When assessing the UCLA’s offense, it’s natural to begin with a discussion of Josh Rosen, the true freshman quarterback taking over for Brett Hundley. He’s the fulcrum for the offense in 2015, and the sort of season he has is likely going to dictate whether UCLA has a decent offense in 2015 or an excellent one.
On defense, it’s equally natural, for similar reasons, to begin with a discussion of defensive coordinator Tom Bradley.
UCLA has had, generally, very good talent on the defensive side of the football for the last three years. While this is probably the deepest and most talented UCLA has been on defense in the Mora era, last year was not far off in terms of talent, and yet UCLA’s defense last year was mostly average. The previous two years, UCLA was decent enough defensively under Lou Spanos, but if you look at the last three years as a whole, it’d be easy to draw the conclusion that, on defense, the Bruins have probably not overachieved relative to their talent, and have, at times, underachieved.
We’ll center this discussion on last year, though. Last season, we expected the defense to be fairly good under new defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. In year three of the scheme, we expected that the experience in the secondary and at linebacker would help offset the loss of Anthony Barr and Cassius Marsh, and that the defensive front, with Kenneth Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes, would become one of the better front lines in the Pac-12.
Of course, UCLA ended up not being very good defensively last year, and through the first five or six games, was actually fairly bad, relative to the talent on the team. Some of that had to do with a lack of natural pass rushers. The previous two years, UCLA had relied on Anthony Barr, Cassius Marsh, and Keenan Graham to provide a significant amount of sacks and tackles for loss, and replacing them all was a difficult task. But a huge portion was also due to a conservative scheme and style installed by Jeff Ulbrich that, at least through the first half of the season, very rarely brought pressure and relied on players playing their assignments nearly perfectly at all times. At this level of football, that’s just not realistic, and as such, UCLA underperformed relative to its talent through the first stretch of the season. The Bruins were better over the second half of the year, with much of that due to Ulbrich finally starting to bring some pressure to offset the lack of excellent individual pass rushers.
The point is: Ulbrich was learning on the job, and his struggles in that process contributed in large part to UCLA not winning the Pac-12 South last year. The talent was there to be better, as the latter half of the season proved, and it was really a deficit at the coordinator position that contributed, in large part, to the loss to Utah especially.
Enter Bradley, who is essentially Ulbrich’s opposite. The last time he could be referred to as “learning on the job” was probably in the early 90s. He is an experienced, seasoned defensive coordinator, who helmed one of the nation’s best defenses at Penn State through the early 2000s. He has a far better resume than Lou Spanos, who did a fairly good job in his stint as defensive coordinator from 2012 to 2013. If resume is any judge, this was a home run hire, and one of the best coordinator hires in the country last year.
We’ve now had a full seven weeks to assess Bradley’s defense, through spring and a few weeks of fall camp, and, while it’s always difficult to assess scheme and play-calling before they actually play games, we’ve been very impressed by what we’ve seen. As we’ve noted a few times, Bradley has installed many different types of blitzes and pressures, with players lining up in odd positions and blitzing from different angles. We put it in one practice report that UCLA is blitzing with a purpose now, rather than just running a linebacker directly into an offensive guard, and that’s held true through basically everything we’ve seen from Bradley so far. It’s interesting, because we had heard before his arrival that pressure wasn’t really Bradley’s forte, but so far, he looks like he’ll be bringing significantly more heat on the quarterback than any defensive coordinator in a good long while at UCLA.
Bradley will also have a huge amount of talent to work with. Unlike on offense, where there’s still some thinness along the offensive line and at quarterback, every position on defense is relatively deep. If Kenneth Clark goes down, Eddie Vanderdoes can slide in and provide, oh, about 95% of what Clark provides, and Matt Dickerson can slide into Vanderdoes’ spot. If Myles Jack goes down, Jayon Brown seems more than capable of coming in and holding his own. If Fabian Moreau gets hurt, two-year starter Ishmael Adams can bounce right back into the starting lineup. Talent, depth, and experience are really non-issues defensively for UCLA.
