UCLA football expects continued production from emerging youth
LOS ANGELES -- The hype was real.
A top-five recruiting class delivered everything UCLA fans had hoped for last season, providing a program-changing foundation en route to the team's first 10-win campaign since 2005. In addition to two-way star Myles Jack, the haul produced two other Freshman All-Americans in defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes and offensive guard Alex Redmond -- not to mention six other players who started at least one game.
Does that set the bar higher for future hauls?
"I would hope," said head coach Jim Mora. "It's all about competition. They've seen that we played 18 true freshmen last year. That's not going to happen this year. I don't think we even have 18 true freshmen, but you want them to aspire to that, for sure."
Sometimes, however, a chasm separates aspiration from achievement. Last year, it was vaunted defensive back prospect Priest Willis who struggled to adjust to the next level. Considered a top-60 player by most recruiting services, the Arizona native struggled to move from safety to cornerback. He played mostly special teams and made nine tackles.
"Sometimes, you can't just be a Myles Jack," Willis said this past spring. "Sometimes, people learn much slower. That was the process for me."
Even the star linebacker himself seemed aware of the shadow he casts, particularly for the current crop of true freshmen. During training camp at Cal State San Bernardino, the sophomore was asked who the "Myles Jack" is in the latest group of Bruins.
Jack demurred, but eventually settled on calling freshman Kenny Young his standout pick -- without using his own name as a comparison.
Young is the best bet for UCLA to get another first-year star. Thick-bodied at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, the Louisiana native seized first-team reps at inside linebacker just a week into training camp. Mora commented that he looked more "like an NFL linebacker" physically than the 19-year-old he is.
On the offensive side, true freshman NaJee Toran appears to have locked down a starting spot. A slightly undersized guard with a mean streak, he's impressed fellow lineman Caleb Benenoch -- a nine-game starter as a true freshman in 2013.
"I think he's further along than me and Alex (Redmond) were at this point in our career last year," Benenoch said. "His attitude and the way he approaches the game. I think me and Alex were a little immature. We thought we were mature, but he's really mature for somebody of his age. It's impressive to watch how far he's come since spring football."
Not everyone is destined for immediate stardom, particularly not with the Bruins returning so much depth across the roster. Mora said Thursday that all three freshman defensive linemen will play this season, but they're also stuck behind such players as Vanderdoes and Kenny Clark -- two sophomores with professional futures. Alex Van Dyke has the biggest frame in the receiving corps, but isn't polished enough to break into a rotation that only loses one starter.
And of course, the Bruins' seemingly annual position change: cornerback Adarius Pickett switched to running back. Even if he learns quickly, the realistic ceiling for him this season is becoming the team's No. 3 tailback.
Such players can find solace in their development timetable simply by looking elsewhere on UCLA's roster. As young as the Bruins still are, particularly in the defensive front seven, there are several upperclassmen who needed time to find their groove.
Top cornerback Fabian Moreau, who now looks like a future NFL draft pick after switching from running back, notched just five tackles and a fumble recovery as a true freshman in 2012. Jordon James, likely UCLA's starting tailback, needed a redshirt year before taking just 20 carries through his 2011 debut. Senior defensive back Anthony Jefferson, the elder statesman of the secondary, lost his first two seasons to foot and back injuries before turning himself into an all-conference honorable mention.
Room exists for the late bloomers after all.
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