Photo by Steve Cheng

UCLA Football Season Preview: Part 1

Aug. 27 -- In our first installment of the UCLA football season preview, we break down the offense, and the new starter at quarterback...

Last year, UCLA was one of the most hyped teams in the country heading into the year, ranked 7th in the nation and picked by many as a dark horse candidate to win a national championship.

We didn’t really see it at the time. After watching fall camp last year, we had some concerns about the mentality of the team heading into the year and whether the team had enough explosive playmakers to really test the defenses of many of the Pac-12 powers. We ended up picking the team to go 10-2, erring on the side of optimism.

This year, UCLA is a much more under-the-radar type team. UCLA is ranked in the low-to-mid teens in most preseason prognostications. The Bruins received just two votes to win the conference in the Pac-12 preseason media vote, while USC, the team UCLA has beaten badly three years in a row, is the preseason pick to win the conference and contend for a national championship.

In other words, the perception of UCLA is right where Jim Mora would like it to be.

The Bruins return, essentially, 17 starters from last season (since Scott Quessenberry is going to redshirt, most likely), including nine on offense and eight on defense. And this isn’t like a Karl Dorrell or Rick Neuheisel team returning a bunch of starters — these are guys who can really play, who helped propel UCLA to two straight 10-win seasons.

If UCLA had a returning starter at quarterback, there’s little doubt that the Bruins would be near the top five in the preseason rankings and the probable favorite to win the Pac-12 this year. Nearly every other aspect of the team on offense and defense is set up for this to be a special year, with potential for a conference title and a run at the playoffs.

Of course, UCLA does not return a starter at quarterback, with Brett Hundley departing for the NFL. True freshman Josh Rosen has gotten the nod at quarterback, and, almost reflexively, that has led many throughout the national media to rule out UCLA as a legitimate contender this season.

It’s rare, though, for a true freshman quarterback to start for a team that is humming along as well as Mora’s Bruins. Usually, when a true freshman has been forced into action in the past, it’s because the rest of the team is mostly a disaster and the program is building for the future. Rosen, though, will have one of the most experienced offenses in the country surrounding him, which should allow him to get comfortable more quickly and develop at a faster rate than if he were in a similar situation with a worse supporting cast.

We always like to talk about the five factors heading into a season that can dictate the course of a season: talent, experience, coaching, injuries, and schedule.

Talent: This is, for about the fourth consecutive year, the most talented team UCLA has had in a long time. Those players who all started as true freshmen two years ago are now seasoned veterans, from Myles Jack to Caleb Benenoch to Kenneth Clark. UCLA has NFL-potential talent at basically every position on the team (save special teams) and it’s fair to say that the overall talent level in the program hasn’t been this high since the late 90s.

Experience: The funny thing about playing all of those true freshmen a couple of years ago is that UCLA at once has one of the most experienced teams in the country, while also still having very few seniors on the roster. The starting offensive line has one senior, the starting receiving corps has one senior, and that’s it for the offense. On defense, Aaron Wallace and Fabian Moreau are the only two starting seniors (though Myles Jack might as well be considered one). In other words, UCLA is one of the most experienced teams in the country this year, and will have much the same roster in 2016. That’s what you call a window of opportunity.

Coaching: Replacing Jeff Ulbrich with Tom Bradley was a significant move, and while we aren’t into games yet, based on everything we saw this spring and fall, we think it was a good move. Bradley brings a wealth of experience as a defensive coordinator to the table, and we already saw in camp that he’s going to use different types of pressure from different spots on the field to cause disruption in the backfield. Last year, UCLA looked so tentative in games as Ulbrich focused on that gap-integrity style of defense, but so far in camp, it looks like UCLA’s defense is playing faster with a little more abandon, which can be a good thing if harnessed correctly. Scott White is the other semi-newcomer, slotting in as the new linebackers coach and special teams coach. We like what we’ve seen out of White so far, as he shows great attention to detail and the players really seem to respond to him as a coach. Honestly, he’s been doing a good deal of the position coaching over the last three years anyway, so there hasn’t been much of a switch. Overall, with Ulbrich and Tuiasosopo departing, and Bradley and White moving into the coaching roles, we’d say that UCLA significantly upgraded on the coaching front.

Injuries: UCLA made it through fall camp relatively unscathed, but there’s no telling how the season might go. There was a bit of a scare when Conor McDermott and Jake Brendel missed some of fall camp with a knee injury and calf injury respectively, but both were back in practice, as Jim Mora said, and they should be fine for the start of the season. UCLA is thin in a few spots, though, as we’ll get to, and a couple of key injuries could derail the season, as is often the case in college football.