The big key for Bradley essentially boils down to one thing: generating a pass rush. Last year, if you factor in how bad UCLA was at getting to the quarterback (the Bruins averaged 2.2 sacks per game for the year, but that’s unfairly weighted by the final three games, when UCLA had 13 total sacks. In the previous ten games, UCLA had just 16 total sacks) it’s actually pretty stunning that the Bruins were even as good as they were defensively, particularly in pass defense (UCLA allowed 6.6 yards per passing attempt, good for 29th in the country). If UCLA can actually generate a pass rush this season, that should significantly improve UCLA’s pass defense, which was, again, already surprisingly good given the circumstances.
Bradley will also have some more experienced tools to work with in generating that pass rush. First, Deon Hollins looks like a seasoned veteran now, and is much more capable of being an every-down player than he was previously. He’s clearly put in a lot of work on his body, and his agility has improved significantly since he arrived on campus. His big assets, obviously, are his straight-ahead quickness and speed, as well as advanced pass-rushing techniques, and we wouldn’t be shocked to see him hit double-digit sack totals this year.
Takkarist McKinley, who flashed some significant upside last year in limited time, is going to start on the defensive line and provide an athletic presence on the edge who can also rush the passer. He gained 10 or 15 pounds in the offseason, and is much better able to hold up against the run than he was a year ago, which will allow him to stay on the field more.
We wouldn’t be shocked to see those two lead the team in sacks this year, but we’d also anticipate more sacks coming from a wider variety of players than a year ago. Eddie Vanderdoes trimmed down considerably in the offseason and looks like he might be better suited to pass-rushing from his defensive tackle position than he was a year ago. The inside linebackers, to a man, look like better blitzers now that Bradley is using them more effectively. Kenny Orjioke, who’s back after missing last year, could also provide some help in the pass rush. He looks great physically, and could be the starter at outside linebacker by midseason, supplanting Aaron Wallace.
Judging by what we saw in fall camp, we think there is enough, between the individual talents and the scheme changes, to generate a productive pass rush this year. So, that’s one big question that we think should be answered well this year.
The other question mark really comes down to replacing Eric Kendricks. Kendricks accounted for so many tackles over the course of his career that it’s hard to expect just one player to replace him. Both Kenny Young and Myles Jack have combined to take over his role, with both of them slotting in at inside linebacker. Young had a really nice fall camp, and looked much more capable of staying on the field as an every-down linebacker thanks to his improved ability to cover. Jack, as we’ve talked about for years, is one of the most athletic players we’ve ever seen, and his unique skillset seems to fit even better in his new role, where he isn’t required to pass rush much, and can instead range from sideline to sideline and also occasionally cover receivers. Replacing Kendricks is a tall task, but those two players appear suited to it.
Up front, UCLA has what looks like either the best or second-best defensive line in the Pac-12, depending on how you feel about Utah. Clark and Vanderdoes both project as eventual NFL defensive linemen, and they’re going to make it very difficult to run against UCLA this year. Behind the starters, Dickerson, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, Eli Ankou, and perhaps even true freshman Rick Wade provide talented depth that can be a part of the rotation.
The defensive backfield has a new starter in Marcus Rios, who’s replacing Ishmael Adams at cornerback, with Adams dropping down to nickel. Rios looked very good in spring and fall camp, and he looks poised to have a pretty big year in his first year as the starter. Adams is probably best suited to playing nickel, so this move should help to improve the defensive backfield as a whole. Significantly, UCLA also gets Randall Goforth back after he missed most of last year with a shoulder injury. Goforth is the leader of the group, and should provide a steadying force at safety in his fourth year in the program. Between Goforth, Rios, Adams, Fabian Moreau, and Jaleel Wadood, UCLA has one of its most experienced and talented starting secondaries in a long time. The depth is also better than expected, with Denzel Fisher, Tahaan Goodman, and several freshmen making real strides this offseason.
