On the eve of the 2016 season, UCLA finds itself in familiar territory, at least under Jim Mora. The Bruins are ranked in the top 20, are picked to win the Pac-12 South, and are a dark-horse pick to make a College Football Playoff run. Despite a somewhat rocky end to the 2015 season that saw the Bruins lose to USC for the first time under Mora and then get beaten up on the ground by a 5-7 Nebraska team in the Foster Farms Bowl, UCLA's stock is just as high as it has often been in the preseason over the last few years, and that speaks to the program-building and brand-building work that Mora has done in his nearly five years at the helm.
This season, though, has the feeling of a pivotal one. Last year's 8-5 season would have been, quite literally, the best year under Rick Neuheisel, and would have been the second-best year under Karl Dorrell, but the time for comparing the current UCLA coach to two of the worst coaches in UCLA history is pretty much past. By Mora's standards, it was his worst year, and it was marred by critical injuries, often poor offensive game-planning, and a very conservative defensive scheme that did little to mitigate the personnel losses UCLA suffered to open the season.
Now, entering the 2016 season, the hope is that each of those issues will be absent this year. In the offseason, Mora has made changes to both the offensive and defensive schemes, installing more of a 4-3 on defense (replacing the more 3-4-heavy defense UCLA ran for his first four years), and then replacing offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone with Kennedy Polamalu. Polamalu, who has been the running backs coach for each of the last two years, was an offensive coordinator at USC, but has never been the primary play-caller at the college level.
From a personnel standpoint, the Bruins lost quite a bit from last year. UCLA is replacing three starters on the offensive line, the starting running back, three starting receivers, the starting kicker, the starting punter, the starting nose tackle, and two starting linebackers. Much of it was the result of early entries into the draft -- there's certainly some delightful alternate world where Caleb Benenoch and Alex Redmond are ensconced in the starting offensive line, Thomas Duarte is ready to be the leading receiver, and Kenny Clark is eager to start another year alongside his best friend on the defensive line.
But it's a testament, again, to the program-building that Mora has done that, even with all of those losses, the Bruins are esteemed enough that they are still picked to win the South. The question now is simply whether UCLA will live up to those expectations, and reclaim some of the momentum that flagged toward the end of last season.
Heading into the season, we always like to break things down according to five factors: talent, experience, coaching, injuries, and schedule. Those are pretty much the five factors that can impact the way a season goes.
Talent: We're not sure if this is the most talented team that Mora has had. If pressed, we'd probably lean toward last season being the most talented, at least before the injuries struck. There are some tremendously deep and talented positions on this roster (basically everything on defense and at running back), but there are also some spots where the Bruins are mighty thin (here's looking at you, offensive line). We're not sure that UCLA has the star wattage that it had in years past either -- on defense especially, while we like the overall makeup of the talent, it's hard to pick out too many stars like Clark, Myles Jack, Anthony Barr, Datone Jones, or Eric Kendricks. Offensively, obviously the starting backfield of Josh Rosen and Sotonye Jamabo has some star power, but there's not much else that's obvious at this juncture. So, we'd say the talent is very good -- plenty good enough to win the South -- but perhaps not quite the best it has been under Mora.
Experience: Despite losing quite a few starters from last year, UCLA is fairly experienced at most positions. Even on the offensive line, which is one of UCLA's thin spots, all but one of the starters will have had starting experience in the past, and three of the starters will have had multiple years of some starting experience. Paul Perkins is gone, but Nate Starks is a seasoned veteran, and both Jamabo and Bolu Olorunfunmi got significant carries last year. About the one area where UCLA's lack of experience looks like it could prove to be an issue is at receiver. No one, as of yet, has really stepped up to seize the go-to receiver title with the departures of Jordan Payton, Duarte, and Devin Fuller. Again, it's not the deep, experienced team that UCLA had to begin last year, but it's not a team full of freshmen starting in key spots either.
