1. UCLA won nine games with a first-year coach last season, and for the first time in awhile, there's talk in SoCal of a new college football sheriff in town. With these newly heightened expectations, what's the general mood among fans as the Bruins gear up for season two of the Jim Mora regime?
We are pretty optimistic heading into this season and for the near future of the Bruin program. The past decade has been a pretty rough time to be a UCLA football fan, but last year's 9 regular season wins and division title helped break that funk.
One good season does not guarantee a bright future (see 2005's UCLA team), but Jim Mora has taken the right steps toward building a sustainably successful football program during his first year and a half on the job: assembling a top-tier group of assistant coaches, recruiting well, and pushing a deeply flawed athletic administration into improving what former head coach (and current P12 network commentator) Rick Neuheisel has just referred to as the worst football facilities in the Pac-12.
Given this season's increased strength of schedule – including the replacement in conference play of Oregon St and WSU with Oregon and Washington – we are not expecting a jump in our regular season record. The expectations on our part are to equal last season's performance along with a better showing in the postseason. The recent preseason polls correspond to about an 8-9 win regular season and the Bruins being slight favorites to repeat as division champions, which the conference beat writers also projected in their Media Day votes. Combine that with another win over Southern Cal in our rivalry game to end the regular season, and the Bruin Nation will be feeling great!
2. As impressive as Brett Hundley's debut campaign was (3,740 passing yards with 29 TDs against 11 picks), it arguably could've been even better were it not for an offensive line that was surprisingly bad in pass protection (52 sacks allowed). What does that line need to acquire in order to improve?
The short answer is Talent and Experience on the offensive line, problems that have plagued UCLA football for the last decade. Adressing the deficiencies in the talent level and depth on the line has been a priority of the coaching staff since taking over at UCLA a year and a half ago. Their efforts include this fall's incoming recruiting class which features 7 offensive linemen, 5 of whom were ranked as 4-star recruits by Scout and as a unit were ranked 2nd in the country. But, there is more that needs to be said about last year's unit to place that number into perspective.
One of the few weaknesses that Hundley showed last season was with his pocket awareness - he took several sacks last fall in situations where he could have safely and reasonably thrown the ball away. That is something that will improve with experience, and should not be as much of an issue this fall. The bigger issue was that our starting line was one of the most inexperienced in D-1 football. For most of the season, the starting unit included 3 freshmen and a sophomore who had spent the previous two years away from football serving an LDS mission. All four return as starters with that year of experience - and a second year of a newly legitimized S&C program - under their belts. Among those four, Jake Brendel was named a freshman all-american at center, and Xavier Su'a-Filo regained his own frosh all-american form after those two years off, finishing 2012 as a 1st-team all pac-12 and 3rd-team all-american at guard.
True freshman Caleb Benenoch will start at right guard, but the development of the four returnees and improved talent further down the chart has the unit on an upward path.
3. Hundley strikes me as a quarterback who could excel at running a pistol-type offense with read option plays. With some experience to his name and no clear-cut replacement for Johnathan Franklin at running back, do you anticipate seeing more designed quarterback runs?
Hundley was originally recruited by and committed to UCLA when Rick Neuheisel was head coach, running his version of the Pistol offense, so it makes sense to see that type of potential with him. Our experience with that offense under Neuheisel has made the Pistol sort of a four-letter word among portions of the Bruin fanbase, but I would expect to see some more designed runs for Brett this season.
A Complicating factor in cutting him loose is the state of our depth chart at QB – After projected #2 QB T.J Milweard transferred to Kansas earlier this month, there is only Jerry Neuheisel (son of former HC Rick) who looks to be a solid Pac-12 backup, and walk-on Mike Fafaul behind Hundley. The QB that we brought in this fall – Ashanti Woulard – is a very skilled (Elite 11 MVP) but very raw prospect who will redshirt this fall barring a serious injury to Brett. Moreso than other programs, keeping our starting QB healthy is the key to UCLA achieving up to expectations and an issue that will control how often he will be asked to run the ball. I wouldn't expect more than a couple of designed runs this week against the Wolf Pack.
