Last year, UCLA had its worst year of rushing defense under Jim Mora. The Bruins gave up their highest average yards per carry -- 4.4 -- in the Mora era, and opponents averaged nearly 200 yards on the ground per game. UCLA gave up over 300 yards rushing to three separate teams and really struggled to stop any kind of rushing attack.
Coupled with that, UCLA also was well below average rushing the passer last year. The Bruins had their lowest sack percentage in the Mora era, though there has been a precipitous decline since year one, when UCLA nearly led the nation in sack percentage. But last year was the nadir, with the yeoman efforts of Kenny Clark (6 sacks) and Aaron Wallace (7 sacks) being pretty much the extent of UCLA's pass rush. Deon Hollins was largely ineffective as a pass rusher all year, while Takkarist McKinley showed flashes, but lacked consistency.
So, given all of that, Jim Mora opted to make a big switch in the offseason, shifting the defense away from the 3-4 that has been its hallmark for the last 4 years and toward more of a 4-3. The hope is that the 4-3 itself will assist UCLA in both run defense and pass defense, with the added bulk on the line of scrimmage helping to squash interior runs, and the lengthening of the defensive line getting pass rushers like McKinley, Hollins, and Keisean Lucier-South out on the edge more where they can do more damage.
Given what we've seen in practice, we're fairly optimistic that UCLA's run defense and pass rush should both be better than last year, and most of that optimism stems from the changes up front and the improvement/return of key personnel on the defensive line.
McKinley, as we wrote about after the spring, might end up being the impact player for the defense this year. He was close to unblockable in the spring, and he continued his disruptive play into fall camp. He has added some weight and strength, but hasn't sacrificed any of his elite speed and quickness, which makes him very tough to deal with on the edge. He has also had the benefit of going against Conor McDermott and Kolton Miller in practice, which has helped him to hone his technique. The big key for him is improving against the run and displaying more consistency as a pass rusher, and from what we saw in both camps, we think he's in for a big year.
So, if McKinley is going to go a long way toward improving the pass rush by himself, Eddie Vanderdoes could have a similar effect on the run defense. Vanderdoes was a very good run stopper as a sophomore, and he has looked so fully recovered in camp that we're fairly confident he's going to pick up right where he left off. While we'll never get to experience what it would have been like to have peak-Vanderdoes and peak-Clark on the same defensive line for a full season, a full strength Vanderdoes this year is a pretty nice luxury for UCLA in and of itself.
As we wrote several times this offseason, the big change with the 4-3 was more personnel than anything. Instead of having Hollins starting at one end spot, UCLA will instead have McKinley (260 pounds) and Matt Dickerson (295 pounds). That's a lot of size for two defensive ends, and it should make it more difficult for teams to run up the gut against the Bruins. We thought Dickerson actually looked best as a three-technique last year, so it's going to be interesting to see how he ends up handling the responsibilities on the edge, where he'll need to show at least some ability to pursue.
At nose tackle, UCLA will start Eli Ankou, who has improved steadily since arriving on campus in 2012. He gives UCLA some more size up front, and he has developed into a competent run stopper in his own right. He doesn't give UCLA much in terms of a pass rush, so for the sake of the interior rush, UCLA will have to hope that Vanderdoes has improved in that department as well.
The Bruins also have decent depth on the defensive line. Hollins and Lucier-South both looking like they'll have roles as pass rushers off the edge. As a bigger end, Rick Wade also projects to be in the rotation significantly, as he has good size and length and might be slightly more mobile than Dickerson. On the interior, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner showed promise as a three-technique, and while he is suffering from a bout of appendicitis, he's expected to be healthy for the start of the season. Nick Terry, the JC newcomer, also looks like a potential playmaker on the interior, with a nice ability to rush the passer. Among the freshmen, Boss Tagaloa looks like the most ready to contribute, though we'll see if he ends up being needed. UCLA has a solid two-deep without using any true freshmen, which is a testament to the quality depth Angus McClure has built.
The starting linebackers, perhaps making up for the bulk on the defensive line, trend much more toward the smaller and quicker. Jayon Brown, the standout in the group, is generously listed at 6'0 and 230 pounds, but is probably a bit under each of those figures. It doesn't really matter, though, as Brown plays bigger than he looks. He has that nose for the football that we always talked about with Eric Kendricks, and he has seemed like a natural fit at Will linebacker. Even though Mike linebackers usually lead 4-3 defenses in tackles, we wouldn't be shocked if Brown once again led this team in tackles -- he's just too active.
