• UCLA opens the 2014 season on the road, with the Bruins traveling to Charlottesville, Virginia, to take on the Virginia Cavaliers on Saturday, Aug. 30th. The game kicks off at 9:00 a.m. PST, and will be televised by ESPN. Bob Wischusen, Matt Millen, and Quint Kesserich will call the action.
• UCLA is ranked No. 7 in both the AP Poll and USA Today Coaches Poll to start the season. It’s the highest that UCLA has been ranked heading into a season since 1998, when the Bruins were also ranked No. 7.
• This opener will mark the fourth time in five years that UCLA has opened the season on the road.
• The Bruins have gone 19-8 in Jim Mora’s first two years, with UCLA earning a 10-3 record last year with a final win over Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl. At No. 7, this is the highest that UCLA has been ranked at any point in a season since 2005.
• The Bruins return 16 starters from last year’s squad, with the only losses being Anthony Barr, Cassius Marsh, and Jordan Zumwalt on defense, and Shaquelle Evans, Darius Bell, and Xavier Su’a-Filo on offense.
• UCLA had some coaching turnover in the offseason. Defensive coordinator Lou Spanos moved back to the NFL and running backs coach Steve Broussard was fired soon after the season. Former USC assistant coach Kennedy Polamalu was hired to take over the running backs, and linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich was promoted to take over the coordinator duties. UCLA also hired Mike Tuiasosopo to handle outside linebackers and special teams coordination.
• This year will mark the first year of the College Football Playoff, and many national pundits are predicting that UCLA will make the final four. On ESPN College GameDay this past weekend, all three pundits (Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard, and Lee Corso) picked UCLA to make the playoffs, with Howard and Corso actually picking the Bruins to win the national championship. Several national media members have echoed that sentiment over the past several weeks.
• If UCLA were to win the national championship, it would be the first championship for the Bruins in football in 60 years, and just the second overall.
• UCLA was picked to win the Pac-12 South by Pac-12 media, but Oregon was picked to win the conference.
• Quarterback Brett Hundley is also already earning significant preseason hype as a Heisman candidate. Corso and Herbstreit both predicted that Hundley would win the Heisman this year. If Hundley were to pull it off, he would be just the second Heisman winner in UCLA history, after Gary Beban.
• Virginia had a miserable 2014 season, going 2-10 with one of those wins over VMI. The Cavaliers have been on a downward swing over the last few years, going from 8-5 in 2011 to 4-8 in 2012 to 2-10 last year.
• UCLA and Virginia have never played each other in football. UCLA is 17-13 all time against teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference.
• Interestingly, both UCLA and Virginia ended the 2013 season playing the same opponent — Virginia Tech — with the Cavaliers losing 16-6 and the Bruins winning 42-12.
• Virginia head coach Mike London has won every home opener of his career as a head coach, though that list includes Elon, William & Mary, and Richmond (twice).
• London enters the season firmly on the hot seat after going 2-10 last year, which was Virginia’s worst record in more than 30 years. There is some thought that London will need to get to six wins and a bowl game to keep his job.
• The Cavaliers do return a good deal of their team, with 17 returning starters, including seven on offense and ten on defense.
• This will be just the fifth time that Virginia has played a Pac-12 opponent, and the Cavaliers are 0-4 against the conference, with losses to USC (twice), Oregon, and Washington.
• UCLA Chancellor Gene Block was a member of the faculty at Virginia and then served as provost, in addition to a variety of other positions, before being selected as Chancellor at UCLA in 2007.
• UCLA Sports Information Director Steve Rourke is also a Virginia graduate.
• The Bruins are favored by 21.5 points.
• The weather forecast calls for a high of 91 degrees with partly cloudy skies and a 10% chance of rain. So dress in clothes that will keep you dry while not making you overheat.
VIRGINIA'S OFFENSE VS. UCLA'S DEFENSE
Virginia head coach Mike London enters the 2014 season firmly on the hotseat. After seemingly having the Cavaliers on the upward tick through his first two years, with a 8-5 record in his second year after going 4-8 his first year, he’s now had two straight losing seasons, culminating in a moribund 2-10 record last year. He has publicly acknowledged that there is a great deal of pressure on him and his team heading into the season to produce results quickly.
