UCLA Offensive Scheme
After four seasons of offensive continuity, 2016 has ushered in significant change to the UCLA scheme.
Former offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone -- familiar to Arizona State fans where he'd previously held the same job under Dennis Erickson -- left Westwood and took his single back, no-huddle spread offense with him to Texas A&M. Mazzone had a lot of success with the Bruins, who went 37-16 in his four seasons, including back-to-back 10-win campaigns in 2013 and 2014. During that time UCLA set single-season records for scoring and total offense.
But when close friend and fellow one-back pioneer Kevin Sumlin came calling at Texas A&M, Mazzone decided it was time to move on. Instead of finding an offensive coordinator who would continue to run the same or a similar offense, Mora elected to shake things up. He promoted running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu to the position, and agreed to sharply move the Bruins' in the pro-style direction.
Polamalu played fullback at USC in the early-to-mid 1980s, and later coached for current Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll on the Trojans' staff in the early 2000s. That was, of course, the best run any program has had in the conference in recent decades, as the Trojans won back-to-back national championships in 2003 and 2004. USC accomplished that with one of the most formidable offenses in the country, a pro-style scheme that prominently featured elite offensive skill players.
The implementation of this type of offensive approach at UCLA in 2016 is at least in large part due to the presence of sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen. The former No. 1 overall quarterback prospect in the 2015 class is in the pro-style mold, an enigmatic leader who is developing as he goes, but extremely talented to be sure. Last year Rosen became the first ever true freshman to start a season opener at quarterback in UCLA history.
Transitioning from an offense that was exclusively in the shotgun and rarely used more than one tight end at a time to one that has shown three tight end sets and a quarterback under center isn't easy. The Bruins don't have the bigger bodied tight ends that ideally make up a huge part of this type of offense, and aren't as physical at the line of scrimmage as they'll want to be in order to execute the scheme.
The clearest evidence of this is UCLA's rushing offense, which currently ranks last in the Pac-12 at 119.2 yards-per-game and a paltry 3.3 yards-per-carry. While it's true the Bruins have been forced to replace star running back Paul Perkins from last season, they have several pretty capable backs on the roster, and yet haven't been able to run the ball successfully, even out of jumbo sets that only have one or two wideouts on the field.
A pro-style offense like the one now being run by the Bruins largely revolves around run game potency that then sucks defenses up in a way that opens the field vertically for play action passes. UCLA loves to let Rosen air the ball out, and he's a very accurate downfield passer with plenty of arm, but so far this approach as seen mixed results. Part of this is due to the team's anemic run game not forcing opponents to commit reinforcements inside the box. Another contributing factor has been a lack of elite playmakers at the wide receiver position. There have been a few too many dropped passes by the Bruins so far this season, and while there is good speed and overall athleticism, it's not in the form of bigger bodied players which is perhaps a bit limiting.
While this is still very much a transitional period for the UCLA offense, it is still a unit that will present some serious challenges for the Sun Devils and others in the Pac-12. The Bruins are fourth in the Pac-12 in passing offense, at 305.6 yards per game and they will stress zone defenses vertically at the seams behind pretty good pass protection, and with a very accurate quarterback who is extremely comfortable in the pocket. Against man coverage, UCLA has the type of quick receivers who have to be respected for their ability to get a step on defensive backs, but also can return to the football very well.
The Bruins do a significantly better and more creative job of incorporating tight ends and fullbacks into the passing game than any opponent ASU has faced so far this season. They do a great job of getting in-line tight ends running seam routes, or into voided areas opened up by receivers getting vertical. They'll also use multiple tight ends and fullbacks in coordinated routes designed to generate preferable matchups and stress underneath defenders and defeat pressures.
Even though UCLA is playing a pro-style scheme, it is doing so without huddling, and still has the ability to push tempo when it wants to. The Bruins have more formational range and versatility than any team the Sun Devils have faced to this point in 2016. They have more personnel groupings, more formations, and more plays out of those formations. This makes for a very difficult game prep and puts extra stress on a defense, particularly in the secondary.