But as we said above, it all starts with the pass rush, and that’ll be the one critical piece that Tom Bradley can add to the puzzle this season. If UCLA can consistently get pressure on quarterbacks this year, that will likely turn UCLA’s defense into one of the elite units in the Pac-12, and will, in turn, take pressure off of UCLA’s own young quarterback on the other side of the ball.
Myles Jack, Kenny Young (and Josh Woods in the background)
So, now, it’s time to take a look at the schedule, and rattle off which games project as wins right now, and which ones project as losses. Understand that this is an exercise in silliness, as some team is certainly going to be better than everyone expects, some team is going to be significantly worse, and weird things like injuries happen at random and can derail a season at any point. Cool? Cool.
Sept. 5 -- Virginia
The Cavaliers gave UCLA a huge scare last season, with the Bruins scraping together a 28-20 victory despite significant issues on the offensive line and a pronounced inability to, you know, score points on offense. This was the game, if you remember, where Jim Mora was later seen on The Drive giving some light-hearted crap to Noel Mazzone for the lack of offense. Virginia lost a good deal of its defense from last year (just four returning starters) so the Cavaliers will likely take a step back on that side of the ball. Offensively, Virginia will probably be a little bit better, with more of a focus on running the ball with a trio of talented running backs, but the losses on defense and having the game at home should make this a fairly easy tune-up game for UCLA in its first game with Josh Rosen at the helm. W 1-0
Sept. 12 -- at UNLV
The Running Rebels are essentially a high school team, from a talent perspective, and, fittingly, they hired a high school coach in the offseason, Bishop Gorman’s Tony Sanchez. UNLV was terrible against the run last year, allowing 5.8 yards per carry, so we’ll just say it: there’s a better chance of Paul Perkins setting the single-game NCAA rushing record on September 12th than UCLA losing the game. W 2-0
Sept. 19 -- BYU
We hope Josh Rosen enjoyed his two tune-up games, because the Cougars are going to be a very difficult out for the Bruins, and this game begins a four-game stretch where the Bruins will have to face above-average opponents every week. BYU always has grown men on both sides of the ball, which makes it very difficult to play them. This will be the first really stout defensive line UCLA will have to contend with, and it should provide a nice test for the offensive line. Defensively, the Bruins will have to deal with Taysom Hill, one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the country prior to a season-ending injury last year. Given that this will be the first really tough game for Rosen, we would probably be inclined to call this a loss if it were on the road in Utah, but since it’s at home, we’ll give it to the Bruins in a close one. W 3-0
Sept. 26 -- at Arizona
Arizona returns much of its skill talent, in Anu Solomon, Cayleb Jones, and Nick Wilson, but that actually disguises the very real losses the Wildcats have suffered on the offensive line and defensively. Arizona is still struggling to figure out who the starting center will be after the likely starter, Carter Wood, was ruled out for the year due to a foot injury. Arizona also lost both starting tackles from a year ago. Defensively, the Wildcats return just five starters, but that includes Scooby Wright, who put up some ridiculous numbers last season. UCLA, for whatever reason, has shown an ability to stymie Rich Rodriguez’s offense through the last three years, and with all of the losses Arizona had this offseason, we think this one could be a pretty big win for UCLA. W 4-0
Oct. 3 -- Arizona State
This game will be a real test for UCLA. The Sun Devils were very good last year, and they return nine starters on defense and seven on offense, making them one of the more experienced teams in the Pac-12. ASU did suffer some key losses in the offseason, though, with quarterback Taylor Kelly graduating and Jaelen Strong leaving for the NFL, but there are some people who think Mike Bercovici has a chance to be even better than Kelly in Mike Norvell’s offense. That remains to be seen, and ASU is going to have to spend the first few weeks of the season figuring out who the go-to receivers are going to be.
