Season Preview, Prediction: Part 2

AUG. 21 -- UCLA's defense could make a leap into the echelon of the elite, but will it be enough to push UCLA into the first College Football Playoff?

DEFENSE

After a few weeks of spring practice and then two and a half weeks of fall camp, we’re still unsure what defensive scheme UCLA is primarily going to run this fall. For a while we’d see a 4-2-5, and then the 3-4-4 would make a comeback. It’s obvious now that UCLA really doesn’t have a “base” defense because those two alignments are being used pretty much equally, and we would expect that to be the case this season.

New Defensive Coordinator Jeff Ulbrich has definitely taken the Lou Spanos/Jim Mora defense and added some wrinkles. It not only can morph into a few more alignments than just those two, but it has a bunch of moving parts, utilizing the defensive players to their strengths. The question is whether the players are going to get all of the added wrinkles, like more movement on the defensive line, zone blitzes and so many more sophisticated coverage schemes, and play seamlessly, or will it be too NFL-complicated, and make the players hesitate and have to think about it. Also, in the heat of battle, with bullets flying, will Ulbrich really use such varied looks and personnel?

And the big question: Can Ulbrich call a successful, dynamic defensive game that is well-matched to the opponent? Ulbrich has only been a coach for four years, and a college coach for two years before being UCLA’s DC. If you just go by the numbers, that could be considered a pretty quick, and perhaps hasty, move up to the DC spot.

But we’ve studied Ulbrich quite a bit in spring practice and fall camp. He appears like he’s been a DC for a decade. If you’re talking about seamless, in camp scrimmages, the defense moves in and out of its alignments and personnel groups seamlessly. Ulbrich looks like he has complete control of the play-calling, like he’s doing it in his sleep. We don’t know if this is just a false impression, or if Ulbrich actually is just a very quick study. Or, perhaps, it just comes to him so naturally, that he was born to be a DC – and probably a head coach someday.

Fabian Moreau
The UCLA defense that we’ve seen under Mora should definitely take another step in its sophistication this season, and much of that will be how UCLA utilizes so many of its players as specialists. While fans all want to try to nail down who are the “starters” on a unit, it’s really becoming a bit of an archaic term since, beyond the 11 that first take the field on defense to start the game, there are probably six other players UCLA will utilize regulary in certain packages. These aren’t second-stringers, but players that are “first-string” in that package. For instance, Aaron Wallace might start at outside linebacker in the 3-4, but we anticipate Deon Hollins, who is a rush specialist, will see probably just as much time at that same outside linebacker spot as Wallace. The secondary will move between a four-back and a five-back look probably every series, so you’d really have to say that there are five “starting” defensive backs. Last year we saw how UCLA very liberally used different combinations of defensive linemen depending on the formation and the down and distance, and we expect it to be even more variable and sophisticated this season.

The defensive line, in fact, has a chance to be the best DL at UCLA in a very long time. It’s made up of mostly young guys that flashed some dominating moments last season and are on the verge of having breakout seasons. The “starting” three of Owamagbe Odighizuwa, Eddie Vanderdoes and Kenneth Clark is extremely talented, with all three having NFL futures. We expect Clark to take the jump in his true sophomore year into at least all-Pac-12 status. Vanderdoes might be only slowed a bit because he missed all of spring football due to injury. Owa, after missing the 2013 season, has shown us enough in spring and fall practice that he’ll take over the mantle of the primary DL pass rusher that Datone Jones and Cassius Marsh carried the previous two years. Perhaps the most disappointing player coming out of fall camp is Ellis McCarthy, who missed much of San Bernardino – not because of injury but because he needed that time to get in shape. It was anticipated that McCarthy was the fourth cog in the DL for the season, but we’ve heard the coaching staff has lost some confidence in him. It’s actually a pretty big blow to the DL depth because of the transfer of Kylie Fitts, who, at this point, would likely be getting quite a bit of playing time if he had stayed. This means that Eli Ankou, the redshirt sophomore, who is physically imposing and has looked good in camp, will be seeing a good amount of time and be given the chance to be that fourth guy and potentially supplant McCarthy. It also means that at least one and maybe all three of the true freshmen DLs might play this season. In fact, with the way injuries go during the course of any college football season, we fully expect Matt Dickerson, Ainuu Taua and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner to not redshirt. UCLA Defensive Line Coach Angus McClure ideally likes to have eight DLs available for his rotation, and that’s eight. Dickerson eventually will be a better player than Fitts, but Fitts would have probably had an advantage this season having been in the program for a year. So, the combination of losing Fitts and McCarthy coming into camp out of shape is a real shot at UCLA’s DL. If Owa, Clark and Vanderdoes remain healthy it won’t be that much of a blow, however; and if McCarthy rededicates himself that will go a long way to bucking up the DL depth. Those eight, though, provide McClure with a wide variety of talent and skill, which he’ll mix and match in different looks.