On the other side, it certainly appears that Cameron Judge will be the starter. Like Brown, he's a bit undersized, at 235 pounds, but, also like Brown, he has shown a nose for the football and sure tackling ability. Judge did well in limited time last year, and it's still a bit of a mystery why it took so many injuries to other players for him to start playing more extensively. In any case, with Mique Juarez's status still undetermined, and Josh Woods still ensconced behind Brown at Will, the job certainly appears to be Judge's.
Mike linebacker is where the drama is. Kenny Young and Isaako Savaiinaea basically alternated reps through all of spring and fall camp, but our inkling is that Young is going to win the job and start the opener. While he definitely struggled in games last year, he looked good in practice both in spring and fall camp. If we were judging only on fall camp, we'd probably give Young the slight edge over Savaiinaea. Of course, game reps are the ones that really matter, and Savaiinaea outperformed Young in a big way last year. What we'd have to guess is that UCLA will go with Young to begin the year, but the coaches might have a quicker hook with him this year if he starts to struggle again.
UCLA has very good depth in the linebacker corps as well. Woods is a potential star down the line, and, as the year goes on, we'd imagine he'll back up at more positions than just Will -- he may end up just too good to keep off the field. Savaiinaea, if he ends up the backup, is about as good a backup as you could hope for at Mike, and behind him, Lokeni Toailoa might be good enough to compete with Young for the starting job next year. Behind Judge, UCLA has two talented freshmen in Krys Barnes and Breland Brandt, even without considering what Juarez ends up doing.
We'd expect the starting linebackers to be pretty competent in pursuit and tackling, and improved from last season. One of the reasons UCLA did give up so much yardage on the ground was softness in the linebacking group against the run. There is the issue of how they'll match up in coverage, especially against tight end-heavy offenses, since Judge and Brown will give up so much height, but how linebackers will do in man coverage against tight ends is not usually at the top of the list of concerns.
The secondary is an interesting thing to consider. Statistically speaking, UCLA had the best secondary in the Pac-12 last year, but how much of that was actually due to the competence of the secondary and how much was due to the simple fact that UCLA was absurdly easy to run on is up for debate. As has been the case for basically the entire Mora era, the Bruins did a fine job of preventing big plays, so that should count for something. The safeties were no great help in run support, though, which certainly hurt the Bruins at times.
In good news, UCLA returned Fabian Moreau from a Lisfranc injury this August and he looked like he hadn't missed a snap. He had probably his most impressive fall camp as a Bruins -- yes, even more impressive than the fall camp that had everyone anointing him as a potential first round pick. Of course, he didn't live up to that hype, so we're going to wait and see what he is able to do this year, but he certainly had a nice August.
At the other corner spot, Nathan Meadors basically went wire-to-wire from the beginning of spring to now as the starting corner opposite Moreau, so we'll operate under the assumption that he has the job. He has really natural instincts at corner, and actually plays the ball well, which is something that can be tough to teach, as Moreau can attest. He didn't look overwhelmed in action last year, and he looked more than solid in both spring and fall this year.
The corner depth is pretty good, assuming full health for everyone. Marcus Rios is a very nice third corner to have, with good size and plenty of experience. He'll probably see a similar number of snaps as compared to the starters. Johnny Johnson will also be in the two-deep at corner, and while he didn't look spectacular in camp, he's also more of the gamer type, like Savaiinaea or Josh Rosen, in that he never really looks his best during practices. Hopefully he can get through the year fully healthy, and put together a nice season. Denzel Fisher is also an option at corner, but we'd have to imagine that UCLA would move some safeties around if the depth chart got particularly depleted.
We wrote extensively this offseason about how UCLA might opt for bigger safeties given the need for a more physical defense, but, instead, the Bruins look to be going with the same starting safeties from a year ago, Randall Goforth and Jaleel Wadood. It's an undersized tandem, but the two do give UCLA a little bit more in coverage than, say, Tahaan Goodman and Adarius Pickett do, and we know how much of a priority it has been for UCLA under Mora to not get beaten over the top. It's going to be interesting to see if the size up front will somehow mitigate the tackling issues on the back end.
