• UCLA will host the Nevada Wolfpack at the Rose Bowl Saturday for its 2013 season opener. The game will kick off at 7:00 PT, and be broadcast on the Pac-12 Networks, with Kevin Calabro, Yogi Roth and Jill Savage calling the action.
• It is also the first game of the season for Nevada. The Wolfpack are coming off a 7-6 season in 2012, while the Bruins went 9-5.
• UCLA starts the season ranked 21st in both the AP and the Coaches Poll.
• It is the first meeting ever between UCLA and Nevada.
• Last season, the Wolfpack beat Cal (31-24), a team that defeated UCLA, 43-17. Nevada also lost to Arizona in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl, 49-48, while UCLA beat Arizona, 66-10.
• In most pre-season rankings, the Wolfpack were picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the Mountain West for 2013. In the MW preseason media poll, Nevada was picked to finish 4th in the West Division, behind Fresno State, San Diego State and San Jose State. Last season they finished 5th in the conference (last season the MW did not have an East and West division, but went to that format this year when the conference added San Jose State and Utah State).
• UCLA has won its last last three home openers (2009 – SDSU, 2008 – Tennessee, 2006 – Utah).
• This marks the third straight season Nevada has opened the season against a Pac-12 team, beating Cal a year ago and losing to Oregon in 2011.
• Nevada is 14-55-5 all-time against the Pac-10/12, but the bulk of those games are from the early 20th century. Since 1991, when Nevada went 1-A, it's 3-11.
• UCLA is 61-28-5 in 94 season-opening games in its history.
• Nevada has won five games against BCS schools since the inception of the BCS in 1998.
• UCLA Head Coach Jim Mora matched the school record for wins by a first-year head coach in 2012 (Terry Donahue, 9-2, 1976).
• UCLA and Nevada are scheduled to play each other two more times in the coming years – 2015 in the Rose Bowl again and then 2016 at Mackay Stadium in Reno (which seats 30,000).
• Nevada is coached by first-year head man Brian Polian. After 28 years, Hall-of-Fame Nevada Coach Chris Ault stepped down last December, and was replaced by Polian, who came to Nevada from Texas A&M, where he served as special teams coordinator and tight ends coach. Polian is 38 years old, one of the youngest coaches in the FBS, and is the son of NFL executive Bill Polian. Besides A&M, he has coached at Stanford (under Jim Harbaugh), Notre Dame (Charlie Weis), and other programs as part of a 16-year coaching career. One of the first things Polian established was that he would not change the famed Nevada offense, The Pistol, which Ault innovated in 2005 (and UCLA attempted to adopt under Rick Neuheisel). The transition was made easier with Polian retaining Ault's offensive coordinator, Nick Rolovich, who apprenticed under Ault for one season.
• Under Polian, Texas A&M ranked in the top 25 nationally in four special teams categories: punt returns (14th), kickoff return yardage defense (14th), net punting (15th) and punt return yardage defense (22nd).
• Nevada has made eight straight appearances in bowl games.
• Nevada has a very young team, with 22 of the 44 players in the two-deep being either freshmen or sophomores.
• The weather for Saturday at the Rose Bowl is projected to have a high of 86 degrees, and be in the low 70s, high 60s around game time.
UCLA'S OFFENSE V. NEVADA'S DEFENSE
For once, UCLA is the team with continuity in scheme, and the opponent is the one in flux. After a miserable year under departed head coach Chris Ault, the Nevada defense was in tatters, losing six starters from a defense that was already pretty bad, ranking 95th in the country last year in yards allowed per game.
A year later, with a new coaching staff in place, the Wolfpack is switching to a Tampa 2 defense under the helm of new defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton. Hazelton, if you'll remember, was the USC linebackers coach for defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, and apprenticed in Kiffin's defensive school of thought while with the Trojans. Kiffin, actually, recommended Hazelton for the job to first year head coach Brian Polian.
