Going into this season, we were actually pretty optimistic about UCLA’s chances to field both an elite offense and a very good defense for the first time in many years. Obviously, there were some injury issues on the defensive side of the ball that limited the upside for that unit, but offensively, where UCLA didn’t have as many injuries, the Bruins didn’t quite get to that elite level, despite showing some incremental improvement from a year ago. UCLA was still prone to many of the inconsistencies that the Bruins have been prone to for the last three years, but, also like the last three years, there’s no getting around that UCLA was productive on offense this year.
By the yards per play metric, UCLA was improved from a year ago, with 6.1 yards per play compared to 5.9 a year ago. UCLA also scored more points per drive, 2.54 this season as opposed to 2.43 in 2014. UCLA gave up far fewer sacks than in any of the previous three years and created more explosive plays, which is a product of improved offensive line play and Josh Rosen’s contributions.
So, by most metrics, UCLA’s offense was marginally improved in 2015, and from a broad statistical perspective, it was a productive, effective scheme. There were some obvious issues against ASU, Washington State, and USC specifically, but for the most part the offense was good to very good in Rosen’s first year as the starting quarterback.
Unit GPA: 2.93
Unit MVP: Josh Rosen
It was our hope coming out of fall camp that there wouldn’t be a great deal of drop off between Brett Hundley as a redshirt junior and Josh Rosen as a true freshman, and for the most part, that proved to be the case. Rosen, as expected, wasn’t the athlete that Hundley was, but he made up for it with his pocket presence, accuracy, generally good decisions, and overall feel for the game.
Rosen had two truly bad games, against BYU in the third game of the season and against USC in the final game of the season, but also had five great performances, and several very good ones. Before the season, we talked about the possibility that a true freshman quarterback, even one as talented as Rosen, could be prone to freshman-like games, and we really only got two such games from Rosen, and only one of those resulted in a loss.
The hope for Rosen, both within the program and without, is sky-high at this point. His acumen and understanding is so advanced that, as his body matures, he’s virtually certain to make big strides in his game over the next season. If you factor in that, for the most part, players do most of their substantial improvement in the offseason, and Rosen already made substantial improvements during the season, it’s exciting to think about what he could look like entering his sophomore campaign.
If you were going to nitpick Rosen at this point, he still needs to work on understanding what he can get away with at the college level and how to best deal with the occasional free rusher who comes at him. Those two issues are probably linked. His worst decisions this year, for the most part, came when he was under fire. Early on in the year, he threw a couple of interceptions throwing across his body while running right away from the pass rush, and he more or less cut that out later in the year. Against USC, and to an extent against Utah, the pressure of both teams seemed to get to him and he wasn’t quite as steady hanging in the pocket and threw off his back foot a few too many times. Rosen is so good, and his arm strength is so excellent, that he can often get away with that sort of thing, but he needs to continue to work on recognizing the situations where he can and where can’t.
But with Rosen being such an advanced quarterback prospect, there’s little doubt that he can make those necessary adjustments. Next season, the Pac-12 loses a lot of quarterback talent (again), and the stage is set for Rosen to be the standard bearer for the position in the conference.
Running Backs: B+
Unit GPA: 3.25
Unit MVP: Paul Perkins
If you were grading out the most talented, least concerning positions on the team from top of the depth chart to bottom, running back would be probably earn the highest grade. Paul Perkins was the headliner for a second year in a row, and despite being dinged up for most of the last half of the season, he still put together a very productive redshirt junior season, running for 1275 yards on 225 carries for a 5.7 yards per carry average. Considering he didn’t have the benefit of a running quarterback this season, which kept teams from keying on him as much last year, this season was close to as impressive as last year.
Perkins may go pro, but the latest information we have, as of this week, is that it isn’t his intention to leave. Obviously, things can change, especially once the season fades into the past a bit more, but it appears that’s where things stand as of the moment. Perkins’ return would be huge for next year, and would probably put him in line for the career rushing record at UCLA.
Even if Perkins leaves, though, there’s plenty of depth behind him, as this year proved. Nate Starks, despite a really inconsistent workload, looks like a potential star at the position if he’s given a substantial amount of carries. This season, he averaged 6.5 yards per carry, and was pretty consistent throughout the year. He looked more explosive this year than he did last year, but didn’t lose any strength in the process, which allows him to grind out yards as well as hit big plays. You can really see the Kennedy Polamalu effect with him, as he was a much more balanced, much tougher runner this season than he was a season ago.
