If you're talking about going down beaten paths, how many times have we all -- myself included -- thought UCLA's defense was going to be good after fall practice, only to watch it fail dismally on the season?
Last season was the crowning achievement of this phenomenon. From what we saw in spring and fall camp, the defense looked like it would be UCLA's best and most talented in years, and then-Defensive Coordinator Joe Tresey was showing and talking an aggressive approach.
Then the defense came out against Houston in last season's opener and barely blitzed, and when it did so it was very predictable, and mostly employed a 7-yard cushion. All of this was amazingly perplexing, since it seemed like the exact opposite of what Tresey had shown in fall camp and been professing. It was also counter-productive to be so conservative in the specific match-up against Houston quarterback Case Keenum, who was an expert at picking apart that 7-yard cushion.
The defense never got off the mat the rest of the season. It bent and broke for the next four months, to the bewilderment of all onlookers.
Again, the question: Can UCLA fans expect anything different from new Defensive Coordinator Lou Spanos? It has all sounded familiar this spring and fall, how the scheme will be aggressive and imaginative, and employ a wave of unpredictable blitzing, and how the corners will press. But will it be that way once the team actually gets in a game or will it turn to the dreaded C word -- that is, conservative?
We can only guess at this point. Truly no one knows. There is some evidence, though, that this year might be different. Spanos is an NFL guy, and Mora is a long-time NFL defensive coach, and his reputation and pride will be hugely based on how UCLA's defense performs this season. It doesn't seem quite consistent with that for Spanos and Mora to lose their nerve and go conservative, but this is UCLA and we can only conclude there is a conservative additive to the water in the Morgan Center.
The new 3-4 defense seems to support the supposition that UCLA's defense will, at least, be more creative. It definitely seems to better fit many of the players, and the types of players you now get in college football.
Very simply, it's really difficult to find defensive tackles. There just aren't that many guys who are 6-2, 315 pounds, and really strong, and have good enough academics to get into UCLA. Now, in the 3-4, instead of really having to find two of those types as starters, UCLA really only needs one.
There are, though, a good number of guys who are 6-2 to 6-5 and 240 to 275 pounds and those are the types that plug into defensive end in the 3-4.
We said it last fall, and it was perhaps the biggest flub we committed last season -- that UCLA's defensive line for 2011 would be the strength of the team.
Now we're hearing it again, not only from pundits, but from the coaches. We are, again, gun shy.
But it is difficult to deny the evidence. In terms of talent, UCLA is pretty much loaded on the DL. Just Datone Jones, Cassius Marsh, Brandon Willis, Seali'i Epenesa, and Owamagbe Odighizuwa represent more experienced talent on the DL than a vast majority of college programs. Then throw in a senior like Donovan Carter, or U.S. Army All-American redshirt freshman Kevin McReynolds. Then, of course, throw in super-elite freshman Ellis McCarthy, who is still recovering from knee surgery. UCLA, this season, should be able to go eight deep at three positions, and more than likely most of them will play, being shuttled in and shuttled out.
The standout of fall was Marsh, who has lost weight and has some kind of incredible percentage of body fat, and received accolades from the coaches. Owa too, looks like he's refined his game, is primed to deliver on his talent and make a big impact as a junior.
The question mark of the defense is definitely at linebacker. Now, having to employ four linebackers, it wasn't a deep unit to begin with going into fall, and then it lost its veteran middle linebacker and leader, Patrick Larimore, who had to medically retire due to concussions.
It's pretty clear that three guys are starters -- Eric Kendricks inside, and Jordan Zumwalt and Anthony Barr on the outside. The other inside spot was held down by Damien Holmes for a good portion of fall camp, until recently safety Dalton Hilliard has been manning it. Mora claims it's just for certain specific packages, but Hilliard looked like a fixture. It makes sense against the pass-happy Pac-12, to have a quicker guy who can drop into coverage in the middle of the field.
Regardless of who is playing most of the snaps at that other inside spot, the linebackers are going to have to prove themselves. Last season they didn't look good. Kendricks was easily the best, but he was still young and learning. He's been hampered by some nicks this fall. Zumwalt had a big fall camp, and looks like he's matured and ready to take the game seriously. He has the talent to be a big-time player. It's an adventure to have Barr as a starter -- a former running back who, as recently as Pac-12 Media Day, was being challenged by Mora to step up and make any kind of impact. He's never played a down of college football at linebacker and has only been playing the position for a few months. Then you have Holmes, the converted DE, who lost weight in spring and plugged in to linebacker in the 3-4. We've always respected Holmes for the character and work ethic, but he has yet to prove he can consistently play at this level. He did, though, start to play better toward the end of last season and we do feel he's better suited for linebacker than DE. He has now moved from DE to outside linebacker to inside linebacker, so that has to be a factor (even though we think he'll probably move back to outside linebacker). Then Hilliard, or any other safety-type playing inside linebacker? It's impossible to even take a stab at how that might turn out. We're seeing visions of Hilliard on rollerskates.
