Season Review: Offense

Dec. 1 -- We go over our unit-by-unit grades from the year and provide a cumulative GPA and review for the offense this season...

Photos courtesy of Steve Cheng

Coming into the year, we expected that the defense, and not the offense, would actually rise to an elite level and carry the team through the year, but aside from a few games here and there, that really wasn’t the case. Instead, both sides of the ball had fits and bursts of excellent play, followed by mediocre play, throughout the year, and neither ever truly consistently rose to elite level.

The offense was hindered through the beginning of the year by mediocre offensive line play, and then that got figured out when Conor McDermott was inserted at left tackle in place of Malcolm Bunche, Brett Hundley hit a midseason funk which began against Utah and carried on until the Washington game. There were a few flashes where the offense was excellent (ASU, Washington, USC), but overall, there was a lack of consistency from game to game. The biggest bright spot was, by far, the emergence of Paul Perkins as a top-level Pac-12 running back. Perkins, who essentially took the starting spot by force in the first game of the season, was consistently excellent throughout the year, against good defenses and bad.

From a statistical perspective, it was a very similar offense to the last two years. UCLA averaged 5.8 yards per play, down from 5.9 yards per play in 2013, but up from 5.7 yards per play in 2012. UCLA did rely more on its running backs this year than it did last year, which is understandable given that they discovered a very good one in Perkins.

Below, we’ve compiled our thoughts on every unit on the offense, along with the cumulative GPA for the season based off our unit-by-unit analyses.  

Brett Hundley.
Quarterback: B-
Season GPA: 2.55
Unit MVP: Brett Hundley

For significant portions of the season, Hundley led the country in completion percentage, which is a credit to him, even given that the nature of Noel Mazzone’s offense lends itself to a high completion percentage. He improved each year in completion percentage, and cut down drastically on his interceptions through his three-year run as the starter, going from 11 in 2012 to 9 in 2013 to just 5 this year. He had excellent performances against Washington and Arizona State in particular, both of which were probably among the best games he’s played at UCLA.

One of the biggest things UCLA will miss now that Hundley is headed for the NFL is his uncanny scrambling ability. Hundley isn’t a pure speedster, but he has very good agility, a great feel for making guys miss in the open field, and very good strength, the combination of which made him an incredible option as a runner on third and forever. The number of times he converted 3rd and 10+ in his career with his legs is probably well into double digits, and that’s just not something that’s easily replaceable.

There were some obvious issues though. As he admitted after the Arizona game, he spent the early part of the 2014 season thinking a little too much about the kind of passer he needed to be for NFL purposes and not considering the kind of player he needed to be to win at the college level. Against Utah in particular, there were some obvious points where he could have scrambled to avoid sacks or kept on zone reads, but he ended up staying in for 10 total sacks. To his credit, he began running significantly more after that game, averaging over 100 yards per game on the ground through the next four games. But then, especially this past Friday against Stanford, he did seem to revert to wanting to show off his pocket ability again, and missed a few opportunities to run. He showed a propensity for turning over the ball in UCLA territory throughout the year, throwing pick-sixes to Memphis, Utah, USC, and fumbling deep in his own territory against Oregon, which led directly to a score.

It’s a funny thing to consider the Hundley era. He’s pretty clearly one of the top three or four UCLA quarterbacks in the modern, post-Beban era (probably behind Cade McNown and Troy Aikman, probably ahead of everyone else). Compared to the 15 years of quarterbacks before him, he was a revelation, and was a huge contributing piece to the turnaround the program has experienced over the last three years. But even still, there’s the sense that UCLA didn’t get quite as much as it could have out of the position, and that there is potential for the Mazzone offense to hit a higher level than it achieved in the last three years at some point down the road.

In any event, while it may not have been Hundley’s best year at UCLA, when taken in totality, he played pretty well, and his three years at UCLA were absolutely critical in turning the program into something respectable.

Paul Perkins.
Running Backs: B+
Season GPA: 3.23
Unit MVP: Paul Perkins

Perkins was the clear MVP of the unit, and probably the offense, looking every bit like the Johnathan Franklin-lite we expected he’d become when we saw him in fall camp in 2012. Just watching him run around in drills during practice, you’d be hard pressed to point out any elite qualities, but, in games, his combination of very good (if not elite) balance, toughness, vision, and short-area quickness added up to a nearly elite level running back. He’s not a road-grader by any means, but we’d wager that he more consistently got 4+ yards on each of his carries than the vast majority of running backs in the country, especially over the second half of the season when the offensive line started to play better. His level of consistency, given the very good defensive fronts that UCLA faced throughout the year, was extremely impressive. To average six yards per carry against that schedule is simply incredible.