UCLA will go from being under center with three tight ends to 10 personnel shotgun sets, and they'll do all of this on base downs and are willing to substitute more within drives than a lot of teams do. One of the biggest challenges is how much Rosen spreads the ball around. Eight players have seven or more catches on the season and only one has more than 15. It's a lot to prepare for even if the Bruins haven't been especially potent through the first five games of the season.
UCLA offensive players
QB Josh Rosen (No. 3) -- The first ever UCLA true freshman to start at quarterback in his first game last season. Rosen is a good-sized pro-style quarterback with all the physical tools needed to play successfully at the NFL level. He's mechanically sound, has one of the bigger arms ASU will face this season, and is very comfortable feeling the pocket, stepping up into the void to make throws, and delivering the ball in the face of pressure. He's extremely accurate at all levels, including down the field. He's not mobile and has to rely on pocket feel and knowing when to throw the ball away to avoid pressure. UCLA will at times move the pocket for him, with roll outs either to get the ball vertically or to do so with multi-level receivers running along with him. He is working to improve at getting through route progressions and has mixed success with this. There have been times he's missed wide open receivers on big play opportunities, but he's also come back to a third receiver more than most quarterbacks in the league.
RB Sotonye (Soso) Jamabo (No. 9) -- A highly regarded and bigger-framed running back prospect out of Texas, Jamabo had 404 rushing yards last year as a true freshman. He's averaging 46.5 yards-per-game on the ground this year with a 4.0 yard-per-carry average and three touchdowns. Even though he's angular and muscular at 6-foot-3 and 216 pounds, and a pro-style back by disposition, Jamabo is more finesse than power. He wants to play in space and get the ball on the perimeter. But UCLA's rushing offense hasn't been able to block that well on outside plays so it has been limiting. Jamabo is somewhat like ASU's Kalen Ballage as a runner, but earlier in his development. UCLA will swing the ball out to Jamabo and try to let him beat guys in space.
RB Nate Starks (No. 23) -- A zone-read style spread running back, Starks has good initial quickness and runs hard between the tackles. He's also got some pop behind his pads and is somewhat slippery at 5-foot-11, 212 pounds, with an ability to avoid on center hits and get yards after contact. Starks is averaging just 3.4 yards-per-carry, which is a very good emblem of the Bruins' larger struggles to run the ball this season with their broader offensive changes. Last season Starks averaged an impressive 6.4 yards-per-carry on 50 attempts. He's a good football player who has been hamstrung this season by UCLA's offensive limitations.
WR Darren Andrews (No. 7) -- A 5-foot-10, 190 pound fourth year junior, Andrews had just seven starts in his career prior to this season, but totaled 43 catches last year for 443 yards. So far in 2016 Andrews is leading the team with 21 catches for 301 yards and one touchdown. UCLA will move him and all of its receivers around quite a bit in various formations. He tends to do a lot of his damage from the slot working across the field and also on vertical concepts. Andrews combines good route running with above average athleticism for the position in the Pac-12.
WR Kenneth Walker (No. 10) -- A fifth year senior, Walker has never had more than 11 catches in a season prior to this year. At 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, Walker also isn't big but is quick and as good a route runner as the Bruins have. He can get behind the defense but also returns to the football extremely well after expanding coverage vertically and can great a lot of separation in front of defensive backs as a result. Unsurprisingly, he leads the Bruins with three touchdown receptions this season of his 15 catches and has a yards-per-catch average of 20 yards. He's a difficult receiver to manage in space.
TE Nate Iese (No. 11) -- A fifth year senior, Iese was a part-time starter last year. He's never been a high volume target in the passing game until this year, but at 6-foot-3 and 242 pounds, he's probably the best blocking tight end / h-back on the roster. He's expanded upon that role, and releases well from a 3-point stance on seam routes and has had a tendency to get unaccounted for by defenses due to scheme and execution. He's a player ASU has to keep a lot of attention on in this game. He has nine catches for 149 yards and one touchdown so far this season.
