of Los Angeles. It just had no reason to emerge lately.
"Whether they knew it or not, they've been wanting for UCLA to be the top dogs," Knox said. "They want to show that pride."
The sentiment appears common from San Diego to Santa Barbara and across the San Gabriel Valley.
Saturday presents the Bruins' first of three chances to surpass eight wins for just the third time in 15 seasons. This year marks just the sixth winning season since 1999.
The Bruins haven't played in a marquee postseason game since losing to Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl in 1999.
No doubt, the hunger is there to harness for Mora, the former coach of the Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons.
The results in his first fall look promising. But to sustain success, according to UCLA recruiting coordinator Angus McClure, the Bruins must tap into that pride among the young, local football players.
The strategy is in place. McClure, a six-year veteran of the UCLA staff, helped design a recruiting approach that leaves no stone unturned in the Bruins' home region. Six of nine assistant coaches recruit primarily in southern California, and the others help when needed.
"That's what coach Mora wants," McClure said. "He wants to start at home and spread out around the West."
Their plan is not revolutionary. Eighteen million people live in greater Los Angeles. Every coach in Mora's position would want to recruit well near home.
McClure said he believes UCLA will make it work because of whom the Bruins placed in the key battleground areas.
Receivers coach Eric Yarber played at Crenshaw High in L.A. and recruits the city. Running backs coach Steve Broussard went to Manual Arts High School and recruits L.A. and Riverside counties. Offensive line coach Adrian Klemm, from Santa Monica, recruits that area and south to Orange County. Defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin, who went to high school in Pasadena, recruits the Inland Empire and areas to the north.
Even Mora spent part of his childhood in Los Angeles. His father coached for a year under Dick Vermeil at UCLA.
"You're talking about long-existing relationships," McClure said. "They have natural relationships with the high school coaches and great awareness of their areas. We've always recruited the city, but now we have double the amount of coaches doing it."
Mora had less than two months to recruit last year but snagged a class that included Ellis McCarthy, the No. 4-ranked defensive tackle who had an offer from USC.
Jermaine Kelly, a Class of 2013 receiver from Salesian High School in Los Angeles, bought into UCLA early. He committed in June, six months after Mora's hiring, sold on the many NFL connections of the new coaching staff.
I knew they were going to be great. What surprised me was how it happened so fast.” -- UCLA commit Jermaine Kelly
With offers from Washington, Boise State and others, Kelly heard jeers upon the announcement of his decision.
"Little jokes," he said. "People were saying, 'Why did you just ruin your life?'"
Kelly ignored it.
"I did my homework," he said. "The best part now is when everybody hops on the bandwagon. People congratulate me, tell me I made the right choice. I knew they were going to be great. What surprised me was how it happened so fast."
It surprised Mossi Johnson too. The athlete from Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles committed in October.
"From what UCLA used to be, it's a big difference now," Johnson said.
Johnson said the Bruins are getting more "tough kids."
It's no accident. Yarber, the Crenshaw grad and UCLA assistant, watched closely as Los Angeles prospects quickly grew to appreciate Mora's style.
"They've seen a change here," Yarber said. "They've seen Coach Mora's philosophy of being tough, hard, playing fast, being physical. At a lot of the schools I recruit, kids do not want to be considered soft."
The Bruins' 18-member recruiting class for 2013 ranks No. 18 nationally and second in the Pac-12.
Guess who's No. 1, in the Pac-12 and the nation? Yep, USC.
So while the Bruins still haven't matched the Trojans in recruiting, UCLA's coaches have established a foundation that should help close the gap soon.
"When word got out in Los Angeles that things had changed, it got out quickly," McClure said. "People were right away very interested. People wanted to meet the new coaches. And what I've noticed is that we're finding out about the younger kids sooner than we had in the past."
Kids like Dwight Williams, a Class of 2014 ESPN Watch List linebacker from Gardena (Calif.) Junipero Serra, who holds a UCLA offer and attends the school that sent star receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods to USC.
"I look at [UCLA] differently because they're winning games," Williams said. "I really like that staff. But win games. That's pretty much it."
Williams' straight talk illustrates the depths from which UCLA had to climb. Rick Neuheisel, 21-29 in four years as head coach, was fired last November, two days after the Bruins lost 50-0 to USC.
Last summer, around the time Johnathan Franklin's mother called Knox, billboards reminded drivers on the freeways of the score from last November when the city rivals met at the Coliseum.
Not sure how bad it got? Let Franklin explain.
"All the failures and doubts and hard times -- it was tough," Franklin said. "There were times where I was definitely frustrated. Being embarrassed, that's not easy."
Mora instilled a mantra, especially useful in Los Angeles: Don't listen to the noise. It applies in bad times and good, said Franklin, whose 1,270 yards this season made him the school's all-time leading rusher.
"Whatever anybody is saying doesn't matter," Franklin said. "People are always going to judge you. But I've just learned to stay focused."
In recruiting, too, focus matters. The Bruins, despite the proximity and large profile of USC, try to ignore the Trojans every week but this one.
