Most of the time that optimism has been dashed as soon as the team stepped into September.
We've spent some time thinking about why this consistently happened year after year – why it was so difficult to predict, in August, UCLA's season outcome. And we've come upon the reason: UCLA always had a decent amount of talent, so you'd get optimistic after watching it on the field, but the team always under-achieved because of poor coaching.
That's not the case anymore with Jim Mora's program. Now, after the 2012 season, when we second-guessed the staff quite a bit (and proved to be correct most of the time), we're not completely ready to hand over the reins of our confidence in Mora and his staff entirely. We anticipate there will be some coaching head-scratchers this season, like there always are when you're over-analyzing a college football program like we do. But we feel, after watching the coaching staff grow and evolve within the program over the last year, develop its systems and schemes and get to know its personnel, there will be far less head-scratchers than there were a year ago.
And beyond just the literal coaching – that is, the offensive and defensive schemes, the game's fundamentals, the in-game coaching, etc. – the program has been transformed in terms of its culture by Mora and his staff. So many new coaches say they need to instill a culture of excellence at a program, and it's safe to say that Mora and his staff have at the very least set the UCLA football program down that cultural road. You have to give Mora a great deal of personal credit; he has done some things behind the scenes at the UCLA Athletic Department that didn't necessarily sit well with the AD, but he did them anyway. We always thought that the UCLA football program had a chance to be great if a head coach had a strong enough personality to often times buck UCLA's AD and the UCLA administration, and Mora, so far, has turned out to be that guy. Getting buses for the students to go to the spring game, painting the walls of Spaulding Field (which are in Mora's signature black), getting medical staff on call when the program needed them, and many more things, were all pretty much rejected by UCLA but Mora did them anyway. It's, of course, Mora having some power as a result from the most successful season at UCLA since 2005, but it's also a matter of Mora's personality being a force that has, in a way, plowed right through UCLA's bureaucratic walls. As we had always maintained, if you had a strong enough personality in the position of UCLA's head coach, and he did the kind of things that Mora has done, the program is a potential juggernaut, because of its ability to recruit. Heck, Mora had a 9-5 season, which was decent, and what did he do? He went out and signed the #3 class in the country last February. You need to just read the names of the other schools in the top ten to realize the scope of that accomplishment – Ohio State, Michigan, Alabama, Notre Dame, Texas A&M, Florida, Georgia, LSU and Mississippi. That's rarified company in modern college football, and UCLA was able to put itself in it merely because it had one decent season.
So, UCLA needs to win (and doesn't even need to win that much), and it needs a head coach with a vision and a strong personality, and you combine that with UCLA's natural advantages and the program has a very good chance of taking a place consistently among the top ten programs in the nation.
So, how does this all apply to the upcoming season? It helps to fulfill some of the criteria that we've always maintained determines the outcome of a season. They are: talent, experience, coaching, injuries and schedule. In past years under different head coaches, that third one on the list – coaching – always fell through for UCLA. There was generally enough talent to do better than UCLA did every year, but it always under-achieved. Injuries always hurt UCLA because the roster simply wasn't very deep. And because the program didn't represent and embody toughness, work ethic and dedication, it attracted soft players that many times never developed or even made it to their junior or senior seasons, so experience seemed to always be a factor every season.
Judging the criteria this season:
Talent: As we've said, because of the influx of talent from the freshman class, UCLA easily has its most talented roster in a very long time. In San Bernardino, the difference was striking – the team is just bigger and more athletic across the board. Now, of course, changing the talent level of a program is a process. It takes a few recruiting classes to transform it and UCLA, after the last two recruiting classes, looks on its way. But it's still in the middle of the process in terms of talent from top to bottom – from the senior class to the freshman class.