Much of that pressure will be placed on an offense that had a miserable year last year, ranking in the bottom 20% in the country in many relevant statistical categories (120th in points per play, 112th in average scoring margin, 117th in offensive touchdowns per game — an astoundingly low value of 1.8). The rushing offense wasn’t great, with a fairly low 3.6 yards per rushing attempt, but the real culprit was an awful passing attack. The Cavaliers ranked dead last in the country at 4.9 yards per pass attempt. To give you some perspective, UCLA, which had some struggles throwing the ball at a few points last year, ranked 19th with 8.3 yards per pass attempt.
Many think that Virginia had difficulty adjusting to first-year offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild’s pro-style scheme. Last year’s quarterback, junior David Watford (6'2, 210), was unable to find much of a rhythm at any point during the year. Perhaps the clearest picture of his lack of improvement throughout the year: He threw eight touchdowns all year, but just one in his last four games. In that same four-game stretch, he threw six interceptions (with a total of 15 on the year).
As you might imagine, that performance has led to a quarterback change. Out with the 6’2 dual-threat Watford, in with the 6’5 sophomore statue Greyson Lambert (6'5, 235). Lambert, who was a four-star in the class of 2012 and the No. 9 ranked quarterback in the country, is much more of the typical pro-style quarterback that Fairchild wants running his offense. Lambert, for his part, has the strong arm you’d expect from such a big quarterback. He played some last year, during that same four-game stretch where Watford struggled, and really didn’t do a whole lot better. The expectation, though, is that the redshirt sophomore has made some real strides in the offseason, and offseason reports seem to indicate he has.
He’ll have some assistance in the backfield with senior running back Kevin Parks (5'8, 200) returning. Parks rushed for 1,031 yards last year on 227 attempts, which is an especially good line when you remember that teams could key on the run last year since Virginia did not pose much of a passing threat.
The offensive line has had some significant turnover, losing starting left tackle Morgan Moses and starting left guard Luke Buwanko to the NFL Draft and then starting right tackle Jay Whitmire to a back injury that could sideline him all year. Virginia is thin up front, with just two returning starters in junior Ross Burbank (6'4, 310) at center and senior Conner Davis (6'5, 300) at right guard. The three other starters are all true sophomores, with Michael Mooney (6'6, 290) getting the nod at left tackle, Ryan Doull (6'5, 300) replacing Buwanko at left guard, and Eric Smith (6'5, 295), who played significantly last year, getting the start at right tackle. Mooney and Doull do not have much playing experience, which could make the left side vulnerable.
Virginia’s receiving corps also took a hit in the offseason with tight end Jake McGee (the leading receiver from a year ago) electing to use the graduate transfer option to play his final season at Florida (which should tell you something about the locker room opinion of the Cavaliers’ offense). Darius Jennings (5'11, 175), the senior wideout and No. 2 leading receiver last year, returns, and he has some talent, with good speed. In reality, though, Virginia threw an astonishing 55% of its passes to tight ends or running backs last year, so either it isn’t a receiver-friendly offense, or there was some real issues getting the ball from the quarterback to the outside. By comparison, UCLA threw 37% of its passes to non-wideouts (and we’re including Ys and defensive players playing offense in that non-wideout group). The other starter at receiver, senior Miles Gooch (6'3, 210), barely played last year, recording just two receptions in 12 games. The tight end, senior Zachary Swanson (6'6, 250), played significantly last year and caught 19 balls, but he’s more of a blocking-type tight end than McGee. It’s still very much an open question what Virginia’s receiver rotation will look like, but it’s easy to expect redshirt freshman Andre Levrone (6'2, 210), sophomore Keeon Johnson (6'3, 210), freshman Doni Dowling (6'1, 215), and junior Canaan Severin (6'2, 210) all to factor into it.
On the surface, it’d be fair to assume that UCLA’s defense will take a hit this year. In the offseason, UCLA lost star outside linebacker Anthony Barr, rugged inside linebacker Jordan Zumwalt, and versatile defensive end Cassius Marsh all to the NFL. The Bruins also lost their defensive coordinator Lou Spanos, and replaced him with linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich, who’s never been a defensive coordinator. So why, then, are so many people expecting this to be the best defense of the Jim Mora era?
