Josh Rosen (Steve Cheng, BRO)

Post-USC Analysis: Getting to the Next Level

Nov. 29 -- After letting the USC loss settle in, we address some of the issues facing the program, and they all center around: While Jim Mora has elevated the program considerably, what has to happen to take it to the next level?

Of course, UCLA fans are angry.

You all are asking questions and want explanations – not really about the USC game per se, but about the program overall under Jim Mora and its direction.

Okay, here we go.

These are the factors to consider:

-- How big of an impact did injuries have on the season?  Is it even fair to judge the season because of them?

-- It’s clear Mora has elevated the program from where it was previously.  Has the program, though, plateaued? 

-- If so, or even if not, are there changes needed in the program?  Does the program need to upgrade itself to get it to the next level? 

These are tough questions and, really, no one has the clear-cut answer.  Many people have tons of speculation, but that’s it – it’s all speculation.   It’s not like when UCLA was emerging from the Dark Era of Dorrell/Neuheisel and it was painfully clear that something needed to be done.  That wasn’t speculation. But now, after Mora’s fourth year, when he’s brought the program to a relatively high level of success, it’s difficult to assess what is it that would take it to the next level.

Because let’s be candid here:  The program does need to go to the next level.  The UCLA community is incredibly grateful for Mora pulling the program out of those Dark Ages.  It’s grateful for the four winning seasons, and the three wins over USC.  But everyone who has enough interest in UCLA football to be reading this – all UCLA fans, and the coaching staff itself – has to recognize that the program needs to take the next step.  In Mora’s first four years you would say he’s elevated the program to top-20-ish level.  That was a big first move, to pull up the program from where the Dorrell/Neuheisel tenure had left it in a ditch.  Mora has transformed the program since those days in many, profound ways: 

1) The coaching is clearly better. No question.  If you’re not sure of that, think about some of the coaches that were on the staff under Neuheisel and the coordinators. 

2) Mora’s been able to do that by not only recognizing and hiring good coaches, but by significantly increasing the assistant coach salary pool. 

3) He changed the mentality of the athletic department and university in regard to the football program.  He pretty much ignored the bureaucratic no-birds and did things that caused a stir at UCLA, dragging the UCLA bureaucrats kicking and screaming into the light of modern-age college football.  While the term Bruin Revolution is, of course, a marketing tool, what Mora has done internally at UCLA has genuinely been a revolution.  The UCLA football program, the athletic department and the University all needed to change its views on what football at a major university had to be to survive and to benefit the University in the climate of today’s college football. It’s actually a shame it took Mora for this to happen; UCLA should have recognized it all on its own and stepped up with the times without needing Mora to force it through.  You shudder to think where this program would be if Mora hadn’t been the catalyst to it all.

One of the most significant elements here: Mora convinced the administration to loosen its admittance standards a bit for football players, to a reasonable level, and he’s done work in maintaining a level of academic performance within the football program so that the new standard hasn’t affected the team’s academics. 

UCLA will be moving into a new, gleaming football-only facility in time for the 2017 season, and you almost entirely have Mora to thank for it.

4) Recruiting.  It’s clearly taken a step up from the days of Dorrell/Neuheisel.  The talent level at UCLA is night and day.  As we’ve said before, we used to list the guys on the roster during the Dorrell/Neuheisel years that weren’t UCLA-level players and in some years it numbered in the 30s.  UCLA has recently put more guys in the NFL, and has more NFL-level talent currently in the program than in any time since the late 1990s.   

5) Leadership. When you’re a college football head coach, there are many hats you have to wear, and one of them is the CEO-type role.  Mora does the CEO role excellently, and is perhaps in the top 10 among college coaches in this regard.  His ability to lead his staff and his players, while also inspiring the fans, and very importantly, the donor base, while also masterfully handling the media, has been top-flight. 

Mora has, in fact, mobilized the donor base.  He has elicited unprecedented amounts of donor money, which was critical in instituting some new elements of the program to bring it into the 21st century, including the football-only facility. Heck, the basketball facility probably got its funding riding on Mora’s coattails.

6) He changed the mentality of the players and their approach to the game, and life. The program went from being the soft Over-the-Wall Gang to having a calling card of toughness and resiliency.   He, for the most part, has cleaned up the “underbelly,” keeping the players on the straight-and-narrow when there can be so many dangerous distractions, and while other programs are beset by issues with the law and academics.   UCLA, like other schools, used to have players flunk out fairly regularly, but when’s the last time you heard about a UCLA football player leaving the program because of academics?

There are endlessly more ways we could list that Mora has impacted the football program and UCLA in general.  To not recognize these, and not appreciate them, is downright foolish, short-sighted and, actually a little USC-esque entitled.

It’s appropriate, at this time, after Mora’s fourth year, to recognize and appreciate his accomplishments, on the field and for the program, but also then consider where the program needs to go from here.  

Jim Mora (Steve Cheng, BRO)

And when you start asking yourself that question, the first issue to consider is:  Does the 2015 season represent a plateau of the team’s performance on the field, or was it an understandable step backward because of injuries? 

That’s tough to gauge.  Before the season, if you would have recognized that UCLA was starting a true freshman quarterback and that the Bruins would lose Myles Jack, Eddie Vanderdoes, Fabian Moreau and Mossi Johnson for the season, would you have thought an 8-4 regular season was reasonable?  Even now, given what we know about how good Josh Rosen is, and other developments with the team, is the team’s performance this season within expectation given the injuries? 