Then there is the lack of depth. Not just proven depth, but depth. Keenan Graham has had his moments over the last couple of years, but at defensive end; Aaron Wallace is a redshirt freshman who hasn't taken a snap of college football; Aramide Olaniyan is a skinny, 220-pound outside linebacker; Ryan Hofmeister got a lot of praise from Mora this fall, but he's the Gutty Little Bruin playing inside with no experience; Junior Todd Golper has fought a long list of injuries and hasn't contributed yet; and then there are the true freshmen, Aaron Porter and Nate Iese. Porter has the makings of a good inside linebacker, but looked overwhelmed for the most part physically and mentally in fall practice. Iese is a raw talent that had moments in fall, but will almost certainly have his future at defensive end, at 6-4 and about 250 two weeks into his college career. True freshman Kenny Orjioke looks like a linebacker of the future both physically and athletically, but he'll almost certainly redshirt. Walk-on freshman Willie Green actually has gotten quite a few reps with the 2s.
If you have to say what unit of the defense will be its strength you'd have to opt for the secondary over the DL, if it stays healthy. It has four returning, experienced starters, and the youngest one among them (Tevin McDonald) might be the most talented. The key to any secondary, truly, is experience at cornerback, and UCLA has two veteran seniors in Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester. Andrew Abbott is plugging in at a new position, strong safety, and while he's overwhelmingly under-sized for the position, he was probably UCLA's best defensive player for 2010.
The depth, though, in terms of experience, kinds of falls off the cliff after that. There is Stan McKay at strong safety, who has experience, but every player after that has never played in a college game. There has been quite a bit of movement, too, position-wise among the back-ups, which means two things: 1) No one is really sure where they plug in the best and 2) there's going to be a learning curve. The guy who will almost certainly play this season is true freshman Ishmael Adams, who might be the first off the bench at corner and at nickel. Perhaps second-best is Marcus Rios, a true freshman who really benefitted by coming in for spring camp. He has looked pretty solid in coverage throughout fall camp and is definitely a starting cornerback of the future. Then there is Brandon Sermons, a redshirt junior who has never played but showed flashes this fall when moved to safety; Anthony Jefferson, a redshirt sophomore who has never played and been on a long road back from injury; true freshman Randall Goforth, who started out at corner but spent the last week or so at safety, and shows promise; and a running back converted to corner, Fabian Moreau, who also showed promise at his new position.
There was a huge, collective sigh of relief when field goal kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn started kicking in San Bernardino. It was clear he was good, had a good leg and good accuracy, and field goal kicking wouldn't be a huge problem. It certainly won't be the weapon it was with Lou Groza Award winner Kai Forbath, but it won't be as spotty as it was last season under Kip Smith or then walk-on and soccer team manager Tyler Gonzalez.
UCLA, of course, has one of the best punters in the country in Jeff Locke. It's amazing, but he's continued to get better.
The big thing in Special Teams for 2012 will be UCLA actually putting someone at punt return who has a chance to break a return. UCLA, for a number of years, used Taylor Embree, who could catch but had no chance of a return. Now, UCLA is in a new era of punt returning, and it looks like Steven Manfro will be the guy. He is very dependable catching the ball and does bring some elusiveness and quickness to the return. On kick-offs, it will probably be Manfro, too, with possibly Jordon James, and perhaps Shaquelle Evans or Damien Thigpen getting an opportunity.
This is clearly a team with some question marks, but with some very clear strengths. Always the question mark that needs to be answered every year is how much depth of talent a team has to overcome injuries. UCLA, compared to other Pac-12 teams, isn't too bad off. It couldn't tolerate too many injuries at offensive line, linebacker or in the secondary. A few blows to those units and UCLA could be under water. But very simply, as we said, UCLA arguably has the third-best collection of talent in the Pac-12 (Mora has Neuheisel's recruiting to thank for that), and with good coaching and good luck on injuries, that should simply be enough to make it an overall successful season.
We did, say, "good coaching," and after so many years of UCLA trying to get by on poor coaching, the Battered Bruin Syndrome sufferer has to see it to believe it.
