Defensive Coordinator Lou Spanos is a complete enigma. As you've seen in his video interviews on BRO, he's not exactly engaging, or well-spoken. We know he's putting on a bit of a persona for the media, one in which he clumsily and sometimes non-coherently mumbles sports clichés. In practice, he's still a little loopy, running out on the field with enthusiasm, barking instructions and play calls, stalking the field like a – well, stalker. In private, away from the camera, we've heard he's still a bit of an eccentric personality. It's not as if he suddenly turns into Aaron Sorkin. But we have heard that he is generally considered a defensive football genius – especially by Jim Mora. He is kind of the Rainman of Defensive Coordinators, able to process defensive concepts, schemes and personnel usage like Dustin Hoffman counting toothpicks.
Last season we saw plenty of the Rainman's defensive concepts in action and, for the most part, they were effective. There was a bit of a learning curve on getting familiar with UCLA's personnel, but once they knew who they had, a great deal of the time the defensive scheme and tactic was appropriate and effective. As the season went on, we saw Spanos' 3-4 morph into many different forms, a 5-2, a nickel, dime, utilizing a min-linebacker, the amoeba front, etc. There was some pretty interesting stuff coming out of the defensive game plans every week in the second half of the season. Now, so far in fall camp, with the players far more comfortable in their second year in the scheme, it looks as if Spanos has installed even more layers and options into the defense, with many different packages and looks that utilize different personnel in many different ways. We can only say this fall watching practice it had us literally trying to determine what defense he was in almost on every snap, and we anticipate that the heads of opposing offensive coordinators are going to hurt trying to do the same this season.
Even though it can be complicated, it essentially is this: Spanos is trying to exploit the specific talent of his personnel, and put them on the field and in a position where they can be the most effective.
It's revolutionary, we know, after so many years of UCLA's vanilla defense under the command of seemingly overwhelmed defensive coordinators. Every year it was more bend-and-don't-break philosophy, and it ended up being more of a bend and break. While UCLA's defense will certainly have its breakable moments this season, we can be pretty certain that UCLA fans won't have to watch opposing defenses exploit the dreaded, ever-present 7-yard cushion all the way down the field – over and over. Spanos, at the very least, is clearly going to try to keep opposing offenses guessing by throwing so many different looks at them, sometimes from down to down.
The strength of Spanos' defense, which he clearly in fall camp has shown he's going to try to consistently take advantage of, is the front seven. UCLA's front seven could be the best among any west coast teams in college football. The linebacking unit has to be among the best, with All-American candidate and dominating Anthony Barr; the Pac-12 leading returning tackler in Eric Kendricks; and one of the most athletic and experienced players on the team in Jordan Zumwalt. Then, on the line there is Cassius Marsh, who had a very good junior season and has looked Datone Jones-like this fall; a two-year senior starter at nose tackle in Sealii Epenesa, a potential freak sharing reps with him in mammoth Ellis McCarthy, and then a rolodex of other names that have a chance to be very good, headlined by perhaps the crown jewel of the 2013 recruiting class, Eddie Vanderdoes. Never, never in UCLA football has there been so much talent on the defensive line. It's stunning when UCLA Defensive Line Coach Angus McClure, in practice, decides to use his all-freshman DL for some reps, and plugs in Vanderdoes, Kenneth Clark and Kylie Fitts. Then there's fifth-year senior Keenan Graham, who was practically a starter by the end of last season and played very well at defensive end; Brandon Willis, a big-time recruit in high school who has shown flashes in practice and will get his most playing time to date this season; and Eli Ankou, a physical freak of a redshirt freshman, who is a chiseled 6-3 and 290 pounds. When UCLA was doing a goal line period the other day in practice, and you saw the guys they had lined up – Marsh, Epenesa, McCarthy, Vanderdoes, Clark and Ankou, they represented a whole new breed of physicality for UCLA's defense line. This is not your DL of Kenneth Lombards or Chase Molines.
And then, when you're talking linebackers, along with those three starters is perhaps the deepest stable of talent UCLA has had in 20 years. Aaron Wallace will fill in the last starter's spot at outside linebacker, and he has looked very good this fall. There's the guy that will provide Vanderdoes some competition for crown jewel of the 2013 class, Myles Jack, who has been putting on a show of athleticism all of August. Only a couple of weeks into his college career he has shown freakish athleticism for his size, with the ability to cover like a safety and then throw around blockers and throw down running backs. There's the 18-year old sophomore athlete Kenny Orjioke, who looks more physically like Anthony Barr every day; Isaac Savaiinaea, who has been so good he's vaulted himself into the first middle linebacker option off the bench; and Deon Hollins, who has such an explosive first-step off the edge, one that Mora said was the best on the team. And that's not even counting the list of solid guys backing up all of them – guys who would probably be starters in circa Dorrell.