Switching to the Tampa 2 is an interesting move for the Nevada defense, but it seems to make sense given the hand Polian and Hazelton were dealt. The scheme is designed to take advantage of a strong defensive line that can generate pressure on its own (something that the Wolfpack is hoping will be the case after returning all four starters on the front line) and can hide some inexperience in the back seven with primarily zone coverage (something that is absolutely necessary with three new starters at linebacker and three new starters in the secondary). The lone returning starter in the back seven is junior strong safety Charles Garrett (5'11, 205), who actually switched to safety from cornerback in the offseason. The basics of the Tampa 2 are relatively easy to learn, though. In essence, the field is divided up into seven different zones (two safeties and a middle linebacker covering the deep zones, with the two outside linebackers and the cornerbacks covering the flats) and there is very little blitzing. Those familiar with the dreaded bend-but-don't-break-but-actually-break-or-at-least-bend-right-through-the-endzone schemes of UCLA defenses past will see some similarities.
It is a scheme, though, that requires speedy players who are excellent tacklers, and, particularly with the tackling, that's where the inexperience could prove to be costly. The starting middle linebacker for Nevada this year is sophomore Jordan Dobrich (6'2, 235), a guy who played mostly on special teams last year and recorded nine total tackles. The middle linebacker in this sort of scheme is, by necessity, a dynamic player, with the ability to drop into a deep zone to work as a near-safety and also stuff the run up the middle. Dobrich looked the part in spring, according to reports, and has already earned captain status as a sophomore, but he'll have a stern test in his first game action as a starter. He'll be flanked by sophomore strong side linebacker Bryan Lane (6'4, 210), who is a tall athlete with good wheels, which he'll need to use in coverage. On the weak side is junior Jonathan McNeal (6'1, 235), who also is reportedly a good athlete, but didn't play last year.
The defensive line is where Nevada is hinging all of its hopes, which is understandable, given the rest of the defense. Nevada returns all four starters from last year, none more important than junior defensive end Brock Hekking (6'4, 255). Hekking was clearly the star on the front last year for Nevada, recording eight sacks. He was good against the run as well as being the Worldpack's best pass rusher.
|Defensive End Brock Hekking.|
Opposite Hekking at the other defensive end spot is sophomore Lenny Jones (6'3, 255), who's a bit more of a speed-rusher, and was exposed at times in the running game. At defensive tackle, senior Jack Reynoso (6'3, 280) was a decent tackler last year, but struggled to generate push up front, and didn't show the kind of ability to get into the backfield that you expect from a three technique defensive tackle. He'll be backed up by familiar name Rykeem Yates (6'2, 270), who was actually a UCLA commit a few years ago. At nose tackle, Nevada returns junior Jordan Hanson (6'2, 280), who isn't the size you'd typically expect from a nose, but has shown some good quickness.
The issue for Nevada is that they'll need to create significant plays in the backfield from a front four that, simply put, hasn't shown a great deal of playmaking ability in the past. Last year, the Wolfpack had just 21 sacks on the entire year, good for 82nd in the country. With less blitzing than last year, that number is not likely to rise.
Although there is a lack of starting experience in the secondary, all four projected starters played last year. Garrett has the most experience of the returners, and has bounced between corner and safety quite a few times over the last three years. The move to safety for the most experienced player in the secondary is likely a security-blanket move from Hazelton, who'd like to have sure tacklers in the deep zones. Flanking Garrett at free safety is sophomore Bryson Keeton (6'2, 190), who is also a converted cornerback, but has a bit more height than Garrett. He started one game last year, and played in six.
At the corners, Nevada will start senior Markus Smith (6'1, 195), who started two games last year, and junior Evan Favors (6'0, 185), who played nine games last year mostly on special teams. Smith had a good spring, according to reports, and emerged as potentially one of the more talented players in the defensive backfield.
Unfortunately for Nevada, the young back seven and new scheme will face a very difficult test in the first game of the season. UCLA's offense is coming off a record-setting season in a number of ways (just ask Noel Mazzone), and many of the key players from that offense returned this season, none more important than redshirt sophomore quarterback Brett Hundley.
