UCLA signed 24 players to letters of intent that February and 21 had been anointed high school All-Americans by at least one recruiting service. It was a class full of power and promise. The Bruins' recruiting class was rated as the best in the Pac-10 and in the top 10 in the nation.
But five seasons later, only four players remain in the program as fifth-year seniors – center Robert Chai, linebacker Eric McNeal, tight end J.J. Hair and kicker Justin Medlock.
Only Chai is an offensive or defensive starter.
In a season in which the Bruins have struggled through growing pains, the lack of senior starters and fifth-year seniors cannot be discounted. Coach Karl Dorrell and the Bruins have only two seniors in starting roles, the fewest in the Pac-10, in Chai and defensive end Justin Hickman.
“I knew that we were going to have to build from the core and the foundation of the program, build it back up, and I knew it was going to take some time,” Dorrell says.
“Usually going into year four, your program is pretty solid, with a good senior class. But we have a small senior class and a lot of guys that are young have to play and we've been having our inexperience issues, as you know, through the course of the season. We're missing some people in key areas.”
So where are they?
Three players from the Bruins' 2002 recruiting class did not redshirt and are in the NFL – tight end Marcedes Lewis with the Jacksonville Jaguars, safety Jarrad Page with the Kansas City Chiefs and quarterback Drew Olson, who is on the Baltimore Ravens' practice squad.
Linebackers Justin London and Wesley Walker also did not redshirt during their careers at UCLA and have exhausted their eligibility.
Of the 19 other players, only seven are playing college football at Division I or I-AA programs.
They left for a variety of reasons – academic casualties, violations of athletic department policies, violations of team rules, homesickness or a lack of playing time:
Cornerback Joe Garcia is at Nevada.
Wide receiver Idris Moss was kicked off the team for a violation of athletic department policies and later transferred to Tulsa.
Nnamdi Ohaeri is at Colorado State, a backup running back with 50 carries for 178 yards.
Defensive lineman Kirby Joseph transferred to McNeese State, in his hometown of Lake Charles, La.
Defensive tackle C.J. Niusulu left UCLA after multiple suspensions for violating team rules. He is at Portland State.
Offensive tackle Elliott Vallejo was at UCLA for only one year before he transferred to UC Davis.
“That was a pretty highly rated class and that's what we're missing right now in our program,” Dorrell says. “All of them have different circumstances as to why [they are out of the program], but that's the point where I picked up the program.
“That hurt us some. A lot of those guys would, like I said, be in great position to be not only the leadership on the team, but they'd have extensive playing experience by now and returning starters and things like that, and we just don't have that.
“That maturity that you have in your program is really important. But we're not there with that type of core group right now.”
© 2006, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.