Virginia Unit by Unit Analysis

SEP. 1 -- We hand out the grades for UCLA's season-opening win over Virginia...

Quarterback: C-

Watching the game a second time, Brett Hundley looked a bit better than he did live. Aside from two throws to Devin Fuller, he threw most everything accurately and with good velocity. When he was given any time to throw, he did a nice job of finding open receivers at all levels of the defense. Once he started actually running the zone read in the second half, it seemed to loosen up the offense. His running ability can often be a significant spark, particularly when the passing game isn’t working at all.

The issue is how he deals with pressure, and what he does to compensate. There were a couple of times during the game where he actually had a relatively clean pocket, but he felt some movement on his backside and took off running. With his agility and athleticism, you’d like for him to be at the point now where he can avoid one rusher, maintain his poise, and fire a strike downfield to a receiver. We don’t blame him for being a little gun-shy after the first couple of quarters, but at the same time, UCLA’s offense isn’t going to jump to another level until he can get the ball off in the face of some pressure. Simply trying to run to beat a pass rush isn’t going to cut it, as we saw several times last year.

Running Backs: C

Paul Perkins got the lion’s share of the carries, and based on the quality of play among the running backs on Saturday, and the body of work all have shown in their UCLA careers, we’d imagine he’ll get the majority of the carries going forward. He was about the only back who could generate consistent gains against the stout Virginia front.

Paul Perkins.
His headiness on the fumbled handoff from Brett Hundley deep in UCLA’s territory was in stark contrast to Steven Manfro’s lack of awareness when he dropped a lateral pass earlier in the game. If Manfro had scooped the ball up and continued the play, he might have even gained a few yards, but instead it was a three-yard loss. Manfro also dropped another pass later in the game, and it seems at this point that there’s something to the idea that his game just doesn’t translate well from practices to games. We’ll be interested to see if Nate Starks or Adarius Pickett gets some carries this weekend against Memphis.

Jordon James had one or two nice runs, but didn’t block well, often completely whiffing on extra pass rushers coming into the backfield late when he was set back to block. It’s supposed to be one of his strongest suits, and probably what tipped the balance in his favor over Perkins when figuring out who would start.

We were glad we got a glimpse of Nate Iese in the second half, particularly on the first pass to him, which hit him in stride and allowed him to move like the freight train he is. He’s a real weapon out of the backfield, and against that pressure, we would have liked to have seen more leak-outs and dumpoffs to him throughout the game.

Offensive Line: F

The Virginia game was reminiscent of some of the worst moments of 2013 for the offensive line, and remarkably similar to the Baylor game in 2012. Virginia brought pressure from multiple spots, and spent most of the game putting defenders into the backfield in creative ways, either on designed stunts, delayed blitzes, or all-out blitzes. Often, Virginia simply sent too many players for the offensive line to block, which is more of a problem with scheme than anything. But there was simply too much confusion and miscommunication up front for us to give this a higher grade.

There were several times throughout the game that multiple rushers came through completely unblocked — and not by design, as if the play were a screen. The interior of the line was sieve for much of the game. Scott Quessenberry was often pushed back significantly into the pocket, Najee Toran looked lost, and Alex Redmond often found himself without players to block, or out of position. Malcolm Bunche, who’s familiar with the Virginia defense and is the most experienced player on the line, often let the outside rusher into the backfield unblocked, which was most likely a communication issue.

We do think many of the issues from Saturday will be corrected when Jake Brendel comes back, particularly from a communication standpoint, but it’s a worry that UCLA is relying so heavily on a player who has already suffered a knee injury, albeit minor, this year. We’ll be interested to see if UCLA rushes Brendel back for Memphis on Saturday, or gives it another go with Quessenberry to see if they can have a backup plan in case there’s another injury to Brendel.

Wide Receivers: C-

It’s a mixed grade for the receivers, since it was up and down for many of them. On one hand, Jordan Payton’s play, particularly down the stretch, could easily be pointed to as one of the main reasons why the Bruins won. On the other hand, several drops by the receivers (Thomas Duarte, Logan Sweet, and Devin Fuller) and a poorly run route by Eldridge Massington obviously contributed to the offensive stagnation for much of the game.

It was weird during the game to see the receivers even bobbling balls they caught (Payton’s first catch comes to mind), so we’ll ask the receivers this week if there was anything different with the balls. Duarte’s drops, for one, were uncharacteristic, judging by the Duarte we saw in practice, so we’ll chalk it up to an aberration until we get further evidence to the contrary.

