UCLA Midseason Reset

With the bye week coming seven games into the season, we take a look at how our expectations met reality this year, and talk about what we want to see out of the team down the home stretch...

UCLA takes the week off this week to rest and recalibrate, so why don't we do the same?

Right now, the Bruins are 5-2, and we actually predicted them to be 4-3 at this point, which has to count for something. Still, there's a pervasive sense that UCLA hasn't been as good as the Bruins perhaps should be at this point. To take a look at the nuts and bolts:

• The Bruins have beaten four pretty bad teams, and one decent one in Nebraska.

• In the last three wins, the UCLA offense has looked progressively worse, culminating in a really sleepy win over Utah this past week.

• UCLA lost to a 1-4 Cal team that was probably better than its record, having lost close games to several good teams.

• UCLA lost to a now 5-0 Oregon State team that is looking like it's conservatively one of the top three or four teams in the conference.

As is always the case with analysis, of course, it's not the "what" but the "how." Before the season, there were certain things we were anticipating about this UCLA team. In his season preview, Tracy even laid out a few of them.

First, we expected that the offense would be much improved, mostly banking on the fact that Noel Mazzone was the first offensive coordinator UCLA has hired in over a decade who was actually coming off a successful year as an offensive coordinator. Second, we were expecting the defense to attack more, even though we've been fooled so many times before by springtime blitzing followed by fall conservatism.

On both of those points, we were right on. UCLA's offense, despite some complaints which we will of course get to, has been much improved, although there's only one direction to go from the dreadful pistol. UCLA's defense has attacked much more, and has done a great job of generating turnovers, two things we expected would happen after the spring and fall.

There are a few aspects of the team, though, that we were wrong about—crazy, I know, but it happens.

First, Brett Hundley has been way, way better than we expected. Through the spring and fall, we saw that Hundley was much improved over where he was as a freshman, but he's looked even better through seven games this season. While I think we all want him to hit more deep passes, and maybe show a bit better feel for running, when you compare him to the previous seven to 14 years of quarterbacks, it's simply astonishing what he's been able to do thus far this year. You have to project, with a reasonable amount of development, that he's going to have a pretty remarkable career at UCLA.

Next, Anthony Barr is the defensive MVP, and the runner up (Datone Jones or maybe Cassius Marsh) is a distant second. A year ago, we thought he might be a bit too soft for defense, based off what we heard from those in the program. Even this offseason, based off how he looked in limited time in spring, we thought he might be a good candidate for the Y position on offense. Now, it appears obvious that his move to outside linebacker was inspired, and you have to give credit to Barr, for taking on the challenge, and the coaching staff, for recognizing a body type they wanted on defense and making the necessary move. Early talent evaluation has been a strong suit of this coaching staff, as they made several changes in the opening months (Marsh to defensive end, Barr to defense, Darius Bell to receiver) that seem to be paying huge dividends. Even Fabian Moreau, who had never played defense for any significant amount of time in his life, was switched to cornerback, and from the looks of things, he could be very good there. Then, when you factor in the better-late-than-never move of Jordan Zumwalt to inside linebacker, you have to say that personnel usage has been a pretty decent strength of this staff.

Third, talent is actually being used, for the first time in a long time. We can't say we didn't expect this, given what we saw in the spring and fall, but it's always different seeing it in action as opposed to in the spring. Instead of having (repeat it with me) the fastest guy on the team languishing on the bench, Damien Thigpen is actually getting a pretty significant amount of reps for a guy who just sat out a year with hamstring issues. Jordon James is actually getting an opportunity to show his North-South ability, as opposed to his ability to run parallel to the line of scrimmage four yards behind the quarterback. Even some talented freshmen are getting a few looks, which is just such a tremendous switch from the past however many years. Although Steven Manfro hasn't exactly excelled thus far this year, and seems poised for a reduced role after his botched punt on Saturday, it has to be encouraging that a redshirt freshman was rewarded with such a prominent role on the team.

Think about it this way: if Rick Neuheisel were still the head coach, what are the odds Hundley would be the starting quarterback right now? Is there much chance that Jordan Payton would be getting significant playing time? Would Thigpen still be nailed to the bench?