Schedule: UCLA is back to avoiding Oregon this season, which is probably the biggest takeaway from the schedule. A potential is now replaced by an almost sure win in Oregon State, which is a pretty significant swing. The non-conference schedule is manageable, though BYU presents as a difficult opponent, especially for a freshman quarterback. The conference schedule, without Oregon, has a few obvious tough games, but there’s a nice stretch through the end of October and beginning of November when the Bruins should be able to build some momentum. In rating this schedule compared to previous years, we’d say that it’s probably just behind 2012 for the easiest schedule of the Mora era. We’ll get into our game-by-game analysis in the second part of the preview.

Offense



UCLA named Josh Rosen the starting quarterback on Wednesday, a decision that seemed almost inevitable since the freshman committed to UCLA in spring of 2014. Rosen is one of the most heralded high school quarterbacks to ever come in to UCLA, and with Brett Hundley leaving a vacuum at the quarterback position in the wake of his departure, the stage was set for Rosen to seize the job as a true freshman.

Through spring, it looked like the coronation would go off without a hitch. Rosen looked exceptional during April, and performed very clearly at a higher level than the other three quarterbacks on the roster. Asiantii Woulard was the next best during that period, and Woulard transferred soon after spring, which was another data point in favor of the Rosen-will-start mantra.

Then came San Bernardino, where Rosen suddenly lost some of his invincibility. In the face of significantly more pressure from Tom Bradley’s defense than he saw in the spring, Rosen did not come close to the level of play he found in spring. With Rosen having a few more struggles, Jerry Neuheisel snuck back into the competition. Neuheisel struggled during the spring, but looked significantly better through two weeks of fall camp, to the point where it looked like Jim Mora might have an actual decision to make heading into the season.

On Wednesday, he made the decision public, opting for Rosen over Neuheisel, and, in a sense, opting for potential over experience, talent over headiness, and upside over history. As we’ve pointed out several times on the message board and in stories we’ve written, it’s the same decision we would have gone with, for many reasons, but primarily this: Rosen gives the team the potential to be elite. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Bruins will be elite this year, but Rosen’s upside is higher than just about any quarterback we’ve seen at UCLA. He has close to the perfect combination of arm strength, footwork, intelligence, and size, and if he comes anywhere close to reaching his upside in 2015, the Bruins will have a truly devastating offense.

The question is how quickly he can progress. Right now, Rosen is still learning how to play at this level, and there’s going to be a steep learning curve when he starts going against college defenses in actual game situations where he can be hit. Even in practice, when Bradley really turned up the heat, Rosen had some ups and downs, and a couple of days in particular where he really seemed to struggle. Even on those days, though, he would hit a couple of throws, or make a quick decision or two, where something seemed to be clicking. Again, he’s a very smart player, and the moment when everything starts to slow down for him could come at any point.

Obviously, much will be dependent on how well Rosen is protected this season. UCLA was gifted, the last three years, with one of the most indestructible quarterbacks in living memory in Brett Hundley. Hundley took well over 100 sacks in three years, but never missed a start, and suffered only one somewhat significant injury (the elbow dislocation that knocked him out of the Texas game). It would be ridiculous to assume that Rosen will be equally durable, so the number one priority for UCLA will obviously be to keep Rosen from getting hit as much as possible. There are a couple of reasons to think that the Bruins will be able to reduce those sack totals significantly.

First, Rosen will probably take care of some of that himself. Already in practice he’s shown more willingness to throw the ball away than Hundley ever did, and he’s also much less likely to take off running on a play. By virtue of being more of a pocket passer, Rosen will also give the offensive line a slightly easier time of it, where the guys up front will generally know, at the start of every play, where the quarterback will be and how to effectively block for him.

Second, assuming full health into Virginia, UCLA will be starting its best offensive line since the 1990s.

Across the board, this is the strongest UCLA offensive line in a long time, with nary a weak link in the bunch, but let’s focus, first, on the tackles. At left tackle, Conor McDermott emerged last season as basically the difference between UCLA having terrible pass protection through the first six games and UCLA having pretty good pass protection through the final seven games. The Bruins gave up 25 sacks through the six games McDermott did not start and just 15 through the seven games he did start. He’s a very good athlete, with excellent feet, very good agility, and, with two healthy offseasons in a row, a 300+ pound frame that makes him well-suited for dealing with any combination of edge rushers or interior linemen. He very rarely, if at all, was beaten during 11-on-11 in San Bernardino, and we’re expecting a huge year for him that could elevate his play into the national consciousness.