Logan Sweet got some very early playing time, which is consistent with what we saw in fall camp and what we reported from there, but we were a little surprised that Mossi Johnson didn’t get much time at all. He was one of the standouts in both spring and fall camp, and looked like a candidate for significant early playing time. As an outlet receiver over the middle he has a lot of value, so Saturday did seem like an ideal time to have in the game, since he could have been a good dump off option for Hundley during all of those blitzes.

One note: despite the loss of Shaquelle Evans, UCLA’s receivers still did a nice job blocking. Payton, Devin Lucien, and Massington all made good blocks that we saw.

Offensive gameplan, scheme, and play-calling: D-

There is a significant dichotomy between how the offense looks when it emphasizes short passes, quicker tempo, and quick decisions vs. when it emphasizes deep drops, traditional pockets, and downfield passing. We’ll call it 2012 offense vs. most-of-2013 offense. What we saw on Saturday was very similar to what we saw most of 2013 — slow-developing pass plays in the face of pressure, even slower run plays, and very few of those quick-hitter passes in sequence to start to build a rhythm. Yes, UCLA wasn’t helped by a number of dropped passes, but many of those came in desperation moments when the Bruins were already in 3rd and long situations that they shouldn’t have been in.

There were a number of head-scratchers throughout the game, from going empty backfield on 4th and 1 when Virginia really hadn’t stopped blitzing all game to the lack of Mossi Johnson or Nate Iese throughout much of the game to the over-emphasis on deep passes in the face of an unending pass rush. We didn’t see many adjustments until the second half, when UCLA incorporated Iese on a designed semi-rollout from Hundley and opted for significantly more zone read to confuse the blitzers. More rollouts from Hundley could only help until the offensive line gets figured out.

At least until Jake Brendel returns, we’d like to see the offense emphasize short passes, authentic zone reads, and faster tempo. At the very least, it’ll help the young offensive line start to gel a bit together while taking some of the pressure off them.

Defensive Line: A

This was precisely the kind of performance we were expecting — very stout against the run with just enough pass-rush from Owamagbe Odighizuwa to keep too many double teams from falling on Kenneth Clark. Odighizuwa was a force in his first game since 2012, making Virginia mix and match on its left side a few times during the game to find a combination to block him. He didn’t have a sack, but his pass rush directly led to the first interception return for touchdown, and he was in on several pressures throughout the rest of the game.

Deon Hollins, who played defensive end almost exclusively in this game, had easily his best game as a Bruin, providing significant pressure from the other end of the line. He didn’t hold up quite as well against the run, but the value he brings as an edge rusher should be obvious after that game.

On the interior, Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes both had very effective games. Really every time I focused on him the second time I watched the game, Clark was manhandling either the center or one of the guards, pushing them deeply into the pocket and removing lanes for the running backs. He had eight tackles, which is just not something that a nose tackle should have. Vanderdoes looked a little gassed at points, but when he wasn’t, looked very good pushing the line and shedding to assist with tackles.

We didn’t see much of Ellis McCarthy and Eli Ankou, and from what we saw of McCarthy, he still has a tendency to play too upright. Jacob Tuioti-Mariner played some in place of Odighizuwa, and got spun around a bit on one play.

Eric Kendricks.
Linebackers: A-

Ah, so this is what UCLA’s linebackers look like with a healthy Eric Kendricks; we had almost forgotten. Kendricks was all over the field from the opening snap, and aside from one semi-questionable pass interference call, was pretty close to flawless. He hid his coverage perfectly on the pick-six, sliding behind the center and nose tackle while picking up the running back, which contributed to Greyson Lambert not seeing him. He was a tackling machine, pulling down ball carriers all over the field. His pass coverage has also improved in the last year, as he looks like he’s taken some lessons from Myles Jack.

Jack had a very impressive game for his first showing of the 2013 season, particularly considering that he was hurt from about midway through the second quarter on. He had a few excellent plays in pass coverage, breaking up passes intended for running backs at a few critical junctures, and then also was a tackling machine, running down ball carriers sideline to sideline and showing that extra speed and physicality we’ve talked about this offseason. About the only mis-play we saw was on the opening run, where he was a little overeager and pushed inside when the run bounced outside.

