I spent a little time perusing the statistics for the last six years of UCLA quarterbacks last night, mostly because I'm a masochist. First of all, wow, everyone should give that a look some time. Really soak it in. Did you even remember that Kevin Craft threw just seven touchdowns to go with his 20 interceptions in 2008? Or that four quarterbacks got significant playing time in 2007, and not one completed more than 53% of his passes? It's been awful.
The second thing that jumps out to you, though, is that Brett Hundley is, as a redshirt freshman, in the process of putting together the most impressive season for a UCLA quarterback since 2005. To wit:
• Hundley has more passing touchdowns (11) this year than UCLA had from the entire position in 2010, 2009, or 2008.
• With one more touchdown, Hundley will tie Kevin Prince's total of 12 from last year, which is the most since Drew Olson threw for 34 in 2005.
• Hundley is completing 66.1% of his passes, which is the most by a UCLA quarterback since Cade McNown.
Yes, a massive amount of Hundley's offensive output is attributable to the offense that Noel Mazzone has installed, but Hundley himself has been historically impressive through his first five games. Just in case anyone wasn't getting the full import of how good he's been in the early season from just watching the games, there you go.
Against Colorado, Hundley once again demonstrated some of the best pocket presence of any UCLA quarterback since Drew Olson. It's to the point where when he does take an unnecessary sack, it stands out as abnormal, as it did on the second sack he took on Saturday. Even with the bum ankle, he's agile in the pocket, and avoids big hits. There was one play on Saturday where he stepped up, stepped back, stepped back up again, and then slid left to avoid pressure from multiple angles. He ended up rushing back to the line of scrimmage after avoiding pressure for five seconds, but it was a really impressive play.
In terms of throwing the ball, the game plan was much more in his wheelhouse on Saturday, with many more swing passes and short dig routes called than there were last Saturday. His stats, actually, should have looked a lot better than they did, as the team suffered multiple drops and penalties on plays that looked like they could have gone for long gains, especially on the two drops by Damien Thigpen. His deep ball actually looked a bit wobbly on Saturday, which might have been the altitude. The throw that Shaquelle Evans dropped, despite it hitting him in the hands, was not an easy one to catch, oscillating pretty heavily off-center and seemingly knuckling at the end. Then, the other deep pass to Evans was actually thrown perfectly if there were no defender in the area, but since Evans was covered probably needed to be thrown back shoulder. And finally, the deep ball intended for Steven Manfro that was almost picked off was well behind and short of the ‘Fro.
Colorado wasn't able to do much to take advantage of UCLA's inability to connect deep, though, because, first, they apparently didn't look at any UCLA game tape from the past two weeks, and second, UCLA's short game was working so well. Seemingly any time he needed to, Hundley was able to connect on dig routes for 10 to 12 yards to Evans, Jerry Johnson, and Joseph Fauria, since the Buffalo corners played five to ten yards off the line of scrimmage. He also did a very nice job running the few option plays UCLA tried, and watching the illegal forward pass on replay, I think UCLA might have been able to make a case that he still was partially on the line of scrimmage when the ball released. Once he starts running with some real alacrity again, the triple option where he fakes the handoff, fakes his own run, and then throws in the flat is going to be a potentially devastating play.
In terms of his running, I think a minor quibble is justified. After three years of watching Kevin Prince take some truly brutal hits, it's natural for UCLA fans to want to keep their quarterback heavily bubble-wrapped during games, but Hundley could probably get a few more yards on some of his runs pretty safely. Against Colorado, it's not so much of a big deal, but last week, there were a few plays where an extra yard would have meant a first down and potentially another scoring drive. Right now, he's running a bit like an old man, which is probably a combination of the ankle injury a few weeks back and him thinking about how to avoid getting hit/mentally reviewing Tom Emanski's video on sliding. With the zone read a bigger part of the game plan than it was last week, you have to figure that the coaching staff will want him to improve in the running game pretty quickly.