Spanos must be like a Rainman in a candy store. You can picture him in his office late at night, like a mad scientist, conceiving of how to use all of this talent in the front seven.
It's clear, though, that if UCLA's defense is going to be good this season, Spanos is going to have to take full advantage of that talent up front. With a secondary that is going to be questionable, at least for the beginning of the season, UCLA will have to compensate with its front seven setting the defensive tone and making opposing offenses have to react off of it rather than allowing offenses to easily exploit UCLA's young and inexperienced defensive backs. The strategy will basically be: UCLA's front seven will have to be disruptive enough so that opposing quarterbacks can't pick apart UCLA's secondary.
While there is some talent in the secondary, it's all inexperienced. When you know your best cover corner is Fabian Moreau, who was a running back less than a year ago and just learned to backpedal in the off-season, that's a sign of inexperience. When you know your veteran DB of the group is Randall Goforth, who only played as a true freshmen last year, you know that experience is going to be the key to the secondary this season. The starters also include Anthony Jefferson, the redshirt junior who has overcome injury, at the other safety spot, who has only played very limited minutes last season; and redshirt freshman cornerback Ishmael Adams, who played a handful of snaps last season before he sat out the rest of the way due to a shoulder injury. Between the four of them, they have less than a year of starting experience. As we stated, there is some talent there; Moreau, despite being a converted running back and new to corner, has some tremendous upside at the position, with natural athleticism and long arms. Adams is physical for his size and relentless. Jefferson could perhaps be the best cover guy in the group, but was moved to safety in an effort to get the four best DBs on the field, and the fact that you want some experience at safety; and Goforth has looked improved this fall in terms of his coverage ability.
Behind them is also some talent, but young and inexperienced. One of the storylines of fall was Priest Willis, and Mora emphatically declaring him a cornerback, not a safety. Willis started fall looking like the coaches wanted him to be a starter, but then he fell off to platooning with Adams, then just being used in nickel, and now he's straight with the 2s. It seemed like he hit a bit of a wall, which is understandable. But we still expect Willis, once he climbs the wall, and isn't so overwhelmed by learning his assignments, to be back in the mix fairly soon. The other true heralded freshmen, safeties Tahaan Goodman and Tyler Foreman, look talented and have slotted in the two-deep, and are just some more experience in the scheme away from playing. It appears UCLA will get an added boost from redshirt senior Brandon Sermons, who has made a remarkable comeback from a broken leg, recording the fastest 40 on the team (4.33) in the off-season, and you can definitely see that speed on the field. He is now second-string corner, but has played safety, too.
Last season, a big issue with UCLA's defense was the coaches getting familiar with its personnel and how to most effectively use them. We believe the coaches thought far too highly of cornerbacks Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester early in the season and put them in man coverage quite a bit – and they consistently got burned early. There is some concern this season, again, with a group of players that the coaches are just getting to know, that there could be a getting-to-know you period this season, too. Another concern: Last year, UCLA's best all-around defensive back was Andrew Abbott, but for much of the season he was used as a centerfield-type free safety and was very rarely around the ball, and whether that will happen with Jefferson this season.
The issue will be, when you throw all of these inexperienced guys into some fairly complicated coverage scheme there are going to be some breakdowns. Especially when you have some pretty sophisticated offenses and quarterbacks trying to specifically exploit them. UCLA's defensive secondary is, by far, the biggest question mark on the team going into the fall, and at this point, besides any potential injuries, the biggest factor in determining UCLA's success this season. If the unit is good, there really aren't any other holes on UCLA's defense or offense. And it wouldn't be unheard for the inexperienced secondary to be good, since there's talent there. They have been going up against some pretty talented receivers in UCLA's practice, so there shouldn't be too many opposing receivers that are so good they're a shock to the system. You'd also have to think that, as this unit gets experience, they should improve, and will probably be considerably better by the end of the season.
Last season, UCLA was eighth in the nation in sacks, averaging 3.21 per game, and it still felt like they didn't pressure the quarterback enough, especially early on in the season. This season, UCLA putting pressure on the quarterback is going to be the key for the defense. It will help to mask the inexperience issues with the secondary, at least until they get up to speed and comfortable. It's why Spanos is installing so many different looks to his defense, to try to distract and disrupt the quarterback, and keep him from stoically picking apart Spanos' young defensive backs. It's one of the biggest factors to watch this season, just how successful that is – UCLA disrupting opposing quarterbacks – and just how good UCLA's secondary is, or becomes.