WR Ishmael Adams (No. 1) -- Another fifth-year senior, Adams made the switch to offense full time this year after being a very capable cornerback previously who also moonlit on offense. The 5-foot-8, 185-pounder has had big games against ASU. He had a 95-yard interception return for a touchdown in 2014 and two big returns on special teams in 2013. He's a possession slot receiver primarily for the Bruins who earns his keep working lateral to the line of scrimmage.
Offensive Line: Left tackle Conor McDermott (No. 68) is 6-foot-8 and 310 pounds, a redshirt senior with 25-plus starts. A second-team all-league player last season, he might be the team's best offensive linemen, particularly in pass protection. Center Scott Quessenberry (No. 52) was a regular starter in 2014 before being injured last season and is a solid mid-level Pac-12 player. Left guard Kenny Lacy (No. 76) is the Arizona product from Mountain Pointe. He started 10 games last year as a sophomore and might be the Bruins' best run blocker. Sophomore right tackle Kolton Miller (No. 77) is 6-foot-9, 305 pounds, one of the tallest players in the country. He has a leg injury and may not play in this game, which would elevate redshirt freshman (No. 75) Andre James into the starting lineup. Miller had struggled to handle speed and power in his gap and the right side of the Bruins' line was more vulnerable even before Miller's injury. This unit overall is better at pass protection than run blocking, and particularly is susceptible to getting penetrated on any type of outside or stretch zone concepts. It also allows a lot of backside pressure to reach the running back.
ASU defense against UCLA offense
A major goal in this game for the Sun Devils should be to try to shut down the UCLA run game without having to overly commit to the box to do so. ASU coaches Todd Graham and Keith Patterson have a tendency to want to overload run blitz from the edge with a heavily slanted line. That puts a lot of pressure on defensive backs to cover more ground and be responsible for more area of the field.
If UCLA's run game isn't successful -- and it hasn't been all season -- it will allow ASU to be more relaxed and have greater defensive redundancy in its secondary. It will help keep players from reacting and biting on play action fakes. The Bruins haven't shown great drive sustainment because of the lack of run game success on early downs, and a tendency to take lower percentage throws into coverage downfield. So their pass efficiency isn't very good either.
ASU did poorly against USC, but didn't allow receivers to get behind its defense. That needs to be a focus against the Bruins because UCLA is less capable of sustaining drives. The Bruins are very good at getting three and four receivers running vertically in a way that stresses Cover 3 and Cover 4 defensive schemes on passing downs, which is what the Sun Devils like to run. Boundary cornerback Kareem Orr and field safety Armand Perry are pretty reliable but ASU needs better play against the pass from its Bandit, and field cornerback. Those positions could have new starters in this game, with Marcus Ball likely to start at Bandit, and Maurice Chandler potentially playing field corner in his first action of the season.
UCLA defensive scheme
ASU should be well-prepared for the UCLA defense for several reasons: There are similarities between the Bruins and what last week's opponent USC does; there are also some similarities between how ASU plays defense with the Bruins; and ASU already has experience against both this defensive coordinator, as Tom Bradley led UCLA's defense last year, and its personnel because the Bruins return a lot of starters.
All of that aside, this is a very difficult matchup for ASU's offense. Last season Bradley guided the Bruins to a league-best 4.9 yards-per-play against average. UCLA also led the Pac-12 in passing defense and pass efficiency defense.
The Bruins are no less talented in the secondary this season, and actually might be even better. It is quite possibly the strength of the entire team and one of the best passing defenses they'll face all season. That could be particularly challenging coming off a game in which the Sun Devils struggled on offense versus a USC team that plays a similar style of football, and especially with redshirt freshman Brady White making his first career start for the injured Manny Wilkins.
Not only are the Bruins very good at communicating and being on the same page defensively, they have athletic and rangy coverage athletes who rarely have physical breakdowns. They're also extremely physical across the entire secondary, perhaps the most imposing UCLA team ASU has faced in years in this respect. Their safeties will punish receivers in the open field and their cornerbacks are good at getting jams and re-routes at the line of scrimmage, and being physical throughout their reps.