Coaching: This is really the critical piece. Last year, it wouldn't be too great of a stretch to say that, while injuries certainly limited the potential of last year's team, the schemes and game planning on both sides of the ball caused their own issues as well. UCLA has now undergone changes on both sides, with a new offensive coordinator on one side and a new defensive look on the other. It's hard to know, in any real way, how either is going to look come game time, but we're cautiously optimistic about the offense. Polamalu showed off quite a bit of variety in both spring and fall camp, and the offense looked like it gelled much more in fall camp than it had in the spring. On defense, we're figuring that the run defense will be improved with the move to a 4-3, but beyond that, we're completely done judging the relative aggression of a scheme based on how things are called in camp. We'd like to see more aggression this year, but we have no idea whether that will come.
Injuries: Knock on wood, but UCLA emerged from fall camp relatively unscathed. Yes, there were the typical concussions, sore groins, and stubbed toes, but for the most part, UCLA is fairly healthy heading into the season. Kenny Lacy nursed a sore knee out of San Bernardino, which caused a momentary kerfuffle, but he should be fine. About the one really significant injury for UCLA is Tevita Halalilo, which happened during a workout in the spring. He'll miss the year, which hurts the offensive line depth, but otherwise, UCLA is pretty darn healthy heading into the season.
Schedule: If you throw out the non-conference schedule, this is one of UCLA's easier conference slates in the Mora era, in that the Bruins get USC at home and then also avoid Oregon (in favor of Oregon State, which is a big advantage) and Washington (in favor of Washington State, which is probably only a slight advantage). Getting Utah and Stanford at home as well could prove to be significant if the Bruins truly are major contenders in the South this year. Arizona and Arizona State are also about as down as they've been in the Mora era, which could also help. Of course, the non-conference slate is a bear, with Texas A&M and BYU both on the road. We're firmly of the belief that UCLA should never play BYU in any sport, and especially not football, where BYU has the competitive advantage of fielding a team of grown men. But, alas, the Bruins do, and while the non-conference schedule will have no bearing on UCLA's chances of winning the South, such a difficult slate is an unnecessary impediment to any potential Playoff run.
A year ago at this time, we were wondering just how good Josh Rosen would be in his first year at the helm of the offense.
A year and one of the best ever seasons for a true freshman quarterback later, Rosen is very obviously one of the huge strengths of the offense, and has gone from essentially an unknown quantity to one of the surer things on the team (his second straight underwhelming fall camp notwithstanding. Maybe dude just doesn't like the scenic Inland Empire?) Some members of the media, like ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit, have even said that Rosen is the best pure passer in the country this year, a lofty statement about a sophomore quarterback.
And the crazy thing is that Herbstreit could be right. Rosen was remarkable as a true freshman. His first game was about as close to a perfect game as you can get as a quarterback, and while he never quite attained that level of play again last year, he still put together a year that virtually any quarterback would be happy with, throwing 23 touchdowns against just 11 interceptions, and at one point going 245 pass attempts without an interception.
He's learning a new offense this year, so there's reason to think there might be some growing pains. He wasn't particularly sharp in fall camp, which could reinforce that belief, except Rosen was also not sharp in last year's fall camp, and then he went on to play a nearly perfect game against Virginia. In theory, this offense should play to his strengths, relying in large part on Rosen's mental acuity and his related ability to get the team into the right play and formation pre-snap. He's being afforded the kind of liberty in directing the offense that Andrew Luck eventually earned at Stanford, and much of UCLA's hope this year rests on Rosen's ability to handle that sort of freedom.
We're relatively confident he will be up to the task -- assuming he gets the kind of support he needs from the other aspects of the offense.