Perhaps the biggest reason is, in fact, the replacement of Spanos with Ulbrich. Spanos earned a reputation over the last two years for making excellent second half adjustments to slow down or completely stop offenses that ran amok in the first half. The question, though, was always why those adjustments weren’t made earlier. From what we’ve seen of Ulbrich, and what we’ve heard around the program, the feeling is that UCLA will go into games much better situated schematically to start games, and Ulbrich, who spent 10 years as an NFL linebacker, should be better able to quickly diagnose and correct issues from the sideline. What’s more, we already expect Ulbrich to show greater flexibility in the face of the wildly diverse Pac-12 offenses, as we saw through his use of multiple different formations and fronts throughout spring and fall camp.
It’s not just as if a coaching change should improve the defense. UCLA’s defense, thanks largely to an excellent 2013 class, has very talented players who started as freshmen last year and who should bump up a level this year. Myles Jack, the do-everything linebacker, looked much stronger this offseason, while showing better instincts and, shockingly, even better quickness and speed. He’s the engine for the defense in so many ways, with his versatility as both a run-stopper and pass-defender allowing the defense to use a variety of different looks with the same personnel.
At the other end, UCLA returns senior Owamagbe Odighizuwa, who sat out all of last year after undergoing hip surgery. Odghizuwa lost precisely none of his athleticism and strength with the year off, and looks like a more polished version of the player who ended the 2012 season as arguably the best defensive lineman on the team. He’s a physical specimen, with such good athleticism for his size that there will be times that he drops back into coverage in certain packages. Ellis McCarthy, the former five-star, has some work to do getting his weight under control, but should see time backing up along the interior. Eli Ankou and true freshmen Matt Dickerson, Ainuu Taua, and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner will all fill out the rotation.
At linebacker, along with Jack, UCLA returns senior inside linebacker Eric Kendricks, who spent most of last year nicked up with a variety of ailments. He appears healthy to start the season, which is a very good sign for the Bruins. His presence last year had a calming effect on the defense, as he does such a good job of making sure everyone is in the proper position. Alongside Kendricks, true freshman Kenny Young looks like he’ll get the start at the other inside ‘backer spot. Young was the most impressive freshman in fall camp, looking like a redshirt sophomore, rather than a freshman, with his excellent instincts and strength. He looks like he could be a fixture in the starting lineup for as long as he’s at UCLA.
The other outside linebacker spot is still somewhat up in the air, but there’s a chance it’ll simply be a committee of starters. Right now, Aaron Wallace is the front runner, and he looks like he’ll play most against run-oriented teams, which makes him a smart choice for Virginia. Deon Hollins and Kenny Orjioke are also options, with Hollins looking like a designated pass-rusher, and Orjioke providing great, albeit raw, athletic ability.
The secondary returns every starter from a year ago, and based off what we’ve seen in camp, one of those players has improved by leaps and bounds from a year ago: Fabian Moreau. The junior cornerback looks like a future NFL star, showing excellent quickness, uncanny recovery speed, and good ball skills. He’s consistently locked up virtually every receiver he’s gone up against in camp, and should have his name on the national radar by the end of the year. The other three starters are Anthony Jefferson, Randall Goforth, and Ishmael Adams, but you can also expect Tahaan Goodman, Priest Willis, Jaleel Wadood, and Marcus Rios to play significantly. Rios, as it should be noted every time we write about him, is returning from a life-threatening illness and is a truly fantastic story, regaining most of his weight, strength and athleticism over the last year after losing nearly 60 pounds.
There’s a good enough chance that Virginia’s offense will be improved this year — after all, it can’t get much worse. We expect that Lambert will be a better fit for what Fairchild wants to do offensively, which should allow for some improvement in the passing game. The issue is that an offense that performed as poorly as Virginia’s did last year really can’t be expected to be much better the next year with the same coaching staff in place— ranking in the 110s in most statistical categories is usually a systemic issue that comes from the coaching staff. Expecting performance to change by a significant degree without a coaching change is the kind of thinking that got UCLA fans in trouble from years 2003 to 2011.