Nathan Starks showed obvious and clear flashes that he could be very good down the road. Physically, he’s well-developed for a freshman at a solid 200 to 205 pounds, but if he managed to get up into the 215 range, with his running style, he could be a real force to wear down opposing defenses. He’ll need to continue to work on getting lower in his runs, but he seemed to improve in that regard over the course of the year.

Jordon James, in his swan song, really didn’t get a whole lot to do, especially through the last half of the season, when Perkins’ emergence as a very good Pac-12 running back essentially relegated James to the sidelines. After getting 31 carries in the first five games, he got just 24 in the next seven, with none coming against Stanford on Senior Day. James had a few nice moments, especially against Texas, where he was a big part of the running game that helped take pressure off of Jerry Neuheisel.  

All that nice stuff about Perkins out of the way, Myles Jack is the best running back on the team, and if he ever wanted to switch over to offense full time, he’d be among the top two or three running backs in the country. You can’t teach the kind of run he had against Washington.

We thought we’d see more of out Nate Iese than ended up happening. While he’s a good blocker and a good receiver, if the scheme isn’t going to utilize him as a pass catcher out of the backfield more than 12 times throughout the year, then it’d be interesting to see if they opt for him to at least split time between defense and offense. He’s a good enough athlete that you’d like to get him on the field as much as possible.

Conor McDermott.
Offensive Line: B-
Season GPA: 2.58
Unit MVP: Conor McDermott

We’ve mentioned it what seems like a billion times at this point, but we’ll just go ahead and do it again: Inserting McDermott into the starting lineup was a game-changer for the offense. Through the first six games, with Malcolm Bunche starting at left tackle, our unit-by-unit grades had the offensive line at a 2.13 GPA. After McDermott was inserted, and Bunche moved to LG (and subsequently Redmond returned to the starting lineup), the GPA was 3.03. Obviously, some of that is general improvement for the rest of the guys, including and especially Scott Quessenberry, but McDermott shored up the left side in pass protection, which seemed to drastically improve Hundley’s confidence as the season went on. He did well in the running game as well, using his length and quickness to open up lanes for Perkins to the outside. It’s very exciting to think what he could look like after a healthy offseason.

Quessenberry, as we mentioned, also showed a great deal of improvement throughout the year. He might have been the real weak link on the line through the first four or five games, but starting at about the Utah game, he quickly became one of the most consistent guards on the team, even doing a nice job against Danny Shelton of Washington. He regressed a bit last week against Stanford and the big, physical defensive line for the Cardinal, but he showed this year why Adrian Klemm has had a great deal of confidence in him since he arrived on campus. Remember — he was supposed to redshirt this year, and probably still is far from physically ready to be a Pac-12 starting guard. That he put together the year he did is pretty impressive.

Jake Brendel has been the steady man in the middle for three years now, and he was steadier this year than usual. There were a couple of blips where he didn’t have great games, but generally he was very consistent, especially with his snaps. After last year, when snaps became an issue for a period of three or four games, Brendel had no real issues this year. Unless something crazy happens, he’ll be UCLA’s first four-year starter at center since…I have no idea. Mike McCloskey?

Left guard was a bit of a turnstile all year, with Najee Toran starting out the year (remember that?!), Alex Redmond picking up for a few games, Kenny Lacy coming in when Redmond got injured, Bunche sliding over after being replaced by McDermott, and then Redmond retaking the job for the last three games. If we were grading, we’d say Lacy probably did the best job of the bunch in his 2+ games of action, though those games just happened to coincide with UCLA’s ugly showings against Utah and Oregon. Toran was probably not ready to start at guard as a true freshman, from both a physical and mental standpoint, and we’d have to imagine an effort will be made to get him his redshirt back next year. Bunche never really performed at a high level at either tackle or guard, looking too slow-footed to play either position the way UCLA’s offense needs it to be played. In retrospect, it probably was too much to expect Bunche to go from completely out of his element in spring (to the point where he couldn’t finish practices he was so winded) to a starting level tackle or guard for a playoff contender. Redmond didn’t play well at the beginning of the year, but after returning from his injury, he played better, and looked a bit more like the player we saw last season.

