Vastly premature concepts like: What will this team look like next season?
Too early to think about? Many might say, "Don't get ahead of yourself. Focus on this season. Take one game at a time." But see, we're not on the team or playing the games, but merely writing about them, so we can prematurely speculate about anything we want.
It's bye week and we know these are the kind of things that are floating around in the heads of BRO readers, so here we go.
Overall, it's pretty easy to project the offense and defense being improved in terms of execution, having one year in the schemes under the belt of the players. It's a pretty significant factor, especially with young players, with the coaches getting to know their players, their tendencies, which buttons to push, etc., too. So, consider that factor, that the players could very well have an accelerated jump between 2012 and 2013 merely because it's their second year in the new offensive or defensive scheme.
The prospect of Brett Hundley as a redshirt sophomore quarterback should elicit unmitigated excitement from Bruin fans. He's seven games into his career, and, as a redshirt freshman, he's thrown for 1916 yards, averaging 274 yards per game, which is 22nd in the nation, and 14 touchdowns. If he continues at this pace, he'll throw for over 3,500 yards, which would set the all-time UCLA record for a single season (Cade McNown, in 1998, threw for 3,470).
And Hundley, really, is clearly only scratching the surface of his talent and potential. So, imagine him a year down the line, with one more year of experience in college football and in Noel Mazzone's scheme. You'd have to think that UCLA's first 4,000-yard passing season is within reach, and some very high national accolades.
The depth chart under Hundley, though, is a bit of an alarming one. Jerry Neuheisel would be second string, with T.J. Millweard more than likely third string. We're hoping these two show the usual jump in development between their true freshman seasons spent in practice and then their redshirt freshman seasons -- hopefully still only at practice. Neuheisel is a heady QB, who clearly has a good feel and mind of a quarterback; he's just limited physically. Millweard still hasn't shown that he has what it takes to be even a solid back-up Pac-12 quarterback. He's throwing less ducks in practice, but there are still a good number of them quacking around the pratice field.
We're going to go out on a limb and guess that Devin Fuller will end up at receiver next season. We know the plan is for him to play receiver this season and then go back to quarterback for spring practice, but we don't think his future is at quarterback, while he has potential pro potential as a WR. It's a matter of if, or when, he comes to this conclusion, too. We'll guess it will be by next fall.
There is definitely a worry here if, for any reason, Hundley misses any games due to injury. It would be particularly great if UCLA happened to bring in a 2013 quarterback prospect that was talented enough to give UCLA another option as a back-up for the season. Right now, that looks unlikely.
Position Status for 2013: Upgrade
We've all under-appreciated Johnathan Franklin for too long. Perhaps because he came to UCLA as a little-hyped, three-star prospect, and maybe perhaps because he played on some pretty bad UCLA teams, Franklin has never received the credit he deserves. Now, on the verge of setting the all-time UCLA career rushing record, we think it's time he was honored in a manner appropriate for his accomplishments. Franklin has a chance to also set the UCLA single-season rushing record this year (held by Karim Abdul-Jabbar, 1995, 1,571 yards), and he's proven, in his senior season, that he deserves all of these records. He's flat out very good, and easily one of the handful best tailbacks ever to play at UCLA. For four year, he got so many of his yards running behind a poor UCLA line (not something Abdul-Jabbar or Gaston Green had to do), and he's continued to improve -- leading to this season when he, objectively, is one of the best running backs in the country. He has elevated himself, in our opinion, from a marginal pro NFL prospect to an obvious one.
In other words, there is going to be a huge hole at the tailback position next season. UCLA fans really can't grasp how much they're going to miss Franklin and his consistent productivity, until they don't have him.
Damien Thigpen, who will be a senior next season, looks like the clear candidate to attempt to step into that void as the primary ball carrier in 2013. He has a huge amount of potential, having sprinter speed, and some considerable explosiveness and shiftiness, but there is a question whether he has the durability to handle 17-22 carries per game. He's also not nearly as savvy as Franklin, and you can probably expect him to leave some yards on the field from a pure lack of experience.
Jordon James will be a redshirt junior, and has the talent and tools to develop into a tailback who gets more carries next season than he currently is (31 carries on the season so far). He also lacks experience, and tends to make some questionable decisions at times in running between the tackles, making too many moves before the line of scrimmage instead of just hitting the hole hard. There is a question whether he, also, has the durability to carry more of the load.
Steven Manfro will be a redshirt sophomore, and could probably get more carries (3 so far this season). He primarily is playing the F receiver spot and will probably continue to get most of his action there.
Paul Perkins, a true freshman, is redshirting, and he certainly has a chance to contribute next season. He's about 5-11, a bit bigger than Franklin, and has a good body for putting on more muscle. In fall camp he was impressive, with a similar running style to Franklin, in fact.
UCLA has a commitment from Craig Lee, the #22-ranked running back in the country. Lee is about 6-0 and 190 right now, and physically looks well-built enough at this stage to be able to play college football immediately. He is a bit raw, but has home-run hitting potential while also the ability to be a durable, every-down back. Even if he's UCLA's tailback of the future, we would expect he'll get a clear chance to play as a true freshman.
Overall, besides cornerback, the running back spot is perhaps the biggest question mark of the 2013 season. We can't emphasize enough how spoiled UCLA has been with Franklin for four years, and how replacing his production is going to be very difficult.