First among those aspects, and probably the most worrisome and important aspect, is the offensive line. Last year, going into the season, we said that UCLA was fielding its best offensive line in over a decade, and that really turned out to be true. UCLA did a better job protecting the quarterback last year than it had in the Mora era, and the Bruins ran the ball at an incredible clip, with all four major running backs averaging well over five yards per carry. While everyone quibbled at times with a series here or a penalty there, the offensive line as a whole was the best it has been in quite some time.
That was last year, and this year, we will be making no such statements about the unit that heads into the opener against Texas A&M. To start with the bright side, UCLA probably starts the best tackle tandem in the Pac-12 in Conor McDermott and Kolton Miller, and Miller was good enough this fall camp that it's worth pausing to think about which one of the two is the headliner in that tandem. Both players are 6'8+ behemoths who are somehow also light on their feet and agile. Miller has gotten considerably stronger in the last year, while McDermott has the look and feel of a seasoned veteran now. Those two players should shore up their respective sides of the line, and we wouldn't anticipate edge rush being a significant issue for UCLA's protection this year.
The not-so-bright side is what will happen between the two of them. Adrian Klemm shocked everyone by basically announcing who his starters are going to be at guard a few days into fall camp: Lacy, who we suspected would earn a job, and Poasi Moala, who we were pretty surprised to see named to the starting lineup. Lacy, inasmuch as we've seen quite a bit of him over the last two years, is a known quantity -- a pretty good athlete who has, at times, looked like one of the better guards on the team, but has also been prone to some inconsistency, from what we've heard. Moala dealt with a broken hand for much of last year, but we had heard reports entering the season last year that the light was starting to flicker on for him. Watching him in fall camp, he certainly looked like an improved player, improved even over the version that we saw in spring ball, but we would be lying if we said that we knew what UCLA would get out of him come game time. Neither Lacy nor Moala is necessarily a good fit for a downhill, pro-style attack, since power is neither's primary strength, but we could see a scenario where they make up for a lack of strength by being a little bit better in pass protection than the guards were a year ago.
And then at center, UCLA returns Scott Quessenberry, who sat out all of last year recovering from shoulder surgeries. Getting Quessenberry back, given all of the other injuries, attrition, and failed transfers UCLA has had, was absolutely critical, and he had a nice fall camp after looking a little rusty in spring. Again, we'll reserve any real judgment until we see him actually playing in games, but we were pretty optimistic based on what we saw.
Behind those five is a series of unknowns, which is probably the biggest concern for UCLA entering the season. When have the Bruins ever gone through a season completely unscathed on the offensive line? We're sure it's happened, but perhaps not in living memory.
At tackle, behind the two starters, the Bruins will likely turn to redshirt freshman Andre James first. Unless both Miller and McDermott go down, he'd really only play right tackle, and we could see him being semi-serviceable there. We still think that, long-term, he might be a better fit at guard, but the lack of tackle depth is basically dictating that he stay on the edge. He had some good moments in fall camp, but also some rougher ones, and it would be ideal if he could have another year of seasoning. Behind James -- well, we'll just have to hope that UCLA doesn't fall that far. Zach Bateman could be an emergency option, but he's not ready to play major snaps in Pac-12 games. Cristian Garcia, who had a nice enough fall camp, might even be a better option than Bateman, even though Garcia is much more of an interior player by build.
At the guard spots, though the starting situation is much murkier than at tackle, the depth is a little bit better, with not as much drop-off from starter to backup. Najee Toran figured to be the primary backup at both guard spots, and, if you remember, he looked good enough in the spring that we thought he was most likely a shoo-in to start. Instead, he'll back up, and at the very least, he gives UCLA some good run-blocking up front. Pass protection is his weakness, but he has improved since the beginning of spring. Though he hasn't practiced here, we wouldn't be stunned to see James be in the mix at guard as well if two players were to go down. Behind that, Josh Wariboko-Alali and Paco Perez figure to be the only other players with much of a chance of playing this year. Perez hasn't practiced yet after coming into school with a slight knee issue, but he's expected to be in some state of readiness by the start of the season. Within the program, we heard that Perez was the most ready of the true freshman offensive linemen to play, so we'll be interested to see if that happens.