Experience: As it is under most new coaching regimes in their first few years, the team will seem on the youngish side again in 2013. It's what happens when a new coaching staff cleans house and brings in its own talent. If UCLA starts the season with the starters we project, it will only field 6 seniors on both sides of the ball, and only 2 on offense. UCLA won't have one starter on the offensive line that is a senior. In fact, among the 11 offensive starters, 7 will be sophomores or freshmen. Now, UCLA has some younger guys that have experience, for example, four of the five starting offensive linemen will be returning starters. So "experience" isn't just about age, obviously, but in the experience category is also the sub-category of physical maturity. A second-year starter who is a senior has a better chance to be a more effective player than a second-year starter who is a sophomore, mostly because his body has had two more years to mature. For the 2013 season, the UCLA football team is still on the youngish, inexperienced and physically immature side.
Coaching: Not only has Mora and his staff changed the culture, it's clear that UCLA is getting far better actual coaching. The offensive scheme of Noel Mazzone was the best at UCLA in probably 14 years. The defensive scheme, designed by Lou Spanos, started to gel toward the end of the 2012 season, and it's clear that it's far better than any defensive scheme UCLA has had since, well, Rocky Long? In San Bernadino, too, it was very evident that the 2012 season was just basically the first layer of both the offensive and defensive schemes, and that now that the players have been in the systems for a year, the coaching staffs are installing far more complex levels to both schemes. We saw more defensive looks in San Bernardino – during just fall camp – than we saw all of last season. The experience of personnel within a system, too, is probably a sub-category here, and that should be a big factor in UCLA's second season under Mora. In San Bernardino, it was clear that the players were very familiar with the systems compared to last year, and that familiarity and knowledge of the complexities of both the offensive and defensive schemes should be a huge element to UCLA's success on the field in 2013.
Injuries: Of course, there is the element of luck, or bad luck, when it comes to injuries every season. But in college football, it's also about having enough depth – and talented depth – to offset injuries. The best college football teams have talented depth. UCLA, with the very talented 2013 freshman class, is building it. How the staff develops its younger players this season could be a big key to the season – so that the talent in the second- and third-string is prepared to play in case of injury.
Schedule: It's the Big Kahuna of determining how a season will go for any given college football team. And many times you can't even predict, in August, the state of an opponent in November (even though we kind of nailed that USC would be in some disarray last season by the UCLA game). It's pretty well-accepted that UCLA has a more difficult season in 2013 than it's had for a while, mostly because it plays Stanford and Oregon, two pre-season top 10 teams, on the road on successive weekends. If you take that off the schedule, or just substitute Oregon State for Oregon, the schedule looks far more friendly. Or merely if the Oregon game were in the Rose Bowl. But other than that, the rest of the schedule doesn't really look that intimidating. We'll get into it game by game in the second part of this preview.
As we've said in years past, so much of what determines the fate of a college offense in any given season are the quarterback and the offensive line. Last season, UCLA's offense had a decently successful season because it got a record-setting performance from Brett Hundley, and the offensive line opened up enough running room for Jonathan Franklin to run through. This season, you'd have to think that, if you're going by that criteria, the UCLA offense should improve since this season will see a Hundley that is year older, more mature and experienced – and just plain better – and an offensive line that returns four starters that are older, more mature and experienced, and just plain better.
Hundley was a bit of a mystery going into last season. He had all the tools – the size, athleticism, arm and intelligence -- but as a redshirt freshman he lack experienced, and lacked experience specifically in the new offensive scheme of Noel Mazzone. In fall practice leading up to the season, Hundley looked just okay. But then we realized throughout the season that Hundley fared better in games than he looked in practice. Simple swing passes that he tended to miss in practice he hit with precision in games. Deep outs weren't timed well in practice, but in games they were picture-perfect. So, going by that standard, Hundley should be spectacular this season because he has looked particularly good in fall camp, making some beautiful throws, both long and short, and generally having a much better grasp of the offense and his reads. We expect him to still have some hiccups, particularly in his decision-making, like when to get rid of the ball, and hopefully nothing involving his sliding. But if you just project Hundley to have moderate development at the quarterback position this season it should make him a top-five quarterback in the nation and, once again, a UCLA record-setter. So, check off the quarterback criteria.