Some might think you’d be crazy to say that this year’s linebacking unit would be better than last season’s, after it lost Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt, but it very well could be. You have stalwart Eric Kendricks, one of the best inside guys in the league. And then you have Myles Jack, who had moments of brilliance last year and is now bigger, stronger, faster and more experienced – and probably concentrated more on playing linebacker without the distraction of running back. Some national pundits are claiming he’ll be the best defender in the nation, which we think might be going a bit overboard. From what we’ve seen in fall camp, though, he has improved and we expect to see moments of brilliance more often this season. The big question of the defense as a whole is where UCLA will get its pass rush from with the departure of Barr, and that’s a legitimate concern. Deon Hollins was used throughout fall camp as the outside linebacker pass-rush specialist and did look very explosive in getting to the quarterback. We expect that Ulbrich will substitute pretty liberally at the position – without Barr, who he probably needed to keep in the game most of the time last season for various reasons, now he can rotate Aaron Wallace, who is a better run stuffer, and Kenny Orjioke, who is the most athletic of the three and might be better in coverage, along with Hollins.

Kenny Young
In recent years there has been a true freshman that emerged from fall camp as a potential big-impact player and this year’s that’s easily Kenny Young. He not only is athletic and physically developed but showed some of the best natural instincts we’ve ever seen from a true freshman in his first two weeks of camp. You might have to go back to Robert Thomas to find an apt comparision. Young vaulted up into the first string within a week in San Bernardino and he looks pretty well locked down there now. When UCLA is in its 3-4, Young will be the #1 guy next to Kendricks. Isaako Savaiinaea had a good showing in fall camp, even though Young leapfrogged over him and, after playing solidly last year as a true freshman, we expect that he will see a good amount of time in the linebacker rotation. Jayon Brown, too, has shown that he can provide good depth in the middle and, even though Zach Whitley was hurt for most of San Bernardino, we expect the very athletic true freshman linebacker to play this season. That enables Ulbrich to go eight deep with his LBs, and that’s not even counting Cameron Judge, who had a very good fall camp.

Assistant coach Mike Tuiasosopo was brought in specifically to help generate a pass rush, from both the defensive ends and outside linebackers. With the loss of Barr, we’ll see if UCLA and Tuiasosopo can replace that kind of pressure on the quarterback in 2014.

The secondary should be the best in a very long time at UCLA. It returns all of its starters from a unit that was very good against the pass last season. It has a potential star and what Mora says is a first-round draft choice in Fabian Moreau at one corner spot. It has veterans Randall Goforth and Anthony Jefferson, and then a guy who doesn’t get the hype he deserves, perhaps because he’s just 5-9, in Ishmael Adams. Add the heat-seeking true sophomore Tahaan Goodman as the fifth guy in the nickel and that’s a very impressive group. Moreau was absolutely fantastic in fall camp – perhaps one of the two most elitely talented players on the team along with Myles Jack. When you have a boundary corner like that, who you can leave on an island one-on-one, it changes what you can do with your safeties so much (In fact, why hasn’t the nickname of “Doctor” really been popularized more for Moreau – as in “The Island of Dr. Moreau”? Perhaps no one under the age of 40 knows the reference?) The sixth guy is Priest Willis, who struggled last year but looked improved and trustworthy in fall camp at one outside corner spot. We’d expect that true freshman Jaleel Wadood, who showed some great natural ability in fall camp despite being just 5-9, won’t redshirt and will see the field at a safety spot. Sophomore corner Marcus Rios, too, recovered from his life-threatening injury and despite being set back for the last week with headaches, is expected to be playable. That’s eight playable guys, which is almost unprecedented in the history of UCLA secondaries.

