For this week's Ask the Expert feature, we caught up with BruinReportOnline.com's Blair Angulo for his take on the UCLA Bruins.
SunDevilSource: How has UCLA's 3-2 start been perceived both inside the program and also by fans? Any real surprises to what's been on display from the Bruins thus far?
Blair Angulo: The up-and-down start has been met with plenty of frustration, particularly since UCLA is probably a play or two from being undefeated at this point. The Bruins dropped a tough season opener at Texas A&M in overtime and failed to put away Stanford, so the fan base's feeling mostly stems from realizing this team won't take that elusive next step this year. Jim Mora has reached the Pac-12 Championship during his five-year stint in Westwood, but the Bruins have fallen short of their lofty goals.
We can't say it's any real surprise, though. UCLA lost most of its offensive production from a year ago, made alterations to its scheme in the offseason and has really struggled to establish the run. Those factors have all contributed to a rather inconsistent performance through five games.
SunDevilSource: UCLA elevated Kennedy Polamalu to offensive coordinator and play caller this season and there's talk about it being more of a Pro-style scheme. How is the offense structurally different and similar from previous years?
Angulo: From a structure standpoint, you'll see heavy sets from UCLA now. Against Stanford, the Bruins integrated three tight ends on several occasions. A fullback is involved in formations, too, and the quarterback lines up under center from time to time. The offense looks very different than it did under Noel Mazzone and, though there is some good variance, the execution has not been all that reliable.
There are still some similarities from what we've seen the previous four years. UCLA can still sling the ball around to its speedy wideouts to get them into open space. The read-option is still a minor part of the offense, though it's used to disguise hand-offs more than anything. But all of the pre-snap motion and receiver screens left along with Mazzone.
SunDevilSource: What makes Bruins' quarterback Josh Rosen such a good player for someone still just a sophomore, and what are the areas he still needs to work on most?
Angulo: Rosen has one of the better arms you'll see in college. The ball comes off his hand smoothly, he makes throws down field with ease and usually puts passes only where his targets can reach them. His pocket awareness is an underrated part of his game and he releases the ball in a hurry when he sees pressure. That's a major reason why UCLA has taken far fewer sacks than it did when Brett Hundley was in the backfield.
The ability to go through progressions remains to be a big area of improvement for Rosen. He's incredibly bright, but he has struggled to see the field at times this season, missing wide open receivers and forcing throws into tight coverage. The offense under Mazzone was way simpler than what Rosen is operating now, and it has taken him some time to grasp concepts. He has been his harshest critic through five weeks.
SunDevilSource: Who are UCLA's best players on offense and defense and what are their strengths?
Angulo: We touched on Rosen already, but the likes of Connor McDermott, Darren Andrews and Kenny Walker also figure to play a key part Saturday. McDermott's biggest task is protecting Rosen's blind side and he has done enough in his two years to be regarded as a high-caliber NFL prospect. Andrews and Walker could be considered the two most reliable offensive weapons, with Andrews doing a lot of his work on underneath routes and Walker having the speed to beat defenders over the top.
Defensively, everything centers around the health of defensive end Takkarist McKinley
. He has been a difference maker for the unit the last few games, though he might not be at 100 percent while dealing with a groin injury. McKinley has elite speed for a rush end and can beat tackles with a variety of moves. Eddie Vanderdoes
is a big-time defensive tackle that also makes a big difference for UCLA when he is in there. At linebacker, Jayon Brown
flies around the field and Kenny Young
has been the Bruins' most improved in recent games, showing a knack for chasing down ball carriers off the edge.
SunDevilSource: In what ways is UCLA vulnerable either schematically or with its personnel on offense and defense?
Angulo: On offense, UCLA can sometimes get into a lull with its personnel usage and play calling. There has been a mini uproar about the integration of blue-chip receiver Theo Howard, whose lone catch last week against Arizona was a 19-yard touchdown. Drops have been a recurring problem, yet the same receivers keep getting a majority of the reps and that's caused a few head scratches across Los Angeles.
The defense has been vulnerable against mobile quarterbacks in the past (see: Khalil Tate last week at the Rose Bowl), specifically when it struggles to contain gaps. There isn't a Myles Jack this team can put in there anymore, so sometimes the nickel package gives up chunks of yardage as it fails to account for the quarterback.
SunDevilSource: What type of game are you expecting and what's your prediction?
Angulo: I'm expecting something similar to what we saw from these two last year at the Rose Bowl. If it's Brady White in there, I would expect UCLA to load the box, show confidence in its experienced secondary and force him to beat them through the air. I would also expect Polamalu to continue trying to establish the run to free up Rosen with play action calls on designed roll outs and blitzes. UCLA probably won't air it out as much as Texas Tech or Cal did against the Sun Devils, but I'll still take the proven quarterback in this one.
UCLA 34, ASU 24