In his first season as the starter, Hundley showed why he was such a highly-regarded prospect out of high school, putting together UCLA's best performance from a quarterback since Drew Olson in 2005. What was somewhat shocking, actually, was how well he performed when his warts were also so clearly on display. As a redshirt freshman, Hundley didn't show a great feel for the blitz, frequently moving into trouble and rarely throwing the ball away before the sack came. He also struggled with throwing crossing patterns, frequently hitting receivers high and behind on slant passes.
After watching Hundley through spring and fall, though, it's clear that he's put in some considerable work correcting those issues, and might even have made that storied leap that many players make between their freshman and sophomore years.
He'll need to have made some sort of progression because much more of the burden of the offense will fall on his shoulders with the graduation of running back Johnathan Franklin. In Franklin's stead, Jordon James will earn the early reps as starting running back, with Steven Manfro backing him up. James is not particularly close to the runner Franklin was last year, though he showed improvement as a North-South runner this fall. His historic tendency to try to bounce runs to the outside at any and every opportunity can't be discounted, though. Manfro might actually have more of the running style that the coaching staff is looking for, with much more of an inclination to square his pads and fight for yards forward, so it wouldn't shock us if he ended up starting at some point this year.
Payton and Lucien have had a fight to win the starting X receiver job, and so far it looks like Payton has retained it. Both will play significantly. Payton is more of a possession receiver, but he has decent speed and can make plays downfield. Lucien is much more of a spectacular play threat, with great leaping ability that allows him to make jumping catches over corners.
Darius Bell and Thomas Duarte figure to factor into the mix at the Y spot, and we'd guess that Darren Andrews will also work into the offense as time goes on in a variety of positions. Bell has very good hands, and looks quicker than he did even a year ago. Duarte was arguably the most productive freshman on offense in training camp, looking like he could step right into a college offense and play significantly.
As always, the offensive line is a bit of a question mark, but less so than in previous years. The Bruins return four starters, including potential All-American Xavier Su'a-Filo at left guard and freshman All-American Jake Brendel at center. Simon Goines and Torian White have flipped spots, with Goines landing as the left tackle this season. At right guard, either Alex Redmond or Caleb Benenoch looks to be the starter, but either way, UCLA will start one true freshman at right guard on Saturday. Redmond looks a bit more put together physically, and might be able to deal with the tempo a bit better than Benenoch, who, at 320 pounds or so, looked gassed at times during training camp.
The line was mediocre last year, which was actually a bit of a credit to the scheme and offensive line coach Adrian Klemm, given that the Bruins started three freshmen and a guy who had just returned from his Mormon mission. With a year of experience, the Bruins are hoping that the entire group takes a leap, and carries whichever freshman winds up at right guard along with them.
There are simply too many factors here that go in UCLA's favor. First, this will be the first year of Nevada's Tampa 2 defense, and, if we've learned nothing from watching UCLA football over the years, we've learned that the first few games (at least) with a new defense can be…ugly. What's more, if Nevada does opt for a relatively simple version of the scheme, with very little blitzing, in order to bring the new back seven along slowly, you can expect Hundley to have a fairly easy time picking apart the zone. If the coaching staff opts for more complexity, it's difficult to not expect breakdowns from what is an entirely new pass defense.
A Tampa 2 zone is particularly susceptible to the seam route, because it'll often match up the slot receiver against a middle linebacker dropping back into a zone, which could mean a big day for Fuller. Generally, teams don't get beaten deep in this kind of scheme, but there is the possibility of overloading one side of the zone with multiple receivers, or just running four verticals to generate a breakdown somewhere. Nevada's hope is that it can keep the ball in front of the safeties and generate enough pressure from the front four to cause Hundley to make mistakes.