If you might have noticed we keep emphasizing playable depth. In the Season Preview, Part 1, when we were listing the primary factors that determine the success of a season for any given team, we should probably now include depth. In today’s college football, where they commonly play 14 games and could play 15, there is a high degree of injury and attrition. College football is becoming more and more a test of how much talented and playable depth you have. And UCLA has perhaps its most talented depth chart ever in its history. Like we said, it might not have more top-end talent than last year but UCLA has more deep, playable talent. Injuries hurt UCLA last year, but the same amount of injuries wouldn’t hurt this year’s Bruins nearly as much.

One development we’d like to see is an improved rush defense. UCLA’s rush defense was 71st in the country last season, and if it has national championship aspirations this year that’s just not going to get it done.

The other development we’d really like to see this year – and it relates to the rush defense – is to avoid the slow starts. Spanos’ defenses had an annoying habit of starting a game slow, getting worked sometimes in the first half, particularly on the ground, before Spanos would then make some great adjustments in the second half and pretty much shut down the exact offensive tactic the opponent was exploiting in the first half. Now, we know this might be a product of today’s college football, that the modern spread offenses can do so much, and spring surprises on you often in the first half that you didn’t see on film, and it’s very common for a defense to need a half to adapt. We hope, though, that Ulbrich will be a little better at making quicker adjustments and prevent UCLA from digging itself such a first-half hole as it has so often.

If Ulbrich takes the defense to the next performance level this year, he’ll look like a genius, and Mora will look like a co-genius for recognizing that the ex-NFL linebacker just a few years removed from his playing days was made to be a coach, and particularly a college coach. That’s your defensive dream scenario right there, and Ulbrich probably has the personnel to pull it off.

SPECIAL TEAMS

UCLA had, overall, a good season on specials teams in 2013. It had great punt and kick-off coverage, discovered a great returner late in the season, and a good punter – to go with a somewhat shaky field goal kicker.

We’d expect the return and coverage teams to be similarly good. We’d also expect, from what we’ve seen in fall camp, for field goal kicker Kai’mi Fairbairn to be improved. With the departure of punter Sean Covington, now the special teams mystery is going to be punting. The job is between newly-signed JC transfer Matt Mengel and walk-on Adam Searl.

Mengel has a massive foot, but he’s looked a bit rattled so far in practice and inconsistent. Early on he got off some bombs, but they have been less frequent lately. Searl, though, is a pure walk-on-punter-level talent, so the word is that UCLA will throw Mengel out there and see how he does.

Fairbairn was on a roll in San Bernardino, really looking like he had added some distance to his kicks, more height and more consistent accuracy. Then he faltered a bit toward the end of camp in San Bernardino. Overall, though, his body of work in fall camp has been good, and improved from 2013.

Kick-offs are a toss-up right now between Fairbairn and Mengel. Mengel has probably 2-5 more yards consistently on his kick-offs, putting almost all of them in the endzone, but Fairbairn is more consistent; Mengel will shank one every once in a while, but even the shanks go to the goal line.

UCLA was very good in kick-off coverage last year, in fact, the Bruins were second in the conference in allowing the least amount of kick-off return yardage. Here’s a crazy statistic: UCLA only had 16 punts returned all season in 2013, for a total of 63 yards, averaging just 3.9 yards per return. The longest punt return was for 21 yards. It’s tough to be better than that. Ulbrich was the Special Teams coach last season, and while he doesn’t officially have that title anymore, he’s still doing a good portion of the Special Teams coaching, along with Kennedy Polamalu. It would be really unexpected if the coverage teams suddenly dropped off from their standard of last season.

Ishmael Adams
When it comes to returns, UCLA found lightning in a bottle when Adams was installed as the punt and kick-off returner for the Arizona State game last season. He single-handedly kept UCLA in the game in the first half, returning six punts and kick-offs in that one game for a total of 234 yards. He did it a week later, too, against USC. Up until that time in the 2013 season, Mora didn’t want to endanger his starting cornerback on returns when UCLA was thin at DB, but it’s clear from practice this fall that Mora feels a bit more confident in secondary depth – and Adams will get more return opportunities. Last year, he showed he was completely electric as a return man and far too lethal of a weapon to not utilize.

