DeShaun Foster is breaking off a big recruiting run after UCLA long stood in place

For years, Chip Kelly’s assistant coaches sounded a we’ll-get-back-to-you refrain with high school recruits as part of an agonizing, slow-speed pursuit. The staff’s reluctance to pounce on prospects was among the reasons UCLA ranked last in the nation in scholarship offers and built little buzz in recruiting circles, with the results to match.

Scott Taylor was among the last players to feel that hesitation. Though he was told the Bruins were interested in February, the edge rusher from Loyola High was also cautioned that the staff needed to meet before officially extending a scholarship offer.

Later that week, Kelly was gone and so was the indecision about Taylor. Warmth radiated during a visit to the Wasserman Football Center in early March when everyone the prospect encountered made him feel like they wanted him on the team.

“I had never met 99.9% of these guys and they all said, ‘Oh, hey, Scott, how’s it going? Good to see you,’ ” Taylor remembered. “From the first second I set foot on campus, it was a whole different type of love they had for me.”

The new staff gave Taylor a lot more to chew on than a 24-ounce New York strip during his official visit. Defensive coordinator Ikaika Malloe discussed his vision for using Taylor as a hybrid linebacker-edge rusher. Recruiting bosses Butler Benton and Chris Carter engaged the prospect in lengthy discussions about his potential major, internship opportunities and the best way to accumulate course credits.

When Taylor told assistant coaches he was ready to commit in April, they brought him and his family up to coach DeShaun Foster’s spacious third-floor office. Relayed the same message, Foster opened his office door and started yelling indecipherable gibberish as other coaches filled the room.

“Just insane excitement,” Taylor said of the scene.

For the first time in years, there’s something to celebrate in UCLA high school recruiting. A recruiting staff that’s tripled in size has aggressively pursued a wider swath of prospects, lending an air of sincerity to the coaches’ mantra of “Do more.”

“Much bigger, much more effective, much more hands-on, a lot more outreach than ever before,” Greg Biggins, a national recruiting analyst for 247 Sports, said of the new recruiting staff, “and obviously you see a lot more offers going out now.”

Last year, UCLA finished at the bottom of the Big Ten Conference in high school recruiting, according to 247 Sports, below two schools — Northwestern and Michigan State — that were in the midst of coaching changes. The Bruins were desperately lagging again when Kelly departed, having only one commitment from the Class of 2025.

In five frantic months of playing catchup against other schools, Foster’s staff has added 13 commitments — including a quartet of four-star prospects — while boosting UCLA’s ranking to No. 11 in the conference and No. 37 in the nation. Taylor picked the Bruins after being courted by Arizona, San Jose State and a slew of Ivy League schools.

From the staff’s perspective, what it’s put together is a start, nothing more.

“I think we did a pretty good job of making up some ground with some schools that may have been recruiting guys longer than us,” said Benton, the Bruins’ general manager of recruiting and personnel. “But I think there’s a whole lot of room to grow. There’s a whole lot more targets that we want and we’re going to continue to go after.”

The three latest commitments rolled in last week, repeating the new rhythm of UCLA football recruiting.

Quarterback Colton Gumino, long snapper Halakiliangi Muagututia Jr. and edge rusher Epi Sitanilei posted photos of themselves wearing blue-and-gold uniforms as part of their commitment announcements on Twitter. They thanked not just Foster and their respective position coaches but also the recruiting staff that helped reel them in.

Almost simultaneously, those same coaches and recruiting staffers welcomed the newcomers by tweeting 13-second videos that showed iconic spots around Southern California, including a Rose Bowl filled with cheering fans and the Hollywood sign replaced by one reading Westwood.

The all-inclusive approach differs from the more monolithic one favored by Kelly, who didn’t have a Twitter account and would rely on director of player personnel Ethan Young to trumpet every commitment by tweeting “Boom!” By that point, the recruiting staff had navigated what amounted to a self-made minefield.

“Chip had to approve every offer,” Biggins said, “and so I think a lot of the staff members were just kind of tired or almost beaten up about, why even offer a guy, being told, ‘No, we can’t offer him right now.’ I think it kind of produced a little bit of a lazy recruiting environment where you just don’t even try anymore, you know what I mean?”

