On Jan. 22, Priest Willis slipped on a pair of powder blue football gloves, aligned his hands in the sign of a “U” and confirmed to the college football world what everyone long suspected: He was verbally committing to UCLA.
The Marcos de Niza defensive back was the top senior recruiting target in the East Valley and chose the Bruins over dozens of other high-profile programs.
Willis, who didn’t sign on Wednesday because his mother was out of town but was expected to later in the week, joins Mountain Pointe offensive lineman Kenny Lacy and Peoria Centennial running back Jalen Ortiz as elite Arizona prospects verbally committed to UCLA as the National Letter of Intent signing period began on Wednesday. They are all ranked among the top seven high school recruits in Arizona by Rivals.com, while no other Pac-12 college has more than one in that group.
UCLA was also a finalist for Brophy wide receiver Devon Allen, another highly-ranked prospect, who eventually chose Oregon.
UCLA’s impact on the local recruiting scene cannot be understated.
“They’ve done a tremendous job,” Chandler coach Shaun Aguano said. “There’s excitement back there.”
Lacy believes it is a trend that won’t go away.
“It’s not going to stop either,” Lacy said. “It’s a strong tie. We are going to work on these young fellas. I felt all along that this is where I belonged. We are going to compete for a Pac-12 title. It’s California and it is a great education. To be honest, UCLA sells itself. Once you are there you know it is where you need to be.”
There are many factors contributing to UCLA’s ability to poach elite recruits from Arizona.
First and foremost is the team’s success on the field. There are a lot of selling points to get players to Westwood, but losing seasons can dissuade recruits from heading to the nicest of locations.
The Bruins went 9-5 last year and won the Pac-12 South, so it’s an easy pitch.
“I feel like UCLA is on the rise,” Willis said after his commitment. “We’re going to be competing for Pac-12 championships.”
Recently, however, the Arizona connection has grown.
UCLA assistant coaches Noel Mazzone, Eric Yarber and Steve Broussard used to work at Arizona State and know which high schools produce the most talented kids. Offensive lineman Kody Innes (Saguaro), running back Paul Perkins (Chandler) and quarterback Brett Hundley (Chandler) are former local standouts who chose the Bruins.
Hundley, the team’s starting quarterback, is a charismatic presence and often hosts the Arizona recruits on their visits. His ability to sell UCLA to those players has helped the Bruins greatly in this state.
“Brett has been a huge part in being the face of UCLA and pulling Arizona kids over there,” Aguano said.
The team also has second-year coach Jim Mora at its disposal, a good recruiter with the benefit of an NFL track record.
Then, of course, there is the location.
Many Arizona kids can recall fond memories of summer vacations to the beaches in Los Angeles, out of the heat and into the water.
Throw in the allure of Hollywood and the celebrity-heavy scene, and it’s easy to see why Arizona kids gravitate to the Bruins.
“The flash of L.A.,” Marcos de Niza coach Roy Lopez said. “Kids are going to be kids, and that is exciting.”
Next year’s recruiting class should also be a good one locally. Oregon, USC, Notre Dame and other high-profile schools will again attempt to secure the highest-rated recruits, but it’s UCLA that could continue to cause problems.
Arizona and Arizona State can preach the importance of staying home, but the Bruins are just a short flight away. The Sun Devils secured one of the top seven in-state recruits this year (Lakeside Blue Ridge running back/linebacker Chans Cox), and the Wildcats did not get any.
Between the current success of Hundley and the ability for Willis to possibly make an immediate impact next season, both programs should be worried again.
“I’m going to try to mold (UCLA) into where that’s where people want to go,” Willis said.
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