If UCLA’s defense is as good as we think it might be, the Bruins should be able to handle every aspect of this Cavalier offense. We’d imagine that the UCLA strategy will key on stopping Virginia’s running attack, so we should see a steady diet of Aaron Wallace on the edge. The onus will be on Lambert to make plays through the air, and from what we’ve seen of UCLA’s secondary throughout camp, we’d have to figure they’ll be able to cover most of Virginia’s receivers effectively.
Virginia may hit a couple of big plays as UCLA irons out the kinks from a long offseason, but, considering the opponent and the improvement we anticipate from UCLA’s defense this season, we’d expect the Bruins to dominate this side of the matchup.
UCLA'S OFFENSE VS. VIRGINIA'S DEFENSE
At the same time that London hired Fairchild as his offensive coordinator, he also picked Jon Tenuta to run his defense. Tenuta brought a wealth of experience with him, with stints as the defensive coordinator at Ohio State, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, and Notre Dame. He has run primarily a 4-3 base defense throughout his career, but with the changing nature of college football, has worked considerably more nickel into his scheme, to the point where it often looks like that’s the base defense (somewhat like UCLA’s defense in that respect).
As with Fairchild, though, Tenuta did not have much success in year one. It’s difficult to pin a tremendous amount of blame on the defense, since the offense was terrible, but it bears noting that Virginia struggled about equally with the run and the pass. The defense generated a moderate number of sacks (28 on the year) thanks to Tenuta’s aggressive philosophy — he frequently likes to send extra pass-rushers into the backfield — but the defense as a whole wasn’t able to maintain consistent success.
Still, the expectation is that the defense should be the strength of the team, and not just for the cynical reason that it’s the only unit that could be. The reason lies in the 9 or 10 returning starters (depending on the formation) on defense, plus the addition of five-star freshmen Andrew Brown (6'4, 305), a defensive tackle, and Quin Blanding (6'4, 215), the No. 1 safety in the country last year. Brown has dealt with a variety of ailments since arriving on campus in January, but the expectation is that he’ll be able to make a big impact by the end of the year. Blanding, who has great size for the position, is already slotted in as the starting free safety.
|Eli Harold and Tim Harris.|
As we said, Virginia does like to mix up its 4-3 look from time to time, oftentimes looking to put more pass-rushers up at the line of scrimmage. One player you can expect to move around quite a bit is sophomore strong side linebacker Max Valles (6'5, 240). Valles started out as a safety in high school, if you can believe it as his size, but has grown into a linebacker. He’s an excellent pass-rusher and a very good athlete. There are time Virginia will press him to the line of scrimmage to add some pressure, and then at other times he’ll drop into coverage. It’ll be very interesting to see what Virginia chooses to do with him against UCLA’s four-wide looks.
Senior Henry Coley (6'2, 245), the middle linebacker, is thought by some to be one of the best linebackers in the entire ACC. In his first year starting, he led the team in tackles with 91. On the other side of Coley, opposite Valles, Virginia returns senior Daquan Romero (6'1, 230), who’s shown solid ability against the run throughout his career, but isn’t as much of a pass-rush threat as Valles or the defensive linemen. Virginia’s linebacker should be on the field constantly — even when Virginia goes to nickel, it usually involves one of the defensive tackles leaving the field and Valles dropping down to defensive end.
The secondary has a great deal of experience and depth. The two starters at cornerback, junior Maurice Canady (6'2, 190) and senior Brandon Phelps (6'0, 185), started a combined 14 games last year, though Phelps’ starts came primarily at free safety. The interesting thing is that their backups, senior DreQuan Hoskey (6'0, 180), sophomore Divante Walker (5'11, 190), and sophomore Tim Harris (6'2, 200) have a combined 57 career starts as well, so the cornerbacks are generally a pretty experience group. As we noted above, Blanding will start at free safety for the Cavaliers, and, while he doesn’t bring any college experience to the table, he’s an exceptional athlete who should immediately raise the level of play in the secondary. He has excellent speed and quickness for his size, with a nose for the ball and great instincts. He’ll be flanked by senior strong safety Anthony Harris (6'1, 190), who thrust himself onto the national scene last year with eight interceptions during the season. He’s expected to provide a steadying influence for Blanding on the back line, and should be one of the stars of the defense.