Interestingly, Sotonye Jamabo actually got substantially more carries than Starks this year (66 to 48) but he wasn’t nearly as consistent. He put up some gaudy numbers, with a 6.1 yards per carry average, but he was a little more boom or bust than either Starks or Perkins. His best game was probably his showing against California, when he carried the ball 18 times for 79 yards, mostly because it was his most consistent day as a back and that game saw him grind out several tough carries. The big key for him, if he is to stay at running back, is to run tougher and be more decisive. Obviously, with the improvement Starks made between his freshman year to his sophomore year, it’s certainly possible for Jamabo to do the same, and he certainly showed in flashes this year that he has real potential as a playmaker.
Behind those three, Bolu Olorunfunmi had a very nice start to the year, though his usage trailed off considerably after the first two games of the season. Again, somewhat weirdly, he only had 14 carries less than Starks, but he did a good amount with those carries, rushing for 5.9 yards per carry. He’s a tough runner, with a real bowling-ball quality to him, and he was impressive in the first two games especially for his ability to make one cut and get up field. He’ll need to work on his field awareness, as he tends to take some big hits that he could probably avoid. His hands are also not so great, though he did have two catches for 30 yards this year.
If Perkins somehow returns next year, and those three guys make the typical improvements UCLA running backs seem to make under Polamalu, this unit might very well be the strength of the offense next year, no matter how good Rosen is.
Wide Receivers: C+
Unit GPA: 2.42
Unit MVP: Jordan Payton
Deciding the MVP for this unit was actually tough, because both Payton and Thomas Duarte were excellent this season. We ultimately opted for Payton because he was more consistent throughout the year, and also brought so much to the table as a blocker and a leader. Payton is just about the opposite of the typical prima donna receiver, and this year typified that. He blocked really well on the edge all season, oftentimes springing other offensive players for big plays. Despite being gifted with some of Rosen’s worst throws this year, including two absolutely abysmal fade attempts, Payton not only didn’t pout about only getting four touchdowns this season, he actually did a pretty credible job of playing defensive back the handful of times Rosen threw one up for grabs that he couldn’t get. Losing his toughness at receiver is going to be a substantial blow for next year.
Duarte was also very good, and emerged this year thanks in large part to Rosen’s ability to hit throws over the middle. He had 21 more catches this year than a year ago, and caught six more touchdowns. His usage has increased incrementally with each year, starting from when he was inexplicably playing behind Grayson Mazzone in his freshman year to this past season, when at times he looked like Rosen’s primary target. He’s an extremely consistent pass catcher and does particularly well when matched up with linebackers or when he’s asked to find soft spots in zones. His biggest issue, ultimately, is his physicality. His blocking looked better this year, but he still has a long way to go in that department, and, as Su'a Cravens showed against USC this year, he can be taken out of his game a little bit if he’s bodied up hard by a big athlete. We’ve heard Duarte is going to seriously consider what his pro options are, but if he returned to school, he’d almost certainly be Rosen’s No. 1 target entering next season.
Beyond those two, probably the most pleasant surprise this year was Darren Andrews, who emerged at slot receiver after Devin Fuller and Mossi Johnson both went down with injuries (Fuller’s was temporary). Andrews finished the year with 37 catches, playing mostly slot receiver, and he averaged 10.9 yards per catch, which, if we’re judging by the standard of Fuller a year ago, is an extremely good average. Getting many of the same routes last season, Fuller averaged just 7.6 yards per catch. Fuller was also better this year, and it’s a shame we only go to see him really healthy for five or so games this year. He still managed 24 catches, but it could have been a much bigger year for him. Andrews seems to have solidified himself as the starting slot for next year, and he definitely gives UCLA some speed.
Those four really constituted the bulk of Rosen’s targets this year. Eldridge Massington didn’t have a great season, and it was especially disappointing after last year, when he looked like the heir to Payton as a physical outside receiver. He caught just 10 balls for 111 yards after catching 25 passes a year ago. Mossi Johnson got hurt early on, but didn’t look anywhere near as good in games as he did in practice, dropping at least a few before getting hurt in the fifth game. Kenny Walker was about what you’d expect, catching six passes for 143 yards, including a long of 63 yards. He did look better than last season, but his hands are still a question mark. Stephen Johnson was dinged up for big parts of the year, but still had five catches for 100 yards, and looked explosive at times.
We didn’t see much of Jordan Lasley, Alex Van Dyke, or Austin Roberts, with the three combining for just six catches and 66 yards. Hopefully those younger receivers can start to make an impact next season, or even in the bowl game, since someone is going to have to replace Payton, both in terms of production and maturity and toughness.