Hard to answer any of those questions, but it's refreshing to see a lot of the correct personnel decisions being made by this staff.

Of course, there are a few negatives that we didn't quite anticipate, and these are the areas where we'd really like to see improvement over the next five games.

Now that we've looked at the first seven games, and seen what UCLA's defense really is trying to do, it seems pretty clear that we misevaluated first, how good the Bruins' defensive backs are, and second, exactly how important the secondary is in this defense. Lost in the worry about who would replace Patrick Larimore and whether anyone on the team is truly a nose tackle was the fact that UCLA's senior cornerbacks, Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester, had really yet to put together a complete season, and that neither was a particularly good one-on-one cover corner.

In any other defense—in fact, in any of the passive, zone-heavy defensive schemes of the past several years—their flaws wouldn't be as big of an issue. But because UCLA presses its corners so much, and pressures the quarterback so much, UCLA's corners are often left to cover one on one, which exposes their weaknesses. Couple their issues with the fact that Tevin McDonld still isn't a very disciplined player in terms of staying in position, and there have been significant breakdowns, especially against fast receivers.

We've harped on it a bit already, but given the pressure put on UCLA's defensive backs to make plays, especially from the cornerback spot, wouldn't it make sense to put Andrew Abbott, the best cover guy on the team, at cornerback? Against Utah, he spent more time in nickel, and looked very good. With so much riding on how the cornerbacks play, Abbott taking over for either Hester or Price could go a long way to relieving some of the pressure defensively.

Price and Hester really struggled against Oregon State's receiving tandem of Brandin Cooks and Markus Wheaton, who are, of course, two of the best receivers in the Pac-12. Then, Price had significant issues with the speed of Keenan Allen of Cal. Looking ahead, the USC game has to be a worry, if UCLA sticks with the same personnel. Marquis Lee and Robert Woods provide an impact similar to Cooks and Wheaton, and you can expect that Hester and Price will have the same issues covering them.

Of course, another solution would be for UCLA to play a bit more passively down the stretch. UCLA's pressure hasn't been hugely affected when the Bruins rush four rather than five. Anthony Barr seems to get free against an offensive tackle a few times per game regardless of how many players are rushing. Against Utah, actually, UCLA didn't pressure much at all and had one of its best defensive games of the season. While the coaches probably don't see it as a long term strategy, and it probably isn't a good one, it could lead to one or two more wins down the stretch.

Long story short: defensive backs, even more than they were already, should be a priority this recruiting season.

Offensively, the worries range more to the philosophical side, rather than personnel. Although there is some previously unforeseen weakness among the wide receivers—with Jerry Johnson underwhelming through his first seven games, Devin Lucien breaking his collarbone, and Joseph Fauria not having the kind of impact many expected—most of the offensive players have performed at or above expectations. Brett Hundley, by any reasonable metric, is way ahead of where he should be at this point, as a redshirt freshman. Johnathan Franklin is much better than he was last year, when he was already a very good running back. The offensive line, despite plugging in three freshmen, has been passable, which is a credit to the steadying influences of Xavier Su'a-Filo and Jeff Baca along with the coaching of Adrian Klemm.

Through two games, in fact, this offense looked like it might be a potentially great one, with huge yardage totals and only a bit of a weakness in the red zone. What has really started to hamper the offense, aside from defenses adjusting to the swing pass and short game, are, in our opinion, three things: opponents now scouting out UCLA's scheme, a lack of tempo and predictable playcalling.

In terms of the tempo, much was made in the offseason about the Bruins running a no-huddle, hurry-up offense, much like Oregon's. Through seven games, it's fair to say that talk was a little overblown. While the tempo has been marginally faster than in previous years, it's still nowhere near the up-tempo attack of Oregon, which is a concern. With the Oregon-type offense, which is kind of a branch off the same limb that Mazzone's comes from, tempo is, more than anything, what makes it so unstoppable. Sure, fast players and good play calls make it better, but an up-tempo offense has a tendency to make a lot of play calls look better and players look faster than they really are. That type of offense keeps the defense from getting reset, and most importantly, keeps the defenders from subbing out, which wears out a defense. There's a reason why Oregon tends to blow teams out in the second half.

