Season Preview, Prediction, Part 1

Every year at this time we attempt it, but for some it's been a tough to predict how UCLA would do in its upcoming football season. We don't want to get fooled again, but there are valid reasons to be optimistic...

"I'll get on my knees and pray...
We don't get fooled again."
-- The Who

Fool me once, shame on you.

Fool me twice, I'm an idiot.

UCLA fans have pretty much been idiots this time of year for many years. Every year we tend to buy into the optimism of the UCLA football season, but now we're feeling a bit jaded. We are Battered Bruin Syndrome sufferers and we've now heard it too many times.

In a nutshell: There are plenty of reasons -- completely rational, well-considered reasons -- to be optimistic about the upcoming season, but UCLA football, in recent years, has been in this spot before going into a season and then vastly under-achieved.

So, how should we feel, what should we be thinking now?

It's a tough one.

PRO:

-- UCLA's new coach Jim Mora is seemingly different than his last two predecessors at UCLA, approaching the job with a completely different mindset. He has done many things to lead you to believe that he's starting to change the program's culture, instituting the types of changes it would need to be successful.

-- Mora hired Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone, and it's the first time in about 20 years that UCLA hired an OC who was coming off a successful season the year before.

-- Mora hired an NFL-experienced Defensive Coordinator in Lou Spanos.

-- Realistically, UCLA overall might have the third-most talent in the Pac-12.

-- The Pac-12 is weak, particularly the Pac-12 South.

-- UCLA's schedule is very favorable, not having to play either Oregon or Washington, and getting the tougher opponents on the schedule (Nebraska, Utah, USC and Stanford) all at home.

CON:

-- UCLA's recent history and penchant for under-achieving.

Well, there are a few other cons that will be factors in the season (and we'll get into those), but you get the drift. The drift being: If we just took everything at face value, you'd have to say there are more factors that would lead you to believe UCLA will have a successful season than not, but that pesky recent history tends to make you a little gun shy. UCLA football is the boy who cried wolf. We're Charlie Brown and UCLA football is Lucy, pulling the ball away from us after believing her again and again.

After watching the Bruins practice for the last 2 1/2 weeks, too, nothing has happened that would clearly support the idea that UCLA is going to be good or bad this season. Nothing has been significant enough to tip the scales. And, all in all, while there are some issues with the team to consider, there are probably more positives overall, which again tends to make you believe the 2012 UCLA Bruins will have a successful season.

Ah, there's Lucy again, telling us to trust her.

And now that we are considerably older and more experienced, there are some things we've learned after taking some lumps as a result of conclusions we've made coming out of fall camp in the past. Namely: You can't take much from fall camp. Some players look like world beaters ("Datone Jones is unblockable") in fall camp and then disappear in the season. Sometimes a unit is very good at doing certain things in fall camp and then that disappears during the season -- like last year's defense looking like it was going to put a great deal of pressure on quarterbacks and then had only 14 sacks in 14 games last season, second worst in the Pac-12. Sometimes coaches practice things in fall that look like they could potentially be dynamic wrinkles -- like with personnel usage, blitzing, or imaginative play-calling -- but then completely abandon it all come game time. Sometimes players can look very good in practice and then not be gamers, and vice versa. And it's really difficult to evaluate just how good an offense or defense is when they are going up against the same defense or offense every day.

I've concluded that, unless you are able to go to every Pac-12 team's fall camp for at least a few days, there is very little you can conclude from going to UCLA's.

But there are still those Pros that we listed above...

And those can be convincing.

And that presents the one real central question of the season: Can Mora stop the madness that has been UCLA football for the last decade? And when we say that, we don't necessarily mean the .500 ball, but the "madness" is more the disorganization, the game mismanagement, the excessive penalties -- all the mistakes, blunders and bloopers that have characterized UCLA football in recent history. Maybe our expectations are low, but heck, if Mora can turn this year's team into one that is disciplined, tough, mentally focused, mentally prepared, and fundamentally sound, it would be considered a successful season.