SCHEDULE AND PREDICTIONS

It does have to be noted that the stars might be a bit aligned for UCLA to make a run at a football national championship. It's surprising, too, that more hasn't been made of the fact that it's the 60-year anniversary of Red Sanders leading UCLA to a National Championship in 1954.

If there ever were a year that UCLA could re-ascend to the top of the college football world it would be on the 60th anniversary of its championship.

As we’ve written numerous times about the 2014 season, thanks to the vagaries of the new Pac-12 rotational schedule, it sets up to be a much easier schedule than in 2013 if for no other reason than, instead of getting a back-to-back road trip gauntlet of Oregon and Stanford, UCLA faces both teams at home, separated by five games.

Last year, we nailed the regular season prediction at 9-3, figuring that the team, even though it was likely going to be better than 2012, would have some issues with the difficult schedule. We said almost two years ago that if UCLA was looking to build toward a year where it could put it all together and contend for championships, 2014 would be the first.

As always, these predictions are fraught with uncertainty. Injuries, as we saw last year, can severely inhibit a team’s chances. It’s almost impossible to account for situations like UCLA losing most of its running backs and offensive tackles. So, with all that said, on to the picks…

UCLA opens on the road against Virginia, and while we would normally have some trepidation about the Bruins opening the season 3000 miles away at 9 AM, the Cavaliers have been so bad lately that anything other than a cakewalk would signal that UCLA might be in for a more disappointing season than anyone anticipated. Virginia went 2-10 last year, and one of those wins was over the Virginia Military Institute, which was last relevant when Stonewall Jackson was an eccentric artillery professor. UCLA should dominate all facets of the game. 1-0.

The Bruins’ home opener will come against Memphis, which may be a slightly better team than the 3-9 squad from last year. The Tigers return most of what was a good rush defense a year ago, so this could be our first realistic look at how UCLA will do running the ball this year. Memphis was anemic offensively last year, though, and even marginal improvement won’t be enough to keep UCLA’s defense from dominating the matchup. 2-0

Finally, UCLA will face a real test in the third week of the season when the Bruins travel to Texas for the long-awaited neutral-site game with the Longhorns. First-year coach Charlie Strong returns 14 starters from last year’s team, even with a spate of dismissals throughout summer, and it’s Texas, so there’s some considerable talent on the team. It’ll also be an effective home game for the Longhorns, with the game located in Dallas. That said, Strong is in just year one of his rebuilding project, and while we’d expect him to eventually put his defensive stamp on the program, having it happen within three games would be a tall order. This should be the first tough game for UCLA, but the Bruins should be able to shut down the Longhorns’ offense and seal a victory. 3-0

UCLA opens the Pac-12 slate against Arizona State, on the road, on a Thursday night. As far as you can take such things, it’s actually a very good point in the season to play ASU. The Sun Devils will still be breaking in an almost entirely new defense along with several new offensive starters, and odds are they will still be in the process of gelling. Todd Graham is a good coach, though, so ASU will certainly be dangerous. This game will be close, as both of the games between the teams have been over the last two years, but UCLA’s defense, with Myles Jack returned to the fold, should be able to put together a much better performance than last year. 4-0

As a final tune-up before arguably the most difficult game on the schedule, the Bruins will take on Utah at the Rose Bowl — and hopefully they don’t think of the game the same way that sentence was written. The Utes have given UCLA two inordinately tough games over the last two years. The talent disparity between the two teams would indicate that UCLA should win comfortably this year, but it’d also be purely natural for UCLA to hiccup a little with eyes toward Oregon the following week. Even a considerable hiccup, though, should give UCLA the win. 5-0

Now 5-0, the Bruins will likely be ranked somewhere in the top 5. If Oregon manages to get past Michigan State, the Ducks could be riding high as the No. 2 or No. 1 team in the country, setting up a titanic matchup that will likely be the site of ESPN Gameday. It’s an interesting matchup to dissect, even several weeks away. If you remember last year, UCLA actually held its own against the Ducks for the first half of the game before a truly anemic offensive showing torpedoed the Bruins’ chances in the second half. For most of the first 30 minutes, though, UCLA’s defense did an effective job of defending against Oregon, using its size, speed, and physicality to match up with the tempo of Oregon’s offense. With a credible offensive performance, it would likely have been a much closer game into the fourth quarter.