Especially through the last few games, UCLA's tempo has been markedly slower, which has resulted in fewer possessions and offensive plays per game. This can only come from the coaches, and in a certain light, it kind of makes sense: there are a lot of freshmen on offense, and you want to avoid making mistakes in execution. However, everything else about this team seems to be pushing toward playing up-tempo. Liken it to basketball, if you want. Right now, UCLA is playing like a team that emphasizes steals on defense at the expense of sound fundamentals and then chooses not to fastbreak off of those steals. If your defense emphasizes turnovers and generating more possessions for your offense at the risk of giving up points, then your offense needs to maximize its possibility of getting more points on those possessions. Philosophically, the two schemes don't seem to match up quite yet.

What's more, UCLA tends to sub players in and out to a much greater extent than an up tempo offense really should. After weeks in San Bernardino, and a much-lauded offseason conditioning program, the best players should be able to play the bulk of the snaps, and subbing really only slows down the offense and give the defense some time to sub and catch their breath.

Just theorizing, but it must be hard for Mora, who worked in the NFL most of his adult life, to really go whole hog on something as dramatic as a fast-paced, up-tempo offense. Think about it: most of the offenses he's familiar with have emphasized West Coast principles, and the phrase "keeping the defense off the field" figures prominently in that philosophy. An offense that's designed to score in 2 or even 3 minutes is probably pretty antithetical to everything he's worked with before.

Whatever the case, without a dominating offensive line or truly dominating receivers, tempo is one of the major things that UCLA's offense could have going for it, and so far the coaches haven't taken advantage.

And then, you factor in play calling. Through two games, we were pretty much ready to concede that Noel Mazzone was a wizard, capable of turning any group of 11 guys into a crack offensive unit in a couple of weeks simply through the power of his goatee. A few concerns have shown up in recent weeks, and it seems like much of it is due to a lack of adjustments to what defenses are now throwing at him. Through the first two games, UCLA brilliantly used the entire field -- sideline to sideline, end zone to end zone -- to stretch defenses to their breaking point. The last five games, teams have been more willing to give up the deep ball, and have stacked the box, banking on the idea that Brett Hundley couldn't hit it with any consistency.

So far, that's proven true, but the play calling also hasn't adjusted much from the first few games. If anything, the play calling has gotten less dynamic, with more runs up the middle, fewer zone reads, and fewer deep patterns. Heck, there have even been fewer slants. Against Utah, the Bruins seemed bent on establishing a running attack up the middle, despite that being the strength of the Utes' defense. Against Oregon State, UCLA threw down the field and mostly ignored its horizontal game, and against Cal it went horizontal, and then pretty much abandoned the running game, which with perfect hindsight, is seemingly a reverse of the ideal game plans for both of those losses.

Again, you can kind of understand why they might be going a bit more conservative in the play calling. Three top receivers are out, Hundley's ankle is only recently back to full health, and the offensive line is not great. Generally speaking, though, you don't increase productivity out of a depleted unit by taking fewer chances.

Still, all of that aside, this year's edition of the UCLA football team is much improved over last year's, and probably any of Rick Neuheisel's teams at UCLA. We're actually pretty excited for this defensive scheme, if the coaches can get more able bodies in at defensive back and perhaps utilize the ones they have a bit better. Offensively, even with our concerns, the team is averaging over 500 yards per game. The future is still bright. Anyone who was expecting UCLA to rise back to the top in a year was probably unrealistic. However, that doesn't mean that there isn't room for improvement this year. Although we predicted some gray area between 7-5 and 8-4 in the season preview, a decent record will not be the ultimate sign of improvement this season. As we said before the season, we'd give up a win if it meant the team would play with discipline, not commit silly penalties, and generally not be an embarrassment on the field.

So far, the jury is out on a couple of those. Ultimately, through the last five games, we'd like to see signs that the Bruins have made strides in improving on offense and defense, but we'd really like to see improvement in terms of discipline. That will be the surest sign yet that Mora and company are on the right track.

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