Perhaps the biggest question about the quarterback spot is who backs up Hundley. That question was a bit uncertain before T.J. Millweard decided to transfer Monday, but now it's looking pretty certain that redshirt freshman Jerry Neuheisel will fulfill that role and beat out walk-on Mike Fafaul. It's pretty worrisome, since Neuheisel has always been marginal in terms of his talent for this level, and his development has been one of stops and starts since he's been at UCLA. This fall he hasn't been great, even though he had perhaps his best practice since Millweard left the program. Neuheisel generally gets the mental aspect of the game, even though you still have to consider it a work in prospect since he has no game experience. Beyond that issue, the primary issue is whether Neuheisel has the talent to get the basic job done if he were needed. Of course, if Hundley doesn't miss a snap all season then that issue will never really become one. But in college football there is always a decent chance that your starting quarterback gets dinged up sometime along the way of playing 12+ games. And there are different kinds of injuries, obviously, those that keep you out for a series or two, or maybe one game, or those that take you out for 3+ games. Even after watching Neuheisel for almost two years in practice, we're still uncertain if he'd be able to get the basic job done – that is, at the very least, don't make the team lose. And then, if Hundley had to sit out for more than just a game, say, would the UCLA coaches be inclined to prepare true freshman Asiantii Woulard to play? Woulard does have the talent to play at this level, but he's clearly "swimming," sinking a bit, in fact, while trying to digest everything he needs to know to play the quarterback position in Mazzone's offense. He has looked like a deer in the proverbial headlights at times. Of course, when he's throwing in one-on-ones he looks fantastic. So would the UCLA coaching staff put together a very simple package for him to get the team through a game or two without Hundley, or would they still opt for Neuheisel? Would it be worth burning Woulard's redshirt? We think it would greatly depend on how Woulard's doing in practice – if he's progressing in his knowledge of the offense and his decision-making – thus making it a better bet that, with a simple package, he could get the basic job done.
Regardless, keeping Hundley healthy is priority #1 for the offense.
That leads us naturally to the offensive line, since they're an integral factor in Hundley's health. If we're using whether any unit will be improved over last season as the measuring stick than the 2013 offensive line should measure up fairly well, if it stays healthy, and that's a big "if." Right now, in fact, starting tackle Simon Goines is sitting out because he tweaked his knee in San Bernardino. If Goines is healthy the starting OL for Nevada would probably consist of four returning starters, Goines at left tackle, potential All-American Xavier Su'a-Filo at left guard, Jake Brendel at center and Torian White at right tackle. You'd have to naturally think that all four of them will have improved over last season, and that's been evident in fall practice. Goines has transformed his body and looks considerably better physically, and it's helped him with his lateral quickness. He'll never out-quick a defensive end to the spot, but every bit of improved athleticism helps, and it helps Goines does what he does best – that is, use his length and strength to keep a pass rusher out of the pocket. Su'a-Filo has improved his body to a degree and definitely his stamina; he hasn't looked winded yet in fall practice, and he's showing more leadership. Brendel has improved in just about every facet and in one-on-ones is probably the most difficult OL to get around. He is quick and strong, and very good-sized for a center. If you're talking body transformations, White's is miraculous. It wasn't that he had a bad body to begin with, but now he looks like Tarzan. White doesn't have much excess on his frame, but has filled it out with muscle, and weighs 290 pounds. He was always pretty athletic, but soft at times, and he looks like his newfound body has toughened him up, too. When you've gained a great deal of strength like White has it might tend to do that. True freshman Caleb Benenoch will plug in as the starter at right guard, probably being the most ready to play of any other OL in the program and among the true freshmen. He has a college-ready body, even though he could shed some weight, and strength, and when he gets his hands on a player he uses that strength effectively to contain. Of course, there
