There were few more exciting story lines in all of football this season than Myles Jack's rise over the last four games of the season. But really, for those paying attention to the team all year, Jack was easily one of the stars of the team even when he was just a linebacker.
Jack changed UCLA's defense in very fundamental ways, giving the Bruins the ability to essentially run a nickel or dime scheme while using personnel similar to what it uses in the base defense. Jack's versatility, with his ability to both cover like a cornerback and defend against the run like a linebacker, made him the linchpin in turning what was a decent enough defense into a very good one.
Of course, then he started to play offense. When UCLA started to run through running backs the way an average college student runs through instant ramen, UCLA called on Jack to provide a boost to the flagging offense. In his first game, he carried the ball solely in a big package with other defensive players, and was a revelation, carrying the ball six times for 120 yards and a touchdown. In the next game, against Washington, he was used in similar ways and was again very effective, muscling in for four touchdowns.
Against Arizona State, in a controversial move, UCLA used him as the starting running back, since the Bruins only had Paul Perkins available as a scholarship running back. While Jack was effective, UCLA opted not to use him on defense, and his absence was felt in the first half, when the Sun Devils ripped through the Bruins for 35 points. The upshot for Jack is that, in his true freshman year, he was so key to both sides of the ball that his absence on defense led to the Bruins' worst half of the year, and his presence on offense restarted what had started to look like a poor offense.
There's an easy argument to be made that Myles Jack was UCLA's most valuable player this year, and if he had spent the entire year splitting time between defense and offense, might have been a Heisman candidate. On the scale of insane freshman season, his might stand near the top.
Brett Hundley's Ups and Downs
There's a belief in many circles that the biggest improvements a player makes come between his freshman and sophomore seasons. Somehow, that concept co-exists with the idea of a "sophomore slump", one of the most common phrases in the sports lexicon. If we had to say how Brett Hundley's season went, we'd probably say it skewed a little more to the latter than the former.
Of course, that's not to say that Hundley was bad, or that he had, even, a subpar season. Generally, he was only slightly less effective than he was last year. But in a year where many, including this site, were expecting him to make the leap to stardom, his treading of water was a bit of a concern.
Some of the blame for Hundley's problems this year certainly rests on the shoulders of the injured offensive linemen and the sometimes-questionable play calling of the offensive staff. Much more this year, he was asked to take deep drops and read the field rather than build on quick drops, quick passing, and simple reads. At this time, reading the whole field and making good decisions downfield are not strengths of Hundley's, and it didn't seem as if the offense made any great attempt to play to his strengths, at least not until the last game of the regular season.
Hundley, though, has some clear areas to improve in the offseason. It seemed at times throughout the year he became a little too conscious of the rush, particularly once his offensive line was hurt by injuries. The thing is, the offensive line actually didn't do that bad of a job, even when it was down to three true freshmen. From what we've heard, though, it wasn't so much the offensive line's performance as his worries about how they'd hold up in the face of blitzes that caused some issues. Yes, the coaches could have called quicker-developing plays, but you have to figure it would behoove Hundley to spend some time this offseason simulating pocket breakdowns and how to deal with them. As with most things, the simple fact that he played virtually every down this year should help him develop a better feel.
All in all, Hundley is still a very good prospect at the quarterback position, and progress isn't always an uninterrupted upward trend. There's every reason to expect that he'll continue to develop as a quarterback for next season, and should be a much improved product when he steps on the field next year against Virginia.
The Freshman Class
On the first day of fall camp in San Bernardino, Tracy and I had to watch only an hour or so of practice to come away with the impression that UCLA's 2013 class might be among the school's best ever. We heard within a few hours of that first practice that one of UCLA's assistant coaches, who was close at hand for USC's rise in the early 2000's under Pete Carroll, said the class, and the feeling around the program that came with it, was much like that at the time under Carroll.
We were so impressed by the freshman class in the first week of fall camp that Tracy and I made the unprecedented move to rank the entire incoming freshman class in order of potential impact long term—a ranking we'll likely revisit and revise at some point in the next week or two. Even doing that, though, we weren't expecting the class to have the impact that it did.
It's safe to say that at least nine true freshmen were impact players for the Bruins this year: Kenny Clark, Eddie Vanderdoes, Thomas Duarte, Myles Jack, Caleb Benenoch, Alex Redmond, Scott Quessenberry, Jayon Brown, and Cameron Judge. You could make an additional argument that without the help of Isaac Savaiinaea, Eric Kendricks' injuries could have proved more devastating mid-season. You could make an even greater argument that without Tahaan Goodman, the juggling UCLA was able to do in the secondary after Fabian Moreau's injury might not have been possible. Heck, you might even argue that Deon Hollins contributions at the beginning of the year were key in stopping some of those zone read offenses UCLA faced early on.