UCLA’s offense has had two very successful years under offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, and there’s reason to suspect that the third year could be better still. The Bruins return redshirt junior quarterback Brett Hundley, who opted to remain in college rather than put his name in the NFL Draft last April, and he’s being touted as a legitimate Heisman candidate after a very good first two years at UCLA.
There were some key losses in the offseason, though. Xavier Su’a-Filo, who’s been the linchpin for the offensive line over the last two seasons, opted to leave early for the NFL Draft. Shaquelle Evans, who’s been the ostensible No. 1 receiver the last two years, graduated and was also drafted. Replacing those two players has been an area of focus over the last few months, and there are certainly some candidates.
Along the offensive line, UCLA got a fortuitous transfer, with Miami offensive lineman Malcolm Bunche opting to use the graduate transfer option to come West for his final year of college football. Bunche has tremendous versatility, with the ability to play either guard or tackle, and will likely slot in as the left tackle to start the season. UCLA also returns Caleb Benenoch and Alex Redmond from last year, both of whom improved their bodies in the offseason and look much more capable of providing high-level play this season. Benenoch, in particular, reshaped his body prior to spring and looks much more like a tackle now. He’ll likely slot in at right tackle, based off what we saw through fall camp.
The question will be how the interior of the line looks in week one. Jake Brendel, who’s been a mainstay at center through the last two years, went down with a relatively minor MCL strain during camp in San Bernardino. While there’s been some thought that he may be ready to go for Virginia, and that’s still a possibility, UCLA has prepared for the idea that he may not be ready. Redmond has worked at center, rather than his natural guard spot, and Scott Quessenberry, who had a head injury in San Bernardino, was working his way back in toward the end of fall camp, so he could be an option as well. Perhaps the most interesting development is that true freshman Najee Toran looked like he had more or less secured a starting spot at right guard by the end of the open practices. Though he gives up a lot of weight, he plays much bigger and stronger than his size thanks to his high motor and mean streak.
So, the questions surrounding the offensive line for week one center around whether Jake Brendel will be ready to go. If he isn’t, it could cause a little bit of musical chairs.
At receiver, despite the loss of Evans, Darius Bell, and Grayson Mazzone, it looks as if the Bruins should be as good, if not a little better, than last year. Devin Lucien seems like he has taken on the leadership role that was Evans, and seems like a more mature player than the one we got used to seeing over the last two years. He put together a very good fall camp, even though he had to sit out a few days due to head/head issues. Thomas Duarte, who was buried a bit at times behind Bell and Mazzone last year, should provide an immediate boost due to the amount of snaps he should get. He has arguably the best hands on the team, and looked like he could be a dominant force in the red zone throughout spring and fall. Devin Fuller and Jordan Payton both have looked solid and steady, with Payton now having the ability to move inside to the Y if need be. Behind them, UCLA has some depth, with Eldridge Massington, Mossi Johnson, Logan Sweet, and the freshmen Alex Van Dyke and Jordan Lasley all looking like they’ll get some playing time this year.
And then at quarterback, UCLA returns Hundley. Think about the luxury UCLA has had over this three-year stretch, having a constant starter at the position after so much flux through the previous ten years. That continuity can’t be understated, and it’s easy to expect that Hundley, in year three of the same offense, should be a much improved player. He had some struggles a year ago, particularly when faced with the defenses of Oregon and Stanford, and it’ll be a priority for him this season to step up his play against the top defenses on the schedule. His most significant issue has been his ability to read the field both pre- and post-snap and make an effective decision based on what he sees. While we didn’t see a tremendous amount of improvement in that department in practice, it is just practice, and it’s hard to gauge that sort of thing outside of a live game. Hundley, too, has never been a practice player, looking much better in games than he ever has in practice. The first few games should provide us a good idea of what kind of Hundley we will see this year, and whether he truly will be a Heisman contender.