Arizona State is also going to likely be the first team that pressure Josh Rosen constantly. Todd Graham likes his defenses to attack seasoned quarterbacks, so he’ll almost certainly let loose every blitz in his playbook against Rosen. If Rosen can hold up under that sort of onslaught and make good decisions, UCLA’s talent should outweigh Arizona State, but this is going to be a real test for the true freshman. Legitimately, this is a toss-up game for us, but since it’s at home, we’ll give it to the Bruins. W 5-0
Oct. 15 -- at Stanford
UCLA gets 12 days off between ASU and Stanford, and by this time, the Bruins will probably be somewhere in the top ten, and getting a good deal of hype after beating a ranked ASU team. If ever there was a year to knock off Stanford, this might be the one. The stout Stanford defense that has given UCLA so much trouble actually lost seven starters in the offseason, including every starting defensive lineman and two of four linebackers. The Cardinal have recruited well on defense, but transitioning seven new starters into the lineup is going to come with some growing pains. Offensively, Stanford should be much better than last year, with nine returning starters, including much of the offensive line, quarterback Kevin Hogan, and running back Christian McCaffrey. Hogan has been a UCLA killer in the Mora era, and for whatever reason tends to play his best football against the Bruins. Still, we think Bradley might be better able to disrupt him than any of the other coordinators UCLA has had in the last three years.
We almost talked ourselves into it, but we just can’t do it. Until UCLA beats Stanford, we can’t predict the Bruins will beat Stanford. Lucy has pulled that ball away from us one too many times. L 5-1
So, now, through six games, the Bruins are 5-1 and have made it through the toughest four-game stretch on the schedule with all postseason hopes still intact. The one loss is to a Pac-12 North team, which means UCLA still controls its own destiny in the South, and given the respect the Playoff Committee showed the Pac-12 last season, the Bruins will still be completely alive in the playoff hunt.
Oct. 22 -- California
We have this pegged as a sneakily tough game. After dealing with the physical beating that always comes with playing Stanford, UCLA will have to turn around and play a second consecutive Thursday night game against a team with an explosive offense and arguably the best quarterback in the league. Cal tested UCLA significantly last season, and we imagine the Bears will be well-equipped to do so again. This will be Bradley’s first time going against an Air Raid-type scheme at UCLA, and that could present some unforeseen challenges. Offensively, Rosen had better be ready for a shootout. We’ll pick the Bruins to win since it’s at home, but we wouldn’t be shocked if this game ends up remarkably tight. W 6-1
Oct. 31 -- Colorado
It seems like UCLA always gets the Bears and the Buffaloes back to back, and, no offense to Colorado, but the Buffaloes pick a great week to come to the Rose Bowl. After a brutal loss to Stanford and a surprisingly stern matchup against the Bears, the Bruins need to feast on a cupcake, and Colorado is there to happily oblige. The Buffs should actually be better in 2015, with continuity at key positions on both offense and defense, but the Bruins are simply more talented across the board, and won’t be going through the odd malaise they were experiencing midseason last year. UCLA wins, and pretty significantly. W 7-1
Nov. 7 -- at Oregon State
For the first time in over a decade, the Beavers have a new head coach in Gary Andersen, and he’s a proven, effective coach who should turn Oregon State into a decent team before too long has passed. Unfortunately for him, the Beavers are going to be far from decent this year, with a new starter at quarterback, just two returning starters on defense, and not enough talent to compete with the big boys in the conference. UCLA is one of those big boys now, and the Bruins should go into Reser Stadium and blow out Oregon State. W 8-1
Nov. 14 -- Washington State
The final home game of the season comes against the last of the weak opponents. The Cougars should be better than a year ago, when they were bad defensively, horrible on special teams, and lost their starting quarterback midway through the year. We actually wouldn’t be shocked if they end up bowl eligible, as there are some winnable games on the schedule in the soft Pac-12 North, and Washington State returns its entire starting offensive line from last year. The Cougars could put up some points against UCLA, but we have a hard time believing enough in that defense to think they can hold their own against the Bruins. By the way, by this point in the season, Rosen should be playing at a much higher level than at the beginning of the year, particularly after feasting on four consective bad defenses. W 9-1
Now, UCLA is 9-1 heading into key road games against Utah and USC. The Bruins will have three good-ish wins against BYU, Arizona, and ASU, one good loss against what we think will be a pretty good Stanford team, and will probably once again be in the top ten, and in the conversation for a playoff bid.