It's a work in progress, evidenced by Mora's comment, when he talked recruiting during a radio interview in August, that UCLA doesn't have "murders one block off our campus." Two graduate students were shot to death in April near the USC campus. Mora later apologized.
Like Franklin's path at UCLA, the Bruins' journey back to prominence will include ups and downs.
The presence of USC adds intrigue. It forces the Bruins to stay on track, to keep their eyes on the target -- a target centered squarely, in recruiting, on the city of Los Angeles.
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Around the Nation
Several standouts are expected to be on hand at the Rose Bowl on Saturday when UCLA hosts USC. Among the official visitors will be uncommitted ESPN 150 safety Tahaan Goodman, while fellow ESPN 150 safety Priest Willis will be there unofficially. Watch List QB Brandon Dawkins is one of many top Class of 2014 prospects expected to be in attendance.
-- Blair Angulo, WeAreSC
TENN. TRIO TO SEE UCLA:
Joining the large contingent in Westwood will be the Volunteer State trio of offensive tackle and UCLA commit Christian Morris, center Bobby Billingsley and running back Cornelius Elder. Morris is also being pursued by the likes of Nebraska and Oklahoma, Billingsley said he'll likely commit if offered a scholarship by the Bruins, and Elder has shown interest in UCLA.
-- Dave Hooker, Southeast
STAR POWER IN EUGENE:
The Stanford-Oregon matchup is the game of the week, and not surprisingly, a number of top prospects are expected to be on hand. Leading the charge is Oregon commit Thomas Tyner, USC pledge Nico Falah and uncommitted ESPN 150 prospect Tarean Folston. ESPN 300 linebackers Mike Mitchell and Peter Kalambayi, a Stanford pledge, could also be there.
-- Brandon P. Oliver, DuckNation
CAN PITT MAKE GAINS ON BYE?:
The Panthers' top three targets, Tyler Boyd, Robert Foster and Dorian Johnson -- all Pittsburgh-area prospects and among the top 161 players in the country -- will be officially visiting during the bye. Johnson is a Pitt lean, and Foster could be a slight one too. Pitt has made up a lot of ground with Boyd.
-- Jared Shanker, East
JUCO DUO AT PENN STATE:
Two junior college prospects will be in Happy Valley on Friday for their official visits -- the Iowa Western tandem of quarterback Jake Waters and running back Aaron Wimberly. They scheduled only two official visits apiece, so this weekend is a big one for Penn State.
-- Josh Moyer, NittanyNation
BROOKLYN IN THE HOUSE:
Florida brings in two key targets this weekend in ESPN 150 defensive end and Brooklyn native Ebenezer Ogundeko as well as junior college defensive tackle Darious Cummings, an Ole Miss commit. With a lack of depth along the defensive line, Florida has a chance to land both players.
-- Derek Tyson, GatorNation
BIG WEEKEND FOR BADGERS:
This is the weekend Wisconsin fans have been waiting for, as the Badgers could land as many as three commitments Saturday. Marcus Ball and Tiquention Coleman are two of the five official visitors coming, and both have Wisconsin on top. Three-star Tyler Foreman, while not visiting, is expected to publicly announce his commitment to UW on Saturday.
-- Jared Shanker, Midwest
Scouts: Rising Star
By Craig Haubert, RecruitingNation
Wilsonville (Ore.) High School
In the recent rankings update, Ragin III earned a fourth star, but because the talented athlete didn't enter the ESPN 300, it's a move that might have been overlooked. That would be a mistake. Ragin brings a lot to the table with his size, athleticism and versatile skill set. He could be recruited to play on either side of the ball, but he might present more upside as a defender at the next level. Ragin needs to learn to use his hands better and continue to fill out, but he can be disruptive as an edge rusher, an aggressive and physical run defender and a solid wrap-up tackler.
UA All-America Game Spotlight
By Billy Tucker, RecruitingNation
Vienna (Ga.) Dooly County
After posting 45 tackles for a loss as a junior and racking up countless scholarship offers, Adams never rested on his laurels. Instead, he continued to improve, moving into the top 10 of the ESPN 150 while earning a fifth star. The Under Armour All-American has improved his game, most notably his hand technique as a pass-rusher. The nation's No. 1 defensive tackle is one of the most disruptive defenders in the country and arguably one of the more versatile, as he has done a little of everything for his high school squad this season.
Adams receives his UA game jersey.
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By Greg Ostendorf, RecruitingNation
After high school, the junior college route was the only option for wide receiver Jonathon Rumph.
But after starring for Holmes C.C., he is being pursued by the likes of Georgia, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Texas Tech.
For the full story, go to the Southeast blog.
Game of the Week
By Jon Mahoney, RecruitingNation
No. 18 Olney (Md.) Good Counsel will be going for its fourth consecutive WCAC championship Sunday when it faces rival Hyattsville (Md.) DeMatha, a program that once held a grip on the WCAC title. Good Counsel is led by ESPN 150 prospects Kendall Fuller (Virginia Tech) and Dorian O'Daniel (Clemson).
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