So what does that mean for this year? If you posit that UCLA should be more or less as effective defensively as last year, then the question is whether the Bruins will be able to put together the offensive performance necessary to hold serve against the Ducks. While we think the offense should be much more capable of scoring on the Ducks this year with a healthy offensive line and healthier running backs, Oregon’s offensive system is a hard thing to bet against, no matter who the head coach is. The game could go either way, but as of now, we’ll say the Ducks pull out a close win. 5-1.

Through six games, then, UCLA is 5-1, and feeling pretty good about itself after just one close loss to Oregon in a game where it was readily apparent that UCLA could absolutely play with the Ducks. Thanks to the vagaries of the schedule, UCLA then gets a few games to lick its wounds in preparation for the gauntlet in November.

UCLA heads up to California the week following Oregon, and while there are many soft factors that would indicate it’ll be a tough game for the Bruins (they haven’t won in Memorial Stadium since the 1990’s, they’ll be disappointed after the loss to Oregon, they’ll overlook the Bears, etc.), California should be just abysmal enough that none of those soft factors should matter. The Bears won just one game in 2013, and there’s a decent enough chance that they do the same in 2014. Jared Goff is a good quarterback, and there are a few weapons on offense, but the defense should be legitimately terrible. Even with a post-Oregon hangover, the Bruins should break the Berkeley curse with ease. 6-1.

How’s this for a switch from last year? In 2013, UCLA had back-to-back road games against Stanford and Oregon, the two best teams in the conference. In 2014, UCLA’s back-to-back conference road games are against California and Colorado, likely the two worst teams in the conference. Colorado is likely the better of the two, though, and going to Boulder in late October is a bit of a different experience than going to Berkeley. We like Mike MacIntyre as a coach, and there’s a good chance that the Buffaloes are competitive at times this year. Quarterback Sefo Liufau is one of the toughest players in the conference, and reportedly the Buffs have tweaked the offense to better suit his talents. By this point, though, UCLA’s defense should be gelling into the kind of unit that can completely shut down an offense like Colorado’s. 7-1.

The Bruins return to Pasadena for the first game of November against Arizona. The Wildcats still don’t have a starting quarterback — redshirt freshman Anu Solomon looks like the leader right now, but he hasn’t exactly taken off running with the job. It’s an obvious concern for Rich Rodriguez, because the tools are there, especially at receiver, to have a good offense as long as he can find a quarterback. Arizona’s defense did lose a fair amount up front, and without Ka’Deem Carey, coupled with the present lack of a quarterback, there’s simply too much uncertainty for Arizona. This could be UCLA’s last truly comfortable win of the season. 8-1.

Owamagbe Odighizuwa
The final quarter of the season sets up to be a gauntlet, and the final test to prove that UCLA is worthy of a seat in the Pac-12 Championship game and, potentially, a trip to the College Football Playoff. The first game, at Washington, should be very tough. The Huskies saw a massive coaching upgrade in the offseason, with Steve Sarkisian being fortuitously hired away by USC a year after he was on the hot seat and Chris Petersen finally electing to leave the friendly confines of Boise State. Petersen has shown that he’s an excellent coach throughout his tenure at Boise State and we’d have to imagine his effect will be felt immediately. Washington is not without talent, with many starters returning on defense. The question will ultimately be quarterback. Cyler Miles, who many expected to be the starter this year, has had several offseason issues, and is now suspended for the opener. Jeff Lindquist, the redshirt sophomore, may end up being the pick, but he’s actually never thrown a pass in college, despite appearing in three games last year. It’s a tricky situation, having to break in a new quarterback in a new system.

This game will be a major test for UCLA. It’ll likely be a cold and rainy affair, and Washington is probably the second most talented team UCLA will have faced up to that point in the season. Like Oregon, it’s a game where we think both teams have a reasonable chance to win, but in this one, we think the balance tilts in favor of the Bruins, who will have enjoyed nearly three years of coaching continuity at that point of the season. 9-1.