At center, Quessenberry doesn't have much behind him, but JC transfer Markus Boyer, if we were betting on it, will probably end up taking snaps if Quessenberry goes down.
It's not a deep group -- that we can say with certainty. We can absolutely see a scenario where the starting five is very good, though. With those two tackles, and an experienced center in Quessenberry, there is a good framework for an offensive line, and if you're going to be weaker anywhere, let it be at the guard spots. The critical thing is to avoid any significant injuries at all. UCLA could afford maybe one injury to a tackle or guard and still be relatively solid up front, but any injuries beyond that would drastically reduce the overall effectiveness of the line.
If the line is able to open up holes, this running back group should be able to exploit them with prejudice. Between Jamabo, Starks, and Olorunfunmi alone, the Bruins have what we think will be considered one of the best running back groups in the nation by season's end. Jamabo is the smooth playmaker, the long-strider who can turn a crease into a very long open field gain. Starks is the most Perkins-like, with his vision, balance, feet, and burst. Olorunfunmi, still the official BRO favorite, is an explosive bowling ball, a powerful back with a surprising burst who has improved in basically every aspect of the game this offseason. Jamabo likely gets the nod to start, but any of the three would be a fine option for virtually any Pac-12 team.
And then, as if the Bruins didn't have enough to work with, UCLA added a couple of intriguing pieces in Brandon Stephens and Jalen Starks this offseason. Stephens, as we reported during fall camp, is a skinny freshman, but he looks like some hybrid of Jamabo's physique and Perkins' running style. He's a long, skinny guy who displays some of that patience that Perkins showed during his first fall camp, which stood out to us then. Starks, for his part, is someone you just don't see too often, a nimble 250+ pound running back who has good speed for his size and very good feet. Kennedy Polamalu said he'd like to play all of his backs this year, and it should be interesting to see how he balances the rotation.
In addition to all the tailbacks, UCLA added much more to the fullback's role in the offense this offseason, and converted a couple of players over to offense from defense in Cameron Griffin and Ainuu Taua. Both were inspired moves, and each is further proof that Polamalu is probably the best talent evaluator on the staff. Griffin has taken to the position naturally, and you can see his rugby background in both his blocking and what he does with the ball in his hands. Taua has earned a reputation already for his eagerness to bowl defenders over, seeking out contact in a way that you know Polamalu must enjoy watching. Griffin is nursing a concussion right now, so we'll see where he is by next week, but the Bruins have two solid options at that position, and, though Jalen Starks is a tailback, we could see him taking some snaps at fullback in a pinch.
With the move to the pro-style system, UCLA added fullbacks, yes, but the Bruins also added much more to the role of the tight end. It posed an interesting challenge to do so, actually, because UCLA didn't have really any tight ends on the roster. The obvious move was to assign Nate Iese to tight end, since he basically already was one, having played a hybrid fullback-tight end role last year. The Bruins then took one of their bigger receivers, Austin Roberts, and converted him to effectively a flex tight end position. UCLA also recruited for the position, picking up freshman Jordan Wilson, and then took in a transfer in Caleb Wilson from USC.
So, UCLA cobbled together a depth chart, and we were a little concerned heading into fall camp how it all would shake out. A pro-style offense without tight ends could look pretty ugly, so it was a concern for us entering August. The way it turned out, though, UCLA actually has a pretty solid depth chart at the position. Iese turned into one of Rosen's favorite targets as a receiver, and has improved as a blocker. Roberts, if he can refine his catching ability, looks like a Duarte-type receiver, only a bit more explosive. And then the Wilsons both looked like competent, serviceable options this year. Tight end went from a significant concern entering fall camp to, if not a strength, at least not a major worry exiting it, which is very good news for the offense.
