TE Austin Roberts (Photo by Steve Cheng)

UCLA vs. Texas A&M: Unit by Unit Analysis

Sep. 5 -- We hand out the grades for UCLA's disappointing season-opening loss to Texas A&M...

Quarterback: D-

We can't remember how we've graded Josh Rosen over the first 13 games of his UCLA career, and going back to look it up would really suck the wind out of this rhetorical device's proverbial sails, but even if this isn't the lowest grade we've given him, this might be the most concerning performance of his young career. We're big Rosen champions here, and we have been since his sophomore year in high school, but we've rarely seen him look as shaky as he did on Saturday. He obviously had the two bad interceptions (along with the third on a tipped pass). The first interception, where he was being dragged to the ground and just tossed the ball up, was something you might see out of a sophomore in high school, but rarely out of a sophomore in college, let alone one of the most talented quarterback prospects we've seen in a college uniform. The other bad interception was more understandable, a play where he just didn't see the linebacker dropping into coverage, but it came after an odd sequence. With 1:30 to go in the game, UCLA got the ball back with a chance to win the game in regulation, and Rosen then appeared to pump up the crowd before the start of the drive, wagging his arms up kind of the same way Brett Hundley did at the start of the 2013 Nebraska game. On the ensuing play, Rosen nearly fumbled the ball away (and, if it had been called a fumble on the field, it would have withstood a review), and then he followed that up with the interception. The entire sequence was just odd and uncharacteristic of Rosen.

But those were just the interceptions. He missed a number of open receivers throughout the game, and even some of the throws where he connected with his receivers, he didn't throw the ball well enough to get everything he could out of the play. The opening throw to Kenny Walker is a good example of this, where Walker had a touchdown if Rosen had led him a bit more with the throw. He seemed to be short-arming his throws a little bit most of the game, which might have been a product of the Texas A&M pass rush. His pocket presence also seemed a little shakier than usual, but that could have been a product of the many different drops, roll outs, and formations UCLA used throughout the game, not to mention the abysmal pass protection the Bruins had most of the contest.

It's not time to ring any alarms about Rosen's play, but he could really use a good performance this week to get in a rhythm with BYU and Stanford coming up in subsequent weeks.

Running Backs: C

This might seem a little harsh, given that UCLA's backs actually ran the ball fairly well despite not getting a great deal of help on the interior of the offensive line, but this isn't just a grade for how the tailbacks ran anymore. With UCLA's use of fullbacks now extensive, and the sheer number of times UCLA asked the running backs to deal with A&M pass rushers, we have to take a longer look at the blocking, and it was pretty much atrocious on Saturday. Sotonye Jamabo whiffed on a number of blocks in the first half before settling in a bit more in the second half. Ainuu Taua really didn't have much of an effect at fullback, and it seemed more that when he was in, the Aggies just knew they could afford to devote more guys to the box, nullifying the advantage Taua would give UCLA as a blocker. Some sort of screen to the fullback should probably be built into the game plans going forward.

Jamabo ran fairly well (again, given the lack of help from the offensive line), with most of his success coming on runs off the right side, where he could use Kolton Miller's size and sealing ability to find some open running room. Jamabo is very much a glider, and he needs to have some open space to do some damage, since he very much is not a powerful, burst-y type runner. When he was asked to run between the tackles in this one, or grind out yards in the red zone, he was generally stymied.

Bolu Olorunfunmi got just seven carries to Jamabo's 23 (and just seven overall touches to Jamabo's 28), but did quite a bit in those seven to think that he should earn quite a few more. He had the most impressive run of the day, bouncing off tacklers en route to a 32-yard gain on UCLA's second field goal drive. He also had UCLA's most impressive red zone play, again running up the middle for a rumbling 9-yard touchdown where he had to maintain his balance through contact. His top end speed is probably less than Jamabo's, but he gets up to speed a good deal quicker and plays with better pad level and strength. He should see more carries.