On the other side, Caleb Benenoch returns for his third year as the starting right tackle, but this is the first year where you’d legitimately say Benenoch looks like a tackle. He has trimmed his body considerably and looks like he wouldn’t miss much of a beat if he shifted over the left side. Actually, he looks much like he did in spring of 2014 before a couple of nagging injuries made the whole 2014 season a struggle for him. Fully healthy now, he was a very effective bookend for McDermott on the other side of the line, more than holding his own against the likes of Deon Hollins, Takkarist McKinley, and more. Benenoch is very strong, but with the changes to his body, he has really improved his mobility and looks like he should be a force in both pass protection and run blocking this season.

The tackles are probably the strength of the offensive line, but the interior of the line also looked very good through fall camp. Jake Brendel, the four-year starter at center, looks stronger than he’s been at any point in his UCLA career, and more often than not through spring and fall camp, he was able to stymie Kenneth Clark in their battles both in one-on-ones and 11-on-11. What has always set Brendel apart has been his intelligence and ability to make the right calls at the line of scrimmage, but he’s now at the point physically where teams will have a really hard time pushing him around. Alex Redmond will once again start at right guard, and he looks like he found his mojo again this fall. He’s playing with a real nasty streak again, and looks much more like the freshman version of himself in terms of tenacity than the player he was last year. Kenny Lacy is the one new starter, with Scott Quessenberry out, but as we’ve talked about, we thought he was the best guard who started last year, and he improved in the offseason as well.

It’s hard to pick out a weak link in that chain. Any one of those guys would have probably started for any UCLA offensive line over the last 15 years or so, at one position or another. If there’s a question mark, it’s simply the depth. With Quessenberry most likely redshirting this year, and Simon Goines still an unknown after an undisclosed medical issue sidelined him for fall camp, the Bruins are a little thinner than we would have anticipated coming out of 2014. If one tackle goes down, UCLA has Kolton Miller, the redshirt freshman, who looks capable of playing at a pretty high level despite his youth. Beyond him, though, there isn’t a whole lot. Zach Bateman struggled to get more than third-team reps this fall camp, and the other tackles in the depth chart project as redshirt candidates (Andre James) or are walk-ons (Cristian Garcia).

If one interior lineman gets hurt, Fred Ulu-Perry is going to be the first guy off the bench, which means UCLA is one injury away from once again having to play a true freshman on the offensive line. Ulu-Perry has rare strength for a true freshman, but it’s still not ideal for him to have to start this year. For this season, we imagine Ulu-Perry would be strictly used at guard, with Alex Redmond sliding over to center if Brendel has to miss some time.

So, in short, the offensive line is the most talented it has been in terms of the starting unit, but there’s a short bench behind those starters, so health is going to be key.

UCLA’s wide receiving corps is, like most other positions on the team, probably the deepest and most talented it has been in quite some time. The Bruins lost just Devin Lucien, really, from last season’s receiving corps, and have at their disposal all of the players who redshirted last year, like Austin Roberts and Jordan Lasley, plus true freshman Stephen Johnson, who is right there with Kenny Walker as the fastest receiver on the team. UCLA is well-stocked with talented possession receivers (Jordan Payton, Eldridge Massington, Alex Van Dyke, Thomas Duarte, etc.) but what stood out this fall camp is that speed is also starting to show up. Stephen Johnson looked like a really explosive threat at times, Walker showed much improved hands and feel for the position, and even guys like Aaron Sharp looked much more comfortable and flashed more speed than they showed in spring.

The starting group is Payton, Duarte, Massington, and, in a bit of a switch-up from last year, Mossi Johnson. Mossi Johnson is the player we’re most excited to see in that receiving corps this year, because it seems like he has a chance to challenge Payton for most catches on the team this year. He is very quick, with good hands, and a natural ability to get open over the middle. He looks a little more explosive than he looked last season as well. He’s also one of the toughest receivers on the team, with a willingness and desire to make tough catches when he knows he’s going to take a hit. Johnson’s move to the starting group actually pushed two-year starter Devin Fuller to outside receiver, where he too has started to look a little more comfortable.

And then UCLA has its running back corps, and its Pac-12 leading rusher Paul Perkins. We’re talking about the backs last, but, frankly, we’d be pretty stunned if UCLA doesn’t lean heavily on the running game this year. With a freshman starter at quarterback, Perkins and company are likely going to shoulder a huge load for the offense.