I'd give up one win on the season if you could tell me right now that UCLA, for the entire season, wouldn't need to call a timeout to get a play in, wouldn't get a penalty for 12 men on the field after a timeout, won't be involved in a bench-clearing riot, and the head coach won't demonstrably berate his quarterbacks on the sideline on national television.

Mora has made discipline, toughness, accountability and preparation an emphasis in his UCLA program so far. We've heard he has a schedule, practically minute-by-minute, of what's happening daily in the football offices, compared to his predecessor who often times wouldn't have a practice plan prepared by 4:00 p.m. Mora isn't a "UCLA guy" like the last two head coaches, which only means that he's a complete outsider that does things differently. He's learned how to coach football in the NFL, where they do have daily, minute-by-minute schedules. From the first practice in spring, to taking the team to San Bernardino, he's made a huge effort in trying to instill toughness within the team.

But, back to the central question of the season: In doing all of this, will Mora be able to stop the madness, change the culture and put a respectable product on the field? Being a sufferer from BBS, you want to believe (like believing that non-FDA approved medicine from Switzerland will work), but you've been down this road too many times and it's hard to fathom.

Rick Neuheisel, last season, attained some unintended notoriety when he yelled at his team during a practice, essentially, "I can't be the only one who cares!" Obviously, no one did. The question, really: has Mora succeeded in getting the team, the coaches -- everyone -- to care and buy in?

Another factor that Mora has said is among his particular talents is game management. Does that mean UCLA fans will actually be able to take the paper bag off their head, wear their UCLA gear proudly into Starbucks on Sundays, and not have to worry about the bloopers and blunders?

At this point, we really don't have enough evidence to be able to draw a reasonable conclusion on whether Mora can get this done or not. It really comes down to, well, blind faith.

OFFENSE

It's funny that we segued into the analysis of the offense after dropping the term "blind faith," because that's what you'd need to have if you believe, at this stage, that the UCLA offense was going to be successful this season. It's not saying they won't be, but to assert it would be based purely on, well, hope.

The major element that this offense has going for it that might lead you to believe it would have a chance is Mazzone. We've seen many offensive schemes come and go on Spaulding Field over the last 14 seasons, but this has to be the one that has the chance to be the most successful. Again, we're not saying it will be successful, just that it has the best chance, in our opinion, from watching it executed in spring and fall. Mazzone's scheme seems the most simply logical given today's college defenses and today's college offensive player. It simplifies everything, making it easily grasped by college-level players; it tries to minimize the weakness of a poor, college offensive line by getting the ball off quickly; it spreads the field to create simple, favorable, one-on-one match-ups for its playmakers; and it does it in a hurry-up, no huddle offense, which can keep a defense at a deficit in terms of its personnel and conditioning.

It's funny, but doesn't this all make sense? It's not rocket science, and it seems so simply logical, and it's mind-boggling that no UCLA offensive scheme employed these basic, plainly-evident elements in the past.

So, we are confident the offense will appear like it's attempting to do the smart, logical thing this fall (which will be a considerable departure from the last decade of UCLA's offense), but we are skeptical whether it will be able to execute it.

So much rides on the efficiency of a redshirt freshman quarterback, Brett Hundley. Hundley has a a great deal of talent -- a good body, athletic, a strong arm, running ability, a good feel, leadership qualities -- but he's just a redshirt freshman who has never taken a snap of college football, and actually hasn't taken a snap in a real game in two years. There is a chance that Hundley will come in, take that first snap and hit the ground running (no pun intended), but there's also a very good chance that he's going to go through some growing pains.