It's a different world in UCLA's special teams. There hasn't been a year in a very long time when UCLA didn't at least have an All-Conference-capable punter or kicker, and didn't have a renowned snapper. This season they don't have any of them, and there could be some shaky moments on Special teams.
Kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn had his shaky moments to begin last season, then had some vindication when he hit the game-winning field goal on the road against ASU. But he's still a bit of a question. He was 2 of 5 from 40-49, and missed his one attempt at 50+, the kick that would have tied the Pac-12 Championship game in the last minute against Stanford. In practice, his range is about 50-52, and he's not complete money 45-50, so gone are the days of the automatic three points from Kai Forbath. We expect Fairbairn will be better this season, but we also suspect that, with a more experienced Hundley, Mora might be going for more fourth downs when UCLA is around the opponents 30 to 35-yard line.
Punter Jeff Locke graduated and now true freshman Sean Covington takes over. In practice so far it's clear he has a leg, booming some 60 yarders, but one in about every five is a shank, so consistency, as you would expect, is going to be the question.
UCLA also lost a great longsnapper in Kevin McDermott, and snaps so far in fall have been shaky. Walk-on Christopher Longo doesn't have an overly quick or strong snap , so walk-on linebacker Willie Green has done some longsnapping and, at times, looked better. In spring, Darius Bell looked very good doing it, but he hasn't so far this fall because of his broken hand. We think UCLA would get off very fortunate if there wasn't an issue with a snap sometime this season.
The return specialists should be improved. It appears that Steven Manfro is the first stringer for kickoff returns. Shaquelle Evans and Randall Goforth look to be the primary guys for punt returns. Devin Fuller did some of both in practice, and there was also Moreau and freshman Darren Andrews. As of now, it's not set who will be the returners, but just merely Manfro, Evans and Goforth having more experience should make them, at the very least, more reliable.
What you've all been waiting for – the season record prediction. In the Neuheisel era, as we've said, doing this was a complete crapshoot. In the Dorrell era it was a bit easier, since, really, the Bruins didn't under-perform as much as they did during Neuheisel. Then there was last year, when we predicted 8-4, the Battered Bruin Syndrome keeping us one win away from nailing it.
This year, knowing that coaching won't undermine the team and that they should have a very good chance of playing up to expectation, the predictions are quite bit easier, even though we have to say: trying to predict in August the outcome of a game in November is completely dubious and should never be held against said predictor.
But here we go…
UCLA opens against Nevada, a team with a new head coach, a new defensive scheme and what is probably just about the same level of defense, one that was 95th in the country overall and 110th against the rush in 2012. UCLA's offense should dominate the game, and the Bruins' defense will probably allow some points, still getting its legs. 1-0.
UCLA then goes on the road to Lincoln, Nebraska, to take on the Cornhuskers, ranked 18th in both polls to start the season. It's perhaps the biggest game of the year. If the Bruins win, you could see them get some national momentum, Hundley get mentioned more in the Heisman conversation, and be at 5-0 when they face Stanford and Oregon back-to-back a month later. UCLA beat Nebraska last season, and you could make an argument that UCLA is better and Nebraska isn't. It is on the road, in a packed Memorial Stadium, in a sea of red, which is a clear advantage for the ‘Huskers, but once again we think Hundley and UCLA's offense will rule the day. 2-0.
New Mexico State is coming off an 1-11 season, has a new head coach, and just doesn't have big or athletic enough bodies to stay close to the Bruins. 3-0.
Utah went 5-7 in 2013, and UCLA played one of its worst games of the year and beat them, 21-14. In Salt Lake City in early October the weather shouldn't be an issue, and Utah will still be trying to find an offense after ranking 11th in the Pac-12 in total offense last season. The Utes' defense, too, have plenty of holes to fill. It could be a close game, with UCLA never being good on the road in the state of Utah. 4-0.
Our friends the Cal Bears have fallen into the bottom third of the Pac-12 after Jeff Tedford's heyday and then the former coach running the program aground in recent years. With a new head coach (Sonny Dykes), a new quarterback (potentially true freshman Jared Goff), new schemes, and just decent talent, it should be a Cal re-building year and, most importantly, the game is at home so the Bruins avoid the Berkeley curse. 5-0.
Next is the two-game gauntlet, at Stanford and at Oregon. The Cardinal are ranked 4th and the Ducks 3rd in pre-season polls, and the two teams should be 6-0 and 7-0, respectively, when the Bruins travel to both locations on successive weeks, so both teams could have even loftier rankings at game time. UCLA, too, if it's undefeated going into the Stanford game, should be ranked probably about 15th-ish.
