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UCLA football recruiters take act on road, and it's playing well

UCLA Coach Jim Mora and staff have brought a national focus to recruiting, a throwback to successful days when Terry Donahue was coach. And it's reaping benefits.

February 05, 2013|By Chris Foster
  • UCLA has 10 players from out-of-state who have committed to the football program for next year.
UCLA has 10 players from out-of-state who have committed to the football… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

Eldridge Massington was expecting visitors. He just wasn't expecting a UCLA football staff meeting.

Massington, a receiver from Mesquite (Texas) West High, twisted through a recruiting whirlwind in December, dropping USC and visiting Alabama, Arizona State and UCLA.

Recruiters were bound to show up at his doorstep . . . but the entire Bruins staff?

GRAPHIC: UCLA recruits

UCLA coaches — the ones sanctioned to recruit off campus — blew through Mesquite like tumbleweeds. "They said they all flew in from different places on the same day just to come see me," Massington said.

A few days later, Massington committed to UCLA. He enrolled in January.

With the opening of the NCAA football signing period Wednesday, it has been clear for a while now that Bruins Coach Jim Mora is running a national campaign. UCLA has 10 out-of-state players who have committed to accepting scholarships. This follows the 2012 class, which had 11.

Bringing 21 players across state lines the last two recruiting seasons matches UCLA's total from the five previous seasons combined.

SPREADSHEET: Southland's top recruits

Brandon Huffman, national college football recruiting analyst for Scout.com, said UCLA is "going after elite kids from out of state, not the 70th-ranked lineman. They have a top lineman from Texas and a top lineman from Tennessee."

Indeed, among the players who have committed to the Bruins are Caleb Benenoch, an offensive lineman from Katy, Texas; Christian Morris, an offensive lineman from Memphis, Tenn.; and Sean Covington, from St. Petersburg, Fla., who is considered among the nation's best high school kickers.

"I think it's a really fine balancing act," said former UCLA coach Terry Donahue, who took the Bruins to four Rose Bowls. "If you had your druthers, there isn't any question that you would recruit all California kids. But you can't get them all in school at UCLA. What you have to do — and it's exactly what Jim is doing — is expand the pool of players."

UCLA has softened its admission standards, according to a person in the athletic department who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to comment on the topic. But the nationwide effort is back in place.

Donahue brought in All-American players such as safety Kenny Easley, from Virginia, and offensive lineman Jonathan Ogden, from Washington, D.C. That philosophy tapered off after Donahue retired and UCLA became less of a national brand in football.

Massington said he hadn't considered UCLA before December. "I was following USC," he said.

The heavy — and well-coordinated — push by UCLA coaches impressed him. "I felt a good connection," Massington said.

This can be an expensive game plan. Out-of-state students paid an extra $22,878 in tuition to attend UCLA in 2012-13, according to the university's website. The athletic program covers the tuition for an athletic scholarship.

Players also have longer emotional supply lines. A quarter of the 20 out-of-state players who came to Westwood from 2008 through 2011 didn't finish their eligibility at UCLA.

"It can be a hard thing," Donahue said. "Distance is always an issue."

Deon Hollins Jr., a linebacker from Missouri City (Texas) Marshall High, "wasn't a kid who grew up idolizing the Texas Longhorns," Deon Hollins Sr. said. "He experienced the tremendous heat and wanted to play were it was as cold as possible. He visited Notre Dame and that let him know how cold it could get."

The balmy winter weather in Los Angeles was more to Hollins' liking. He and his father found Mora to be genuine and felt the Bruins' 3-4 defense fit his skill set.

Still, Hollins will be more than a thousand miles from home. "My son and I have been joined at the hip for so long," Hollins Sr. said. "I want him to be in the best situation possible. Sometimes the best situation is a little unsettling for a parent."

Offensive line coach Adrian Klemm, one of UCLA's top recruiters, has tapped connections in Texas made during his previous job at Southern Methodist.

"He made a big push nationally at SMU, getting kids from California," Huffman said. "Even in a state like Texas, with all that great talent a stone's throw from campus, he still felt the need to go to fertile recruiting areas."

But, Huffman said, "you can't ignore your base."

The theory among coaches is whoever wants to control the Pac-12 Conference has to control recruiting in the Los Angeles area.

USC, during Pete Carroll's successful run, earmarked elite out-of-state players but pulled in much of his talent from Southern California.

"Other schools will use it against you, that you care more for recruiting out of state," Donahue said. "Of course, Oregon, Washington and Washington State all go out of state. They recruit in Southern California, just like UCLA."

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

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