Bruins a tough sell ahead of signing day
Over the past couple of years, UCLA Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel has developed a reputation as a recruiting magician, turning a couple of high-profile recruits into blue-chip Bruins at the last minute.
But when signing day rolls around Wednesday, it will take a Houdini-like effort for Neuheisel to match the classes of the past two years.
One day before the first day of the signing period, UCLA had only 11 verbal commitments -- the fewest among Football Bowl Subdivision teams, according to ESPN.com's recruiting scorecard.
The reason is simple: UCLA is a tough sell right now because the perception of outsiders is that UCLA is a program in disarray.
The Bruins are coming off a 4-8 season, the second time in three seasons they have finished with that record. That poor performance led to wholesale changes on the coaching staff, with offensive coordinator Norm Chow gone along with defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough.
Bullough was fired Dec. 18 and still hasn't been replaced. Chow left for Utah less than two weeks ago, after nearly two months of speculation about whether he would return.
The questionable timing of the moves and the drawn-out process of making them have made UCLA a big question mark in the minds of recruits, so many are simply scratching the school off their lists.
"It raises a little concern, yeah," said Cyrus Hobbi, a highly touted offensive lineman from Arizona who chose the USC Trojans over UCLA and Arizona State. "Obviously you want to know who your coaches are going to be. At USC, all those guys are pretty stable. I don't think they're going to be going anywhere. That definitely helps in making a decision. These are the guys who are recruiting me; I'd like them to be here, be around as I go through college."
Neuheisel rectified the offensive coordinator problem by hiring former San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Johnson the same day Chow left for Utah. But the absence of a defensive coordinator is still a glaring hole in the eyes of recruits.
"They ask about that before they even say, 'How are you doing?'" Neuheisel said, half-jokingly. "I tell them that we're getting closer and that I'm excited about where we're headed. I just let them know that the wheels are moving. It isn't as though I'm ignoring the problem."
Rumors abound that UCLA will hire a high-profile defensive coordinator, with former Miami coach Randy Shannon the main subject of the rumors. But Neuheisel can't sell the coach until the hire becomes official, something he said he still hoped to do on or before signing day.
"I just try to let the kids know that it takes time to build things correctly but that things are going to happen and happen quickly," Neuheisel said.
And, he tells them, "You will be elated," when they find out who it is.
But Neuheisel's message isn't the only one recruits are hearing. Many high-level recruits talk to dozens of coaches during the recruiting process, and part of the recruiting game is to talk down other programs.
It's been easy to do that with UCLA during this recruiting period, especially with the notion that if the Bruins don't turn things around this season, Neuheisel might not be around much longer, either.
"They're getting killed with other people saying, 'Hey, another 4-8 season, Rick is going to be gone," said Greg Biggins, West Coast recruiting analyst for ESPN.com. "People are calling it a sinking ship. And the lack of a [defensive coordinator], it looks, from an outsider's standpoint, that nobody wants to go there. If you are a player or a parent, you think no one wants to take that job because they know it's a one-year gig if they don't win more than five or six games next year."
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Neuheisel acknowledged his future has come up as he's traversed the country and entered the homes of potential recruits, but he reminds them he has an 81-52 career record as a head coach and he turned Colorado and Washington into national title contenders during his tenures.
"I tell them to look at my past," Neuheisel said. "When you look at my past, you can be comfortable that this is an aberration. And that we will get this thing turned and you are going to be part of the reason it turns and when it does, the rewards are going to be great for all involved."
Trying to recruit and deal with a coaching staff overhaul at the same time has kept Neuheisel busy.
"I've never multitasked like this before," he said. "This is unusual."
But there are still glimmers of hope.
In the past two years, UCLA has had classes ranked in the top 10 by some scouting services, and those players now have at least a year of experience under their belts. Many of them have starting experience.
And even though this year's class is unlikely to crack the top 50, it does include blue-chip quarterback Brett Hundley, one of the top 10 quarterback prospects in the nation, who committed in September, before the bad season and before the coaching turmoil began.
Hundley already has enrolled at UCLA and said he has no regrets about coming, even with the swirl of seeming chaos going on in the program.
"To be honest, I wasn't really coming here for the coaches," Hundley said. "I came here because I wanted to come to UCLA. It's unfortunate that this is happening to the program right now, but it will work its way out and things will go the way they should."
And Neuheisel still might pull a rabbit or two out of his hat Wednesday, although he warned fans not to have expectations for a signing day like the previous two.
"They've come to expect those closing finishes and big names at the end," Neuheisel said. "I think that's fun. But it's also important to remember that this year, while maybe at this point won't be as sexy, is definitely been a good year in recruiting. We've definitely addressed some important needs."
Hundley's early enrollment also will take a little luster off the signing day haul.
"I believe, had a guy like Brett Hundley decided on signing day, that the Bruin Nation would be going crazy," Neuheisel said. "'What a coup. We did it again.' That kind of thing. But the fact that he's already in school has kind of taken that thunder away."
Hundley said there probably is a little too much being made about the low numbers in this year's recruiting class mostly because UCLA had a small senior class and has only about 15 scholarships to give out this year.
Also, Hundley said, there always are going to be players like him who simply want to come to UCLA because it's UCLA.
"UCLA will always have recruits coming in," Hundley said. "I'm not really worried right now. Our recruiting class doesn't look that great but things will change. It's UCLA."Peter Yoon covers UCLA for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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