Behind Goforth and Wadood, UCLA has some real size and hitting ability with Goodman and Pickett. Both players are better against the run than Goforth and Wadood, and Goodman actually improved quite a bit in coverage this offseason. Goodman has always been intriguing, because he has that obvious NFL body, but just hasn't been able to put it together mentally. The light seemed to be flickering on this offseason, and we wouldn't be stunned to see him really make an impact this year. Pickett, for his part, also had a really nice offseason, and should give the Bruins another very solid option at safety.
The nickel defense, where UCLA will spend a lot of time, is more interesting, with Goforth dropping down to nickel and Goodman coming in at safety. Since UCLA is going to be in that look fairly often, Goodman is going to get a good deal of time to impress the coaching staff.
The three-deep at safety is even pretty good, with William Lockett, Brandon Burton, and Octavius Spencer all looking like serviceable options, and like potential starters down the road. Burton, in particular, had a nice fall camp, and even if he redshirts or plays solely special teams this year, his future certainly looks bright.
The Bruins are going to start three true freshmen at key spots on special teams, and it's anyone's guess how they're going to do. We liked what we saw of J.J. Molson in both spring and August, but it's tough to judge any kicker when there's very little pressure in the form of crowd noise or the stakes of a particular game. He appears to have a strong leg and good accuracy, and doesn't appear prone to any sort of yips.
Austin Kent looked good in August, and his lefty kicking stroke actually made it very tough for UCLA's return guys to catch the ball. The weird rotation on the ball could cause difficulties for returners this year in actual games, but that's about all we'd be able to judge at this point. Again, when it's live, we'll have a better idea. He has a good leg, though, and we'd be surprised if he is not better than Matt Mengel to begin the year. Johnny Den Bleyker, for his part, looked good on his snaps in practice.
At the return spots, we're going to assume that Ishmael Adams will have the job as both the primary punt returner and primary kick returner. Sparing his legs a bit this year should help him look more like explosive sophomore Ish rather than the less explosive version he was last year. UCLA, for once, has plenty of fast options at both return spots, so if Adams isn't able to recapture that magic, we could see Stephen Johnson, Darren Andrews, or even Theo Howard doing some nice work with the job.
And now we're to the part everyone skipped to anyway: our game-by-game prediction. Like we said before, while this might not be Mora's most talented team at UCLA, the conference schedule actually sets up pretty well for the Bruins to compete for the Pac-12 South. The non-conference schedule, though, is brutal, and it could take quite the moving of mountains for Mora's undefeated regular season non-conference record to remain intact. As per our usual request, please understand that predictions like these are really an exercise in mental masturbation, and once we hit the season, many of our early impressions of teams are going to prove to be wildly inaccurate. We've also done an aggregate this year, with Blair, Tracy, and yours truly each making our own predictions and combining them into the mess that follows. Sound good? Great. Let's go.
Sept. 3 -- at Texas A&M
Opening on the road in a hostile, SEC environment is certainly one way to kick off Josh Rosen's sophomore year, but we probably wouldn't have advised it. In any case, the Aggies figure to bounce back a bit from their extremely tumultuous 2015 campaign, that saw Texas A&M lose both of its starting quarterbacks to transfer. A&M hired Noel Mazzone in the offseason, and Trevor Knight, the former Oklahoma quarterback, transferred in to give the Aggies a little bit of offensive stability. It's going to be interesting to see who has the advantage in the Mazzone dynamic -- A&M, because the Aggies will have some knowledge of UCLA's defense and personnel thanks to Mazzone? Or UCLA, because the Bruins still have a copy of Mazone's one-page playbook stuck to the bottom of an old pizza box? We're going to say UCLA will have a pretty good defensive scheme in place to handle Mazzone's offense, and the game will really hinge on the Bruins' ability to deal with the A&M pass rush. We'll expect UCLA to lean heavily on its run game and run right at the pass rushing tandem of Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall, neither of which is any great shakes in run defense. The Bruins win, perhaps not easily. W 1-0
Sept. 10 -- UNLV