First, at the Farm. You have to like Stanford, the schemes it runs and the personnel it has returning from last season when they won the Pac-12 and beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. The thing is: The Bruins had a very good chance to win both of last season's match-ups, especially the Pac-12 Championship game in Palo Alto. UCLA was leading late in the second half and had the Cardinal on its heels. If both teams are healthy, it should be another great game this season, but we're going to pull a homer here and say the Bruins won't be intimidated at all playing in the friendly confines of Stanford Stadium again and beat Stanford in the rubber game. 6-0.
If this is how it works out, and UCLA beats Stanford and is 6-0, it will travel to Eugene to take on the Ducks in perhaps the most-hyped UCLA game in recent memory. If this is the scenario, it will get huge national attention, with Brett Hundley v. Marcus Mariota Heisman hype. While we think the Ducks are a bit over-rated and that we'd bet on Stanford the week after this when the Ducks go to Palo Alto, we think the Bruins come up short against Oregon, in Eugene. They'll probably be beaten up a bit after Stanford, and with its inexperience probably getting the best of the team playing in such a national limelight in overwhelming Autzen Stadium. 6-1.
You have to feel a bit sorry for Colorado in this situation. The Bruins will be angry after losing to Oregon in a big national game and then come back to the Rose Bowl and want to get right beating up on the Buffaloes. Colorado is probably the worst team in the conference this season. 7-1.
Still let down a bit by the loss at Oregon, and without really being tested against Colorado, UCLA then travels to Tucson to take on an Arizona Wildcat team that should have a good record. The UCLA/Arizona game got away from the Wildcats last season (66-10) and that will almost certainly still be on their minds, and UCLA will probably still be in a post-Oregon funk, and a bit beaten up after Stanford and Oregon. 7-2.
Washington at the Rose Bowl will be a pretty big game, with the Huskies, given their previous schedule leading up to this game, probably playing for their lives. There will also be the whole UW-Mora dynamic. This game could go either way, with two teams of comparable talent, and could come down to, at this point in the season, who's the healthiest. We'll say that the Bruins are still in a bit of a post-Oregon funk, which has Bruin Nation wondering if they'll pull out of it, and Washington pulling out their season and potentially saving their coach's job with a win. 7-3.
We think, given Arizona State's schedule, we feel they're a bit over-rated and they don't have great depth, the Sun Devils should be struggling at this point in the season. Their schedule, up to this point, consists of Wisconsin, Stanford, USC, Notre Dame, Washington and Oregon State, along with Sacramento State and Colorado. At home, in the Rose Bowl, UCLA gets back on track, and puts itself in a position to win the Pac-12 South. 8-3.
If you read the BRO Message Board, you'd think USC was going to come in last place in the Pac-12 South. Despite the sanctions hurting depth, the Trojans are still talented. The defense is pretty loaded – not deep, but loaded among the starters. Even though they haven't found a starting quarterback yet, the guys they're considering aren't stiffs. Their season, in fact, probably hinges on finding that quarterback and, given the talent around him, we think whomever it is he'll be productive enough for the Trojans to be successful. We don't think they'll be national-championship-contending successful, but probably the 9-win level. The Bruins, too, just aren't traditionally good in that dark, dank Coliseum. There's something that funks them up having to travel to that side of town. But playing for the Pac-12 South Championship, we'll go with the positive life force of Jim Mora over the Trojans and Lane Kiffin. Perfect scenario: USC ends the season at 9-4 and it's just slightly too good for Pat Haden to fire Kiffin. 9-3.
UCLA, even with the three Pac-12 losses, wins the Pac-12 South, with the win over the Trojans head-to-head clinching it. It's UCLA's third consecutive Pac-12 South title in a row. The Bruins go back to Autzen, and feel more comfortable, and in a very similar game to the Pac-12 Championship last year, UCLA looks like it should win the game, but loses to the Ducks on a missed field goal in the last couple of minutes. 9-4.
The Bruins go back to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl as the #3 Pac-12 team, and this time play Texas, and this time are ready and prepared. They take out their aggressions for barely missing out on the Rose Bowl for a second straight year on the Longhorns, and practically reverse the score against Baylor. 10-4.
With a 10-win season to follow up the 9 wins in 2012, recruits perceive that Mora's program has truly established itself. UCLA gets 24 scholarships available for the 2014 class and, with the success on the field, it again signs a top-five class in the nation.
For 2014, sixteen starters return from a 10-win team. There is the further development of UCLA's younger talent and another big influx of talent from the 2014 recruiting class. Then, Brett Hundley and Xavier Su'a-Filo announce they're both returning for their senior seasons, and UCLA is set up for a national championship run in 2014.