Gigantic caveat with everything written below: the opponent was Rice.
Brett Hundley's first collegiate start wasn't error-free, but it was a surprisingly strong performance, especially on second viewing. While the opening run and the decision to keep it on the read option were very impressive, what really stood out was his ability to check down and make safer throws throughout the game. The issues that you typically expect with a freshman quarterback -- a lack of poise in the pocket, throwing frequently into coverage, locking on to receivers -- were mostly not there, although there were some hiccups. His lone interception, where he missed the linebacker dropping into a zone, was actually fairly typical of the occasional ones he threw in fall camp, and pretty typical of young quarterbacks. The two slants that went behind Shaquelle Evans were also fairly typical of camp. Aside from that, the other minor quibble was his electing to run out of bounds for a loss twice in the first half rather than throw the ball away, but that kind of decision-making should come in time.
Noel Mazzone did call a fairly safe game plan for Hundley, asking him to throw mostly underneath the coverage, but even throwing underneath most of the game, it's difficult to complete 75% of your passes. All in all, it was a solid beginning to what should be a promising career at UCLA.
Running Backs: A
Johnathan Franklin has conquered his shoelaces. The two long touchdown runs for Franklin were more impressive for the simple fact that he wasn't caught by a fingertip tackle than for any special jukes or moves he put on defenders. His best run of the day was actually just for a measly first down was in the 4th quarter, when he managed to break three tackles (and a semi-tackle by a falling Simon Goines) for about 12 yards. While it was Rice, and the offensive line, especially on the interior, was able to open up huge holes all day, Franklin's ability to break tackles is a new and exciting part of his game.
Damien Thigpen and Jordon James were both very impressive, especially once they got untracked in the second half. The touchdown that was called back on Thigpen was a thing of beauty- it's a fantastic play, first, but Thigpen's burst is unlike anyone else's on this team. Although the coaching staff seemed to get everyone involved in the offense fairly well, you'd have to figure Thigpen is in line to get more touches. As a general note, it was nice to see that this coaching staff really is going to try to get speed on the field, rather than opt for a larger, slower change-of-pace back. The whole idea of a change-of-pace back has always struck me as strange. Does an extra 15 pounds of dude hitting the other team a few times per game really make that much of a difference? Why not just, you know, play the best, fastest, most skilled players so they can run past the other guys?
Malcolm Jones got some mop-up time in the fourth quarter, and looked OK. He's not an explosive threat, and in this offense, that appears to make him a bit of a non-starter. Given his background on defense, and the real need at inside linebacker (which we'll get to), you have to wonder if his desire to play significantly will outweigh his desire to play running back.
It wasn't a banner day for the receiving corps, but it also wasn't a complete disaster. Steven Manfro's drop of the sure touchdown pass was, of course, the lowlight, and all the more of a lowlight because it really isn't indicative of Manfro. While there has been much building of the myth of Manfro on the BRO message board, and now much tearing down of the myth, the reality isn't close to what you saw on Thursday. He's a fairly strong, quick, and shifty player with pretty good hands and route-running skills. His top end speed ranks him somewhere below Thigpen, Franklin, James, Kenny Walker and apparently Jeff Locke…which still makes him one of the fastest guys on the team. In other words: he probably won't drop a wide open pass again, and he'll probably have a few chances.
Now that the mandatory ‘fro digression is out of the way, onto the rest. Evans had an up and down game, but his high points were the kinds of things you really like to see out of a receiver. He sprung both Hundley and Franklin on their first touchdowns by blocking his man all the way down the field. While he probably could have caught the second slant from Hundley that he dropped, his big catch on 4th down in the 4th quarter helped to seal the game.
Joseph Fauria had a fairly quiet day for a guy who caught two big first-down balls and a key 4th-down touchdown to ice the game. It's weird, but even in an offense built on diversifying the passing attack, you still get the impression that he should catch eight or nine passes per game. Of course, given how weak Rice's defense is, there's a chance that much of the passing game was kept under wraps.
Jerry Johnson was fairly quiet, after having such a big off-season. Again, hard to take too much from one game, especially in a spread system. His touchdown catch showed good awareness.
Walker's one catch didn't give him a chance to show too much of his ability. The first time he catches a ball with a head of steam is something to look out for.