Brandon Stephens came in for one play that we noticed, where he was asked to block for Rosen on a rollout, which seems like a really weird choice of personnel. Naturally, he kind of whiffed on the block, since he is a true freshman running back playing in his first college game. Bizarre.

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends: D-

If you thought the running backs grade was low, you also might think this one is a bit high, considering that UCLA's receivers are probably still dropping things this morning. Even though the drops were terrible, and we saw several lazy routes from receivers throughout the game, there was enough good and positive to keep this from being a pure failing grade.

For the positive, Kenny Walker, as we wrote this offseason, has become a legitimate receiver. He led the Bruins with over 100 yards receiving and could have had close to 200 if Rosen had been a bit sharper. He had one pseudo-drop, but it was a fade where he really shouldn't have been the receiver on the outside (since he's not 6'4) and the ball just barely grazed his finger tips. The one touchdown catch he had was one of the tougher, weirder catches we've seen, and it was truly great to see Walker finally make that kind of catch.

Austin Roberts, who did have a critical drop in overtime and another earlier in the game, also flashed some real play-making ability at times, and he looks like he has a real connection with Rosen. His hands could use some refinement, but there's a lot to like about his ability to get open and make plays. Hopefully the drops don't discourage him. Darren Andrews also made a few nice plays.

And other than that, it was a whole lot of meh. Jordan Lasley showed some nice ability to get separation, but when you've been riding the pine for two seasons and you finally get you opportunity, you really do have to catch the sure touchdown pass. Again, he showed some ability to get separation, though, so hopefully that drop doesn't send him to the bottom of a well. Eldridge Massington was a non-factor for long stretches of the game, despite playing a good amount, and was one of the culprits who seemed to be running lackadaisical routes at times.

Ishmael Adams, who we fell in love with over the offseason as a dynamic receiver, instead got two touches as a running back, which he is not. He also caught one ball, and looked shifty and explosive en route to a first down. We would have liked to have seen much more of that, much less of whatever end around, sweep-y stuff UCLA tried to do with him in the red zone.

The tight ends, other than Roberts, were not just non-factors but often negatives. Nate Iese, who we've touted for a long time here, really struggled as a blocker in this one, especially in the first half. Caleb Wilson caught one nice ball, but also seemed to struggle some in blocking. Gio Gentosi, the walk-on, was OK as a blocker, but he was also Rosen's target on a potential touchdown pass, which was beyond bizarre.

But really, there were just way, way too many drops. Alex Van Dyke, Lasley, Roberts, and the list goes on. For a team that is still in search of someone to take over for Jordan Payton, Thomas Duarte, and Devin Fuller, this game did not provide too many comforting answers.

Offensive Line: D-

This went about as poorly as it could have gone, barring further injuries. The vaunted matchup between UCLA's good offensive tackles and Texas A&M's great defensive ends tilted heavily in favor of A&M's defensive ends. Even though Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall only combined for one sack, they were often able to put so much pressure on the pocket that Rosen was hurried, or the rest of the offensive line got so stretched that various free rushers could come directly at Rosen. We will say that Kolton Miller seemed to hold up better against Hall than McDermott did against Garrett, but, then again, Garrett is a far superior player to Hall.

The interior of the offensive line played about the way we feared they might. The Bruins were not able to generate much of anything up front in the running game, and both guards, Kenny Lacy and Poasi Moala, struggled in pass protection. Scott Quessenberry seemed like he played an OK game from what we saw, but he was also part of the reason why UCLA wasn't able to generate much push up front. A&M, to its credit, has clearly improved on the interior of the defensive line from a year ago, and has some true bulk inside.

At one point in the second half, Najee Toran came in to relieve Moala, but we're not sure if that was injury or performance related. Toran seemed to play a bit better, though, particularly in the running game, so we'd be interested to see if the Bruins make a move there. If there was a single weak link in the first half, we'd probably have said it was Moala.

