The Key to the 2015 Season?

Apr. 22 -- It's foolish to think that any one thing could decide the fate of a season, but after watching the team this spring practice -- and knowing how it performed last season -- it's pretty clear...

So often in life people want to come up with an explanation for something that is just too simplified. Situations are usually complicated and nuanced, and things happen mostly because of a confluence of factors.

It’s clearly the same in college football. Heck, you almost can never blame any one person for a play gone awry, since football is such a team sport, and the result of one play is so dependent on so many cogs performing their role.

So, really, making a statement that a situation or a result will come down to mostly one things is pretty foolish.

But we’re going to be a bit foolish here.

We’ll qualify this by saying there are going to be many, many factors that influence the outcome of the 2015 UCLA football season.

But the excessively predominant one is going to be the performance of the offensive line, and even more specifically, its ability to pass protect.

This is how we foresee it working:

Josh Rosen
UCLA will probably have a true freshman at quarterback. He could be preternaturally inclined to the quarterback position and, as a true freshman, come in and play like friggin’ Joe Namath. More realistically, we think Josh Rosen is going to be good, but will experience some issues that are reasonable to expect for a true-freshman starting quarterback. He has the tools to make all the throws around the field. He has a very advanced feel for the game and is clearly intelligent. But we’d expect him to have some breakdowns at times, where he doesn’t make the right read, or just flat out blanks on what to do in the pocket. As it’s always said, the game is going to be very fast for him, at least initially, and he just won’t have the experience to be able to match the speed of the decision-making that will be demanded in many situations. If he does, again, he’s a complete freak. But realistically, after watching Rosen for three weeks of his first practices at UCLA, we think that’s a realistic projection of what he’ll be like for the 2015 season.

So, to give his performance a boost, giving him a little more time to make a decision is going to be key.

If Rosen has more time to make decisions, he will, obviously, perform better. He performs better, the offense, obviously, performs better, not only because it directly makes it better but it creates more balance. If the offense is good, naturally, it relieves pressure on the defense to have to keep the team in games, and keeps the defense off the field.

Ergo pass protection for Rosen might be the single-most impactful factor of the season.

So, the question is: Will UCLA have good pass protection in 2015?

If we’re judging by spring practice, the jury’s out. They’ve been decent, but not dominating, in terms of pass protection. Now, it’s always difficult to judge in spring practice, or even fall camp. The offensive line is going up against its own defensive line every day. It naturally provides an advantage to the defense, and the defensive pass rush, since your own team’s defense is far more familiar with their own offense’s system and tactics. But we’d also have to say that UCLA has a pretty formidable defensive line and pass rush, with the likes of Eddie Vanderdoes, Ken Clark, Deon Hollins, Takkarist McKinley and Matt Dickerson. New Defensive Coordinator Tom Bradley, too, has been installing some new pressure packages. But, taking all of that into consideration, the offense’s pass protection has been pretty good, given that context. And usually in spring practice we’re quite used to the defense completely dominating the offensive line in passing downs. In years past, even in years under Jim Mora, in spring practice, the offense very often couldn’t give the quarterback much time to operate at all. This spring, while it hasn’t been great, it’s been light-years better.

You have to consider, though, the UCLA offense is coming off perhaps its best half of a season of pass protection in probably a decade. In the 2014 season, UCLA allowed 4.16 sacks per game through the first six games of the season, which was among the worst in college football. In the second half of the season, UCLA allowed just 2.14 sacks per game. And you could make the case that UCLA faced, on average, more formidable pass-rushing defenses in the second half of the 2014 season compared to the first.

What changed? Well, in almost every year, the UCLA offensive line is still kind of a work-in-progress through fall camp in preparation for the season’s first game. There are almost always some uncertainties, at various positions. Last season, a true freshman, Najee Toran, started at guard for the season opener against Virginia. UCLA started graduate transfer Malcolm Bunche at the critical left tackle spot. The result: 5 sacks. It got really ugly against Utah, in the fifth game of the season, when UCLA looked overwhelmed by Utah’s pass rush and suffered a whopping 10 sacks.

In the second half of the season the offensive line coalesced.

And, of course, there was Conor McDermott. It’s not coincidental that, when he was inserted into the left tackle position for the Cal game, the seventh game of the season, the UCLA offensive line dramatically improved. For the next five games, UCLA allowed just 1.6 sacks per game, against some defenses that were vaunted for their pass rush, like Washington and USC. McDermott was excellent in pass pro, locking down the left “blind side” of the line, and there was a ripple effect across the offensive line. Alex Redmond returned from injury, and they got good play from back-up Kenny Lacy. The last half of the 2014 season was easily the best performance by a UCLA offensive line in pass protection in recent memory.

And then, on top of it, UCLA’s entire pass pro package really firmed up. The running backs developed into very good blocking backs, both Paul Perkins and Jordon James, as well as Nathan Starks.

There was definitely cohesion in pass pro for the first time in a very long time.

Brett Hundley, who had a bit of a weakness for decision-making in the pocket, played perhaps his best ball at UCLA, as a result.

Caleb Benenoch
Things, then, will be a bit different heading into the 2015 season because of the 2014 season. UCLA returns every offensive linemen from last year. Its running backs, Perkins and Starks, who are good blockers, will probably carry the load of running back pass protection, as well as fullback Nate Iese. Because of all of this experienced talent you’d have to use the word cohesion again to describe spring practice for the offensive line in pass protection – for the first time, well, ever. UCLA began spring practice with five guys on the starting OL, and those five are still the starters, twelve practices in. That includes a former starter who returned after sitting the 2014 season, Simon Goines. UCLA also has two former starters, Caleb Benenoch and Scott Quessenberry, currently recovering from injury. Goines looks about as good physically as he ever has, and Benenoch, while still only practicing lightly, looks so much better than he did when he was hobbled by injury the entire 2014 season.

In other words, you couldn’t imagine a time when going into a season that UCLA’s offensive line would project to being in such good condition. It’s very reasonable to expect, with the experience and depth returning on offensive line, UCLA’s pass protection should be every bit as good as it was in the second half of the 2014 season, and even a bit better.

We’re going to go out on a limb, then. If the offensive line can pass protect Rosen well, we think he has a chance to have a near-freakish true freshman season.

Again, we know it’s foolish to wittle down any situation to one thing, one factor. But after watching the UCLA football team through three weeks of spring practice, every unit, and every element, of the team looks like it will be very good. The big question mark is, of course, replacing Hundley. If you plugged in Hundley to the team in 2015, most pundits would be projecting UCLA as a top-10 preseason pick, at least. It’s not difficult to recognize that, if you can get effective production out of the quarterback position for 2015, whether that be with Rosen or anyone else, the team has a chance to be just that.

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