Here's where we put the pedal to the metal, where the rubber meets the road, etc. Because, as we've maintained for many years, perhaps the biggest factor in whether any team has a successful season in terms of wins and losses is its schedule.
UCLA, as we said above, has a favorable one for 2012.
So, here we go...
Put it this way: If UCLA loses to Rice in the season opener the season is over. Kind of overly-dramatic? Not really. Rice is probably the weakest team on the schedule and UCLA definitely needs to take care of business with its weakest opponents to have a winning season. The Owls had one of the worst defenses in the country last season, and only return a few guys from that unit (which might be better for them?). 1-0.
Nebraska at the Rose Bowl. While the Cornhuskers are probably over-rated at 16th in the USA Today Poll, they are probably the best team UCLA will face until it sees USC in November. Being at home in the Rose Bowl will be worth some points, but Nebraska's program is surging and they have an experienced quarterback and many returners from a good defense. If UCLA beats Nebraska it's a strong indication that UCLA will have a winning season. 1-1.
Houston shouldn't be that bad. In fact, they should be competitive in the Conference USA West, but we think they'll probably need some time with a new quarterback, new coaching staff, etc., and struggle a bit on the road. UCLA in a close one, 2-1.
Mike Riley's seat is a little warm in Corvallis, and it could get hotter during the 2012 season. Oregon State just doesn't have a great amount of talent. It does have a budding quarterback in Sean Manion, but there's just not much it can do to upgrade talent on that poor defense from last season. A game in the Rose Bowl in which UCLA needs to hold serve. 3-1.
Colorado is one of the youngest teams in Division I-A, replacing some veterans from a team that went 3-10 last season. The Buffs would have already traveled to Fresno State (which is not a fun trip) and Washington State (ditto), and be looking forward to playing at home, but that's about all it has going for it. 4-1.
When's the last time UCLA beat Cal in Berkeley? That would be 1998, and it took Cade McNown's Pac-10 championship team to do it. Cal isn't going to be very good, and they've been playing just about .500 ball for three seasons. It's a big year for the Bears, opening up renovated Memorial Stadium. UCLA is probably more talented, but the Bruins won't be able to get over the Berkeley Curse. 4-2.
There are two games that are pivotal for UCLA's season -- the Utah game and the Stanford game. If the Bruins win either of those two games, or both, it will be a successful season. Utah is getting some hype, generally picked to finish #2 in the Pac-12 South ahead of UCLA, and it's understandable. They return a former starter at quarterback, the nucleus of a solid defense from a season ago, and they no longer have Norm Chow as their Offensive Coordinator. Both Stanford and Utah are at the Rose Bowl, and we would bet UCLA beats one of them -- more than likely Stanford. 4-3.
If you're talking young teams, Arizona State competes with Colorado as one of the youngest in college football. It's already being dubbed a "transitional" year for the program, and that is code for a losing one. Under a new coach, a very young team, a new quarterback and new schemes doesn't add up to much. At this point UCLA and Hundley should be warmed up. Even on the road, 5-3.
Arizona is a little more talented and experienced than ASU or Colorado, but not by much. It might have one of the better offensive lines in the league, which will keep it in some games. But at home in the Rose Bowl, 6-3.
Playing Washington State, in Pullman, in November, is always a tough proposition. And now, UCLA's defense is going to have to deal with Mike Leach's tough-to-defend offense, with a decent quarterback. If there's a game where UCLA could trip up it's this one, but we'll call it a win. 7-3.
USC. It will be interesting to see where the media darling will be in November, what state the entire program is in by that time and whether the Trojans can keep it together. But we'll call it a loss, 7-4.
As I said, the Stanford game is a big one, not just because it's the last regular-season game, but the match-up itself. The Cardinal is still being picked by pundits to be pretty good, but it could very well be the coat tails of Andrew Luck. Without him, a fairly new and young offensive line, a sketchy pass defense and a tough road schedule (at Washington, at Cal, at Oregon and at UCLA) could contribute to the team being pretty beat up by late November. They will be coming off that road game against Oregon the week before. 8-4.
We are inclined to generally adjust that prediction to what we feel is a more realistic 7-5, but we'll come down on the homer side just to balance that we've been pretty honest and non-homerish throughout this entire piece.
It's a season that, really, is the most difficult to predict in many years for the Bruins. There are just too many unknown factors, the primary one being whether Mora can stop the madness. If he can, 9 wins could be attainable.
If he gets 8 or 9 wins, maybe even just 7, and it's a good product he puts on the field, the recruiting flood gates will open and, with a redshirt freshman quarterback and a young offensive line, Mora's program will be on its way.