The other question mark on offense is really the receiving corps. It's an interesting problem -- the Bruins are pretty darn deep at receiver, with solid options up and down the depth chart at basically every receiving position. The issue is that no real go-to receiver has emerged from the group, as of yet. Going back to Mora's first year at UCLA, the Bruins have always had those one or two guys that could be counted on, whether it was Shaq Evans and Joe Fauria in 2012, or Evans and Devin Fuller in 2013, or Fuller and Payton in 2014, or Payton and Duarte in 2015. This year, it's hard to really pick out who those guys would be.
UCLA has really tried to get the light to turn on for Eldridge Massington, because in an ideal world the Bruins would be able to count on the big-bodied, physical receiver. Toward the end of fall camp, it looked like he was once again turning it on a bit, but he had a miserable start to camp, dropping a ton of catchable balls and just not looking at all in-sync with Rosen. We have to figure he's going to begin the year in the starting lineup, but UCLA has to hope he shows what he showed in the last week of camp, and not in the first week.
Really, the strength of the receiving corps is in the smaller, quicker guys rather than the bigger, physical ones. Each of Darren Andrews, Ishmael Adams, and even true freshman Theo Howard were more reliable than the bigger options like Massington and Alex Van Dyke this August. Adams is clearly an explosive playmaker, while Andrews is a little bit smoother and more reliable catching the ball. Howard is a bit of an x-factor. He missed some time in fall camp, but we could easily see a scenario where he shows so much over the next month or so that he just demands more and more playing time. He's a playmaker, and he looks to have already built a good connection with Rosen.
We would be remiss if we didn't mention Kenny Walker as well. If we had to guess, the senior will most likely begin the year in the starting lineup, and he has really improved since day one at UCLA. His hands are significantly better than they were even a year ago, and he has developed into much more of a receiver than just a track guy. He still has had drops in practice, though, and we still have to believe that it's a concern. If he drops some big ones at the beginning of the year, we wouldn't be shocked to see his role reduce, especially with the other speedy options UCLA has now.
Among the bigger receivers remaining on the depth chart, redshirt sophomore Jordan Lasley has yet to show the consistency needed to be a definite fixture in the rotation, even though he was coming on a bit as fall camp progressed. Mossi Johnson, who might have been the most potentially dangerous receiver on the roster in 2014, looks like he's still shaking off the rust from missing all of 2015 because of reconstructive knee surgery. Freshman Adewale Omotosho had a good, productive fall, but we'd be slightly surprised if they burned his redshirt with so many other guys available.
With Andrews and Adams manning the slot position, there is still sophomore Stephen Johnson, who is one of the fastest players on the team. He did get a good amount of touches in fall camp and will probably get some time. Freshman Damian Alloway had some flashes in practice, but we would expect he's on his way to a redshirt year, given the depth.
We'd expect Lasley, Mossi Johnson and Stephen Johnson to fill in the bottom of the receiver rotation.
Consider, though, that the rotation and personnel usage of the receivers over the last four years has been a bit peculiar. Receiver coach Eric Yarber has kept his rotation pretty tight, with experience mostly dictating playing time. But then they'd throw in a true freshman randomly, it seems, and burn his redshirt year, for an amount of playing time that ultimately wasn't worth it. So, anything is possible.
There's clearly some potential in the receiving corps, but a true No. 1 guy has yet to emerge. It could be one of the smaller, explosive playmakers, or it could be one of the bigger guys, like Massington or Van Dyke or even Iese. It'll be interesting to see how that plays out.
The offense certainly has the potential to be good. If the offensive line stays relatively healthy, we actually like the scheme just fine, as it's a good blend of a variety of formations and plays. The variety that adding tight ends and fullbacks gives the offense has also been fun to see. If Polamalu can effectively call plays and the offensive line stays relatively healthy, the offense could be just the sort of balanced attack that teams have a very tough time defending.
Tomorrow, we'll preview the defense and special teams and provide our season prediction...