Offensive Line: B-
That was surprisingly not bad. After cobbling together an offensive line in the last week comprised of three freshmen, a guy who hasn't played in two years, and a senior fresh off a concussion, you'd excuse us for being a little skeptical of how they'd do, even against Rice. But really, this was a shockingly solid performance. For those who didn't get a chance to watch practice, this is why this coaching staff and the coaching staff which will not be named were so high on Jacob Brendel. The entire game, he was very quick off the snap, and really might have been the most consistent of the linemen in holding his blocks.
Xavier Su'a-Filo also looked very good, and much like he did toward the end of his freshman season. Guard may be more of a natural fit for him, and he displayed a pretty good mean streak on a few blocks, planting defenders into the ground a couple of times. He did miss a key block on the failed draw play, but aside from that, was mostly pretty flawless.
The two freshman tackles didn't have to be anything more than solid against Rice's defensive ends, and for the most part, they held their own. Simon Goines didn't seem to get into a three point stance at any point in the game, but it didn't cause him too much difficulty in this game. He still fell over a bit more than you'd like, but if he keeps falling over to spring Franklin for 70 yard touchdowns, I guess you'll take it. Torian White had the one missed block for a sack, but aside from that did a pretty good job protecting Hundley's blind side.
Offensive Coaching, Scheme, Playcalling: A-
Man, that was refreshing to watch. After years of waiting for an offense that's dynamic, adjusts to the defense, and puts its players into position to succeed, this was a revelation. Heck, for almost the entire second and third quarters, Noel Mazzone ran a very vanilla offense and it still felt dynamic. Mazzone called several swing and screen passes to get his playmakers (Thigpen, James, Franklin, Manfro) in space to make plays, and offset those with a strong running attack that kept the defense spread out. He managed Hundley's throws, giving him safe options most of the game, and odds are that there was a directive from the coaching staff for Hundley to tuck the ball if there was nothing open.
While the wheel route to Manfro and the fake option pass to Thigpen didn't work, both plays should have gone for touchdowns, and neither play has been in the playbook since Maurice Jones-Drew had a shorter name. Of course, it remains to be seen exactly how this offense will perform against a real defense, but so far, so good.
Defensive Line: B-
First, the positives: Datone Jones looked very good on Thursday, and played with some fire that was lacking last year, but has been present most of the off-season. As a defensive end in the 3-4, he may have finally found his perfect position—not quite a defensive tackle, not quite a 4-3 defensive end. He was rarely taken out of plays, and on the fumble recovery toward the end of the first half, he looked almost vicious ripping the ball out.
Seali'i Epenesa also looked solid, if unspectacular. Nose tackle is not exactly a glorious position in this defense, and generally it involves a lot of holding up blockers, which he did fairly well. We can't fault him for his special teams blocking here, so we will wait. Donovan Carter, also, seemed to hold the point fairly well. Owamagbe Odighizuwa didn't do a great job of containing the edge on a couple of option runs, but looks very strong and got into the back field a couple of times.
Ellis McCarthy is just a massive person, and it seems only natural that quarterbacks fall down when he comes in the game. The coaching staff didn't give him a ton of snaps, probably to conserve him in the heat and manage the knee, but you'd have to guess, after showing that he can occupy blockers and actually beat offensive linemen already, that he's going to see increased time.
The big negative, of course, was Cassius Marsh. After receiving a lot of praise from the coaching staff throughout fall camp, he really struggled to make any impact on Thursday. He was blocked out of plays constantly, and when he wasn't, he would over-pursue on the option. He did help to occupy blockers, so that Anthony Barr could run around him and disrupt the offense, but the expectation was for more than that. The battle between he and Owa (and perhaps McCarthy) will be one to keep an eye on.
We should really split this grade, because the outside linebackers were more like an A-/B+ and the inside guys were closer to an F. Damien Holmes had a very rough game, looking lost both from the outside linebacker spot and the inside linebacker position. He fell into the old UCLA habit of telegraphing his blitzes and running right into a blocker as if that were the goal of a blitz. In coverage and run defense, he had more issues, taking poor angles to ball carriers and generally not looking very quick. This was his first game having to make a lot of the defensive calls, so there is that, but Holmes hasn't shown a penchant in the past for playing as well as he's practiced.
Eric Kendricks wasn't much better. He was blocked out of the play frequently, and on Rice's second touchdown on the quarterback keeper, he was blocked about ten yards away from the play, and it looked like the quarterback should have been his man.
Dalton Hilliard actually looked OK, but played mostly in coverage from the position, so it's hard to draw too much. It'd be nice to see him get a longer look playing the position a bit more traditionally.
