Ask the Expert Q&A: UCLA

BruinReportOnline.com's David Woods gave us his expansive thoughts on UCLA ahead of Saturday's game between the Bruins and Arizona State Sun Devils in Pasadena, California.

SunDevilSource: Has UCLA's 4-0 successful start and Top-1- ranking been a surprise in some respects and if so, how? If not, why? 

David Woods: Based on our preseason outlook, no, it's not a huge surprise. Even with a true freshman quarterback, given the overall depth and talent on the team, we were expecting UCLA to be 4-0 at this point. But if you'd told us that UCLA would have done the majority of that without Eddie Vanderdoes and would have opened the conference slate with three defensive starters out with season-ending injuries, we would have probably had more trepidation. UCLA is a different team at this point in the season than what we would have expected prior to the start of the season. The Bruins had the potential to be the best defense in the Pac-12, and that doesn't look like it's in the cards with the personnel losses. However, true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen has been a little bit better than we expected, so the offense looks like it could be a more balanced and explosive strength than we assumed in the preseason. 

SunDevilSource: Jim Mora hired Tom Bradley to be the team's defensive coordinator this year after some much publicized tension last season with Jeff UIbrich. How's the defense playing differently from a style and execution standpoint this year, if at all, and how has the transition been? 

Woods: At this point, the philosophy of the defense doesn't appear to be too different from the three years of defense we've seen under Mora. Generally, Bradley's defense is built largely on bend-but-don't-break principles, with the secondary generally lining up to prevent big plays and no huge emphasis on blitzing (probably less than 40 percent of downs). UCLA has used a little more 4-3 this season, with Deon Hollins virtually always lining up with his hand in the dirt as a defensive end, which has helped to give UCLA a little bit more of a pass rush from the front four. While Bradley hasn't blitzed a ton, he has shown good timing with them when he does choose to apply some pressure, and he's using a wider variety of pressures than UCLA has used in the last three years under Mora. With all of the personnel losses on defense, it's going to be hard to judge Bradley on this season, since he's having to mix and match players in spots that they aren't perfectly accustomed to.

SunDevilSource: True freshman quarterback Josh Rosen was obviously a very highly rated and well thought of player but at a position that often takes a lot of time to develop and excel, Rosen's looked well ahead of the curve. What's enabled that and in what ways is Rosen most impressive now and with regard to his potential? 
 
Woods: Rosen obviously has tremendous acumen for a true freshman, but he has benefitted from a very simple Noel Mazzone offense that has a really forgiving learning curve (as ASU fans are no doubt aware). Brett Hundley had approximately the same amount of time in the offense prior to his redshirt freshman year, and that first year might have been his best year at UCLA, so it was reasonable to think that Rosen, given his football intelligence, would have a somewhat atypical true freshman season.  There are certain aspects of Rosen's game outside of his mastery of the offense, though, that have been very impressive to see early. After throwing three interceptions against BYU where he ended up just forcing the ball into coverage, he clearly learned that he can't do that at the college level, and against Arizona, every time he was faced with a similar situation, he calmly threw the ball out of bounds. Usually, you don't see young players internalize lessons and adapt that quickly. He has all the physical tools to excel at this level, and if that Arizona game is a sign that he's starting to develop the situational awareness needed to excel at the Pac-12 level, then that's very good news for UCLA.

SunDevilSource: UCLA's had some serious injury problems and yet hasn't appear to be too slowed down by it, certainly not last week in its blowout of Arizona. Who are the players who have stepped into bigger roles, how have they done individually? 
 
Woods: UCLA had three key injuries heading into the Arizona game -- DT Eddie Vanderdoes (ACL), CB Fabian Moreau (Lisfranc fracture), and LB/S/RB Myles Jack (knee). Vanderdoes went down against Virginia, and his duties have been split largely between Eli Ankou and Matt Dickerson. Vanderdoes was extremely stout against the run, and there isn't really a way to replace someone of his ability. Ankou is a good run stopper, but he isn't the elite one that Vanderdoes was starting to become. Dickerson, though, is intriguing, since he is probably UCLA's best interior pass rusher and Vanderdoes' injury has gotten him on the field more. As he gets more comfortable in the role, he could give UCLA something it's lacked on the interior since Datone Jones graduated. 

