When you take a look at Rivals.com, one of the more respected sites when it comes ranking college football’s recruiting classes, the usual suspects are at the top again with the early signing period for the 2021 class approaching soon: Alabama, Ohio State, LSU, Clemson and Georgia.
Even two from the Pac-12, Oregon and USC, are ranked in the top 10, with the Ducks at No. 3 and Trojans at No. 9.
Where is UCLA? You have to scroll a long way down to find the Bruins at No. 72, and this is with just more than a week before players can take advantage of the early signing period Dec. 16.
That’s never good when a team like UCLA (3-2), which will take on No. 15 USC (4-0) in Saturday’s annual crosstown rivalry game at 4:30 p.m. at the Rose Bowl, is trying to close the talent gap.
UCLA hasn’t fared well in recent years when it comes to national recruiting rankings, and that has been even more evident with Bruins coach Chip Kelly, now in his third season. UCLA finished ranked No. 37 in last year’s 2020 class, and the year before UCLA ranked No. 44 in Rivals.
Whether those recruiting rankings get it right, or whether the Bruins’ recruits are the right fits, get measured as time goes on. But Kelly and UCLA have figured one way to close the gap and find instant on-field success: graduate transfers.
And this season, it has has paid off for the Bruins.
Running back Brittain Brown, who arrived from Duke over the summer and has been a major one-two punch in the Bruins’ backfield along with senior Demetric Felton, already has 46 carries for 290 yards and four touchdowns.
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) December 6, 2020
Helping provide some of those running routes is offensive lineman Paul Grattan, a grad transfer from Villanova, who so many have raved about.
On defense, two grad transfers – cornerback Obi Eboh from Stanford and safety Qwuantrezz Knight, who played at Maryland and Kent State – have played major roles in helping UCLA enjoy its first winning record under Kelly.
Against Oregon a couple weeks ago, Knight recovered a fumble and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown. His teammates have raved about his infectious intensity.
IMPACT TRANSFER QWUANTREZZ KNIGHT pic.twitter.com/8U3tAn2yoi
— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) November 21, 2020
And here’s the good thing: Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the shortened season and so much cancellation in 2020, the NCAA is allowing every player this year to have an additional year of eligibility, which means all four of the Bruins’ grad transfers could stick around for next season if they wish.
A lot will obviously depend on what their NFL stock looks like.
“If I’ve got it, I’m going to take it,” Grattan said earlier in the season about an extra year of eligibility. “It can’t hurt to take another year to get bigger, stronger, faster, more experienced.”
While that’s another story altogether, Kelly compared getting players through the grad transfer route, or transfer portal, to the traditional way of recruiting players out of high school.
It’s like free agency, he says.
“I think it’s a lot like NFL free agency, you’re not projecting in the NFL a college kid to what he’s going to be like in the NFL because you see the guy in the NFL,” Kelly said. “It’s the same thing when you’re looking at a grad transfer and you study his tape.
“If it’s Brittain Brown, you’re watching him play against ACC competition. If you watched Obi Eboh play for Stanford, you watched him play against USC last year. So I think the evaluation portion of it is a little bit easier.”
It has been a way for the Bruins to plug holes while waiting for recruits to develop. Or, if some players don’t pan out like they thought, a proven grad transfer could be a more reliable option.
It also became a necessity as several Bruins in the past year transferred from Westwood, including starting offensive linemen Christaphany Murray (Oklahoma) and Jake Burton (Baylor).
Said Kelly: “When you’re a young team, which we’ve been, and haven’t had a lot of upper classmen, it (grad transfers) is a way to balance out your classes so you’re not always taking a ton of young guys and hoping that in two or three years as they develop and they mature. You’re getting somebody that’s a little bit of a finished product now.”
And what Kelly also likes is, unlike young players, grad transfers know their window is small and impact is immediate.
“There’s a sense of urgency out of them because they only have one year,” Kelly said. “They’re not like a freshman that’s like ‘Hey, I’m a freshman, but I’m going to play three or four more years here and this will be great.’
“They’re kind of on their clock too and want to get their goals accomplished. And we’re very selective in how we do it because the players that we have taken since I’ve been here, the graduate transfers starting with Wilton Speight (quarterback, 2018) to these guys right now, all of them have contributed and all of them have been outstanding both in their contributions to the team on and off the field.”
One great example is Brown. When Joshua Kelley finished his senior season and was drafted by the Chargers, the Bruins lost their most productive back the past two seasons.
The Bruins returned senior Demetric Felton, but Brown was a bigger back like Kelley. Felton and Brown have helped the Bruins lead the Pac-12 in average rushing yards with 227.6 per game.
“The fact that we could get Brittain was a huge compliment for us,” Kelly said. “We were looking for a bigger back and lost a great one in Josh Kelley, who had two really good games in this rivalry (with USC).
“So, the fact we could bring Brittain in to work with Felt, you know, the running back position is never really a one-person position. You got to have multiple guys there for the amount that we run the football and both of those guys have been really good with each other.”