UCLA plays a mix of three and four down looks up front but likes to bring outside linebackers down into the box aligned immediately adjacent to the down linemen. Often it'll have five guys playing at the line of scrimmage roughly inside the general tackle box area, and two inside linebackers at four or five yards depth behind it.
In the secondary the Bruins play a lot of press man coverage at cornerback and will frequently man up the slot receiver in relaxed coverage versus the base 11 personnel looks that ASU runs on a majority of its offensive downs. This means UCLA will primarily be in an open-field closed structure defense with a single high safety. It's structurally pretty similar to how USC played ASU, only the Trojans tended to rotate the safety down pre-snap and UCLA doesn't attempt to disguise it as much.
But like the Sun Devils, the Bruins will play a very wide variety of defensive coverages, everything from Cover 0 to quarters coverage. They tend to be on the conservative side on base downs but dial up a lot of pressure on third and medium or third and long with a nickel look that involves stacked pass rushers at the line of scrimmage. They'll zone drop one or two of the players while bringing everyone else, and do a good job with spying opposing quarterbacks.
The Bruins have shown a tendency to get stuck in between personnel groupings against offenses that play fast and it can be exploited. They can not be lined up, not be on the same page, and at times have been forced to take timeouts as they make significant personnel adjustments. But when they are settled, they can get after the quarterback very effectively, with good speed on the edge and capable linebacker pressures.
What makes it tougher is the Bruins will drop their 'backers and get good depth with them in a way that allows for quarterbacks to not identify them and throw interceptions over the middle third of the field. That's something ASU has to be aware of in this game.
Up front, UCLA is more jarring at the line of scrimmage defensively than any team ASU has faced this season. Even with the departure of first-round draft pick Kenny Clark, the Bruins have plenty of physicality with its down linemen, particularly Eddie Vanderdoes, a 325-pounder who will be a handful for ASU's offensive guards.
At the linebacker level, Jayon Brown replaced an injured Myles Jack last year at the WILL position and led the team in tackles. He's got a lot of range for 230 pounds. SAM backer Kenny Young has 20-plus career starts and is an extremely well-rounded player for the position.
UCLA defensive players
LB Kenny Young (No. 42) -- A junior with 20-plus starts, Young is like the Salamo Fiso of the UCLA defense. At 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, he's a run-stopping between the tackles SAM backer who also is a good secondary pass rusher and has increasingly improved with zone drops. He had a big interception this year against Stanford, and is familiar to ASU because he had seven tackles against the Sun Devils last year. Young is often used to spy the quarterback, and will come hot when he reads back protection, and is crafty at getting sacks in such fashion. He has three this year, tied for the team lead.
LB Jayon Brown (No. 12) -- A 6-foot, 230 pound junior WILL backer, Brown has a lot of athletic versatility for the position and leads the Bruins with 44 tackles and already has four pass breakups. He covers a lot of ground, moves like a bigger safety, can run with backs and tight ends, and is a physical player against the run. Sometimes he has a tendency to get overzealous to play action and will run himself out of position to make plays, which is something savvy opponents will try to exploit.
DL Takkarist McKinley (No. 98) -- One of the best defensive ends in the Pac-12, McKinley is a 6-foot-2, 265 pound senior who had 4.5 sacks last season. He's able to play on either the field or boundary side and the Bruins will move him to try to exploit matchups. He's able to play from a two-point stance as an outside backer rush alignment, or work from a 3-point setup. He has a very good combination of athleticism and power, but has been battling a groin injury this season that has been a bit limiting. Even so, he has three sacks this year and will test the ASU offensive tackles.
DL Eddie Vanderdoes (No. 47) -- Last season Vanderdoes was lost for the year with an injury in the first game. Prior to that he was a regular starter in 2013 and 2014. Now, as a 6-foot-3, 325 pound senior, he's a physical bull who uses brute power to unbalance interior offensive linemen and collapse the pocket in a way that prevents plays from operating as they're supposed to. Vanderdoes is going to be a very difficult match up for ASU's offensive guards, particularly senior right guard Stephon McCray.