Barr was probably the most impactful defensive player for UCLA, playing, honestly, more of a standup defensive end role than a true outside linebacker role. After getting a label as a bit of a soft player his first year in the program, he changed his ways last year, becoming a pretty mean blocker, and it seems like that's carried over into the defense. His hit on McHargue that knocked him out was a vicious hit, and possibly a late one. If there aren't growing pains, it'll be a surprise, but for now, count Barr as the biggest surprise of the off-season.
Jordan Zumwalt only played about half the game, and was up and down. He was disruptive in the back field on a couple of plays, but also allowed himself to be taken out of a few. He did tackle a running back with his calf while lying under an offensive lineman at one point, so I guess there's that.
Keenan Graham, as we said last year, looks like a playmaker every time he steps on the field. If there's a candidate to see more time out of this unit, Graham would be our pick. He showed some excellent pursuit skills, trailing a running back all the way across the field at one point to make the tackle.
Aramide Olaniyan and Aaron Wallace looked OK in limited time, both collapsing the pocket around McHargue at one point, but Olaniyan cut in on him a little early and missed the tackle.
Defensive Backs: B-
The defensive backs didn't look great at the beginning of the game, but a lot of that was due to being forced into man coverage thanks to all the blitzing from the linebackers. No one was beaten deep, which is generally what coaches are looking to avoid when in straight man coverage.
Sheldon Price didn't have his best game, despite the interception. While the Rice receiver made a pretty amazing catch anyway on the 1st quarter throw down the sideline, Price's pass interference was ugly, wrapping the guy around the neck well before the ball got there. Additionally, a big issue for Price has been strength, and it came back to bite him again on Thursday, as he was blocked out of a couple of run plays. It's going to be interesting, in this system, to see if Price can learn to shed blockers, because if he's pressed up on a receiver at the line of scrimmage, swing passes and runs to his side are going to cause real problems.
Aaron Hester really got unlucky with the pass interference call, because, first, it wasn't on him and, second, it should have been a no call. Hester took a bad angle on one option run, but otherwise had a decently solid game.
Tevin McDonald and Andrew Abbott weren't tested much in the game, as Rice opted mostly for underneath passes and option runs. They played well in run support, and McDonald even got a blitz or two in. Abbott's heavy hit on Sam McGuffie near the line of scrimmage seemed to set the tone for the defense in the second half.
Randall Goforth got some pretty significant time, but didn't make much of an impact, and Ishmael Adams only got a few snaps.
Defensive Coaching, Scheme, Play Calling: B-
The first half play-calling was almost as if Bizarro ChuckBulloughJoeTreseyLarryKerr were coaching the team, with blitzes and outside rushers coming on almost every down. Naturally, after the first few series, Rice adjusted and began throwing into the seams and taking advantage of overplaying linebackers. Lou Spanos didn't adjust very quickly, still maintaining the same strategy through nearly the entire first half. So, that was a concern, but adjustments are rarely made on the fly in college coaching.
The second half saw a much improved defense, as Spanos and Mora adjusted to the fact that UCLA could generate a credible pass rush with just four guys, and began to play more nickel and dime, with Hilliard and Stan McKay playing that coverage linebacker role. From then on, Rice really didn't have much else they could do, especially because UCLA's four-man rush was enough to pressure McHargue.
The worry, of course, is next week, when a four-man rush will almost assuredly not be enough for the Cornhuskers. But that's for next week.
Special Teams: F
Even Locke's superhuman speed and boomstick for a leg can't save this unit. Epenesa and Ka'imi Fairbairn combined for the silliest sequence of plays for UCLA since Brandon Breazell returned two consecutive onside kicks for touchdowns. Epenesa was blown back off of each of those kicks, which helped them get blocked, but Fairbairn's kicks also had an extremely low trajectory. With one or the other happening, all three might have still been blocked, but it was actually sort of impressive to watch so many breakdowns on such routine plays. Fairbairn's field goal was a nice redemptive moment, but even that looked like it was a fingertip away from being blocked.
Manfro didn't help matters by fumbling a kickoff return, after making a poor decision to return it from the middle of the end zone. The punt fumble was not his fault, as Hilliard probably shouldn't run directly into the punt returner and then kick the ball, but it was still an eyesore.
Given the amount of emphasis Mora puts on special teams, it's a good bet that large amounts of practice will be devoted to the specialists this week.
Rice Unit-by-Unit Analysis
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