Offensive Line: B-
Unit GPA: 2.56
Unit MVP: Jake Brendel
If we were going to pick a unit where the grades, on reflection, seem a bit harsher than they probably should have been, this would be the unit. When you look at the broad numbers, the rushing offense was as good as it’s ever been at UCLA, while the sacks numbers were the lowest of the Mora era. While we couldn’t go back and just willy nilly change a particular game grade, this is one where taking a broad look at the season reveals probably a rosier perspective on the offensive line than staring at the specifics of any particular game.
Anyway, it’s probably safe to say that the offensive line was probably not the elite unit we thought it would be coming out of fall camp. Some of that was due to injury. At various points, Alex Redmond, Conor McDermott, Jake Brendel, and Caleb Benenoch were all nicked up with various ailments. Kenny Lacy was in and out of the starting lineup, which forced freshman Fred Ulu-Perry into action at points. Kolton Miller also played, probably substantially more than anyone expected. So there was a good deal more flux than people were probably expecting coming into the year.
If you were picking an issue about the actual play on the field, guard play was probably the biggest problem. Lacy, Redmond, and Ulu-Perry all had issues getting consistent push, and none did a really effective or consistent job pulling. In dissecting that USC game, and other games where UCLA had trouble converting short yardage runs, guard play was generally the culprit. The unit as a whole was probably better at pass blocking than run blocking.
Tackle play was better. Conor McDermott, for the most part, gave Rosen a very clean blindside, and was solid enough in the run game. Benenoch, on the other side, was really good at the beginning of the year when he was sticking primarily at right tackle, but he seemed to have more struggles as the year went on and he started to have to flip between guard and tackle. Early on, he did a great job sealing the edge and, game after game, had huge blocks to spring long runs. He was definitely the offensive line MVP through the first four or five games.
Jake Brendel was our season MVP for the unit. He helped Rosen immensely with his steadiness up front, and when the line was going through its issues, particularly at the guard spots, he was mostly very consistent in the middle. His snaps, which were an adventure two years ago, have calmed down quite a bit. It’s uncertain what sort of pro career he’ll have playing football, but he’ll go down as a record holder for UCLA for most career starts.
Miller and Ulu-Perry both played considerably this year as well. We liked a lot of what we saw from Miller. Yes, he had some freshman struggles at times, but the tools are there to be an excellent tackle, as he has great feet, good athleticism, and the tenacity to play on the edge. The reps he got this year will likely prove very valuable for the future. Ulu-Perry is more of a work in progress, and hopefully he’ll continue that work at UCLA.
Much of the reason this grade is lower than play on the field would really indicate is the penalties. UCLA had a ton of false starts this year, a variety of illegal procedures, and a few illegal formations, and many of those were on the offensive line. There weren’t as many holding calls as a year ago, but that was probably in large part due to Rosen doing a better job of staying put in the pocket.
Offensive Game Plan, Scheme, and Play Calling: C+
Best Game: at Arizona
Worst Game: Arizona State
2015 was really much the same as what we’ve seen from this offense over the last three years: very productive, for the most part, and sometimes maddening. The production is obvious: Rosen had an exceptional freshman year, in large part due to his own acumen and ability but also due to the easy learning curve of this offense. The running game in this offense also generates chunk yardage at times in the open field.
The maddening aspect is mostly due to play calling. Against ASU, despite the Sun Devils having the best run defense in the Pac-12 at that time and despite them plugging the A-gaps pretty much exclusively in the first half, UCLA somewhat stubbornly kept trying to establish the run early which kept the Bruins from establishing an early lead and gave ASU an opportunity to get its offense going. Against Washington State, some truly bizarre red zone play calling kept UCLA from turning great drives into touchdowns, and settling for two field goals rather than touchdowns proved to be decisive, as the Bruins lost by four.
You could also probably nitpick personnel usage. As statistically productive as Jamabo and even Olorunfunmi were this year, Starks probably should have had more carries. He was a much more consistent back than either of them and, as he showed at times, he was the best able to replicate Perkins when Perkins was on the bench. The receiver rotation is really what it is at this point, but the snaps that Logan Sweet got this year probably could have been better used on any number of scholarship players who are going to be on the team next year.
You also have to pin some of the constant procedure penalties on the game preparation. The illegal formations, whether they’re on the guard for setting up too far back, the tackle for mis-aligning his feet, or the receiver for not covering up the tackle, happen altogether too often. There were simply too many false starts as well.
Like we said, though, it’s a productive offense, and it generated some pretty big games, including the Arizona game, the California game, and the Virginia game. The big question is what this offense can do against good to very good defenses and, one year after the last time we contemplated that question, we’re still wondering.