Not that Hundley is anything like him in terms of the type of player, but you can probably expect Hundley to perform just about at the level of the young version of Brock Osweiler in Mazzone's offense at ASU. If you remember, Osweiler was shaky initially at ASU, and it was even uncertain if he'd be able to win the job. He then stepped up toward the end of the 2010 season, leading ASU to wins over UCLA and Arizona (In fact, the UCLA game was pretty much Osweiler's coming-out party). The young Osweiler and present-day Hundley are similar in their level of ability, experience and grasp of Mazzone's offense. Taking that as a model, we can probably expect Hundley to go through some growing pains early on this season and then potentially benefit from a season of experience and be quite a bit better in November. Gratefully, Mazzone's offense softens the effect of the growing pains; if the scheme's quarterback can execute the basic, nuts-and-bolts plays in the playbook the scheme will help to optimize his effectivenes. Along those same lines, you can completely expect Mazzone to not ask too much of his freshman quarterback at the beginning of the season, but just to execute simply and not do anything that will beat themselves.

There has been quite a bit made out of Hundley having the ability to create positive yardage with his running ability, and you can almost certainly expect that to be a factor. When Hundley first came to UCLA last spring, and then also through last fall, he had a tendency to tuck and run prematurely. We could definitely see him doing this again when he gets a bit confused or overwhelmed in games this fall. If he is going to opt to run with it, the big question will be keeping him healthy.

It hasn't been announced, but Richard Brehaut is clearly the second-string quarterback. We had heard that he wasn't very prepared to return to football this fall, and he appears to have put on a bit of weight. He started off slowly, then did okay midway through fall camp, and now hasn't been good consistently for the last week. But since we're tempering so much of this analysis based on UCLA's recent history, we would bet that Brehaut would prove out to be better in games than he is in practice. All in all, having such an experienced second-string quarterback is a big plus.

Then there's Kevin Prince, who brings a wealth of experience. The problem with Prince at this point is that he simply can't throw the ball like he once could. The shoulder injuries have taken their toll, and caused him to seemingly change his entire throwing motion to compensate. But his presence on the team, being a veteran, to help Hundley, and provide an experienced third-string option, is a very valuable one.

True freshman Jerry Neuheisel started off strongly in fall, but then tapered off. He looked to be the king of 7-on-7, but faltered once he got into live action. Overall, though, he's been a pleasant surprise -- the fact that his arm strength has improved, which he combines with an intelligence and great feel for the position. Neuheisel has a chance to be a solid back-up Pac-12 quarterback.

Every year for as long as we all can remember the two biggest questions going into any UCLA season was the quarterback and the offensive line. Why deviate from tradition?

The offensive line is truly up in the air at this moment. By the tail end of fall camp it looked like the starters would be Xavier Su'a-Filo at left tackle, Ben Wysocki at left guard, Jacob Brendel at center, Brett Downey at right guard and Torian White at right tackle. Then, there was a switch-up in recent days -- with Simon Goines plugging in at right tackle, White moving to left tackle and Su'a-Filo moving inside to left guard.

Then, yesterday, with practice closed for the first time, Jeff Baca, Albert Cid and Greg Capella all returned to practice. All three had been suffering from different degrees of concussions, hadn't begun practicing in team drills but passed the acclimatization process. That means that more than likely all three should be ready to go for Rice, which is one week away.

It's difficult, at this point, to predict how this will all sort out by next Thursday. Going purely on guess-work, we'd say that Baca, who is one of the two best OLs on the team, will plug into the starting line-up. With his return having taken longer than we anticipated, and still pretty fresh off the concussion, we'd say he plugs in at a guard spot, probably going back to right guard and replacing Downey. So, then, guys who are certain to be in the starting line-up would be Su'a-Filo, Baca and Brendel. The challenge, then, for offensive line coach Adrian Klemm is to determine who are the next two best offensive linemen. We'd probably have to believe that he'll consider White among the top five. So, the last spot comes down between Capella, Cid, Downey and Goines. We think a completely healthy Capella and Cid, who had been practicing for even the last week or so, would win spots (even over White), but their situation might keep them out of the lineup. Goines has been both shaky and then had some moments while running with the 1s in the last several days. We think it's a toss-up whether Klemm will go with Capella or Goines for the last starting spot. If it's Capella, Su'a-Filo goes back to left tackle. If it's Goines, Su'a-Filo plays at left guard. It'd be a little surprising if Klemm actually opted to go with two freshman tackles (White and Goines) when he has a player with a great deal of playing experience in Capella, but we could still see it happening.