Jack, by the time he got hurt, was more or less playing strong safety and nickelback for UCLA, and there just fundamentally isn't a player on the team who can do what Jack was able to do. Jayon Brown replaced him in his linebacker duties, but Brown hurt his back against Arizona and it's uncertain whether he'll be ready to go on Saturday. Ishmael Adams, who was suspended for the first three games of the season following an incident with an Uber driver, was reinstated last week, and he took over Jack's nickel duties and looked good last week. Overall, though, it'll definitely be a committee approach to replacing Jack.

Moreau was UCLA's best cornerback, so that's a hit. UCLA's starting safety Randall Goforth slid down to corner last week and had one noticeably bad play but otherwise was fine against the Wildcats. With Moreau out, the starting five in the secondary (since UCLA will probably be almost exclusively a nickel team from here on out) should look something like Goforth/Adams/Tahaan Goodman/Jaleel Wadood/Marcus Rios.

SunDevilSource: What would you saw are the Bruins' biggest strengths and weaknesses from a schematic or personnel perspective on offense and defense? 
 
Woods: On offense, UCLA's run game is its biggest go-to strength, thanks to the play of Paul Perkins but also a drastically improved offensive line that has become a really good run-blocking unit, particularly on the right side behind right tackle Caleb Benenoch. Perkins is a very good runner in his own right. He lacks elite speed, but checks just about every other box that you'd want in a running back, with great vision, very good short-area quickness, excellent balance, and underrated strength. The weakness for UCLA is probably overall talent at receiver. There are a lot of big bodies with good hands, but there isn't a ton of elite speed, so in games against good secondaries, UCLA, outside of Jordan Payton and Thomas Duarte, can sometimes have difficulty getting separation. 

On defense, it's yet to be determined what UCLA's strength is going to be in its new-look defense without Jack, Moreau, and Vanderdoes. At the start of the year, it was clear that the run defense was going to be very good, but without those three players (and Moreau, even though he was a corner, was a good run defender as well), UCLA gave up 350+ yards on the ground to Arizona last week. Pass defense was suspect at the start of the year, and we can't shake the idea that the major reason it looked better against Arizona is that Jerrard Randall, Anu Solomon's backup quarterback, isn't a very good passer. Right now, as weird as it might be to say this given how few sacks UCLA generated last season, the front four pass rush is probably the strength of the defense. Deon Hollins and Takkarist McKinley have the ability to generate a pass rush by themselves, and that'll be key as UCLA tries to figure out a solution to its issues in run defense. As of now, we'll say the main weakness defensively is the run defense, particularly at inside linebacker, where UCLA suddenly looks a little slow without Jack and potentially Brown.

SunDevilSource: What type of game are expecting Saturday and what's your prediction? 
 
Woods: Weirdly, I expect this to be a little bit of a shoot out. Arizona State hasn't looked good offensively this year, but the Sun Devils run the ball well, and that could prove to be the key against UCLA's defense. On the flip side, I think Rosen, having dealt with a tremendous amount of pressure from Virginia, UNLV, and Arizona especially, is a little bit better suited to deal with ASU's blitz-happy scheme than I'd have thought before the start of the season. I think he'll have to have a big game with ASU likely stacking to stop the run, but UCLA's offensive line should give him enough time to throw.

Ultimately, I think UCLA should be able to get a little pressure on Bercovici with a four-man rush, which could force him into some poor decisions, especially since his receivers haven't been consistently getting open this year, and that'll likely stall a few ASU drives. And for UCLA offensively, I think Rosen should generally be able to find the quick outlet against the ASU pressure to consistently move the chains and keep the offense humming.  I remain a little surprised, though, that Vegas thinks this is a 14-point game. UCLA 38 ASU 28


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