Reviewing The Mazzone Years

Jan. 11 -- Noel Mazzone helped pull UCLA out of the dark ages, but his offense plateaued over the years as a good, but not great unit...

Let’s take a moment and cast our memories back to the waning moments of the Rick Neuheisel era. If you’re feeling a sensation of bubbling frustration being diluted by slowing spreading apathy, you’ve probably hit the mark about perfectly. At that time, on offense, UCLA was running some vague approximation of the pistol offense, but without much of the variation and complexity that Chris Ault and his Nevada staff had built into the scheme. We’d go into detail about the offense and everything associated with it, but let’s just settle by saying that it was the sixth straight year where UCLA had an offense that was more or less an embarrassment.

So, when we’re looking back at the Mazzone era, it can provide some context to keep that in mind. Yes, we all had frustrations with the play calling at times, or the seeming lack of game planning, or quarterback recruiting. But his offense was very obviously orders of magnitude better than the squirt gun offense UCLA had been using for the six years prior. UCLA actually had the same offensive coordinator for four straight years, which is basically unprecedented in modern Bruin history. Mazzone brought a measure of stability to that side of the ball, and UCLA was rewarded with four years of altogether pretty good offenses.

Of course, there were also significant issues. UCLA had a propensity for struggling against above average defenses to a worrying degree, and more often than not, when UCLA laid a complete egg in a big game, it was due to some sort of offensive issue. More importantly, for the longevity of the program, quarterback recruiting was by and large a disaster under Mazzone, with essentially one usable quarterback to show for four years of recruiting classes.

We’re going to break this review down into two parts, the on-field aspect and the off-field aspect. Today, we’ll go through the performance of Mazzone’s offenses on the field.

Say what you will about the N-Zone, when UCLA first stepped on the field in 2012 for spring practice, it felt like the Bruins were finally doing something at or near the cutting edge of college football. Suddenly, UCLA was running its offense exclusively out of the shotgun, with three- and four-wide sets with a single running back. The tempo was the most striking thing, that first spring, as UCLA went at a pace that was completely foreign to any observer who had watched Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel’s sleepy practices.

The scheme itself had a few simple principles: play fast, get playmakers in space, and use the width of the field to open up holes in the defense. That first spring, one beat writer wrote that UCLA wasn’t participating in spring practice so much as swing practice, and that was basically true, as we saw that staple of the Mazzone offense practiced over, and over, and over, and over again.

QB Josh Rosen (Photo by Steve Cheng)

The inherent value of Mazzone should be obvious: his scheme is effective, and it’s simple enough that it’s easy for inexperienced players to pick up. There’s very little chance that Brett Hundley or Josh Rosen would have had anywhere near the success they had in Mazzone’s offense if they were transported to, say, Tom Cable’s 2005 UCLA offense. There wasn’t some huge learning curve for quarterbacks, which allowed Hundley and then Rosen to come into it and play fast their first years with only 8 months of training in the scheme. Now, again, that’s something that a lot of modern offenses take for granted, but remember, context: UCLA was coming off of almost ten years of some of the most mind-numbing and oddly complex offensive schemes imaginable, so seeing a redshirt freshman take the keys to this offense and suddenly have one of the best years for a UCLA quarterback in recent memory was basically a revelation.

UCLA’s scheme the last four years has been largely successful. For the most part, UCLA has been able to run the ball and pass the ball very well, and the Bruins have set dozens of school offensive records in that timespan. At its best, the scheme worked really well, with the short, tempo passing game used to set up the run and deeper throws down the sideline and deep. There were a number of offensive explosions from UCLA during this era, from the 66-point showing against Arizona in 2012, to the 42-point demolition of Virginia Tech in the 2013 Sun Bowl, to the 62-point performance against Arizona State, to the second big blowout of Arizona in 2015, this time with 56 points.

If anything, that’s what built some of the frustration with this offense -- knowing exactly what it was capable of doing when it was performing at its highest level. Because coupled with those explosive performances, there were many games where UCLA scuffled offensively, and struggled to adjust to what defenses were doing to take away Mazzone’s bread and butter.

