Thanks to this past season, though, and the encouraging signs we've seen from Jim Mora and his staff, we finally feel comfortable writing retrospectively about the ugly years, as we're no longer concerned that we are still living them, the embarrassing bowl loss to Baylor as hopefully the last remaining vestige of the previous decade. More relevant, though, we feel comfortable writing prospectively about the team in the future, since we are sufficiently convinced that UCLA is primed for an upward trend over the next few years that could, at long last, return the Bruins to the upper tier of college football.
Last month, we went through the premature depth charts for 2013 and then did an early projection of next year's schedule, which was certainly an exercise in the absurd. Our point, though, was to indicate that despite the difficulties of next year's schedule (having to potentially go up against four top 20 teams on the road in Oregon, Stanford, Nebraska, and USC), the potential talent level of the team next year, along with the players' increasing comfort in Noel Mazzone's offense and Lou Spanos' defense, should be enough to sustain the momentum of the past season, and allow the team to win another 9 or 10 games. Winning those 9 or 10 games next year, with the schedule difficulties, would actually represent a pretty significant leap for the program, even if the record looks very similar to this season.
To go further down the rabbit hole of projecting far too prematurely, though, is to contemplate the season that could truly elevate the UCLA program: 2014. Avoiding enough losses next season to be in the national championship conversation will be a nearly insurmountable task for the Bruins, considering the quality of the Pac-12 and the way the schedule breaks. In 2014, though, there are a number of factors that, combined, indicate that the season could be a special one for UCLA.
UCLA's offensive line could potentially be a dominant unit by that year, as in one of the best OLs in the country. From what we know of Xavier Su'a-Filo and his family, we'd actually expect him to stay at UCLA until he graduates, which would likely entail staying for his senior season. Su'a-Filo is the type of kid who, if he perceives UCLA could have a potentially national-championship-caliber season in 2014, would potentially return just for the experience. What's more, this staff has already shown an ability to re-recruit players who are thinking about the NFL (Johnathan Franklin, Anthony Barr), and the enticement of a potential national championship run in 2014 will likely be an added incentive. If you factor Su'a-Filo into the lineup, along with the rest of the line, there is such a talent upgrade coming in with the 2013 recruiting class that it's difficult to project exactly who will be starting at any position besides left guard—which actually means very good things for the future. It's probably fairly safe to project freshman All-American Jake Brendel will be starting for the third season in a row at center in 2014, or the guy who beat out freshman All-American Jake Brendel will be starting. Either the two big tackles, Torian White and Simon Goines, who started every game as freshmen in 2012, will be starting for the third year in a row at both tackle spots, or the guys who beat them out will be. No matter what way you look at it, the offensive line will either be an experienced unit of talented players who've been playing together for three straight years, or the group that beat out that group. Barring catastrophe, it should be a very good unit.
2014 will also (potentially) be Brett Hundley's junior year at UCLA. Right at this moment, we wouldn't project Hundley leaving after next season, even factoring in significant progress on his part. Very few players leave college with two years of eligibility remaining—in similar situations, both Andrew Luck and Sam Bradford returned for their redshirt junior seasons. Getting to the point where Bradford and Luck were in their redshirt sophomore seasons (a Heisman winner and a Heisman runner up respectively) would also require Hundley making a very big leap in 2013. So, factor in his return, combined with the offensive line being very talented and experienced, a group of talented, fast receivers (Devin Lucien, Eldridge Massington, Jordan Payton, Devin Fuller, Kenny Walker) that should be coming into its own, and a third year in Noel Mazzone's offense. Picture this year's offense, with an overall upgrade of talent and experience at the skill positions, with one of the best offensive lines in the country. There's a very good chance that UCLA in 2014 could have its best offense since…ever.
