Offensive Line Injuries
Coming into fall camp, one of the big questions was the development of the offensive line. The OL from 2012 had, you could probably say, over-achieved, but it still had some vast room for improvement, particularly in pass protection.
As fall camp went on it appeared that the offensive line had come a long way, due to the development of the OL from the previous season by Offensive Line Coach Adrian Klemm. The two freshman tackles from a year ago, Torian White and Simon Goines, looked much improved, not only in their technique but their bodies. White looked physically like a 6-5, 290-pound gladiator. Goines had slimmed down and changed his body, too. The concern in 2012 was that quarterback Brett Hundley didn't feel comfortable with so much vulnerability in pass protection. The thought was that Xavier Su'a-Filo would, then, be moved to left tackle, to allay Hundley's worries. But in fall camp, Goines, who started out at left tackle, looked like he had developed to the point that Hundley had confidence in him. That enabled Klemm to then move Su'a-Filo to his natural position of guard. White plugged in at right tackle. The only question was who would win the starting right guard position, and true freshman Alex Redmond originally looked like the best candidate, but he was set back by some injuries to begin camp. Once he returned, about a week and a half before the first game, it was clear that Redmond was the best option.
Jim Mora even commented, by the end of fall camp, that the UCLA offensive line had gone from one of the units that concerned him to a considerable strength.
In the first few games, it was astounding how good Redmond played – and the UCLA offensive line, with the returning talent all playing well themselves, looked like it was on its way to taking another step forward in the 2013 season.
But then that pesky injury bug went after UCLA's tackles. Goines, who had had a history of knee problems, came into the season not completely 100%, so he was moved to right tackle and White, who is probably more athletic anyway, to left. In the Utah game, White then freakishly broke his ankle and was lost for the season. Goines then switched back to left tackle, and UCLA burned the redshirt on true freshman Caleb Benenoch to fill in at right tackle. Then the disastrous Stanford game; Goines goes down at left tackle, and Connor McDermott, who had been emerging as a real player, steps in. He plays well – for the couple of plays he was in before he, then, too, was lost with a shoulder issue, that he later needed surgery for, which put him out for the season. Benenoch flips to right tackle, Su'a-Filo moves to left tackle and UCLA burns another redshirt for a true freshman, plugging in Scott Quessenberry to left guard to replace Su'a-Filo. Goines is questionable each week from then on out until he breaks his leg against Arizona State. Also, and this is information that hasn't been released this season, center Jake Brendel had snap issues because of a lingering injury that he bravely pushed through – and never used as an excuse.
To then really get the entire story: Benenoch is ejected from the USC game and back-up guard Ben Wysocki, who was projected to probably never see the field, has to fill in at right tackle.
You definitely needed a scorecard.
With this many injuries, which led to so much uncertainty, lack of continuity and just a plain lack of talent and experience at offensive line, Hundley's confidence in the OL was, you could say conservatively, shaken. There was interminable discussion about what was causing the offense to struggle more – the lack of effectiveness of the offensive line, Hundley's inability to make decisions, or Noel Mazzone's playcalling and seeming inability to adapt to the former two issues.
All in all, the offensive line did yeoman's work in the 2013 season. You can't reiterate it enough: UCLA, for a big portion of the season, started three true freshmen. It's a big issue to start one true freshman on a college offensive line, but three is shocking -- and two right next to each other on the right side and unable to rely on a veteran but left to their own freshman devices. It's truly amazing that Hundley wasn't sacked on almost every pass play. It's a testament to how good UCLA's veterans – Su'a-Filo and Brendel – were at keeping the OL together; how good those three true freshmen are; Klemm's coaching and, ultimately, Mazzone's ability to adapt the playcalling. Quessenberry got worked a bit by ASU's Will Sutton but then bounced back with an exceptional performance against USC. If you isolate on him and Redmond, against USC's highly-touted defensive line, you have to keep telling yourself that these guys are true freshmen. UCLA beat USC with three true-freshman offensive linemen.
It bodes amazingly well for the future of UCLA's offensive line.
Running Back Injuries
Jordon James was having a big season, ranked among the most productive running backs in the nation, averaging about 150 yards per game coming out of UCLA's three non-conference games. Then, during that fateful Utah game, he came up hobbled and missed the middle third of the season with an ankle injury. Of course, there are always many contributing factors to why a running attack bogs down – like with UCLA this season there was also the offensive line injuries and some conservative play-calling. But looking back on it, it wasn't coincidental that the UCLA running game seized up after the injury to James.
It's interesting too, because James was a bit of an unknown quantity coming into the season. No one expected him to replace Johnathan Franklin, and there were worries that he wasn't the type of runner that could be a workhorse type. He had always had issues with running sideways instead of putting the proverbial foot in the ground and going forward. It was clear, though, by the USC game, when he did return completely healthy, that the UCLA running game had missed him.
Paul Perkins took over the starter's role, and results were mixed. He, at times, looked effective, but overall just wasn't gaining enough yards. There was the thought that the offensive line had lost Torian White at the same time and that it could be due to the OL issues, but Perkins just didn't look like a top-level running back that could exploit every hole and opportunity to its utmost.
It made James' injury considerably more devastating when UCLA lost back-up Steven Manfro for a big chunk of the season, never really got back Damien Thigpen, who was recovering from ACL surgery, and then Perkins was dinged up and not 100%.
That, of course, opened the door for Myles Jack, the linebacker/two-way star. And even though Jack breathed some life into UCLA's running attack for a few weeks, and got him and the UCLA program some national spotlight time, the UCLA running back situation still wasn't a good one.