Then, although UCLA loses Johnathan Franklin, Nevada's rush defense projects to be about the same as last year, which means it'll be pretty bad. UCLA's offensive line, especially on the interior, is much better suited for run blocking than pass blocking. The combination could negate, to a large extent, whatever impact the loss of Franklin has on the offense.
This is the second year of Noel Mazzone's scheme at UCLA, and we have a feeling that what we saw last fall is a fairly stripped down version of the offense. With a year under Hundley's belt, an additional year of experience for the offensive line, and a more talented array of receivers, we expect that we'll see quite a few more wrinkles starting on Saturday.
NEVADA'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE
The pistol offense has become synonymous with utterly frustrating ineptitude for most UCLA fans, but for the rest of the college football world, the pistol is Nevada and Nevada is the pistol.
Or is it?
Chris Ault, the architect of Nevada's pistol offense, retired after last season. Offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich was retained by Polian for continuity purposes after last season, but Rolovich really only has one year under Ault as experience in the pistol. The bulk of his experience, actually, has come in the run and shoot and a variety of spread schemes.
As of now, the talk from Polian and Rolovich is that the offense will still be primarily pistol-based, but that they want to use some of Rolovich's experience in passing-oriented schemes to add something to the passing game in the pistol. If we've learned anything from years of watching football, it's that "tweaks" to an offense have a way of becoming massive overhauls in pretty short order, so it'll be interesting to see just how different the offense is.
What was already in place was a particularly effective scheme. Unlike UCLA's pistol, Nevada was already able to run and pass effectively out of the formation, using more than just a zone read and a fly sweep. Led by junior quarterback Cody Fajardo (6'2, 215), the Wolfpack ranked 8th in the country in yards per game at 514.8, with over 270 of those coming on the ground.
Fajardo is both the engine and the wheels of the offense, like his predecessor Colin Kaepernick. Fajardo is probably not quite the athlete that Kaepernick was in college, but he's no slouch, rushing for over 1100 yards and 12 touchdowns a year ago. His biggest improvements, though, came as a passer. With a full season as the starter, Fajardo shouldered the burden well, connecting on 67% of his passes to go along with 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He's the first of many true dual-threat quarterbacks that UCLA will have to contend with this season.
At running back, the Wolfpack lose a significant producer in Stephon Jefferson, who rushed for over 1700 yards last year. Getting first crack at the job will be sophomore Don Jackson (5'10, 210), who transferred in from Iowa Western, where he started last year and led the nation in yards per carry at 8.7. The system at Nevada is such that almost any running back with decent speed and quickness can excel, so the expectation is that Jackson will be able to step in and take up most of the slack left by Jefferson. If not, shifty junior Kendall Brock (5'9, 195) will take a stab at the job.
|Receiver Brandon Wimberly.|
The issues for Nevada's offense reside on the offensive line, which has become a progressively bigger question mark as training camp has progressed. As it stands right now, a player who converted from defensive line to offensive line at the start of training camp in August, senior Fred Lavulo (6'2, 305), will be the starting right guard, which is a testament to the lack of experience and talent among the linemen. The Wolfpack return a starter at center in junior Matt Galas (6'1, 280) and a starter at tackle in senior Joel Bitonio (6'4, 315), who moved from right to left this offseason. Sophomore Connor Talbott (6'4, 290), the projected starter at left guard, was expected to compete for the right tackle job at the beginning of camp, but moved to guard to help give Nevada a more complete left side of the line to protect Fajardo. Instead, the right tackle job has gone to junior Kyle Roberts (6'6, 305), a tall tackle who played in nine games a year ago. The right side of the line is a huge question mark, and even the left side likely won't be as good as last year, given the losses of Jeff Nady at tackle and Chris Barker at guard, who were both all-league level performers.
UCLA's defense, in the second year, is a bit more of an unknown than its offense. Although the Bruins return five starters in the front seven, the secondary has been entirely replaced from a year ago, with three senior starters graduating and one sophomore starter leaving school after a suspension.