Of course, he wasn’t intended to be the starting left tackle — that was supposed to be Caleb Benenoch. But, after suffering some nagging injuries at the end of spring practice that carried into fall camp, Benenoch’s body wasn’t quite up to the demands of playing on the left side.Considering that, it’s actually impressive that he made it through the season at right tackle, and taken as a whole, actually played decently. His quickness wasn’t quite at the level it had been in spring, but he mostly did a good job of compensating by using his strength to keep defenders at bay. Really quick ends and linebackers caused him issues, but overall he did pretty well  

Jordan Payton.
Wide Receivers: B-
Season GPA: 2.67
Unit MVP: Jordan Payton

We came into the year not having a clear picture of who would be the No. 1 receiver to replace Shaquelle Evans, and thought it could end up being any of Devin Lucien, Jordan Payton, Thomas Duarte, or Devin Fuller. By the end of the non-conference schedule, and really by the end of the first game, it was clear that Payton was the guy. He had explosive games against Arizona, Arizona State, and Memphis, and was consistent throughout the year. He has a great combination of hands, route-running ability, strength, and deceptive speed that actually makes him very good after the catch. He will most likely come into next year as a very good security blanket for the new starter at quarterback.

Lucien was actually our pick, coming out of fall camp, as the most likely to ascend to the role of No. 1 receiver. He had an injury at the end of fall camp that might have derailed him a bit, and then his mother was also diagnosed with breast cancer, which very likely weighed heavily on him. He just never seemed to get in a rhythm, and with Eldridge Massington and Payton playing really well early on, his playing time started to diminish. It’ll be interesting to see if he can rebound with a big senior season, since he has a great deal of ability, and has probably the best ball skills among the receivers, making him an ideal target in one-on-one opportunities. It just very clearly wasn’t his year.

Duarte emerged, after inexplicably playing behind Grayson Mazzone last year, as one of Hundley’s favorite targets in 2014. He missed three games with a variety of ailments, but still managed to record 27 catches for nearly 20 yards per catch. His ability to stretch the defense over the middle was an unheralded factor in making the offense look very good.

Fuller actually ended up being the second-leading receiver behind Payton, with 57 catches, but averaged just 7.5 yards per catch, with very few of those yards coming after the catch. While he was never a hugely explosive threat, he looked like he might have lost a bit of quickness and speed between 2013 and 2014. He was featured significantly throughout the year on swing passes and receiver screens, but managed just one touchdown all year.

Massington had a good first year, with 25 catches for 367 yards. He showed off some deep speed against Utah, even though he looked a bit hobbled, and his size and strength gave him some good yards after the catch pretty consistently. We’d imagine that he and Payton have to be the favorites to start at the two outside spots next year.

Mossi Johnson, who somewhat inexplicably barely played through the first six games of the year, was one of the consistent members of the rotation through the last six games, with all but two of his 21 catches coming in the final six games. Catching many of the same routes that Fuller caught all year, Johnson did more with them, averaging 10.5 yards per catch, and looking especially wiggly and explosive against USC in the penultimate game of the year. We’d actually like to see him continue to challenge Fuller for playing time next year, and potentially get some time on the outside as well.

How’s this for a stat? Kenny Walker caught three balls this year for an average of 42.3 yards and two touchdowns. He also generated at least one pass interference call on a deep post. He did have at least three drops that I remember, but the risk/reward would seem to be in favor of playing him more next season (if playing him is a 50/50 proposition with touchdown/pass interference call on one side vs. a dropped pass on the other side, I think I’d opt for playing him). At the very least, playing him more would give opposing defensive coordinators more to have to scheme against.

Offensive Scheme, Coaching, and Game Plan: B-
Season GPA: 2.67

Given what we saw from the offense last year, we thought this season was right in line with last year in terms of offensive production. At the beginning of the year, it did seem as if the offense were emphasizing those deep drops again that presented so many problems last year, but they seemed to break out of that and returned to the bread and butter of short passing and receiver screens through most of the second half of the season.

We had some questions about personnel usage. On the offensive line, it’s a little surprising, given what we saw later, that Toran got the start over Kenny Lacy (or Scott Quessenberry) at left guard to begin the year. Mossi Johnson looked like a potential star over the last six games of the year, yet he didn’t play through the first half of the year, and actually lost some time to walk-on Tyler Scott (who also played Johnson’s Y position). Another one of the issues was sticking with Malcolm Bunche for too long, but we get that one — it’s hard to bench the fifth-year graduate transfer who came into the program with the expectation to start and get drafted.

From a game planning standpoint, the offense once again didn’t have much of an answer for Stanford and Oregon, and we’ll get into that more heavily later in the week. The scheme does have the ability to explode when run correctly, like against ASU, Washington, and USC, but too often UCLA went away from its strengths, either through Hundley’s decision-making or calls from the sideline.

UCLA has put together three consecutive good offensive seasons (and, it should be noted, better than any three-year stretch in a long, long time), but to reach the heights to which they aspire, the Bruins will need more offensive production (or a vastly improved defense, or, better yet, both). With all the experience coming back next year, even without Hundley, it’ll be interesting to see what the offense is able to produce.

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