April 24, 2024

While dipping heavily into the transfer portal is widely referred to as plug and play, UCLA’s recent approach under Chip Kelly might be best described as plug and pray.

Largely shunning high school recruiting in favor of transfers has landed the Bruins several high-end talents, such as edge rusher Laiatu Latu, running back Zach Charbonnet and wide receiver Jake Bobo.

It also left massive holes on the offensive line that UCLA could not adequately fill last season, when its quarterbacks continually went down with injuries and the team’s 42 sacks allowed ranked as the ninth-highest total in major college football.

Given the relatively small high school class the Bruins expect to sign Wednesday, they appear once again to be crossing their fingers that the heaviest influx of talent will arrive in the weeks to come through the transfer portal.

“They’ve gone from it being plug and play here and there,” said Brandon Huffman, a national recruiting analyst for 247Sports, “to it being almost the complete approach, which I’m not sure that’s the best way to go. The danger of going to the portal with plug and play is you’re not developing and not getting the cohesiveness and then you might have a year where you lose six of those guys on one side of the ball, then what?”

Last year, the Bruins lost offensive linemen Jon Gaines II, Atonio Mafi and Raiqwon O’Neal to the NFL and imported transfers Spencer Holstege, Jake Wiley and Khadere Kounta in an attempt to replace them. Only Holstege became a starter and the Bruins struggled all season to protect their quarterbacks.

Meanwhile, of the 15 high school players brought in, only quarterback Dante Moore played a significant role as a true freshman … before entering the transfer portal and heading to Oregon.

On Wednesday, UCLA is expected to announce the signing of about a dozen players in what could be the smallest class of any Big Ten Conference team. As currently constructed, the class has no four-star prospects according to the 247Sports ratings that also rank the Bruins’ haul No. 17 in the Big Ten, ahead of only Northwestern after the Wildcats underwent a coaching change.

“Really, UCLA is in peril of being at the bottom of the conference,” Huffman said. “It would be one thing if you have 25 high solid three-stars, but they don’t even have half that, so there’s not quality and there’s not quantity and it’s almost like a Group of Five approach rather than a Power Five approach.”

Isn’t that OK considering that UCLA routinely has been among the kings of the transfer portal?

Well, in the portal’s early weeks, the Bruins have been closer to paupers given all the transfer targets who committed elsewhere. Offensive tackle Drew Azzopardi is headed to Washington. Edge rusher Khordae Sydnor is headed to Vanderbilt. Defensive lineman Thor Griffith is headed to Louisville. Offensive tackle Fernando Carmona is headed to Arkansas. Cornerback TJ Crandall is headed to West Virginia.

UCLA has landed four transfer commitments of its own, though two come with asterisks. Safety Bryan Addison (Oregon) will need an NCAA waiver to gain another season of eligibility and safety Marcus Ratcliffe (San Diego State) has scheduled visits to Florida and Texas A&M, leaving his status in doubt.

Huffman said the Bruins will likely see a steady uptick in transfer commitments in early January after the end of bowl season. They have landed two promising prospects in Notre Dame wide receiver Rico Flores Jr. and California kicker Mateen Bhaghani.

If UCLA is unable to fill its needs along the offensive line and at defensive back, where the team has suffered massive losses to graduation and the transfer portal, it could turn to some of its true freshmen. Huffman said he could foresee West Bloomfield (Mich.) cornerback Jamir Benjamin, Chatsworth Sierra Canyon wide receiver Kwazi Gilmer and Mission Viejo offensive tackle Mark Schroller becoming part of the rotation as freshmen given their readiness and the team’s holes.

The 6-foot-6, 295-pound Schroller is part of a freshman class that’s also expected to include two other offensive tackles in Marquise Thorpe-Taylor from Tacoma (Wash.) Mount Tahoma and Jensen Somerville from Lehi (Utah). Huffman said he expected Schroller and Somerville to remain tackles at the college level but that Thorpe-Taylor could move inside to guard.

With veteran quarterback Ethan Garbers declaring his intention to return in 2024 after leading the Bruins’ comeback victory over Boise State in the L.A. Bowl, freshman counterpart Karson Gordon could add depth alongside Justyn Martin and Luke Duncan. Unlike Moore, who struggled to run when given the chance, Gordon is a true dual-threat quarterback in the mold of UCLA predecessor Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

“He’ll remind you of DTR in that he still wants to beat you with his arm,” Huffman said of the prospect from Bellaire [Texas] Episcopal who is listed at a touch over 6 feet and 171 pounds, “but there is zero hesitation for him to tuck and run.”

The Bruins also remain in the running for Westwood (Mass.) Xaverian Brothers quarterback Henry Hasselbeck, the son of former NFL quarterback Matt Hasselbeck who is deciding between UCLA and Boston College, his father’s alma mater.

Regardless of who signs this week, the Bruins will be placing their biggest bet on the newcomers who arrive through the portal.

“The danger in that is that when you rely on it every year, you have no youth, you have no development and that’s why I think it’s a dangerous slope to walk when you’re constantly relying on it,” Huffman said. “It should be kind of a stopgap, one- or two-year thing rather than every single year, Year 7, seventh recruiting class type of thing.”

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