Offensive Scheme, Play-calling, and Game Plan: D+

The offense seemed a little disorganized at times, with the Bruins twice having to call timeouts because they couldn't get the play in correctly, and then there was the weirdness with the clock management at the end of the first half, where it looked like the Bruin staff was talking on the sideline trying to decide what to do. Taking the timeout and kicking the long field goal with 7 seconds to go was a weird choice, when UCLA could have easily run another play and then taken the timeout, if for nothing else than to center the ball.

Play-calling wasn't a disaster, but there were stretches of weirdness. In the third quarter, UCLA really seemed to go away from the run, with 11 of the first 12 plays of the half being designed passes for Rosen. UCLA hadn't been running the ball perfectly, of course, but Rosen hadn't exactly been lighting the world on fire either, so it probably would have been fair to mix it up a bit more. Red zone play-calling was also strange, with the Adams experiment looking peculiar, and then the odd fade to Walker on 3rd down on  UCLA's second field goal drive. If you're going to call a fade (and you shouldn't, ever, since it is ridiculously low-percentage), make sure you do it with your absolute tallest receiver.

Personnel usage remains peculiar, as it has basically been for the last few years. Jamabo is a nice back to have between the 20s in open space, but in the red zone, you really need someone who can run with more power. Jamabo is not a power back, despite his dimensions. Olorunfunmi is, and he should get more carries in general, and certainly in the red zone. 

From a scheme and formation perspective, we're curious to see if UCLA can make improvements under center. Right now, Rosen doesn't look as comfortable going under center, as you might expect, and the offensive line doesn't look as comfortable blocking on those plays. In shotgun, the offense looked much more natural, and seemed to have more success. It'll be interesting to see what adjustments get made going forward.

DT Eddie Vanderdoes (Photo by Steve Cheng)

Defensive Line: C

It's unfortunate that we didn't see a full-strength defensive line for more than about a quarter, with Takkarist McKinley going out with an apparent groin pull. When he was in, the defensive line, and the defense as a whole, actually looked pretty darn good, and UCLA was obviously trying to feature McKinley, with the defensive end getting moved around quite a bit. UCLA even had him standing up on a delayed blitz at one point, which was neat. Hopefully he gets back to full strength soon.

With McKinley out, and Deon Hollins out with a concussion, UCLA had basically zero pass rush for the entire game, which is a big concern. If McKinley is out for any length of time, the Bruins simply are going to have to blitz, because there just aren't a lot of natural pass rushers in UCLA's arsenal. Keisean Lucier-South is about the only one, and he's 215 pounds and probably not physically ready to play more than a handful of snaps per game. 

UCLA had to resort to playing Jacob Tuioti-Mariner at defensive end in the absence of McKinley, and that left the Bruins playing basically four defensive tackles at various points, with Tuioti-Mariner, Eli AnkouEddie Vanderdoes, and Matt Dickerson. Rewatching the game, some of that success A&M had building their lead in the second and third quarters on the ground had to do with some lack of quickness among the defensive linemen. Until they play Stanford, playing four defensive tackles at once is not a recipe for success.

Vanderdoes, to his credit, had a heck of a game, and looked like he picked up where he left off. He really impeded A&M's running game at times, and showed some incredible strength.

Linebackers: C-

We didn't really see any standouts among the linebackers. Kenny Young wasn't as bad as he was last year, and he pursued better to the sideline, but he still had issues up the middle, just not being as quick to react as he needed to be. Isaako Savaiinaea, conversely, was a bit better plugging holes in the interior, but wasn't quite as good as Young pursuing ball carriers. So, UCLA should really look into combining the two of them into a single player. Isanny Savaiing.

Jayon Brown had a somewhat quiet game. He was the second-leading tackler, but it looked like he got picked on a bit in coverage. Between Brown, Cameron Judge, and Young, UCLA actually didn't have much of a size advantage over the various A&M backs and receivers they were asked to go up against. We would have liked to have seen more of Josh Woods, who didn't appear to get much burn with the defense.