It's not exactly a dizzying bit of analysis to say that the Bruins will lean on the front seven this year. On the defensive line, UCLA returns starting right end Cassius Marsh and starting nose tackle Seali'I Epenesa. Marsh had a very good fall camp, and looked like he might be poised to have a big year this year, showing off considerable quickness from the end spot. When matched up one-on-one versus a guard or a tackle, he was able to use his very good hand technique and quickness to get into the backfield. Epenesa looks like he's in better shape than last year, and should be able to hold up double teams much like he did last year.
The other end spot is still up in the air, to a certain extent. Keenan Graham, Brandon Willis, Eddie Vanderdoes, and a host of others have all taken reps there, and Graham has probably taken the most. Our expectation is that Vanderdoes will be the starter at some point this year, with too much talent to keep him off the field. Graham has looked good, though, showing his usual quickness and ability to rush the passer. Kenneth Clark and Ellis McCarthy will also factor significantly into the rotation, possibly at both end and nose, given that they both have some versatility. Many of the offensive linemen have said Clark has been the hardest player to block, regardless of class, among the defensive linemen. Kylie Fitts will also likely play, giving UCLA three true freshman all expected to see time on the defensive line.
What's exciting for UCLA fans about the linebackers, though, is the depth. Behind the starters, UCLA has arguably its best athlete in freshman Myles Jack, who will factor in as an outside backer, inside backer, and coverage backer. The Bruins also have sophomore Kenny Orjioke, who is about as close to an Anthony Barr clone as you can get. At inside linebacker, freshman Isaac Savaiinaea has already become one of the top three inside backers on the team, and has earned a reputation, early on, as a leader for the defense.
Between the defensive line and the linebackers, you have to figure that UCLA is hoping to use the bare minimum number of players necessary to generate a significant pass rush, because the secondary, as young as it is, is going to need some help. UCLA's oldest player in the secondary is redshirt junior Anthony Jefferson, who really hasn't played much at all in his career due to a variety of injuries. If you had to pick an actual "veteran", actually, it'd probably have to be Randall Goforth, who's a true sophomore. Fabian Moreau, who's slotted as a starting cornerback, had barely played defense in his life prior to last year. Ishmael Adams sat out most of last year with a shoulder injury after playing in the first two games. The expectation is that there will be some growing pains, and that's not even counting the moments when the true freshmen, like Tahaan Goodman, Tyler Foreman, and Priest Willis, are thrown in.
Last year, at the beginning of the year, UCLA trusted its corners a bit too much and went much more to a blitz-heavy scheme. With a better understanding of its personnel this year, we'd have to figure that UCLA will opt for more of what it did toward the end of last year—good amount of zone, plus some situational blitzing to keep the offense honest. As the year progresses, though, and the defensive secondary becomes more experienced, you could see UCLA get more aggressive, which would be an exact reversal of last season.
UCLA's strength (its defensive front) should be able to exploit Nevada's weakness (its offensive front), and Nevada's strength (Fajardo and its receiving corps) could have similar success against UCLA's weakness (its defensive secondary). You have to figure that the outcome of this matchup will hinge almost entirely on how able UCLA is to generate pressure on Fajardo with four or five rushers, because the secondary will need some help from the linebackers.
Given what we've seen from fall camp, our guess is that UCLA's front will be up to the task of pressuring Fajardo. Marsh and Barr on the same side of the defense could be a potentially lethal combination this year, and, even though Nevada's left side is the stronger part of its offensive line, those two would be difficult to block for even the best offensive lines.
Fajardo should be able to gash the defense at times, though. With the amount of zone read that Nevada runs, and the amount of pistol, you can virtually guarantee that they'll run quite a bit at Aaron Wallace to see how he reacts to it. Wallace showed some good ability to recognize the read and hit the right guy during camp, but it's an altogether different thing to do it in a game against a formation that's a bit unfamiliar. The good thing for Wallace is that he spent a year on the scout team in 2011 practicing against the zone read out of the pistol formation, so it might not be as much of a challenge for him as it would be for other inexperienced linebackers.
