UCLA and Oaks Christian football are closer than they appear

Carson Schwesinger was already on the path to a scholarship before he even stepped into a UCLA football practice.

“With Chip Kelly, we talked about him prior to coming here and I told him he was a scholarship player in the making,” said Charlie Collins, who coached Schwesinger at Oaks Christian School.

Schwesinger walked on at UCLA and, sure enough, the redshirt freshman linebacker earned a scholarship during the Bruins’ most recent fall camp. Counting him, four Oaks Christian graduates dot the current depth chart. Senior running back Zach Charbonnet and redshirt senior linebackers Bo Calvert and Shea Pitts are also products of the esteemed prep football program in Westlake Village.

It’s the high school that shows up the second-most on UCLA’s current roster behind powerhouse St. John Bosco because, for one, the culture at the prep program closely mirrors what is in Westwood.

“I think me and Chip are two brothers from another mother,” said Collins, the Oaks Christian head coach since 2018. “We kind of believe in the same principles, like relationship-building in the program. We have the same approach, we’re very like-minded, look at the development and look at players to play at their best by using all (their) tools.”

Recruiting conversations between UCLA and Oaks Christian revolve around character, Collins said, who first met Kelly when they were coaching in the NFL. The talks branch out into a passion for the game and something Collins calls “want-to-it-ive-ness,” a term that refers to a player’s ambition to reach his full potential.

Oaks Christian is ranked one of the top Christian schools in the state of California and has a 100% graduation rate, with 99% of students going on to study in college, according to educational website niche.com. That’s a good look for a student-athlete headed to an academically renowned school like UCLA.

“We know we’re getting a really well-coached kid when he comes from that program,” Kelly said. “We also know we’re getting a kid that’s really solid when it comes to the academic side of things because of what a great job they do preparing the kids.”

Kelly cited Pitts as an example, saying he has an undergrad degree in political science and is now working on his second master’s degree.

The connection doesn’t start and end with Collins. Jim Benkert, who preceded him at Oaks Christian, coached the program to a CIF Southern Section Division 2 championship title in 2017. Charbonnet and Calvert were on that team, and Pitts graduated a year prior to the championship.

“That high school program was very unique,” Calvert said. “(Benkert) had practices a lot similar to how we have up here. We have up-tempo and scripted. And so being able to utilize that in high school and step into here made the transition a lot easier.”

Benkert, now the head coach at Simi Valley High School, isn’t giving away the secrets to his practice designs, only saying that the team prepared hard and players knew their jobs. What he does lend, however, is recruiting insight developed based on experience and observation.

“Whenever kids go out of their base of support, it’s a problem,” Benkert said, referring to a geographical recruiting area. On the West Coast, he says, it’s a triangle that spans from Washington to Colorado to Arizona and up.

“When you’re away from your base of support,” he said, “when the coaches have to make decisions and you’ve got great players everywhere, they tend to maybe favor those kids in the area that is their base of their recruiting.”

Benkert theorized this was happening when Charbonnet was at Michigan, based on what he was seeing in games and some text messages exchanged. His surmise was confirmed when Charbonnet transferred to UCLA, a school that is within the Benkert base-of-support concept.

Benkert takes pride in the UCLA players he’s coached, as does Collins. The latter expects several players on Oaks Christian’s team this season to draw interest from the Bruins, including linebacker Hayden Lowe and receiver Justice Williams.

Nearly any Oaks Christian player could be the next Charbonnet, Calvert, Pitts or Schwesinger.

“When they see those players, they see that it’s possible. But they also know that the work’s involved and it sets the bar for our athletes to know you can be that,” Collins said. “That’s where the bar is. Our young guys know that they have a whole lot to chase and it’s possible.”

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