Running Backs: B+
After two weeks of fairly pedestrian stats, Johnathan Franklin was in the process of putting together another very impressive game before getting his right arm stomped on in the third quarter on Saturday. Last week, the plays called generally ran Franklin up the middle into the teeth of the Beavers' defense, and with UCLA's offensive line struggling to block, he had a very ineffective game. Against the Buffaloes, first, UCLA's o-line played much better with Jeff Baca back, and second, the play calling was much more varied, with Franklin running between the tackles, getting catches on the outside, and also being the recipient of a couple of long option pitches. It also seems like he's put a premium on hanging onto the ball, which you have to like seeing. On the near touchdown catch, where he went out at the goal line upon review, he probably could have switched the ball to his right arm to hit the cone and ensure the touchdown, but instead, he kept it tucked away from the defender and seemed content to go out at the half yard line.
Thigpen scored the first touchdown of his career on Saturday, as a redshirt junior, which is just silly, considering that he's been the fastest guy on the team for four years. He did have two drops that seemed like easy catches, one on a swing and one on a screen, both of which could have gone for big gains. However, considering how electric he is, and considering how prone to dropsies this receiving corps is, it's doubtful that a couple of drops will drastically reduce his playing time. His touchdown run on the reverse was very impressive, but his best run of the day was in the third quarter, where he squirted through a very small crease for about 20 yards and a first down. His vision at the line of scrimmage seems to be constantly improving, which is a very good sign for the future.
To completely the triumvirate, Jordon James had his best run of the year, on the touchdown where he didn't have a ton of blocking help but managed to make three guys miss en route to the corner of the end zone. He still gets a little tentative behind the line of scrimmage, almost as if he's trying to figure out a way to get 15+ yards every down rather than four. He's also been somewhat unlucky, with seemingly a larger percentage of his runs getting blown up a bit in the back field, forcing him to make a cut behind the line of scrimmage. It's a testament to both, though, that with Franklin out of the game for most of the second half, the absence really wasn't tremendously noticeable.
Devin Lucien's loss is a big blow to a receiving corps that has already underachieved a little to start the season. Lucien's two over-the-defenders-head catches against Rice and Nebraska were the highlights of the early season for the receivers, and he's shown more big play ability than anyone else in the rotation this year. His two catches on dig routes on Saturday were pretty impressive, mostly because I'm pretty sure he broke his clavicle on the first of the two, stayed in the game, and then caught the second one.
Joe Fauria snapped out of his funk a little bit against the Buffaloes, catching a touchdown pass where he was wide open and also making a nice grab between two defenders for a first down on a slant. His blocking was probably the clearest sign of his effort, though, when he (along with Evans) allowed Hundley to lightly jog into the end zone on his first touchdown run.
It was probably a good time for Big Joe to have a nice game, because he's going to feel a little heat from Darius Bell. It was the upset of the spring to see Bell at practice about 30 pounds lighter and catching everything thrown his way, but it's an entirely different thing to see him do it in games. He, like Steven Manfro, has a knack for getting open, but Bell clearly has better hands, and given the dropped ball issues among the receivers, it might be worth it to get him some more work at the F on downs where the coaching staff also wants Fauria in the game. Bell's touchdown catch was a very impressive throw from Hundley, but it was astonishing how open Bell was able to get considering he doesn't really have plus speed. Bell has also shown impressive blocking skills, specifically on both of Jerry Rice's catches in the fourth quarter, sealing his man to allow Rice to get down field.
Jerry Johnson had a couple of nice first down catches, but also had a drop on a fairly catchable ball in the first quarter that would have gone for a first down. Johnson was the star of spring ball, and looked very good in the summer, but has yet to put it together in a game yet this season.
Now that Lucien is out, Evans is probably the next best deep threat among the receivers who get significant time. Even though Hundley's ball did wobble, Evans probably should have made the catch on the deep pass in the fourth quarter.
Jordan Payton showed some great blocking skills on Franklin's near touchdown catch, sealing his man off to allow Franklin to run by. He did have a bit of a freshman moment on the deep pass down the sideline, though, catching the ball but not timing his footwork correctly to get in bounds. Still, with his blocking ability and what looks like an ability to get open, you have to figure he's an early candidate to get a lot of Lucien's snaps.
Manfro had a couple of drops out of the back field, and also fell down on a swing route. His shoulder looked like it was heavily braced after he injured it against Oregon State, which could account for some of the drops. However, through five games, he hasn't shown the same catching ability that he has in practice, so that'll be something to continue to watch. Given how significantly he's been targeted in this offense, you have to figure that'll start to taper off unless he can hang onto the ball a bit better.