No matter who the starters end up being for Rice, the UCLA offensive line is definitely in a state of transition. Perhaps that will be a factor -- that Klemm and Mora don't want to upset the cohesiveness of the line that much and only opt to plug in Baca.

If Klemm does opt with the line that has been lining up as the starters in recent days that would be a true freshman, a sophomore who hasn't played in two years; a redshirt freshman; a former walk-on and another redshirt freshman. The only one who played even a down of college football last season is the former walk-on, Brett Downey.

And again, no matter what five get the majority of the snaps for the season, you have to figure that it would be surprising if the UCLA offensive line ended up being a good one. Perhaps the most you can hope for is solid, or at least not horrible.

If we could take away just a little bit from the performance of the OL in fall practice so far, you could say that they've done better in run blocking than in pass protection (again, nothing new from fall camps past). Mazzone''s scheme, again, could help to minimize the pass pro issues.

Hopefully the talent and depth of UCLA's skill positions will take a big burden off the UCLA offensive line. You'd have to say that the Bruins' skill guys are among the best and deepest of any in the Pac-12. There aren't many tailback depth charts that have a guy like Johnathan Franklin, a returning 1,000-yard rusher who, with another 1,000-yard season, could break the career rushing record at the school. Then, behind him, an experienced, bigger back in Malcolm Jones, who had a good spring in which he looked leaner and more explosive. And then, behind those two there is Jordon James, a talented, highly-recruited sophomore; a speedster in Damien Thigpen; a star of spring and fall practice, Steven Manfro; and a true freshman who was good enough to make a name for himself in fall camp with all of that competition, Paul Perkins. At the tailback and F-back spot you have many guys with a great deal of versatility in terms of running between tackles, getting to the edge and catching the ball out of the backfield.

At fullback is the guy everyone roots for, the tough walk-on who has earned the respect of his teammates and coaches, David Allen. And for wrinkle purposes, there is linebacker Keenan Graham.

Then there is what we'd have to say is also a deep and talented receiver group at the X, Y and Z spots. The starters are Jerry Johnson, Joseph Fauria and Shaquelle Evans, and all three have star potential. At the Y, Fauria, at 6-8, has the chance to have an All-American type season in Mazzone's offense. Johnson, who was always a talented guy, has returned from injury and found a new life under the new coaching staff.

Then behind the starters, at the wideouts, there are Ricky Marvray, redshirt freshman Devin Lucien, and true freshmen Kenny Walker, Jordan Payton and Javon Williams. Marvray is still looking a bit hampered by the return from his back injury in spring. Lucien, while he's still a bit immature and raw, is talented and has made some big plays in practice. Walker is raw, too, but has the game-breaking speed and moves. Payton isn't greatly athletic, but is very strong and has great hands. Williams has been the surprise; despite looking like a twig, and running like a colt, he has been effective. We have heard there is a chance that all of them could work in sometime to the large receiver rotation that Mazzone's offense demands, but we would bet Williams redshirts. The good news out of fall: the receivers, in spring, with the injury to Marvray, were looking thin, but the freshmen, who have proven to be worthy of the hype, have really bolstered depth.

Also, walk-on Tyler Scott has had an impressive spring and fall, and there's a chance he could see the field.

Then, there are some impressive players backing up Fauria at the Y. One of the biggest curiosities of this season is whether Darius Bell, the converted quarterback, can be as good as he's been in spring and fall camp. UCLA also then has been very pleased with the performance of true freshman tight end/Y Ian Taubler.

Next up, Defense, Special Teams and the season prediction...


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