Like with quarterback, the concern on the OL is playable depth. With Goines being out for about a week now, offensive line coach Adrian Klemm has mostly been using Su'a-Filo at left tackle and plugging in true freshman Kenny Lacy at left guard. Lacy looks like he ideally needs to redshirt, needing to do some work on his body before playing any significant minutes, but he has shown some good athleticism and I.Q. for the position working with the 1s. He has tended to get pushed around a bit some, though. True freshman Alex Redmond looked like he'd be an option also, but has been out for about a week because of a concussion. He was back running on the sideline this week and is thought to be back fully within a week. Redshirt freshman Carl Hulick has also gotten some times with the 1s recently when Benenoch was out with the flu, so perhaps Hulick, too, might be the option if any starting OL went down. There was one version that had Benenoch at right tackle, so that could be a possibility, too. Klemm is mixing and matching, using Goines being out to experiment in trying to find the best combination if any starting OL went down. Really it's about how he can best mask the inadequacies of having to plug in a couple of inexperienced players. It's a tough decision: perhaps it would be better to keep the interior of the OL intact to ensure the best results run blocking since you don't have Franklin to make you look good, and also to only have one position disrupted (guard) instead of two (guard and tackle)? How Klemm adapts to injury with his OL will certainly be a factor for the offense this season, since the team has only gone through a very limited-contact two weeks of practice and the OL has suffered a number of injuries. Goines has always had issues with his knees, playing on a bad one almost the entire 2012 season, and didn't get through San Bernardino without a tweak. If we could say the OL were just the returning four starters and Benenoch for the season we'd have to think the unit would have a good season, but injuries have to be thought of as an inevitability, and the OL just doesn't have much in the way of playable, experienced depth. It gets considerably less solid with just Goines out, so it's very worrisome to think if UCLA had to deal with two injuries among the starting OL.
As we've maintained previously, we think eventually sometime this season, perhaps even before the Nevada game, Klemm will recognize that White is the best and most reliable candidate at left tackle. Goines will be the right tackle, but Benenoch will probably be the first up at that spot if Goines can't go. That leaves the right guard position open, and it could be either Hulick, Redmond or Lacy. It also leaves potentially two true freshmen alone on the right side of the line.
We actually think the second-best tackle on the team behind White, even if Goines is healthy, is Conor McDermott, the 6-8, 280-pound redshirt freshman. It will be interesting to see if McDermott ever gets a shot at that right tackle spot either through Klemm giving him a chance or inadvertently through injury.
Bottom line on the offensive line: It has some issues, and we think those issues will limit the OL this season to a degree, to the extent that the OL should probably be about as good as it was last season. So, that's a wash.
Last season, with the OL, the primary issue was pass protection. It did a fairly good job in run blocking, but was pretty porous in protecting Hundley, allowing 3.71 sacks per game, bad enough to get that stat ranked as the third worst in the country. With probably the #1 issue for Hundley being his feel for a pass rush, it was thought in the off-season that pass protection for the OL would be a priority, and that's what's inspired moving Su'a-Filo to the left tackle spot when Goines is out. So far in fall practice, we'd have to say that the OL looks like it has the same strengths and weaknesses it did a year ago – being good in run blocking but sketchy in pass pro. Of course it has gone up against some pretty good Bruin pass rushers, but pass pro is easily still the biggest concern for this OL.
When we're talking about the OL, it seems like the right place to probably discuss penalties, since UCLA's offensive line last season was probably the primary culprit. UCLA was dead last – in the country – for committing penalties, committing 9.2 per game. Mora has clearly made it a priority in fall camp, bringing in referees to practice a few times and instructing them to be overly tight in their calls. We really have no feel for whether UCLA's penalty situation will improve in 2013; if you were just guessing you'd have to say yes, since the team is overall a year more mature, and especially the offensive line. And not to single out any one player, but Jeff Baca, who was responsible for a good many penalties himself, is now gone. It truly is a critical area of improvement for UCLA, since so many times last season a penalty was either key to stopping down a UCLA drive or keeping an opponent's drive alive. With Mora being a coach that emphasizes discipline, it's a bit out of character for a team of his to commit so many penalties, but perhaps it was an aberration, and it should perhaps help that the players are now in the schemes for a second year.