Offensive Line: B-
Jeff Baca's return didn't seem to help Simon Goines much, who got abused on Hundley's fumble and looked pretty weak run blocking, but Jacob Brendel looked massively improved from last week, so the benefit might have been for the young center. Brendel's blocking helped to seal off two defenders on James' touchdown run, and overall he looked very good in the run game after having a rough time last Saturday.
Baca himself looked rusty against the Buffaloes, and had a few plays in pass protection where he got pushed back pretty far into the back field. He didn't have any significant breakdowns, though, and in the run game he stacked up on Brendel's man a few times to allow Franklin running room behind him.
Goines was probably the weakest of the bunch on Saturday, obviously whiffing on the Hundley fumble and struggling to put his hands on the left end a few times. He's not very quick laterally, to put it mildly, and really needs to punch his man to stay on balance and keep the defender in front of him. When he can't do that, he tends to get beaten and fall down a lot. He's doing marginally better staying low, but he's never going to get low enough to beat a defensive end in a pad level contest. Heck, I don't think he's even put his hand down once this season. However, on the bright side, when a true freshman right tackle can be as effective as he's been without very good lateral quickness or much in the way of knee bend, you have to feel pretty good about the coaching he's getting.
Xavier Su'a-Filo continues to be a dominant force at left guard. He sealed his man effectively on Thigpen's long first down run, allowing him to squirt by, but really, if you watch pretty much any running play, Su'a-Filo has been a machine. Adrian Klemm said that he thought Su'a-Filo's NFL position was guard back before the spring started, and he's proving pretty prescient. With his quickness and strength, Su'a-Filo has been the best lineman on the team.
Torian White and Baca both got nailed for illegal hands to the face in this game, which was odd. On a related note, doesn't it seem like an awful lot more helmets are coming off in games than was the case before the rule change? Almost seems like there's some sort of benefit for knocking a guy's helmet off. Peculiar.
Ellis McCarthy and Kevin McReynolds both got some work at guard in the fourth quarter, and both looked strong against the second string of Colorado. McCarthy, significantly, changed his number to 53, which is an offensive lineman's number, so it'll be interesting to see if a permanent change is in the works. He actually looked a bit better on defense against Colorado in his few plays, pushing one guard about six yards into the back field, but he just looks too slow to play defensive end full time. At this point, it seems like nose tackle or offensive line are the best options for him, unless he can shed some weight, and it seems that the coaching staff is happy with what Seali'I Epenesa is giving them at the nose.
Offensive play calling, scheme, and game plan: A
Mazzone's goatee must have stretched from ear to ear on the first series, seeing the Buffaloes rushing three or four and dropping the rest into zone coverage. Of all the defenses to try against this offense, that has to be the worst. Credit Mazzone for taking advantage perfectly, calling a variety of swing plays, option passes, dig routes, and runs off tackle designed to get his playmakers into the flats. There was more variety in this game, against a demonstrably awful defense, than there was against Oregon State, an undoubtedly good defense, which was good to see, because it might show that the coaching staff is evaluating its talent a bit more realistically. Although the total yards indicated one of the lower totals this season, the Bruins were much more efficient on third down and in the red zone than they have been this year, and actually converted off of turnovers in Colorado territory, which obviously makes for a lower yardage total. What's more, there were significant drops from receivers which lowered the yardage total. It's not crazy to think that UCLA left a good 100 yards on the table because of drops, penalties, and one or two poor throws.
The next step is to put together a good game plan against a decent defensive front, and the Bruins will have a chance next week against Cal, which has an OK defensive line.
Defensive Line: B-
Cassius Marsh wasn't quite as impactful against Colorado as he was against Oregon State, but he made a nice play to shed a blocker who was pushing him off the line and make a play on a running back. He also did a nice job freeing up Anthony Barr on a coupl e of plays by holding off Bakhtari, the Colorado left tackle. Strength is still a concern for him, though, and he got pushed back on quite a few plays. Datone Jones played better than he did against the Beavers, and made one nice play where he went all the way across the field to help on a tackle for a loss.
Epenesa actually made a very athletic play for a nose tackle, leaping about three yards to jump on Christian Powell's back as he made a cut off tackle. He didn't succeed in tackling Powell, just slowing him down, but it was an impressive thing to see. Epenesa had an up and down day, helping on a couple of stops up the middle, but both he and Jones got sealed off on several runs.