And that really goes to our two main criticisms of Mazzone’s on-field performance at UCLA: inconsistent play-calling and a seeming lack of overall game planning. Oftentimes, there seemed to be little accounting for what the opposing defense was good at (case in point, any game against Utah over the last four years where UCLA ran the ball significantly more than it passed, or this past season when UCLA ran the ball for much of the first half against ASU to little avail). The thing was, this wasn’t a consistent issue. Against USC for three out of the last four years, UCLA had a great plan going into the game, and even specifically targeted an underperforming USC safety in 2014. It was as if the focus on specific game planning waxed and waned by the game.

Play calling within a game was also oftentimes an adventure. Notoriously this season, Mazzone admitted that he got stubborn with the run game against Arizona State, but that would happen at least two or three times a year, where UCLA would somewhat inexplicably keep going to interior runs long after that well had dried up.

Short yardage play calls were among the most predictable, but the issues were masked for the first three years because UCLA had an incredible short yardage weapon in Brett Hundley. UCLA built a goal-line package for Myles Jack and several defensive players in 2013 that carried through the last two years, but that was just about the one major concession Mazzone ever gave to improve short yardage play. UCLA almost never went under center and only sporadically added extra blockers beyond the occasional fullback. We don’t necessarily have a problem with that, because that’s the offense, but if you’re going to do that, you can’t then have your go-to short yardage play be an interior run. It was as if in key moments, UCLA somehow forgot that it was a tempo spread attack and decided it was Stanford.

That rushing attack was so good at times that it almost seemed like it fooled the offensive staff into thinking it was something it wasn’t. UCLA was a very good running team when it attacked the edges of the defense early and loosened up the middle, and when it did so at high tempo. At no point, though, was UCLA a team that could consistently run into the center of the defense if the box was stacked against it, because, again, rarely would UCLA use more than five or six blockers. It was as if they convinced themselves that because they could average five yards per carry, they were suddenly a power running team, and that was really never the case.

Overall, the playcalling really didn’t give much of an indication that UCLA self-scouted away from its tendencies. Especially over the last two years, the better-coached defenses in the league have appeared to have a pretty good handle on what UCLA would do in any given moment. Arizona State, whether the Sun Devils were stealing signs or not, was able to jump basically every run play in the first half because they had the tendencies down so well. That UCLA was still able to do pretty well offensively, despite having pronounced tendencies, was a credit to the overall scheme and the players involved.

UCLA was comfortably a top 30 or 40 offense in Mazzone’s four years here, and there absolutely were moments when the offense looked basically unstoppable, from that first year, when weapons like Joseph Fauria, Johnathan Franklin, Damien Thigpen, and Hundley gave UCLA a wild amount of diversity, to even this last year, when Josh Rosen showed up. The issues the offense ran into seemed to stem primarily from a lack of great game planning, playcalling fraught with identifiable tendencies, and an overall lack of desire to add wrinkles to the scheme. Most of the best schemes in the country evolve year-to-year and most of the best offensive coordinators in the country adjust their offenses to fit their personnel, from quarterbacks on down to the lowliest of receivers. One need look no further than Baylor going to basically a Wildcat option for the entirety of its bowl game for an example of the kinds of extreme adjustments a coach can make with just a few weeks to prepare.

Adjustments weren’t a huge part of the deal for Mazzone, and we get it. When you have a scheme that you’ve not only run for years but actually sold for years to various high schools, you’re going to have a good amount of confidence in its efficacy, and for the most part, that confidence was well-placed. It’s a good scheme with sound basic principles, which is borne out by many of the great results UCLA was able to get out of it. But the inconsistency was at times maddening, and there was a general sense all too often that the playcalling wasn’t designed to take advantage of a defense’s weaknesses.

In short, Mazzone was an above average offensive coordinator who helped turn UCLA overnight into a modern, competent offense. There were warts, of course, but all but the very best have some blemish. UCLA and Jim Mora could have done far, far worse when hiring an offensive coordinator in the 2011-12 offseason, and there’s an argument to be made that Mazzone, with his easy-to-learn, college-ready scheme, was one of the best options available.


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