The receiver group will be improved also from last season. A big loss is Joe Fauria, who became UCLA's go-to guy. There really isn't anyone of that capability on the roster – someone you know you can throw the ball to who can get you the 8 yards you need for a first down. But overall, with the improvement of the returning players and perhaps UCLA's most talented receiver, Devin Lucien, now available (he was out for most of last season), it makes for a better overall group. Shaquelle Evans has probably been the most consistently good receiver in fall camp, and he should be among the reception leaders in the Pac-12. Lucien has shown more consistency and focus in camp. Jordan Payton certainly looks like he's ready to take a step forward from his solid true freshman performance last season. The guy who has really made a leap is Devin Fuller, and he looks almost unguardable as the slot guy. In only 9 games last season he had 20 receptions, but it's not hard to envision that tripling this season. If we had to guess the receiver who will lead the team in touchdown receptions, we'll go with Fuller. UCLA is, then, a little thin after those four guys. We have always liked Darius Bell since he converted to a Y, but he's been always set back by injury (currently nursing a broken hand). Then there are the true freshmen and, among those, Thomas Duarte looks the most ready to contribute at the Y. He has very sure hands and a good catching zone that makes him tough in traffic. Darren Andrews is a good candidate to play, since he's been getting a good amount of time in the rotation in practice and gives UCLA perhaps some game-breaking type speed. Eldridge Massington is still a work in progress since he's recovering from the ACL. He started off slowly in fall, then had a surge, but in the last couple of days looked like he hit a bit of a wall. We fully expect redshirt freshman Nate Iese to play at the Y, since he provides a role that no one else on the roster can – that of a true tight end type that can both catch and block. He continues to get better as he gets comfortable in his routes and catching the ball, and has been very good in the last few days of practice. A key to the success of the receivers for 2013 will be their improved comfort level in the scheme, and Hundley's improved comfort level in getting them the ball.
The biggest mystery of the offense is the running back position. While many want to discount the contributions by Franklin last season, and cite that the offensive line will be better and the tailback spot will be done "by committee," it's going to be tough to replace Franklin's running ability – period. Even if you do it by committee, the committee still probably isn't as good as Franklin is play after play in gaining yards running the ball. And it's not just a question of durability or being the workhorse. There really isn't anyone in the running back depth chart that has clearly shown the ability to gain yards like Franklin, or even close. Predicting Jordon James to be really good at tailback is a bit of a leap of faith since he never has really shown he's capable of being the type of running back that can play after play do what it takes to gain the necessary yards. We've seen Paul Perkins in practice and he looks promising, but not world-beating, and it's impossible to know how he'll do in real games. He could completely surprise and be a gamer, and play at a higher level than he does in practice. If we had to think there was a tailback on the depth chart who has the chance to be the type of running back UCLA needs it would be Steven Manfro. Even though he only ran the ball 8 times last season, and many times those carries were in mop-up duty against a tired, beaten defense, he is the type that can run between the tackles with toughness, put one foot in the ground and go upfield. He might not have the size to be durable enough to carry the ball 20 times per game (like Franklin did), but if there's anyone we can envision to have the toughness and durability to take on the bulk of the carries from the tailback position for the majority of the season, we think it's Manfro. Damien Thigpen is still recovering from his ACL, isn't expected to be seen in a game for the first few weeks, and we are doubtful that Thigpen can return to his same form from last season. Whomever it is, and if it's that player named Committee, we still think it will be a challenge to reproduce the 1,819 yards Franklin did in setting a UCLA single-season record in 2012, and the 3187 yards total rushing for the season.
We do think UCLA's run blocking will be the strength of the OL, so that should bolster UCLA's running game, and give it a chance at the same kind of rushing production from 2013. If UCLA can do that with one primary tailback or a committee of them, with what you would project to be an improved passing game because of an improved Hundley and receivers group, UCLA's offense has a very good chance of improving upon its ranking of being the 24th best offense in the nation. Truly, the key to all of this is Hundley. If he's better than he was last season it won't matter that they don't have anyone who can gain yards on the ground as well as Franklin. In Mazzone's spread, the emphasis could go back to the passing game, like how the offense is designed, and Hundley could put up Heisman-competitive numbers. The biggest key to the offense is Hundley's health. He better learn how to slide.
Coming Soon, Part 2: The Defense and The Season Prediction…