Perkins, obviously, is one of the best running backs in the Pac-12. As we’ve talked about a lot, he doesn’t have explosive speed, but he possesses basically every other tool needed to be a very productive running back: great balance, great agility, great body control, very good quickness, easy change-of-direction, and excellent vision. With that kind of skill-set, we’d be pretty shocked if he fell too far off of the pace he set last year, when he rattled off 6+ yards per carry.

Nate Starks is his primary backup, and he changed his body drastically since last season, dropping at least ten pounds, which has made him a more explosive playmaker. He still looks pretty strong as well, but now he looks more like a legitimate threat to break a long touchdown than he did last season. He isn’t running quite as high as he did last year either, as Kennedy Polamalu’s tutelage appears to be helping him considerably.

Behind those two there are some question marks. Through fall camp, the true freshmen Sotonye Jamabo and Bolu Olorunfunmi battled for the third spot, but that was largely due to Steven Manfro and Craig Lee both being out for fall camp. Manfro was hurt, and could make his return at any point given the last timeline we received from Jim Mora, but Lee is a little more uncertain, as he had to take care of an academic issue. Either player could factor a little more into the battle depending on what they look like when they start to practice again.

For now, though, we’ll look at Jamabo and Olorunfunmi (with a shoutout to Roosevelt Davis, who will get some carries this year, in junk time if nothing else). Olorunfunmi was the big surprise of camp, looking significantly quicker than we expected him to be, and much more ready to play early in his career. His hands are an issue, as he still doesn’t catch quite as consistently as you’d like, and he had a few fumbles during camp, but his running style, quickness, and toughness make him an intriguing candidate to play this year.

Jamabo is still a bit of a wildcard. He didn’t have a great two weeks of camp, looking a little tentative in his running style and not flashing the level of speed and quickness we thought we’d see out of him. It was his first fall camp, obviously, so much of that might have had to do with just being uncomfortable in a new environment. His scrimmage last Friday was encouraging, as he had a sequence of three runs where he looked very good slicing through the defense and showed off a little more quickness and speed than we’d seen previously. We can’t shake the idea that he might be better suited to a hybrid role, where he primarily catches out of the backfield and occasionally lines up in the slot, but perhaps he’ll surprise us over the course of the year. He’s certainly talented, and it’s a good bet that talent will show itself at some point this season.

While we’re on the subject of wildcards, let’s talk about Nate Iese and Chris Clark. Iese, as we’ve made known some 47 times in various stories and podcasts we’ve produced, is a very good jumbo athlete who has probably been underutilized in his UCLA career. Clark sat out most of fall camp with mononucleosis, but as Jim Mora discussed the other day, he’s back in practice in Westwood. Both of these players are potentially significant mismatches at this level, in slightly different ways. Clark is, obviously, a tight end, with the ability to flex out wide if need be, and has more of a wide receiver’s skillset. Iese often lines up in the backfield, but has the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield as well as line up tight to the line. Both players could be significant threats in the red zone and in short yardage situation, since they both have great hands and the size to present a good target to a quarterback even when they are covered.

From a coaching perspective, Noel Mazzone has clearly produced three very productive offenses in his three years at UCLA, and he did it while using a type of quarterback (a dual-threat) he hadn’t really used in his other coaching stops. There’s some belief that now that he has more of a traditional drop-back passer as the starter, he’ll be more in his comfort zone as a play-caller and schemer, and we’ve already seen evidence of that, with many more rollouts built into the offense this fall camp than we saw in previous years. There are some nagging concerns, though, about how this offense does against the best defenses in the Pac-12. Stanford, Utah, and Oregon have all been able to cause UCLA some significant issues on the offensive end over the last three years, and while those teams have had very good defenses, it has seemed a little too easy for them to render this offense one-dimensional. Perhaps with the growth of the offensive line and a different sort of quarterback at the helm, UCLA will be able to find success against those types of defenses, but it’s still a concern heading into the year.

There’s obviously plenty of offensive talent across the board, but so much hinges on Rosen, and his ability to be consistently above average. And that’s the thing — he doesn’t need to be all-world in his first year at the helm. With the surrounding talent at every position on offense, and the amount of experience UCLA has across the board, he just needs to be pretty good this year for the Bruins to come close to realizing their potential. He’ll have plenty of weapons to work with at receiver and running back, and he’ll be protected better than Hundley ever was.

Now he just needs to produce.

Tomorrow, we'll go through the defense and offer our game-by-game prediction for the season


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