To make any possibilities and potentialities for a national title run in 2014 a little more substantive, though, there are some clear things that need to happen over the next year. First and foremost, UCLA will need to plug in some talent on defense and it will have to be as good as it's billed and develop at an expected rate. In 2013, UCLA will likely start three seniors across the front in Cassius Marsh, Owamagbe Odighizuwa, and Seali'i Epenesa. Once they graduate, UCLA will have to replace its three starters on the DL, being the only unit on the team for 2014 where this needs to happen. You can project that Ellis McCarthy, who will be a junior and have two years of experience, will probably be very good by that point. He probably will be at his optimum physically, and be plugged into the role on the DL that fits him best (perhaps playing both nose and end). UCLA's current 2013 recruit Kenneth Clark will probably be a true sophomore (we'lll guess he plays as a true freshman in 2013), and will likely be a high quality lineman as well after a year of development behind the seniors in 2013. We'll go out on a bit of a limb and project current sophomore Brandon Willis to be a major contributor by the time he's a senior, since he's looked good when we've watched him in practice, explosive and quick. We suspect he's fallen into the doghouse a bit with the coaching staff after not keeping his weight up over the offseason and through San Bernardino. Even if Willis is a factor at that point, it is imperative to get another high level lineman in this year. We've heard a good amount of information from inside the program that current redshirt freshman Brandon Tuliaupupu has a chance to be the level of, say, Epenesa, and he'll be a redshirt junior by that time. Two years out, with UCLA having to replace its entire three starters on the DL that year, to be able to conservatively project that UCLA will probably have four at least solid players is pretty good, especially for UCLA, which in the last 10 years or so hasn't been deep – or talented – on the DL.
What could put the 2014 defensive line over the top would be the addition of a super elite talent, like the #2-ranked DT in the country in the 2013 class, Eddie Vanderdoes. He is definitely one of those prospects who falls under the category of "freak," being 6-4 and 300 pounds, extremely strong, but quick enough to play defensive end in UCLA's 3-4. He could be good enough next year – as a true freshman – to garner major minutes, and at least be the first off the bench for the defensive line. In 2014, he could project to be better than McCarthy, Clark or Willis. We hate to place so much emphasis on the recruitment of one player in the 2013 class, but the recruitment of Vanderdoes, given his freakish talent, and the way the personnel works out for UCLA in 2014, could be a huge key to UCLA having enough talent on its defense to be National Championship worthy for 2014. We wouldn't be saying this, either, unless we have good reason to believe that UCLA has a very legitimate chance of getting Vanderdoes. Additionally, UCLA has recently gotten in on the recruitment of 10th-ranked defensive end Kylie Fitts, who decommitted from USC. If Fitts ended up at UCLA, you could factor him in as a potentially significant competitor, along with Vanderdoes, McCarthy, Willis, and Clark, to start on the defensive line in 2014.
There is also Jeremy Castro, who we can't pencitl in at linebacker or defensive lineman just yet because we have yet to see him on Spaulding Field. Castro, though, is a substantial talent, and he'l have been in the program for essentially a year and a half (since he'll begin practice this spring) s a redshirt freshman in 2014, so he should be a bit down the road in terms of his body, the position that fits him and knowledge of the scheme. You have to project him as a potential contributor regardless of whether's he's plugged into linebacker or defensive end.
With the rest of the defense, you have to do a fair amount of projecting (since the 2014 season is, you know, two entire years away). Among the linebackers, Eric Kendricks will be a senior, and, judging by how much he improved this year, will likely be at least an All Pac-12 caliber player. Other than Kendricks, though, there isn't a known quantity among the potential linebackers. We'd guess some combination of Myles Jack, Aaron Wallace, Deon Hollins, and Kenny Orjioke will be more than sufficient to handle both outside linebacker spots, and then there will likely be several good options at the other inside linebacker spot, including Cameron Judge, potentially Isaac Savaiinaea, Aaron Porter, and others. It probably won't be as strong as a unit as it will be in 2013, considering Barr and Jordan Zumwalt will both be gone, but it should be very talented.