You could make a case that it wasn’t on offense.  The offense really had more potential than what you would have thought before the season because of the unexpected level of production of Rosen.  The one question, remember, going into the season for the offense (and for UCLA overall) was whether it could get “adequate” production out of the quarterback position.  And you’d have to say it absolutely did.  Plus, there wasn’t a huge personnel loss on offense due to injury.  So, the offense truly should have been better this season than expectation.

UCLA’s defense is a completely different story.   The loss of Jack and Vanderdoes, at the very least, did impact the defense and its potential for effectiveness this season.   It was clear on the field that there was bit of a hole on both the defensive line and, in particular, the linebacking crew.  So, without getting into too much actual defensive analysis, it’s pretty easy to accept that UCLA’s defense was playing at a bit of a talent deficit for the season.

But, on the other hand, that doesn’t provide an all-explaining excuse for the defense.  There still is a good amount of high-level talent on the UCLA defense, the level of talent the vast majority of other FBS teams would covet. So, it wasn’t like, without Vanderdoes and Jack, the UCLA defense suddenly became the Little Sisters of the Poor.  The question, then, is: Given the injuries, did UCLA’s defense play up to reasonable expectation? 

It’s all subjective, obviously, but you’d have to say that, while the defense, given the injuries, was closer to adjusted expectation than that of the offense, it probably didn’t quite play at the level you could have reasonably expected it to with the talent it still had.  

So, offense: underachieved. 

Defense: ever so slightly underachieved, and close to giving it a pass due to injuries.

On offense, under Mora the scheme and playcalling has been top-20 level, which is good, but not great.  In Mora’s four years, there are a few games every year that suffer from game plan/playcalling brain freezes, and that potentially is the difference between 9 regular-season wins and 11. That’s the difference between top-20 status and top-10 and a chance at the CFP. 

And here’s the thing: You have a once-in-a-generation quarterback for the next two years; you need to install an offensive scheme that exploits him and squeezes out every last bit of potential and production out of him, and the current scheme isn’t as well-suited for him as others could be.

On defense, again, under Mora UCLA has probably been top-20 level scheme and playcalling and has probably come closer to meeting the expectation of the talent level. But there have been issues, including that Stanford Issue; UCLA hasn’t been able to scheme well enough to come close to stopping Stanford, while other programs clearly have.  So it’s reasonable, now, to expect more.    

It’s reasonable now, given the foundation Mora has established, to expect UCLA to have innovative and cutting-edge schemes and playcalling.

Expecting UCLA to have top-10 in scheme/playcalling is reasonable.  Given the resources now available to the program – the salary pool, the facilities, the recruiting advantage, etc. -- that’s reasonable, and not USC-esque entitlement.   We’re not saying UCLA deserves to have the best schemes in the country, but believe it’s reasonable to expect a top-10 level.  

Mora, too, will have to continue to get support from the UCLA administration if he does intend to upgrade.  The UCLA administration will have to continue to increase the assistant coach salary pool, if it hopes to attract elite coaches or even keep the good ones it has.  We recognize that it’s difficult within the UC Regent guidelines, but if it calls for some creative bookkeeping then that has to happen.  While the sentiment is that Mora needs to upgrade his coaching in places, he can’t do it if his hands are financially tied.   

It’s time, too, four years into the Mora era, that there is a solution to the penalty issue.  Mora has insisted they’ve done so much to try to fix the problem, and we believe him on that. But clearly it’s not enough.  Extreme measures are called for.  We don’t think UCLA will consistently achieve top-10 status until the penalty problem is resolved.

A big concern from fans is if UCLA’s recruiting will take a hit as a result of the USC loss. We don’t think so. The mindset most recruits have when considering programs is:  They’re missing a piece of the puzzle, and it’s me.  For instance, with wide receiver prospects, they’ll think, “UCLA has so much going for it, and I’ll be catching balls from Rosen. All UCLA needs are playmakers, and I’m the guy.”  You would think five-star linebacker prospect Mique Juarez looks at UCLA in much the same way, thinking that the UCLA linebacking crew will be missing Jack and obviously misses elite-level talent – which is him.  To be candid, USC will have a bigger impact on UCLA recruiting by whom it hires as its head coach.

So, there we are.  With UCLA fans in a collective tizzy over the USC loss, and some throwing out sky-is-falling hysteria, it called for some perspective.

Appreciate where Jim Mora has taken the program, because it’s been a phenomenal piece of work, and there might not have been another person on Earth capable of doing what he’s done. But it’s also reasonable to expect for UCLA, Mora and the athletic department to do what it has to do to now take the program to the next level. 

Silver lining: The USC loss might end up being a very positive, beneficial thing for the program.  If UCLA had won that game and gone on to the Pac-12 Championship, and even, perhaps, played Stanford tough this time, it might have validated the coaching schemes. With this loss, it could inspire change in the schemes, at least the offensive scheme, which could be the key element to UCLA going to that next level in the next couple of years.  In fact, we could look back on this USC game as a huge moment in Mora's program -- not a turning point, but the catalyst to the change it needs to vault into the elite of college football. 

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