UCLA returns home for the final two-game slate, with the first matchup against USC. Over the past two years, UCLA has beaten USC by a combined 31 points, and we see no real reason why UCLA shouldn’t have another fairly comfortable two-touchdown victory. The Trojans have good top-end talent, but USC still is dealing with the effects of sanctions, and by the end of the season could be down to the same 55-ish scholarship players they were down to last year. Perhaps more importantly, Steve Sarkisian hasn’t shown himself to be much more than an average coach, and we’d have to imagine that continues at USC. The Bruins will be riding high after a dramatic victory over the Huskies, and Brett Hundley should put the finishing touches on his 3-0 career record against the Trojans. 10-1.

Fittingly, UCLA will end the second half of its season as it ended its first: with the toughest opponent from that group. Stanford lost a good amount of its defense, and a chunk of its offensive line in the offseason, but the Cardinal has recruited well on both lines the last few years, and by the end of the season, we’d have to imagine that Stanford will be back to its old tricks: dominant defense and steady, power offense. Stanford, even moreso than Oregon, has been the bugaboo for UCLA in the Mora era. The Bruins are 0-3 against the Cardinal in the last two years, and the last loss may have been the most disheartening, with UCLA’s defense more or less shutting down Stanford’s offense, but UCLA’s offense being almost completely unable to score against the Cardinal.

UCLA’s defense should be as good or better than it was last year, but the question, as against Oregon, will be whether the offense can get enough traction against what has become a dominant defensive system in Palo Alto. To be honest, we’d be taking a leap to assume that UCLA will be able to do so. UCLA likely won’t have a dominant rushing attack, so the team will rely pretty heavily on Brett Hundley, who has yet to have a very good game against Stanford. As with Washington and Oregon, only moreso, this game truly feels like a tossup. Ultimately, while we think it should be a very close matchup, and very similar to the Pac-12 Championship game two years ago, right now we’ll say UCLA comes up just a bit short. 10-2.

At that point, 10-2 UCLA is also 7-2 in conference, with the tiebreaker against every team in the Pac-12 South and virtually a shoe-in for the conference title game. In comparing the teams in the North, we’d have to give the nod to Oregon for the Pac-12 North. Stanford may be a comparable team by the end of the year, but the Cardinal will likely deal with some growing pains at the beginning of the season that may leave it out of the running.

As we said above, there’s every reason to suspect that the regular season matchup between the Ducks and the Bruins will be a close game that could go either way. The upshot for UCLA will be that, even with a loss, the Bruins will know that they have the ability to play with Oregon. We’d suspect as well that after a year of experience in Jeff Ulbrich’s defensive system, the talent on that side of the ball has really begun to shine, to the point where it’s ready to shut down much of what Oregon likes to do offensively. We think that one of the primary reasons UCLA has been working so extensively in a 4-2-5 defense is to specifically be prepared for Oregon's offense. After nearly three years of climbing, we say UCLA finally gets its signature win, beating Oregon and winning the Pac-12. 11-2.

We’re not going to step into the chairs of the College Football Playoff committee, but UCLA will probably have the most compelling case of any two-loss teams — whether that means anything will likely depend on how many undefeated and one-loss teams there are. As of now, we’d have to imagine UCLA, in this scenario, would be left out of the playoff, but headed to a better bowl game than it’s been to in quite a long time. It’ll be a bit of an awful coincidence that UCLA, which has been on a semi-historic Rose Bowl drought, will pick the one year to win the conference when it doesn’t have an automatic bid to the Rose Bowl (and a bit eerily reminiscent of 60 years ago when UCLA couldn't play in the 1955 Rose Bowl because of the PCC's no-repeat rule).

So, instead, we’ll say UCLA gets selected to the Fiesta Bowl (now in Glendale, Ariz.) to take on Wisconsin (What's a major UCLA bowl game without Wisconsin involved?). In Hundley’s final game at UCLA, the Bruins score a resounding victory over the Badgers, finishing the season 12-2. It's not the College Football Playoffs or a National Championship, but it definitely continues the upward trend of Mora’s program in Westwood.


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