Nov. 21 -- at Utah
Utah is, in perpetuity, essentially Stanford-lite, and UCLA has had the same sort of troubles against the Utes over the last three years that they’ve had against the Cardinal, just at a lower magnitude. Utah has done a good job of beating up UCLA’s offensive line in each of the last three years and, while last year was the lone victory for the Utes, every game in the series has been a close, grinding affair. Utah will once again have a good front seven in 2015, despite losing Nate Orchard to the NFL. Offensively, Utah is still in much the same position as a year ago, with a great running back but no real answer at the quarterback position.
This is a weird game to pick. As with ASU, this one feels like a toss-up to us. We’ve been more confused by Noel Mazzone’s play-calling against Utah than against any other opponent on the schedule, and we can’t shake the idea that there’s something about the way the Utes play that just screws up UCLA’s offense. A freshman quarterback only exacerbates our concerns in that respect. Given that this game will come on the road in November, when it should be very cold in Utah, and that it comes against one of those opponents that has just seemed to cause real issues for UCLA over the last three years, we’re going to push this toss-up into the loss pile. L 9-2
Nov. 28 -- at USC
And then UCLA goes on the road to take on the preseason favorite to win the Pac-12, USC. Many are predicting USC to be one of the best teams in the country, largely based on the way USC has recruited over the last few years, which isn’t a bad rationale. The issue is that few of these prognostications are taking into account one really important fact: Steve Sarkisian is still USC’s head coach. Sarkisian has never been anything more than an average coach, and it’s not as if USC has such a talent advantage over the rest of the Pac-12 that the Trojans can simply steamroll everyone else. UCLA arguably has as much raw talent, if not more, and the UCLA coaching staff has shown a feel for getting the team completely amped up for this game every year.
USC is talented, though, and there are some reasons to think the Trojans should make it more of a game this year. Their offensive line should be better than a year ago with more experience, Cody Kessler is a very good quarterback, and there’s enough talent on defense to expect them to take a step up on that side of the ball. But as with the last three years, we imagine UCLA will come into this game with a mindset to physically dictate its will to USC, and given what we’ve seen of Sarkisian-coached teams over the years, we can’t see the Trojans putting up the necessary resistance to win the game. W 10-2
So, at this point, UCLA will have its first 10-win regular season since 1998, and will have won the Pac-12 South (we’re projecting that each of ASU, USC, and Utah finish 6-3 in the conference). We’re projecting Oregon to sweep through its conference schedule and arrive at the Pac-12 title game with an 11-1 record (one loss to Michigan State). The Ducks will look like a legitimate national title contender by this point in the season, with Vernon Adams running the offense very efficiently. UCLA puts up a battle, but falls to the Ducks, ending the Bruins’ run at a playoff berth. L 10-3.
Now, with the respect the Pac-12 was shown last year in the playoff rankings, we have to imagine UCLA will still be fairly high up in the rankings after losing to Oregon, similar to Arizona’s positioning last season. This year, the Rose Bowl is one of the at-large bowls, which means that the Pac-12 runner-up will have a pretty good chance of landing in the Rose Bowl, if Oregon makes a playoff run. We have Stanford finishing the year 10-2, but since the Bruins won their division, they’ll get the nod for the Rose Bowl, where they’ll take on Michigan State and, riding an excellent performance from Josh Rosen (who just had a full month to digest his first season as a quarterback and is starting to play more like a seasoned sophomore), the Bruins will notch their first Rose Bowl victory since 1986, and first ever 11-win season. W 11-3.
Full Pac-12 Predicted Standings
1. Oregon 11-1 (9-0)
2. Stanford 10-2 (7-2)
3. California 6-6 (3-6)
4. Washington State 6-6 (3-6)
5. Washington 3-9 (1-8)
6. Oregon State 3-9 (1-8)
1. UCLA 10-2 (7-2)
2. Arizona State 9-3 (6-3)
3. USC 8-4 (6-3)
4. Utah 9-3 (6-3)
5. Arizona 7-5 (4-5)
6. Colorado 5-8 (1-8)