Brandon Willis got some burn in the waning moments of the game, and looked good, making one nice tackle behind the line of scrimmage. After he made such a big impact during the spring at nose tackle, showing good strength and quickness for his size, it's been strange not seeing him play much at all during games. Even at his current weight, about 270 pounds, he looks like he could make an impact at defensive end, although there is some pretty good talent ahead of him. With McCarthy potentially switching to offensive line, some more time could open up for Willis soon.
As Tracy noted in the game recap, watching Damien Holmes have a really great day was nice to see, considering he's one of the hardest working players on the team. It's no coincidence that his best game came playing entirely outside linebacker, in the absence of Jordan Zumwalt. His spin move, something that he really hasn't been able to showcase at inside backer, is really impressive, as he demonstrated on his second sack of the day. It seems even Mora was ready to acknowledge after the game that Holmes was more effective outside than in, and that it'd be something worth looking into even when Zumwalt returns.
Probably the most impressive play for Holmes on Saturday was in the first quarter when, after whiffing on a sack, he turned around and caught up with the receiver to make a tackle down field. It was the kind of thing that Anthony Barr has done all season. Later, in the fourth quarter, he had another impressive play, coming in on pass rush, noticing the running back leaking out for a screen pass, and then pulling off to intercept him for a loss.
Something should be said for the fact that Colorado is a pretty under-talented team, but Holmes looked much more natural and comfortable than he has at any point this season. If he goes back to starting at inside linebacker when Zumwalt comes back, that might be the first real chink in the otherwise mostly spotless suit of armor for this coaching staff.
It's becoming pretty commonplace, I suppose, but Barr once again made a significant impact from The Opening snap. Even with Holmes getting free more in the back field, Barr stood out. His pursuit and tackle of Jordan Webb, down near the Colorado goal line in the third quarter, was really impressive, since Webb isn't exactly slow. He's been nearly flawless this season, which is simply amazing for a guy who hasn't played defense since high school, and never played this position.
Eric Kendricks was solid, nearly picking off Webb on the tipped pass, and also recovering the fumble forced by Tevin McDonald. He was out of position in zone coverage a couple of times, seemingly shading the wrong way on a couple of throws, but otherwise looked OK. Ryan Hofmeister didn't make much of an impact from the other inside linebacker spot, and was called out on TV for playing too shallow in zone coverage on Colorado's first touchdown, although that looked more like a failure from the McDonald and Aaron Hester.
Dalton Hilliard once again made a very large impact from his nickel linebacker spot. One of the biggest knocks on his game his first few years was his pass coverage skills, but there have never been any real complaints about his hitting ability, which serves him well in this role. Even though he might get pushed out of a few running plays because he's a little small for the position, it'd be interesting to see him get some more time in the role. Stan McKay, also playing that nickel position, got his second interception of the season off the tipped pass from Kendricks. He and Hilliard have very similar skill sets, and it's refreshing to see a coaching staff that is able to use the talents of players and hide their weaknesses.
Defensive Backs: B-
At this point, it's probably fair to say that the real weak link of this team, without any real potential for change or improvement, is the cornerback position. Hester and Sheldon Price again didn't have great days, even though they weren't called to press receivers as much as they were against Oregon State. Price had another bad pass interference, tripping a receiver running down the field, and Hester had a really poor missed tackle on a short dig route that went for a first down. Hester also was in no position to make a play on Colorado's first touchdown pass, somehow getting behind the receiver in the end zone.
Unfortunately, the defensive secondary is pretty thin, and unless Marcus Rios and Fabian Moreau are ready for prime time, Price and Hester are probably the two best options at the position. Hester is probably best pressing receivers, when he can be more physical, and Price is much better playing off of them, when they can't body him up, so there is that. Colorado did not have an awesome receiving corps, and they weren't particularly fast, so the fact that Price and Hester had trouble keeping up with them is a bit of a worrying sign.
McDonald made a nice play to punch the ball loose for the fumble, and looked better tackling than he did a week ago. One thing that's a bit worrying is that both he and Randall Goforth seemed to be attempting to strip the ball rather than tackle the ball carrier leading up to the fumble. While the result was nice, if that guy didn't have a weak grip on the ball, they would have allowed him an extra 15 yards that wasn't, strictly speaking, necessary. Of course, maybe they had a thorough scouting report that indicated how limp his wrists are. You never know.