4. Give us a brief feel for the kind of scheme defensive coordinator Lou Spanos runs. And as a follow-up, do the Bruins face much opposition in the Pac-12 that plays out of the pistol?
Coach Spanos runs a base 3-4 defense, which he gained plenty of experience with during his 15 years coaching under Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin with the Steelers. But given the passing attacks that we see in the Pac-12, we do play quite a bit of Nickel and Dime – which will test our youthful secondary as we progress through the season. Spanos likes to utilize a hybrid LB/Safety in his scheme, and the staff has specifically recruited with that role in mind.
We don't see anyone in the conference running the Pistol, at least not as a primary offense. But keep in mind that UCLA ran the Pistol offense extensively under Rick Neuheisel, and that our starting front-7 are all guys who spent multiple years seeing that offense in practice – aside from Anthony Barr, who played F-back for 2 years before switching over to the defense.
5. Anthony Barr and his fellow linebackers form a deep and strong group that looks to be the best on this team. Who in the other two defensive units is going to be counted on to immediately produce?
I guess there are a couple of ways to look at this question. As far as immediate contributors, we have a group of true freshmen in the secondary and on the D-line who will be contributing from the start. Eddie Vanderdoes is the big name of the group – both as arguably the best defensive recruit from the west this year and the conflict with Brian Kelly and Notre Dame that led to him eventually coming to Westwood. He has been working though a back injury this summer, but is expected to play about 30 snaps on Saturday and break into the starting 11 by the end of the season. Defensive tackle Kenny Clark has impressed in camp and is also expected to rotate in for about 25-30 snaps this week. Priest Willis is another elite recruit who is expected to contribute as a reserve cornerback from day 1 and hopefully rise to the top of the depth chart as the season unfolds. There are 10 true freshmen on this week's three-deep defensive depth chart, and I could honestly see any of them seeing quality playing time.
Fabian Moreau and Ishmael Adams are first time starters on the corners – Adams played off the bench in the first two games last fall as a true freshman before suffering a season-ending injury, while Moreau is a true sophomore who was switched to defense upon getting on campus last summer. He saw some playing time as a reserve late last season, but had to learn a lot about playing DB over the winter and spring. Cassius Marsh's quality play last year at defensive end (50 tackles, 8 sacks, 10.5 TFL's) was overshadowed last season by Anthony Barr and Datone Jones, but I think he will really make a name for himself as he tries to emulate Datone's senior year rise up the NFL draft boards.
6. Name three keys to a Bruins victory on Saturday night and one key that would lead to defeat (aside from scoring fewer points than the other team, obviously).
These keys are not necessarily tailored just to this week, but are applicable to the Bruins as they progress through the opening stages of the season.
1. Keep Brett Hundley safe. I touched upon the state of the Bruin offensive line, the depth behind Hundley and how that could affect playcalling earlier in the Q&A. I believe that UCLA's pass protection will be improved, and that the gameplan for Nevada will not put Hundley in many risky situations. But in the event of injury, the reserve QB's and running game are not capable of carrying the team.
2. The Bruin front-7 winning the battle in the trenches, applying pressure on Cody Fajardo and minimizing the opportunities for the veteran Nevada receivers to truly test the inexperienced UCLA secondary.
3. Develop a better than "adequate" running game. Ok, I don't think this is key to winning this Saturday, but the UCLA offense needs to make up for the loss of single season and career rushing leader Johnathan Franklin. At one point the summer, Coach Mora described the state of the backs as ‘adequate', though there is a quality stable of backs that will share the load. Collectively, they have the ability to get close to last season's production.
From the Nevada POV, a key that could help you threaten the upset would be stopping the Bruin pass rush; containing the UCLA front-7. That is a thing easier said than done – there is more than just Anthony Barr for the Nevada offensive line to worry about – and more of a necessary condition for a win rather than being sufficient to pull off the upset. But if you can keep Fajardo unmolested, that quality QB with veteran receivers with talent can lead to trouble for our secondary.
Bruins Nation is the UCLA affiliate of the SB Nation blog network.
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