It is clear that the running back situation – particularly the loss of James -- was a significant contributing factor to the offense bogging down in the middle third of the season. It's tough to consider what might have been with the offense had James been healthy this season.
James has been injury prone in his career, in high school and in college. Looking to his senior season in 2014, a big issue will be whether he can remain on the field and relatively injury-free.
Improved Defensive Scheme
One of the biggest problems at the beginning of the 2012 season was the lack of understanding the defensive coaches had for their personnel. Through the first five or six games of the season, and through two losses to California and Oregon State, UCLA used a very blitz-heavy scheme, which presented two issues: first, UCLA didn't have effective blitzers at most of its linebacker spots and, second, it put UCLA's secondary, which wasn't very good, in tough, man defense situations. It's a credit to UCLA's staff that they were smart enough to adjust midseason and go much more to a nickel-heavy scheme that relied on coverage rather than heavy pressure.
Fast forward to this year, and our expectation was that UCLA would start blitzing heavily again because the coaches would figure that, with a year in the scheme, the defensive players would be better able to pick up the man concepts and pressure schemes of Mora and Spanos. Instead, Lou Spanos went against his natural instincts and opted for much more of the coverage based scheme from the previous year, with a few wrinkles.
One of those wrinkles, of course, was Myles Jack, which we'll get to in another section. His presence allowed Spanos and Mora to use, many times, base personnel to guard spread teams, and also provided the Bruins that extra speed element on the edge to allow them to get away without blitzing heavily. Against the many spread offenses UCLA faced this year with mobile quarterbacks, like Nevada, Nebraska, Oregon, Utah, Arizona, Arizona State, and so on, the scheme was much more effective, and helped to turn UCLA's defense into a very good one.
The question heading into next season is whether or not UCLA will opt for a similar style, without Anthony Barr and Cassius Marsh. Those two players combined for 16 sacks this past season, and in many ways provided a good deal of pressure without UCLA having to blitz. Without them, Spanos and company may feel the need to bring more pressure to generate some kind of pass rush. At least now we know, though, that the defensive staff has the ability to marry the scheme to the personnel, rather than trying to fit diverse skill sets into a cookie-cutter mold.
Offensive play calling
Through the first few games of the season, it seemed likely that UCLA was poised to have a potentially elite offense this season. With nearly 60 points against both New Mexico State and Nevada, and an explosive 28 point quarter against Nebraska, there was reason to suspect that Brett Hundley and the offensive scheme had taken the leap. Of course, against Utah, starting left tackle Torian White went down with a season-ending injury, and then was soon followed by backup tackle Conor McDermott and starting right tackle Simon Goines. With the offensive line failing, Hundley also began to show some flaws, looking like he was struggling in the face of the rush.
In a disconcerting move, the play calling didn't seem to adjust well to Hundley's issues and the inexperience along the offensive line. Instead of opting for short pass plays and an up tempo offense designed to get rid of the ball quickly and wear out defenses, UCLA seemed to go into a shell, ineffectively trying to establish the run while also using slow-developing pass plays that required Hundley to read the field, which is not one of his strengths. Only in the final game of the year, against USC, did UCLA go back to the up tempo scheme and quick passing from a year ago, and naturally, the Bruins had one of their most complete offensive games since the beginning of the year.
In a certain sense, you understand why the offense went into a shell, to a certain extent. With three true freshman offensive linemen, it'd be hard not to adjust your mindset. But the beauty of the 2012 season is that UCLA was able to compensate for youth and inexperience by opting for a simplified offense that played to Hundley's, and the offensive line's, strengths. Looking back on the 2013 season ,it seems obvious to say that the outcomes in both the Stanford and Arizona State games could have been decidedly different if UCLA had gone more to the up tempo style of offense they employed during much of 2012.
Heading into the bowl game and the offseason, the biggest question for the offense will be whether or not UCLA, after seeing how effective the game plan was against USC, reconfigures the offense to take advantage of Hundley's natural strengths, rather than try to force him into a scheme that really exposes his weaknesses.
The Team Exceeded Reasonable Expectations
Even with the offensive issues, it's clear that this team exceeded expectations. Yes, we know that we predicted that the team would go 9-3 before the season, so, very specifically, the team met our expectations. But when you factor in the injuries—not necessarily the number, but the specific positions affected—this was an exceptional year. In case you weren't paying attention, at various points this year UCLA was without any of its top four offensive tackles and without four of its top five running backs. To then win nine games, including three of the last four over quality opponents, speaks volumes about the competitive nature of this UCLA team.
Jim Mora needs to be given a ton of credit for producing back-to-back nine win seasons, and in many ways, this year was a more impressive nine win season than the last one, despite not getting to the Pac-12 Championship game. The Bruins lost three games to teams ranked in the top 15 of the BCS, won on the road at Nebraska, at Utah, at Arizona, and at USC. Despite having to play Myles Jack at running back because their only other healthy scholarship running back was Paul Perkins, the Bruins were within a play of knocking off Arizona State at home and going to their third straight Pac-12 Championship game. With all of their top four offensive tackles out for most of the game, UCLA gave the Trojans their biggest beating in the rivalry since 1970 in besting USC by 21 points.
The season, which, under a different staff and culture, might easily have ended with a six or seven win outcome, was a successful one, and gives UCLA some very good momentum heading into the recruiting season. With a likely Sun Bowl destination for New Years, the Bruins need just a victory over a middling ACC team to win ten games for the first time since 2005. That kind of finish, coupled with a second consecutive win over USC, a second consecutive nine win season, and the most wins for a UCLA coach in his first two years ever, should give UCLA and Jim Mora the boost needed to move into the elite echelons of college football in 2014.
Top Story Lines 2013: Part One
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