Moreau didn't do much of consequence during mop up time at the end, but he really does look the part of a standout cornerback. He's got good hips, good speed, and if he can learn the fundamentals of the position, could be a good candidate to compete for a starting spot next season.
Andrew Abbott, playing more up in the box, had his most impactful game of the season, flying in for a tackle for no gain and making a couple of other stops on running plays. He's much more effective near the line of scrimmage, as he's probably the best defensive back on the team in both run support. Hopefully that's part of larger adjustment.
Defensive play calling, scheme, and game plan: B
It was a fairly conservative game plan, and it worked well against Colorado. After making the adjustment to go more nickel and zone at half time the past four games, the Bruins went to that earlier against Colorado, and it generally shut down the Buffaloes. Honestly, Colorado was untalented enough that UCLA probably could have rushed five or six guys most of the game and come away pretty unscathed, but it seemed like they were testing out playing a bit more conservatively in this game. Mostly, the only players rushing were Holmes and Barr, although they did rush Abbot on one play, and there were a few scattered rushes from the inside linebackers.
Although it's hard to tell on TV, it didn't look like UCLA went to the one deep safety look as much in this game, which was nice, because that doesn't like it's been very effective thus far this season. The decision to move Abbott up more is a good one, and shows that this staff can adjust to suit the skillsets of its players.
Again, it's hard to take much from this game because Colorado wasn't very talented, but the scheme worked, and outside of garbage time, allowed just seven points and under 300 total yards, so there's not much to argue with.
Special Teams: B-
I'm not sure how many more missed kicks Ka'imi Fairbairn has before Jim Mora gives Jeff Locke a shot or begins to go for it from everywhere outside of the 15 yard line. Fairbairn is having a very rough time of it, with even his makes on extra points looking decidedly ugly. He's a true freshman kicker, which is a rarity at UCLA, so the jury is still out on him, but there are definitely some mental hurdles he still needs to surmount. His misses have shown good power, but his accuracy needs significant improvement.
Jeff Locke continues to be a stud, but his kickoffs seemed to be going a bit shorter in Colorado, despite the thin air. It might be something to pay attention to—perhaps UCLA is looking to hit kickoffs onto the goal line so as not to spot the opposing team 25 yards every time. Or maybe his leg is tired after kicking so much last week.
Manfro looked good returning the ball, but did fall down on one return, and on another, even though he got about 15 yards after catching the ball in traffic on the 4 yard line, probably should have let the ball bounce into the end zone.
Thigpen got a punt return, not calling for the fair catch despite coverage being right on him, and was rewarded with a penalty call. Along with the no helmet rule, the new halo rule on punt returns is another not-very-well-thought-out change from the NCAA. Based off the games I've seen, it makes more sense now for punt returners to not call for fair catches, and actually take big hits, because the referees are so bad that they're calling pretty much any near-immediate hit on a punt returner a penalty. In this case, the Colorado player looked like he was at least a yard away from Thigpen, if not more, when Thigpen caught the ball. Hey, Thigpen probably figured he should catch the ball, after getting flagged for much the same thing a few weeks ago against Nebraska.
Colorado Unit by Unit Analysis
Bruin Report Online Top Stories
Premature Look at UCLA Personnel in 2017Sep. 29 -- Four games into the 2016 season, it might be premature to analyze the personnel of the 2017 UCLA football team, but with the evidence we have we can extrapolate what the…
Bruin Report Online11:00 AM
Early Highlights of OT Jaxson KirklandSept. 29 -- Check out early season highlights of the first four games of Portland (Ore.) Jesuit offensive tackle Jaxson Kirkland's senior season...
Bruin Report Online8:50 AM
Top Class of 2017 Commitments in SeptemberSept. 29 -- Scout looks at the biggest commitments by conference for the class of 2017 during the month of September...
Bruin Report Online8:30 AM
Early Highlights of 4-star OT Jalen McKenzieSept. 29 -- Check out early season highlights of Concord (Calif.) Clayton Valley offensive tackle and UCLA target Jalen McKenzie...
Bruin Report Online1:10 PM
East's #1 WR Tarik Black Named to Army GameSep. 29 -- The four-star receiver prospect that UCLA has been recruiting for a long time, Tarik Black, was awared the U.S. Army Bowl jersey...
Bruin Report Online10:59 AM