The defensive secondary requires a crazy amount of projecting even for next year, let alone two years from now. With the players potentially coming in (guys like Priest Willis, Tahaan Goodman, Johnny Johnson), and the young players currently in the program (UCLA will only lose one significant contributor between now and the 2014 season, Stan McKay), you have to figure the talent will be pretty good. What is the most promising is that in the secondary (like with the offensive line), the starters will probably be sorted out in the 2013 season, and then they'll be in their second year of starting as a unit for 2014. Whatever four (and five, in the nickel) emerge next season from among at least Tevin McDonald (SR in 2014), Dietrich Riley (SR), Marcus Rios (Jr), Randall Goforth (JR), Ishmael Adams (SO), Willis, Goodman, and Johnson will be in their second year being together, of getting experience and gelling.
Overall, with the defense, clearly it takes some projecting, but it's reasonable to say, given the talent already in the program and the 2013 recruits UCLA has a very good chance of getting, that the talent level on the 2014 defense could be outstanding, and actually decently experienced. It is, though, certainly the more questionable of the two sides of the ball.
First, the Pac-12 schedule for UCLA will be five home games and four road games, with the road games coming against some of the traditionally manageable opponents (Colorado, Arizona State, Washington, California). Obviously, it's impossible to project where every single team in the Pac-12 will be by that time, especially considering Cal and Colorado have added new coaches this offseason, and Washington could be in the market for one by the end of next year, or be quite a bit improved under Steve Sarkisian. The very simple fact that it will be one of the years of five home games, though, is enough to say the conference schedule is favorable.
The non-conference schedule is a significant issue. As it currently stands, UCLA will face Virginia on the road and Texas in Dallas in 2014—two potentially difficult road games in a time when most legitimate national championship contenders rarely even play two quality opponents in the entire non-conference slate, let alone two quality opponents on the road. If there's a virtue in playing a nine-game conference schedule, it's that the Pac-12 is strong enough that those nine games do more than enough to give every member school a good strength of schedule. Scheduling big-name non-conference opponents is good for fans, but it's hard to say how much actual value there is in it—especially when you consider how few big-name opponents SEC schools play in their non-conference schedules and how little that weak scheduling seems to affect their rankings. Regardless, though, scheduling a "neutral" site game against Texas in Texas is probably foolish at any time, let alone in a year when UCLA is poised to make its first real run at a national championship since 1998. Combine that with another road game against another decent major-conference opponent 3000 miles away from Los Angeles, and UCLA could shoot itself in the foot pretty significantly before it even gets to conference play.
This is an area where we'd actually like to see Mora use a little bit of the cachet he's earned after a fairly successful first season. Getting out of the "neutral" site game against Texas should be a goal for this offseason. You can almost guarantee that Texas will be good again by that point—either Mack Brown will regain some mojo or the Longhorns will have a new, high-priced, proven coach. Considering that it's a very rare Pac-12 team that escapes the nine-game conference schedule with no losses, making the non-conference schedule any harder than it absolutely needs to be is just not a good decision. Mora, after 2013 Signing Day, should consider putting some pressure on UCLA's administrators to get (preferably) out of the Texas game, or, if that's impossible, flip the home-and-home with Virginia to get the game at the Rose Bowl in the first year. Now that UCLA is poised to rise in the ranks of college football, it's time that it started to schedule the way the top programs schedule, and that means a steady slate of soft, tasty cupcakes. We don't want to put too many expectations on Mora's ability to affect change in UCLA's future schedule, and aren't even aware if it's a possibility he could do so, but altering UCLA's non-conference schedule would be a major positive in a 2014 national championship run.
Whatever ends up happening with the schedule, though, the next two years figure to be extremely exciting for UCLA fans. In 2013, we'll get to see the young offensive line start to gel as a unit, and see Hundley play with slightly less pressure in his face on every down. We'll see exactly how the very young defensive secondary progresses throughout the season, maybe even turning into a strength of the team by the end of the season. We'll see how both sides of the ball look in year two of the new schemes. In 2014, we'll see the culmination of Hundley and the offensive line's growth, and the third year of Mora and company recruiting players to fit their system. We'll see the best chance for UCLA to make it into the national conversation since 1998. And maybe, just maybe, we'll see enough to make us forget the last 14 years of futility disguised as football.
Next up: an analysis of recruiting needs for UCLA in 2026.