Defensive Backs: B-

The defensive backs, from what we could tell, had an OK game, for the most part. Tahaan Goodman had a really nice performance in run support, but gave up a few things in coverage. He forced the early fumble, and was hitting A&M receivers hard, but cleanly, all game. It was probably one of his best performances as a Bruin, and hopefully it's something he can build on.

Adarius Pickett was also very good in this game, arguably better than Goodman. He made a number of plays late that helped keep the game in reach. Pickett and Goodman provide a certain physicality at safety that gives UCLA a little more swagger. We'd like to see them both continue to play a considerable amount.

Randall Goforth didn't have a great game, playing nickel for the most part. Matched up against Christian Kirk quite a bit, Goforth still struggled to tackle, an issue that cropped up last year after he returned from shoulder surgery. Given what we saw out of Goodman and Pickett in this game, increasing their time and then giving Jaleel Wadood a look at nickel might make some sense. Wadood, for his part, had one of the plays of the game, knifing into the backfield for a key tackle for loss.

At cornerback, aside from a phantom holding call, Fabian Moreau appeared to play really well, with only one busted coverage that we noticed. Nathan Meadors also looked pretty good on his side of the field. For the most part, A&M took advantage of match ups with the nickel or when they could get a receiver lined up against a linebacker, and that is typically where they generated their longest gains.

Defensive Scheme, Play-calling, and Game Plan: D

Once McKinley went down, it became pretty obvious that the philosophy behind the scheme remains the same, regardless of the change in front: bend but don't break. The Bruins were very passive in the first half and through most of the second, very rarely bringing more than four. Only late in the game, when UCLA finally needed some stops, did the Bruins finally get creative and send some pressure, and, as you might imagine, UCLA got some stops. If McKinley is out for any length of time, the defense will have to either blitz or become comfortable with the idea of being one of the least disruptive defenses in college football -- again. There just very obviously isn't another pass rushing option (with Hollins also out).

While you might give the defense the credit late for generating stops, we're familiar enough with Noel Mazzone to know that what really stopped A&M's offense late, and gave the Bruins real chances to tie and win, was his bizarre play-calling. The last three drives for Texas A&M in the second half were straight out of the UCLA playbook from especially the last two years. Jordan Payton even called the sequence of plays of one of those drives exactly on Twitter.

The run defense wasn't good, and given that Texas A&M's run game was bad last year, allowing 5 yards per carry was a disconcerting sign. Improving the run defense was such a point of emphasis in the offseason, and then we see the first team UCLA faces, with a bunch of inexperienced running backs and an inexperienced offensive line, run for 5 yards per carry and over 200 yards. We'll see if it gets better, but right now, you have to be a bit concerned.

Watching live, we were more concerned about the offense than the defense, but after rewatching, we might lean slightly the other way. Receivers will probably catch better in the future, and Rosen will almost certainly play better. But the defense showed many of the same mediocre signs it has shown in the past, and that's a real concern.

Special Teams: B

The freshman specialists were uniformly very good. J.J. Molson made all but one of his kicks, and that was a particularly tough one, coming, as it did, at the end of the first half from 48 yards on the left hash. Otherwise, he had a nice game. His kickoffs weren't the pure boomers that Ka'imi Fairbairn was hitting as a senior, but he will get that kind of power in time. As it stands, his kicks were respectable, and UCLA covered well.

Austin Kent obviously gives UCLA its first credible punter in quite some time, and we don't need more than a game to tell us that. He had some really nice punts with tons of hang time in this game, and we imagine UCLA has its next great punter. The long-snapping also looked good, from what we can tell (we are admittedly no experts!)

The only reason this is a B is that UCLA wasn't able to generate much of anything on returns, which looked like it was mostly due to either not-great blocking or excellent coverage from A&M. The return game wasn't bad, it just wasn't great.

One thing to consider: if UCLA's offensive issues keep up, it might be worth exploring having Ishmael Adams return kickoffs regardless of where he catches them. The calculation might have changed from what it was during the Mazzone era, when offense was UCLA's strength. The big play potential of kickoff return might be worth sacrificing a few yards from a touchback. Worth a thought, anyway.


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