We have to give UNLV coach Tony Sanchez some credit, because UNLV was a heck of a lot more competitive last season than the Rebels had any right to be. He has improved recruiting a little bit, and we'll go out on a limb and say that within a couple of years, UNLV will no longer be a laughingstock doormat. Unfortunately for the Rebels, that year is not this year. The Bruins enjoy their tune-up, and romp to a big win before the meat of the schedule hits. W 2-0
Sept. 17 -- at BYU
Going back to our schedule talk from part 1, UCLA should never schedule BYU. Ever. It's a bad idea that does basically nothing for UCLA -- if the Bruins win, they beat a mid-major, and if they lose, it's enough to potentially derail a season (see: 2008). Going on the road to Provo, in the same year that you go on the road to College Station, is a comically bad idea as well. Anyway, the Cougars have a new head coach in Kalani Sitake, who is one of the more respected young defensive minds in the country. He'll have BYU's defense ready to attack, and with Taysom Hill seemingly healthy at quarterback, the Bruins could get their first major test from a dual-threat quarterback. We're a little concerned that UCLA's defense might not be as equipped to deal with the running quarterbacks as it was in the days of the 3-4 and Myles Jack. If the Bruins win, UCLA could be in the following week's top ten, but we think Hill proves to be a little too much for the defense to handle (assuming Hill's body hasn't shattered like fine china by this point in the season). L 2-1
Sept. 24 -- Stanford
And this might as well be the game of the year, right? So, not only does UCLA play two road games in the non-conference (which should be a no-no for any major conference school), but the game immediately after the tougher of the road games comes against the most physically challenging opponent to prepare for in the conference. Stanford is going to be a little bit different this year, with a new quarterback at the helm and some changes on both lines of scrimmage, but if we've come to expect anything from Stanford over the years, it's consistency. The Cardinal is going to be big and physical, and Stanford's pro-style scheme still figures to cause UCLA issues, especially in play-action with the tight ends. UCLA might match up a little bit better against the run game with the Bruins' increased size up front, but the Bruins could have issues covering Stanford's big tight ends and receivers. We think this will be a close one, but until UCLA actually beats the Cardinal, we're not going to pick UCLA to beat the Cardinal. L 2-2
Oct. 1 -- Arizona
It's rare in the Mora era that playing either of the Arizona schools can qualify as a respite, but the Wildcats are probably not a major contender in the South this year. Yes, they return Anu Solomon and Nick Wilson on offense, but the defense still doesn't really have an answer for the loss of Scooby Wright. UCLA, for its part, has shown an ability over the last four years to just carve up the Wildcats year-in and year-out (the Bruins are to Arizona what Stanford is to UCLA). We'll anticipate UCLA shutting down Arizona's offensive attack, for the most part, and also generating its best offensive performance of the young season in a nice bounce-back from playing Stanford. W 3-2
Oct. 8 -- at Arizona State
The Sun Devils might be even worse than Arizona in 2016. They've lost a lot on both offense and defense and the quarterback situation is still relatively up in the air. Either Brady White or Manny Wilkins will be the starter, and neither has started or really played much in a college game. The running back tandem of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage will have to carry a big load this year, and they're certainly capable, but the Sun Devils could end up pretty one-dimensional. UCLA has significantly more talent than the Sun Devils, and the Bruins generally have done well in this series on the road. We'll say UCLA has another decisive victory on the heels of the win over Arizona. W 4-2
Oct. 15 -- at Washington State
If this is starting to seem like a long time without a bye, you've nailed it -- this is the longest UCLA will have gone without a bye since, well, probably ever. At least since the schedules expanded in 2006, this is the longest stretch of games UCLA has had to open a season. Anyway, this is a tough spot to pick. UCLA is coming off of two resounding wins at this point, but the Cougars are a tougher opponent than either Arizona school this year, with an explosive offense that could cause UCLA some real issues. Washington State's defense improved last year too, and we wouldn't be shocked to see the Cougars take another step forward this year. We could go either way on this one, but we'll chalk up the tough road game in Pullman as a loss. L 4-3
Mid-schedule prediction PSA: Don't Panic.