Jack is clearly a superstar already. Clark was arguably UCLA's best defensive linemen this season. Benenoch developed into a really credible right tackle after starting out the year as a guard. Redmond, who faded a bit down the stretch, looked like UCLA's best true freshman offensive lineman since Jonathan Ogden through the first three games of the year. Quessenberry, a true freshman, completely helped to settle down starting center Jake Brendel when Brendel was struggling with snapping issues. Duarte, at times, was UCLA's most reliable weapon when it absolutely needed a completion. Brown and Judge were likely the co-MVPs of special teams this season. When you factor in that players like Kylie Fitts, Priest Willis, Johnny Johnson, Tyler Foreman, Craig Lee, Poasi Moala, and several others didn't even play that much this year, the future looks blindingly bright for UCLA.
Mora's Development as Coach and Leader of Program
It's funny. We had this story line planned out to write even before Steve Sarkisian was hired at USC and Jim Mora's name came up for the Washington job. There are so many ways that Mora has helped to improve the situation at UCLA, in terms of facilities, admissions, and pay for assistant coaches, but the potential windfall from what's gone on over the last few days may have particularly long-lasting and beneficial effects for UCLA football. As Tracy has posted over the last few days, Mora wants more money for assistant coaches—the kind of money that would put UCLA among the top tier of programs in terms of assistant pay. He also wants more of a commitment, overall, to football success, which would entail an easier admissions process for players, among other things. From what we've heard, UCLA is willing to accommodate most of what he has requested, and the expectation is that the situation should work out for everyone, with Mora staying at UCLA.
Whether or not Mora is or was seriously considering Washington, the last few days have shown why Mora has a better chance than any coach in the past to finally turn UCLA into a football power. With his back-to-back nine win seasons, Mora has the leverage to finally make UCLA devote real resources to the football program, investing money in the potential gold mine that is a big-time football team. It's exciting for UCLA fans to think about what he'll be able to accomplish when he has 10 wins or more to sell, both to the administration and to recruits.
On the field, the Mora influence is even more obvious than it was last year. Is there any doubt that with the wave of offensive line and running back injuries this past season, a Neuheisel or Dorrell-coached team would have completely folded, and finished 6-6 or 7-5? Mora's teams, though, exude a level of mental toughness that hasn't been seen at UCLA in a very, very long time. While the penalties could still be cleaned up, and are clearly one of the biggest issues still plaguing Mora's teams on the field, there is little chance that there has been a mentally stronger UCLA team in the last dozen years.
Off the field, Mora, as we said above, is taking care of the internal works of the program better than any coach before him. He got the ball rolling on the football facility, by virtue of winning enough games to gain a commitment from the UCLA athletic department to build the facility. Really, though, there are so many little areas where Mora has improved the program and outreach, from initially offering to pay for the buses to get students to the spring game to helping to push for a blackout against Washington his attention to detail when it comes to the marketing and projection of the program.
With next year setting up as a potentially historic year for UCLA, and Mora likely in Westwood for the foreseeable future (knock on any wooden object you can find), we could be looking at a real renaissance of the UCLA football program.
The Senior Class
In all the hubbub about the incredible freshman class this season, what gets lost at times is the contribution of the departing seniors. There wasn't a game this year where it was more apparently how much UCLA may miss its seniors than the final game of the regular season, when Anthony Barr and Cassius Marsh combined for four sacks against USC, Keenan Graham stepped up for one of those key plays he's made all season, and Shaquelle Evans provided the downfield blocking he's made a point of pride over the last two years.
Barr is obviously one of the best players in the country, and despite being schemed against this season, and oftentimes being asked to play more of a defensive end role than an outside linebacker role, still managed to rack up very good numbers while providing great edge control for UCLA's containment scheme. Barr had ten sacks on the year, and his two against USC, along with another of his patented quarterback strips, made a huge difference in turning that game into a three touchdown beating.
Marsh has had his ups and downs throughout his career, but his senior season was probably his best season. There were times, specifically against USC, that he was almost unblockable, with his combination of quickness and hand technique a little too much for offensive linemen to handle. It's going to be interesting to see how UCLA replaces either Marsh or Barr, since they are both a little unique in their body types and skillsets, with Marsh having the quickness of a linebacker and Barr having that 6'5, long, lean body that lends itself so well to coming around an offensive tackle.
Evans was arguably UCLA's best, and certainly the Bruins' most reliable, receiver this season. In the absence of Joe Fauria and Johnathan Franklin, Evans developed into Brett Hundley's primary target on most pass plays. Thankfully, Evans is the only big loss for UCLA in the receiving game, though Darius Bell, who developed into a decent Y receiver after switching from quarterback, will also graduate.
Jordan Zumwalt faded a bit down the stretch, but there were games this season where he was UCLA's best linebacker—even considering Myles Jack and Anthony Barr. It's going to be interesting to see if Zumwalt gets drafted, and where, because there's an argument to be made that if he learns to discipline himself and play a bit more intelligently, he could be a long-time NFL player.
It wasn't a year dominated by seniors, though, and the Bruins graduate a fairly small class, unlike teams like Stanford and Arizona State. As we'll go over in our ridiculously premature preview series for the 2014 season, the lack of seniors graduating this season sets UCLA up for what could be a very exciting run next season.
Top Story Lines 2013: Part 2
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