DB Fabian Moreau (No. 10) -- One of three Bruins in the secondary to have received first or second-team all-league distinction in his career not counting Ishmael Adams, who was a first-team defensive back two years ago, Moreau is a 6-foot, 202 pound fifth-year senior. Last year he was injured and missed the rest of the season after the third game. But he has 30-plus career starts, was second-team all-league in 2014, and is extremely versatile. He can play cornerback or safety, and is good against the pass and run, in man and zone schemes.
S Jaleel Wadood (No. 2) -- A quick and fiery undersized safety with terrific range and closing speed, Wadood started every game last season and earned second-team all-league honors. This season he's third on the UCLA roster with 21 tackles through five games. He's quite good as a coverage safety and also a good tackler, particularly for someone who is quite undersized for the position at 5-foot-10 and just 175 pounds.
CB Randall Goforth (No. 3) -- A second team all-conference player last year, Goforth is another redshirt senior on a very veteran defense. He has 30-plus starts defensively and can play cornerback, nickel or safety for the Bruins at 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds. He's one of the most skilled and savvy players on the team overall and has two interceptions this year already and four pass breakups.
DB Adarius Pickett (No. 6) -- A redshirt sophomore from El Cerrito, California, where he was teammates with ASU's D.J. Calhoun and Jaelen Harvey, Pickett is an in-the-box safety who is at his best against the run and making plays coming forward, at 5-foot-11 and 202 pounds. He's going to make plays against the run but also be an underneath robber type player and he has 17 tackles with two interceptions.
S Tahaan Goodman (No. 21) -- Another senior, last season Goodman had three starts and nine the year prior. He is a thumper of a middle high safety in Cover 3 and Cover 1 looks who relishes coming downhill to punish receivers who catch the ball over the middle third of the field. At 6-2, 202 pounds, Goodman is at his best as a zone enforcer player between the hash marks.
ASU offense against UCLA defense
Success against this defense is going to be very hard to come by for the Sun Devils unless they're able to run the football successfully and truly be committed to doing so. Last year against this UCLA team on the road with the same defensive coordinator and approach and a lot of the players, the Sun Devils ran the ball 46 times for a very modest 4.2 yards-per-carry, but it was essential to their success. Junior Demario Richard alone had 23 carries for 79 yards, and junior Kalen Ballage had 11 carries for 59 yards.
This could end up being more of a field position, ball control game, in which the Sun Devils have to body blow the Bruins repeatedly on offense in order to wear them down for late in the game, while on offense trying to make UCLA execute long drive sustainment to score field goals instead of touchdowns.
With redshirt freshman quarterback Brady White making his first career start against a very good defense, he needs the run game to be effective, and for offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey to be extremely committed to it. Then White has to be very careful about not putting the ball in jeopardy against an opportunistic UCLA offense.
Negative plays must be avoided and ASU has to have better first-down success than against USC last week, when just three plays on first down went for longer than five yards. Part of that is protecting White from McKinley and others.
Ultimately, ASU may need its receivers to win more in one-on-one situations than they were able to against the Trojans' secondary, and make non-routine catches in order to get some scoring opportunities.
UCLA special teams
-- Ishmael Adams has had a history of big plays as a return man against the Sun Devils, but ASU's come a long way with its kickoff and punt coverage since then. This will be another big test, one week after ASU saw Adoree Jackson.
All things considered, UCLA's defense is very experienced and no less capable than a USC defense that owned the Sun Devils last week. Making matters even tougher, White is getting his first start in this game. It's probably going to be tough for the Sun Devils to score enough points in this game to be able to win, even against a UCLA offense that is still trying to really find its groove. If the Sun Devils didn't have the passing defense woes that have been present this year, or even if they had stability and solid play at Bandit and field corner, this would be a pick for ASU even with White starting. But in this situation, it can't be even though the Bruins are very beatable. UCLA wins 34-23.