Kenny Young, who was the ostensible starter next to Kendricks, actually didn’t end up playing that much as UCLA went to its nickel defense pretty often. When he was in, he looked pretty good, and was in on four tackles. Aaron Wallace also looked good in limited time. We didn’t see enough of Kenny Orjioke to have much of an assessment of him. He had one nice pass rush where he looked like he was able to bull the tackle almost right into the quarterback, but that’s not much to go on.

Defensive Backs: B-

Randall Goforth was the star of the group on Saturday. He made several critical tackles, one saving a touchdown on a 4th and 1, the other keeping Virginia from what would have been an important first down late in the game. He’s become so much better at positioning himself and taking angles at ball-carriers since his freshman year. With Anthony Jefferson playing a lot of cornerback, Goforth was often the safety playing cleanup crew, and he did a great job of it.

Fabian Moreau has gotten some heat on the board for his play, but it didn’t look like he played badly watching the game again. He had nearly perfect coverage on the first touchdown, and even got his hand on the ball somewhat, but just wasn’t able to leverage it out of the receiver’s hands. That happens. He did play too far off of the receiver on 4th and 8, which let the receiver get underneath and catch the ball for a 15 yard gain. Generally, watching him on plays where the quarterback didn’t throw at him, he was pretty effective in coverage, which is likely why he was only targeted two or three times in the entire game.

Ishmael Adams, actually, was targeted often, and was pretty good, but not great, in coverage. He got his feet tangled up on one play down the sideline, so you give him a pass on that one, but he had some trouble with some of Virginia’s bigger receivers on the inside. He was right there for the tackle most of the time, but it did look like Virginia had game planned to target him a bit, and had some success doing so.

Jefferson did a credible job at both corner and safety and didn’t look like he blew any coverages. Priest Willis, who played sparingly, got worked in the corner of the endzone for a touchdown, and he really wasn’t in position to make a play on it. He had a good few days midway through fall camp, but hasn’t shown the level of consistency you’d like. Saturday’s game wasn’t a good one for him.

Jaleel Wadood got his first action of the season, and he was up and down, with a nice tackle early and then a couple of coverages where he was out of position to make a play. Tahaan Goodman had some of the same issues, so there are still some growing pains for the secondary in figuring out those fifth and six spots in the secondary.

Defensive gameplan, scheme, and play-calling: B+

Our statistics guy is going to get into this a bit later in the week, but using total yards to judge a defense is silly, because you don’t know if those yards came on 60 plays or 90. In Virginia’s case, the Cavaliers’ 386 yards came on 84 plays, meaning that Virginia averaged 4.6 yards per play. If you’d like some contrast: UCLA’s offense, which was the most miserable, awful thing any of you have ever seen, averaged 4.9 yards per play. 4.6 yards per play, extrapolated over a full season, would have been good for 108th in the country last year. So…yeah.

There were a few quibbles with the play-calling — the three-man rush on 4th and 8 stands out as one that Jeff Ulbrich would probably love to have back, since it seemed like the whole defense went passive, with Fabian Moreau playing uncharacteristically off of the receiver he was covering. But generally, UCLA did a very good job of generating pressure with mostly a four-man front, which allowed the Bruins to drop more men into coverage, which helped lead directly to the two pick-sixes and fumble return for a touchdown.

People who were expecting a shutout were probably disappointed, but given the amount of time the defense spent on the field and the amount of plays that they were in on, it was a very, very good performance that bodes well for the future.

Special Teams: C+

The two specialists everyone focuses on, the punter Matt Mengel and kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn, did not have good games. Fairbairn missed his lone field goal opportunity while Mengel averaged under 40 yards a punt, and kicked two of his seven punts into the endzone for touchbacks. If both players continue at this rate, it’ll force UCLA to be a bit more aggressive on fourth downs inside the opponents’ 50 yard line, which actually wouldn’t be a terrible result.

So, let’s toss out the kickers and talk about one of my favorite aspects of this team: kick coverage. UCLA’s coverage was once again excellent after a great 2013 season. Virginia accounted for just 12 total return yards between the three punts and one kickoff it actually ended up fielding. Cameron Judge and Taylor Lagace both were excellent again as gunners.

In a sane world, Ishmael Adams would have gotten his first special teams touchdown Saturday, but a Priest Willis penalty for trying to continue playing football negated it. Adams filled up the return column, with three punt returns for 49 yards, two kickoff returns for 29 yards, and one interception return for 20 yards. He has freaky vision, and we wouldn’t be shocked if he got a look on offense at some point this year. At the very least, we think he’ll score on special teams this year.

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