Through the air, you simply have to figure that Nevada's experienced receivers will get their share of catches against UCLA's defense. We like the talent in UCLA's secondary, but it is very untested. If there isn't a significant breakdown at some point on Saturday, we'd be shocked.
For the first time in a long time, UCLA has unproven players at punter, kicker, and longsnapper. When culture changes, it really changes.
Sean Covington has quite a leg, but like most freshman punters, he shanks his share of punts. He clearly has the potential to be the next great UCLA punter, but it'll probably be a year from now when he starts to round into that sort of form.
Ka'imi Fairbairn is a year removed from an up and down year that had the high point of a game winning field goal against Arizona State and the low point of missing a 52 yarder from the left hash against Stanford (or missing three extra points early in the season). Fairbairn has shown more range this offseason, but his accuracy, while improved, still isn't where you'd like it to be. We expect UCLA will trust him from 40 yards in, but decision could get tougher from there out.
At the return spots, UCLA will likely go with Steven Manfro at kick returner and Shaquelle Evans at punt returner. Manfro had some adventures on special teams last year, and, while he's looked good returning kicks this fall, the only true test is his decision making and catching during games. Evans is sure handed, and always makes the proper decision on whether to fair catch. With this offense being as good as it is, that's all UCLA needs from the spot.
At longsnapper, UCLA is still trying to figure out who can provide consistency there. Christopher Longo appears to be the starter as of now, but he's a bit undersized, and hasn't been consistent on his snaps. A wide variety of players could take his place if he can't put it together during games.
Nevada will also break in a new specialist in freshman kicker Brent Zuzo (5'10, 175), who'll also kickoff. Zuzo, a soccer player, has, reportedly, a pretty big leg, but will take some time to adjust to kicking in front of thousands of people.
Senior Chase Tenpenny (6'4, 250) returns as Nevada's punter after putting together one of the best punting seasons in Nevada history last year, averaging 43.3 yards per punt.
At the return spots, Nevada will have Kendall Brock returning kicks and senior Joseph Huber (5'11, 185) returning punts. Brock didn't have many long returns last year, but he's shifty enough to get a consistent 25 to 30 yards. This will be Huber's first year returning punts.
It should be mentioned that Polian is a former special teams coordinator, and puts a tremendous amount of emphasis on that part of the game. If Nevada didn't look good on special teams, you'd have to figure he'd take it personally.
Nevada has always been prolific offensively under Chris Ault, and there's no reason to expect that will change under the new coaching staff, unless they opt for a completely new scheme, which we don't see happening. The defense has always been the issue, and we can't imagine it'll get figured out in just one game with a new scheme and almost entirely new personnel in the back seven. The Tampa 2 actually does make sense for Nevada's personnel, given that the defensive line is the strength of the defense and the players are generally undersized and fairly speedy, but it's too much to expect it to fire on all cylinders from the opening snap.
Unlike last year, when UCLA was trying to break in two new schemes against Rice, which led to some first half issues, the Bruins are finally entering a season with two proven schemes intact. The returning players seem comfortable on both sides of the ball, and it appears like that has helped the newcomers become similarly acclimated.
Nevada will be a test for UCLA's defense, but we have to figure that the defense, as talented as that front seven is, will be able to generate stops. If Nevada is going to stay in the game, it'll need to rely on UCLA's offense sputtering, to the tune of Hundley throwing a couple of interceptions and the offensive line struggling to run and pass block. We just don't see it, though—not against a new defense with an average defensive line.
You have to figure that the UCLA players will be amped for the home opener after 3 and a half weeks of beating up on each other, and should look decidedly more engaged than the last time we saw them in action against Baylor.
We don't see UCLA's young defensive secondary completely shutting down Nevada's passing attack, but Nevada likely won't have much chance of stopping UCLA's offense. With Hundley leading the way, expect the Bruins to have a comfortable victory to start off 2013.