Yes, Virginia’s defense is better than its offense, but, really, we’re not saying much there. It’s a unit that was decidedly average last year, and while we’d expect some improvement in year two of Tenuta’s scheme and with a year of additional experience for the returning starters, it’d be difficult for Virginia to have made a sizable enough leap to stop UCLA’s offense.
With the amount of blitzing that Tenuta likes to use, a big key in this game will be Hundley’s ability to get the ball out of his hand quickly, and effectively read where the rush will be coming from. In that respect, this could be a very interesting game to watch, because it could give us a quick indication of how much improvement Hundley has made.
It’ll be interesting to see whether UCLA’s offense is the kind of elite unit that it’s portrayed to be by the national media. While we think it’s a good unit, it does lack elite talent at receiver and running back, which could cause some issues against better defenses. Since Virginia has, at least, an average defense, this could be a good test for the quality of UCLA’s offense. If the Bruins end up dominating this matchup, that could mean very good things for later on in the year.
Virginia’s senior punter Alec Vozenilek (5'10, 190) has gotten a lot of work over the last two years, and he’s fairly good, with an average punt last year of 41.2 yards. He also took over placekicking duties for the last eight games of the season and made 12 of 15 attempts, but it looks as though those duties will come off his shoulders this year.
Junior kicker Ian Frye (6'6, 200) returns from the injury that sidelined him for the back half of last year. He’s probably the biggest kicker you’ll ever see, and has the strong leg you’d expect, booting a 53-yarder before going down last year. He’s only attempted 9 field goals in his career, though, and has missed three of them, so he’ll need to prove his consistency this year.
Shepherd and Jennings will handle punt and kickoff return duties, respectively, and each has good enough speed to break a big return. Shepherd hasn’t returned punts before, so this will be a new feel for him, but he has plenty of experience as a kick returner. Jennings, has returned both kicks and punts in his career. Neither player has scored a touchdown off special teams.
UCLA’s special teams were excellent last year, and, to be honest, it’s going to be difficult to match that level this year. The Bruins unexpectedly lost punter Sean Covington, who left school, and had to scramble to pick up junior college punter Matt Mengel. Mengel has a big leg, but was very inconsistent during open practices, so it’ll be interesting to see what he does in a game. He was actually in a competition with walk-on Adam Searl, who could also see some live action.
At kicker, UCLA returns Ka’imi Fairbairn, who has had an up and down two years at UCLA. He looked a bit more consistent this spring and fall, but the question for him will be how he translates his kicking to actual game situations.
At kick and punt returner, UCLA has a few options, but the best of them is Ishmael Adams. Adams, if you’ll remember, ignited UCLA in a few games last year, particularly Arizona State, where his returns were about the only thing keeping the Bruins in the game. UCLA could also rotate a variety of players, including Randall Goforth, Jordon James, Paul Perkins, Roosevelt Davis, Steven Manfro, and Devin Fuller at both kick and punt return, depending on how much they want to use Adams.
UCLA was excellent on kick coverage last year, and we wouldn’t expect that to change this year, even with a coordinator change (Mike Tuiasosopo stepping in for Jeff Ulbrich). With all else being equal, that tips the balance in the Bruins’ favor.
There are plenty of expectations swirling around the UCLA program heading into the 2014 season. The hubbub surrounding the program has rarely been this loud, with national media and talking heads around the country touting UCLA as a potential national champion. UCLA is ranked No. 7, and the schedule sets up for a titanic matchup with Oregon in early October for pole position in the Pac-12.
The narrative surrounding Virginia is very different, and one long-time UCLA fans should be very familiar with. The head coach is on the hot seat after a 2-10 showing last year, and there are no expectations of greatness around the program, just the hope that the Cavaliers might pull it together enough to get to a bowl game.
UCLA should be able to stifle Virginia’s offense. Our guess is that UCLA will open the game focused on stopping the run and we’d have to imagine that, as the game wears on, Jeff Ulbrich will put a good deal of pressure on the Cavaliers’ inexperienced offensive tackles. UCLA’s offense, on the flip side, should be able to put up some big numbers as long as Hundley is able to effectively read the pressure coming from Virginia.
The Bruins will likely have some slip-ups in the first game, what with jitters and everything, but in the end, we expect UCLA to secure a resounding victory.