It took Kelly’s departure for the Bruins to heavily pursue Karson Cox even though the speedy running back from Oak Hills High had built a strong relationship with Foster and had long emerged as one of the top players at his position on the West Coast, landing offers from Washington, Oregon, USC, Utah and Oregon State.

UCLA finally ran a reverse in its pursuit of Cox after Foster replaced Kelly, inviting the prospect to campus and extending an offer. Cox accepted it during his official visit in May, won over by a coaching, recruiting and development staff full of former running backs, not to mention the Bruins’ history of sending players at the position to the NFL.

“If you want to play running back,” Cox said, “it’s the place to be.”

Foster’s nine-person recruiting staff comprises three leaders with extensive experience plus three analysts and three more staffers who help with the various details of setting up on-campus visits and other recruiting coordination needs.

Benton had spent more than 10 years on the recruiting staffs at Notre Dame, Arkansas, Georgia Southern and Michigan State, building a vast network of contacts across the country. Carter, the assistant general manager of recruiting and personnel, was director of player personnel at USC, following coach Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma. Stacey Ford, the director of player personnel, served in a similar role at Washington State, where he developed a reputation as a dogged recruiter.

“Almost every kid I talked to who was looking at Washington State and asked, ‘Hey, who’s the coach you talk to the most?’ ” Biggins said, “they said it was Stacey Ford.”

UCLA’s core recruiting pitch hasn’t changed much under its new staff — the school remains the top-ranked public university in the nation, nestled in an affluent area with a massive media market providing unparalleled networking opportunities. But it’s not the same old spiel. The move to the Big Ten will allow the Bruins to play on a bigger college football stage under a coaching staff that now includes more extensive NFL experience.

As far as Benton sees it, he’s not selling UCLA so much as he’s dispensing facts to help recruits and their families make the best decision.

“By the time we’re done providing information,” Benton said, “it should be pretty heavily leaning in our favor based on what we have and what we probably already know about the kid prior to them coming to campus, which is they’re a good student and we think they’re a fit at UCLA.”

All those built-in advantages make the Bruins’ recruiting staff bullish on their prospects to forge a high school recruiting juggernaut that no longer has to rely as heavily on the transfer portal as it did under Kelly.

“If you have the ability to attract elite high school talent — which we do — that’s where you want to build the majority of your roster from,” Benton said. “Those are your draft picks, in a sense, the guys that you’re building with.”

That doesn’t mean every high school player with a decent highlight tape will land a UCLA offer. Benton said the Bruins will remain selective, the recruiting staff poring over footage of 12 to 14 varsity games while deciding whom to recruit. (Insider tip for those wanting an offer: Benton and the UCLA assistant coaches will personally watch a player’s toughest two or three games to see how he fares against top competition.)

Those who make the cut might find themselves staying at the Luskin Center or the swanky W Hotel near campus as part of an official visit. By that point, the recruiting staff has gathered intelligence on a player’s favorite foods and other preferences to best tailor his visit.

That’s how Taylor found himself having breakfast near the Hollywood sign, strolling the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica and biting into that New York strip — “the thickest steak they had,” he said — at Meat on Ocean in addition to enjoying the standard private tour of the Rose Bowl.

More important was the authenticity he felt from players and coaches. While hanging out with edge rusher Jacob Busic, his player host and a recent arrival as a transfer from the Naval Academy, Taylor heard about how much everyone had embraced Foster and the new staff.

“It’s great to hear that stuff from the guys as well,” Taylor said, “because you never really know if you come in and have a great visit, but that’s not really how life is on a daily basis.”

The recruiting staff has already put Taylor to work, asking him to reach out to friends who also happen to be prospects the team is pursuing. He’s happy to do it, wanting to be a bigger part of what the Bruins are building.

“I think this is just the beginning stages of the momentum in terms of UCLA football,” Taylor said. “I think it’s on a crazy rise and it’s trending now for sure, but I don’t think that’s fake hype or superficial stuff that’s going to go away. I think the buzz is going to be around for a while.”

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