Position Status for 2013: Downgrade
It clearly has been a problem spot for UCLA this season, in two ways: With injuries, a lack of talented depth, and merely not enough high-end, game-changing type of talent. A big blow to UCLA this season was the loss of Devin Lucien, who broke his collar bone. Lucien could be UCLA's most talented receiver, and you'd have to expect that he'll step into the starting spot next season after Jerry Johnson's departure, and potentially be better than Johnson, who has doesn't much this season. We believe that, if Lucien gets a good amount of balls thrown his way during the course of the season, he's potentially an All-Pac-12 level receiver.
Combine Lucien with returning starter Shaquelle Evans, who will be a senior and right now the best receiver on the team, and that makes for two potentially potent starters. You can probably expect Evans to continue improve and be better in 2013 and, like with Lucien, to really shine if he gets more balls thrown his way.
Ricky Marvray will be a senior, and has been a disappointment as a junior so far. His suspension got him in the doghouse with the coaches, and he's trying to make his way back from that. It hasn't helped that he's made a few mistakes since getting back on the field. He's talented, so it's one thing to watch for -- whether Marvray can put it together, sometime this season (since he'll get the opportunity, with receivers out), and next season.
True freshman Jordan Payton has caught just 7 passes so far this season, but most have been pretty noteworthy. He has shown a penchant for catching the ball and getting YAC.
The current true freshman Kenny Walker is perhaps a big key to the receivers next season. He's the guy that truly has burner speed among these top four returners, and he needs to provide UCLA the field-stretching element that UCLA seemingly lacks this season.
Another big key to the receivers group is Devin Fuller. Above we said we thought that Fuller will ultimately abandon the dream of being a quarterback, and we think that could happen sooner rather than later if he gets some big receptions while he's playing receiver this season as a true freshman. Like we said, he might have NFL-level talent as a receiver, even though he's never really played the position and is raw.
The status of freshman Javon Williams remains uncertain. Williams participated in fall camp, but then had to leave the program due to eligibility issues. He, despite, being very thin at about 6-4, showed some good play-making ability in San Bernardino.
As you can see from this season, Noel Mazzone's offense needs a huge stable of capable receivers, especially given the potential for injury. UCLA, then, has a very good sales pitch to receiver prospects -- that they would have a very good chance of coming in and playing, and, without any current receivers having established themselves as indispensible, that the opportunity is wide open to even win a starting spot as a true freshman. The athlete currently verbally committed, Mossi Johnson, looked more like a receiver than a defensive back to us, and is talented enough to compete to play next year. UCLA could conceivably bring in at least three more receiver prospects that could be talented enough to step in and play.
At the Y receiver spot, Joseph Fauria will graduate, and that will be a loss. But, even though he's tied as the third-leading receiver on the team currently, he hasn't had as big of an impact this season as you might have anticipated, and thus won't be that difficult to replace. We have been fans of Darius Bell since last spring, and think, in many ways, he's an upgrade over Fauria. He'll be a senior next season and we would expect him to be a guy who gets 30 or so receptions in 2013. Ian Taubler, a true freshman, will be the bigger option at the Y, and he looked capable in fall before being slowed by injury. We'd like to include in this John Young, who will be a junior next season, but Young has never been able to avoid injury long enough for us to think he'll ever contribute. There is a big opportunity for a talented tight end recruit, however, to come in and compete for immediate playing time here.
At the F receiver, as we said, Manfro looks fairly implanted. While he's received some criticism this season, take into consideration he has a banged up shoulder and still is the second-leading receiver with 23 catches. Ahmaad Harris, a 5-8 scat-type who is a true freshman, will be behind Manfro next season. UCLA also has a commitment from high scooler Jalen Ortiz, who is in the Manfro mold -- small and shifty, and able to catch the ball out of the backfield -- but is faster.
With only the loss of Johnson and Fauria to graduation, the prospect of Lucien getting more time, and the development and improvement of younger players like Lucien, Payton, Walker and Fuller, and then perhaps some surprises from incoming true freshmen, we think the receivers group has a very good chance to be better in a year.
Position Status for 2013: Upgrade
The OL will lose only one player to graduation, but it's a big one, Jeff Baca. Baca has been very good this season, definitely one of the two best OLs on the team and an anchor for UCLA's running game. UCLA, though, will return its other four starters, and you'd have to conservatively believe that a collective improvement from those four will more than offset the loss of Baca. If Greg Capella, too, could return to health and be ready to plug in as a senior in 2013, that could be significant, with UCLA not having to break in any new starters on the OL for next season.
Keep your fingers crossed that Xavier Su'a-Filo doesn't get any ideas about hopping to the NFL after this season. After the way he dominated what many are saying is the best DL in the country, Utah's Star Lotulelei, last week, it very well could be a possibility. You'd have to think the odds are that Su'a-Filo returns, and he's bound to be considered among the best Pac-12 offensive linemen in 2013, and probably will get national attention.
Not only should the three freshmen, Torian White, Jake Brendel and Simon Goines, improve naturally by becoming sophomores, the competition on the OL will undoubtedly push them to even more improvement. UCLA could bring in upward of 7 or 8 freshman offensive linemen, to go along with Colby Cyburt returning from injury, and with the move of DL Kevin McReynolds to the OL. (As of right now, if we had to guess, we would project Ellis McCarthy to return to the DL after his OL experiment.) That's a whole lot of bodies with some talent that will be competing and pushing each other.
The young offensive line has been decent this season, and with all of these factors -- namely four starters returning, and three of those guys perhaps making their biggest leap in improvement, from their freshman to sophomore seasons -- it's pretty easy to surmise that the OL should be much better in 2013.
Position Status for 2013: Upgrade
The rundown for the 2013 defense is coming soon...