Oct. 22 -- Utah
Licking their wounds, the Bruins return home in an unfamiliar position under Jim Mora. At 4-3, UCLA has just had its worst seven-game start to a season under Mora, and the Bruins are staring down the barrel of a potential .500 start through eight games when a tough Utes team comes to town. Utah is going to be a really tough team to play this year, with a very good defense and an offensive line that should be able to open holes for the Utes' rushing attack. Basically, it's your typical tough Utah team under Kyle Whittingham. UCLA, though, is a bit more equipped to deal with Utah now that it's gotten a little bit bigger on the defensive line, and the fact that Noel Mazzone is no longer calling plays for UCLA against Utah has to be seen as a major advantage. He routinely trotted out his worst game plans for this game every year, and we're anticipating a bit of a better effort from Kennedy Polamalu. It's a tough, back-and-forth game, but at home, we think UCLA takes it. W 5-3
Nov. 3 -- at Colorado
UCLA has, sneakily, had a really tough time putting Colorado away the last two years. In 2014, the Bruins went to double-overtime against a really bad Buffs team, and last year, the Bruins won narrowly, pulling out a 35-31 win despite allowing, again, a bad Colorado team to run over 100 plays on offense. The Buffs should be slightly better in 2016 than in 2015, too, so that's certainly a concerning point as well. That said, UCLA should outclass Colorado, and playing this on a Thursday night in primetime should get UCLA a bit more up for this particular contest than they have perhaps been in the past. We don't think it'll be a blowout, but UCLA should win. W 6-3
Nov. 12 -- Oregon State
Oregon State is a very bad football team that once again might not win a Pac-12 game. There's just very little talent in Corvallis, and Gary Andersen has quite the rebuild in front of him. UCLA should romp in a nicely timed tune-up game. W 7-3
Nov. 19 -- USC
After looking like it might be out of the conference race in mid-October, the Bruins are now riding a three-game winning streak and this game against the Trojans, as has so often proven to be the case over the year, could prove to be pivotal. USC has a very tough schedule, and it's very unlikely that the Trojans have made it to this point of their conference schedule unscathed, so this game could effectively be for the South. It's an interesting matchup to break down, since USC and UCLA are both unveiling somewhat new schemes. USC, though, has a new quarterback in Max Browne, and it's uncertain just how good he is. We've heard a lot of the usual hype that both Browne and Sam Darnold would start for any number of other Pac-12 teams, but we've heard that sort of hype before. It's going to be interesting to see if Browne is capable of the kind of performances USC will need to escape its schedule this year.
The Trojans are stocked with talent though, with a great running back corps, a great receiving corps, a great group of defensive backs, very good linebackers, and a good offensive line. Of course, they've once again hired a question mark as the head coach in Clay Helton. He might end up being pretty good, but his results last year were underewhelming. In any case, UCLA will most likely be very motivated for this game, over and above the typical year, given that USC finally beat Mora last year. Rosen, by this point in the year, might be looking like a dark horse Heisman candidate, and the defense should be a pretty tough unit. We have UCLA winning a close one at home. W 8-3
Nov. 26 -- at California
Obviously, it's not ideal to ever have a game after USC, but Cal shouldn't be very good in 2016. The Bears have lost a lot of playmakers on offense, and the defense should once again be below average. Davis Webb at quarterback should actually be only a small step down from Jared Goff, but that probably won't be enough to mitigate Cal's other losses. That said, UCLA always has an interesting time playing at Cal, and it wouldn't be a shock to see this game end up a lot closer than we expect. We'll pick the Bruins to win a close game to close out the regular season. W 9-3
Dec. 2 -- Pac-12 Championship Game (against Stanford)
UCLA will have finished 7-2 in conference and undefeated against the Pac-12 South, so the Bruins will advance to the Pac-12 title game to take on the North champion, who we're projecting to be Stanford, By this point in the year, the Cardinal should be a significantly better team than the one the Bruins faced in week four, with more stability at the quarterback position and the newcomers on both lines coming into their own. UCLA, on the flip side, might have improved some as well, but the Bruins also could have thinned a bit on the offensive line by this point. As with the fourth game of the year, we think this will be a close one, closer than most UCLA and Stanford battles have been, but ultimately, the Cardinal extend their record over UCLA under Mora to 7-0. It's a disappointing finish to the season for UCLA, with the Rose Bowl once again just a few snaps away from reality. L 9-4
We don't anticipate the Pac-12 having a College Football Playoff team in 2016, so Stanford would likely go to the Rose Bowl, leaving UCLA with probably either the Alamo Bowl or the Holiday Bowl. Win that bowl game, and UCLA will have its third ten-win season in five years under Mora, and a little bit of momentum heading into 2017, and Josh Rosen's (likely) final year as a Bruin.
Full Pac-12 Predicted Standings
1. Stanford 9-3 (7-2)
2. Washington 9-3 (6-3)
3. Washington St. 9-3 (6-3)
4. Oregon 8-4 (6-3)
5. California 3-9 (2-7)
6. Oregon State 1-11 (0-9)
1. UCLA 9-3 (7-2)
2. USC 7-5 (6-3)
3. Utah 9-3 (6-3)
4. Arizona 5-7 (3-6)
5. Arizona State 5-7 (3-6)
6. Colorado 4-8 (2-7)