After what is fairly described as a tortured decade of UCLA football, the Bruins open the 2012 season with more reason for hope than there has been in years. Gone is Rick Neuheisel, who was, remarkably, less successful than the ineffectual Karl Dorrell, and gone with him is the Pistol offense, which was run neither correctly nor productively over the last two years. In their place is a coach in Jim Mora who has said and done all of the right things leading into the season, and an offensive system that has proven to be successful at several other schools. As Tracy talked about in the season prediction, the schedule seems designed for a successful season. Everything seems to be in place for the first legitimate shot at eight or nine wins since 2005.
But, frankly, we've watched too much mediocre, poorly-coached, undisciplined football over the last decade to put too much stock in things like easy schedules and coaches who talk a good game. We've stepped on that banana peel too many times. In Mora's first season as a head coach, there are several pressing questions that will need to be answered effectively for this to be a successful season.
1. Will the best players see the field?
There were several complaints about Rick Neuheisel's coaching, but among many other offenses, Neuheisel's propensity to play favorites and established veterans over more talented players was one of the larger hindrances to his success. Jordon James, one of the fastest players on the team, was limited for almost all of last season to running reverses and end-arounds behind the line of scrimmage; Taylor Embree, a solid player but no star, held down starting assignments at two positions for years when more dynamic players languished on the bench.
So far, this area doesn't appear to be a major issue, as Mora has named a redshirt freshman the starting quarterback, and has pushed underperforming upper classmen down the depth chart at various positions. However, with a tough-minded head coach, there is a concern that during games he may rely more heavily on his hard workers than on his most talented players. If Darius Bell being placed over Joseph Fauria on the depth chart is more than just a motivational tactic, then this might become a more legitimate concern.
2. Can UCLA avoid stubbing its toes with penalties and mismanagement?
I was trying to force a tortured analogy concerning the pistol offense and UCLA frequently shooting itself in the foot, but I couldn't find a way of saying it that didn't make me want to punch myself in the face, so I'll spare you. The last nine years of UCLA football have been marred by undisciplined play and poor game management: 12 men on the field, personal fouls after a play is dead, timeouts when plays can't get in on time. Heck, the punt returner forgot to run onto the field last year during a game.
In two different conversations, Mora has mentioned that one of his strengths as a coach is game management. He says he can't remember the last time he wasted a timeout or was accused of being disorganized with respect to getting plays in on time. Given the machine-like organization of his practices, we're willing to buy what he's saying in regard to organization. Whether his own discipline and organizational skills translates to the team on the field is the question.
3. Can Brett Hundley do the impossible?
Who remembers the last time a UCLA quarterback actually made it through an entire season, starting every game? I actually wrote this sentence and then looked it up, because I was so sure I knew the answer, and that it would succinctly prove my point. After all, Drew Olson and 10-2, right?
And then I realized that Kevin Craft started every game in 2008. Can't win ‘em all, I guess.
The point stands, however. It's been extremely difficult for UCLA to maintain a starting quarterback for any appreciable amount of time. Olson started for most of his time at UCLA, and he was the last even semi-successful quarterback the Bruins have had. If Hundley can somehow maintain the spot this entire year, two things will have happened: first, the injury bug for UCLA quarterbacks will have finally abated, and second, for the first time in years, there will have been no real quarterback controversy. Wouldn't that be refreshing?
4. Is conservatism as much a quality of UCLA as overpriced parking?
It's likely a common nightmare for all UCLA football fans: the Bruins open against Rice, with Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price standing 15 yards back from the line of scrimmage. On offense, Johnathan Franklin runs up the middle all game for 75 yards on 28 carries. Embree comes back for another year and runs three end-arounds to the short side of the field.
Despite much evidence to the contrary, it's hard to shake the idea that conservatism will somehow infect this otherwise accomplished-looking coaching staff. It's almost as if the idea of football conservatism is endemic to UCLA; even Neuheisel had a reputation as a riverboat gambler prior to his UCLA tenure. If that guy is susceptible to the bend-but-don't-break philosophy, then there's a chance anyone could be.
5. Is Mora a CEO or a micro-manager?
There are two types of college head coaches: those that handle the coordinating duties for one side of the ball, and those that just manage the overall program. Something that continued to undermine Neuheisel during his career at UCLA was his inability to let his coordinators coordinate; even after hiring an offensive coordinator as accomplished as Norm Chow, he couldn't stop meddling in the offense.
From what we've seen in practice, it seems that Mora is falling firmly on the CEO side of things. He spent significant time watching both sides of the ball during fall camp, after spending more time with the defense in spring, which leads us to think that he's not planning on handling the coordinator duties for the defense. With Noel Mazzone in charge of the offense, and an experienced NFL assistant in Lou Spanos handling the defense, we have to figure this is a prudent move.
6. Is winning on the road in the Pac-12 as hard as the last few years have made it seem?
Pulling off road wins over abysmal opponents is going to be key to getting to eight or nine wins this season. Rice, Colorado, Washington State, and Arizona State are all less talented than the Bruins, and in each game UCLA will probably be favored. But with only seven wins on the road over the last five seasons, winning four in one season could be an insurmountable obstacle, no matter how bad the opponents.
Many argue that winning on the road involves a certain amount of mental toughness that isn't as necessary to winning at home; if you buy that, the question is whether Mora has had enough time to successfully instill some of that toughness in the team. You can only hope that two weeks in San Bernardino and one of the hardest spring practices in recent memory did the job.
7. Did UCLA finally stumble on a formula to stop the spread?
Stopping spread offenses has been a bugaboo for most college defenses over the last eight years, but especially so for good ole, conservative UCLA. Even with a relatively competent defensive coordinator in Dewayne Walker, UCLA was unable to do much of anything to stop spread offenses, and with Joe Tresey and Chuck Bullough over the last couple of years, the weakness became Kryptonite.
This season, for the first time in over a decade, UCLA will be move away from a base 4-3 defense. As Mora has acknowledged, and even the reluctant speaker Lou Spanos more or less admitted the other day, UCLA will now run primarily a 3-4 defense, putting more speed on the field to help combat the many varied offenses in the new Pac-12. The 3-4 does two things: allows for more defenders to drop into coverage in the base defense, and also allows for significantly more blitzing possibilities by adding one more variable. Whether it's any better at defending offenses like Chip Kelly's, Mike Leach's, or Rich Rodriguez' is anyone's guess, but the theory makes sense.
8. Can an offensive line come together as a unit after mixing and matching all spring and fall?
The sun rises, the sun sets, and UCLA has significant issues along the offensive line to start a football season. While the new coaching staff inherited a great deal of skill position and defensive talent, they also inherited a severe problem along the offensive line: only four offensive linemen currently on the roster even played last year, and three of those guys sat out most of preseason camp with concussions. Wade Yandall and Chris Ward, who both played last year and looked promising, medically retired in the offseason.
It can't be overstated how important it was to bring Xavier Su'a-Filo back after his Mormon mission. Despite being away from football for two years, Su'a-Filo is once again probably the best offensive lineman on the team, and has assumed a leadership role for the offense as a whole. With Torian White and Simon Goines in the mix with Su'a-Filo, Jacob Brendel, Alberto Cid, Jeff Baca, and Brett Downey, the hope is that the Bruins can cobble together an effective mix of talent. As Mora has acknowledged, though, the coaches are still determining their best unit with just days to go until the Rice game.
Eight Pressing Questions for the Season
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