UCLA is now 3-5 and 1-4 in conference. There is virtually no chance that the Bruins would win the Pac-12 South even if they won out (UCLA would have to win out, beating Colorado and USC, Colorado would have to lose every game but Utah, Utah would have to lose out, and USC would have to take at least one other loss besides UCLA, probably against Washington). And without a realistic chance at the Pac-12 South, there really isn't a major remaining goal for the season aside from those that have carried over since the Lost Decade: make a bowl game and beat USC.
So, given that there isn't much left to play for aside from pride, these final four games can be used as an opportunity to develop the kind of team UCLA will want to have next year, whether that means defining the schemes a little better, switching things up, or changing rotations of players. Since it's a bye week, we're going to take some time the next couple of days to go through what we'd like to see from the team over these final four games.
Today, we'll start with the offense.
Define UCLA's Offensive Scheme
UCLA made a radical shift in the offseason from Noel Mazzone's spread offense to Kennedy Polamalu's pro-style, multiple set, and the results have been pretty close to disastrous. UCLA cannot run the ball at all, with a porous offensive line and overall poor blocking from the tight ends and backs. Given what we can project from the offensive line depth chart, there's little reason to think that the blocking is going to get a whole lot better next year -- for whatever reason, UCLA's offensive line looks like it's in for at least a two-year rebuild to get back to where it was last season.
UCLA and Jim Mora need to have offensive success this year -- where before the season, we thought Mora could take a couple of years to develop the pro-style scheme, finishing with a 4-8 or 5-7 record this year is going to eat a pretty good amount of goodwill and is going to likely force UCLA into win-now mode next season. So, what that really means is that UCLA is going to have to figure out how to generate an offensive attack with an average-at-best offensive line. If this sounds like a job for Noel Mazzone, you're probably onto something.
Going back to some sort of spread seems like a foregone conclusion. The big thing for UCLA to decide is if it wants to be a more or less balanced spread like Mazzone's (that was more spread-to-run, actually, but they passed more than, say, a Gus Malzahn offense) or if they want to go more toward the Air Raid style practiced by a lot of Big XII teams and Washington State and Cal. We caught a look at the Air Raid version against Utah last week, and we have to admit, we're intrigued by the possibility of Josh Rosen throwing the ball 70 times in a football game. But given what we know of UCLA's preferences, we have to imagine they'll work toward a balanced spread -- and that needs to start now. The season, again, is basically a wash, so UCLA should spend much of the next four games figuring out how to run successfully out of a four-wide set with this sort of offensive line. If they can hit on a few basic concepts that work for them, that could provide a building block for whatever next year's offense looks like.
Develop a WR Rotation That Makes Sense
UCLA has spent the majority of this year playing a bunch of guys who can't catch, and seemingly has been slow to recognize the playmakers in the group. At the beginning of the year, Jordan Lasley was barely playing, but now it appears that he's maybe the best or second-best playmaker on the team, with good breakaway speed and -- here's the key -- semi-reliability catching the ball. He has 238 yards in the last three games on 15 catches with three touchdowns. If you extrapolate that over a full season with a bowl game, he'd be a 1000-yard receiver with over 10 touchdowns and over 60 catches. Get him the ball.
We've talked at length about Theo Howard, but let's just do this. We'll concede that he is probably not a good blocker at all at this stage of his development, which is probably true since no freshmen are good blockers, and we'll even concede that his knowledge of the offense is limited, though we have no idea if this is true. Perhaps he's only been taught how to play one position in most looks, and that position is, say, the same as Lasley or Darren Andrews, and Howard literally doesn't know what to do if you moved him to another role in many of UCLA's sets. Even conceding that, Howard needs to play, and he needs to get coached up quickly to get him prepared to play, possibly in another position as quickly as possible, if that's the case. Even if the staff thinks it can take the off-season to prepare Howard to star next season, there's a really damaging perception that you have an elite recruit come in, the majority of your receiver group falters, and you aren't playing him because of some seniority issue, or you didn't have him prepared properly. Plus, very simply, there's an imminent future of this receiving corps that's going to need Howard to be the star of the group, or at least a major contributor, and the more reps he gets now the more it pays off next season. From a recruiting perspective, too, you can't recruit star wide receivers that everyone talks about as the next Marqise Lee, and then decide not to play them much at all for an entire season. And then from the simple fact that UCLA is no longer playing for anything this year -- why not give more time to a young guy who needs reps to learn?
Generally speaking, we'd opt for the younger guys over the next four games -- give some more live reps to Howard, Lasley, and even Alex Van Dyke to see what they can do. UCLA hasn't gotten much of anything out of Ishmael Adams this year, so there's not much value in continuing to emphasize his packages.
Find a Starting Running Back
UCLA has started three different running backs this year, whether due to injury or just indecision about which ones makes the most sense as a starter. Before the year we said that any of these three backs could be a starting level running back at the Pac-12 level and we're not necessarily willing to walk that one back yet -- yes, UCLA's running game has been a straight disaster, but we're really uncertain how much of that is on the backs themselves. There's only so much you can do when you're met in the backfield every other run.
So, that being said, UCLA still needs to find a guy who's going to carry the load, and we have to admit that there isn't much clarity in the group. We said before the year that we thought Bolu Olorunfunmi would make the most sense in a pro-style offense with a bad offensive line, and we still think that's probably true. But if UCLA goes to a spread, one that uses the running back often as a pass catcher, we think it might make more sense to go with either Nate Starks or Sotonye Jamabo. Jamabo is probably the best pass catcher in the bunch, so he probably would make the most sense as a starter in the spread. Obviously, taking a longer look at Brandon Stephens, who might be the eventual future at that position, could be an option as well since he has already burned his redshirt.
Assuming Starks and Jamabo are healthy over the final four games, we'd like to see UCLA work each of the three (and maybe Stephens) for extended series to see what they can do in whatever type of offense UCLA tries to run. If UCLA goes for a balanced spread over the next four games, we'd especially like to see what Jamabo can do, since we have to figure he'll make the most sense as a starter in that sort of offense.
Experiment Constantly on the Offensive Line
We have eight games of data to show that this offensive line has not worked. Could it work? We have our doubts, but obviously weird things can happen and lines can gel over time. But, assuming it doesn't work, UCLA could be well-served over the final four games to really start to mix and match players to see where things make the most sense.
For a long time, we've thought Kenny Lacy might make more sense at tackle than at guard, and, conversely, we've long through Andre James made more sense as a guard. Why not take a look at flipping them, with James moving inside and Lacy moving to right tackle? At the worst, UCLA's offensive line will still be a disaster, and at best, James helps shore up the interior and Lacy does a good enough job with his mobility on the right side to keep up in pass protection.
Now, there isn't much other than that for UCLA to do outside of burning redshirts, which would be silly at this point. But whatever UCLA can do to experiment within the confines of the players available to them would be worthwhile.
Work on 4th Down Math, Clock Management, and Strategic Thinking
We're not kidding when we say next year is turning into a must-win year, and the real issue is that next year is also a year when the conference schedule gets a good deal harder, with now-dominant Washington back on it, as well as Oregon over Oregon State (OK, that's not as big of a switch as it used to be, but still). So, if UCLA is going to win enough next year to reclaim positive momentum, the Bruins are going to have get pretty streamlined not only from a schematic perspective and a personnel perspective, but also from a coaching perspective.
There have been a number of questionable 4th down calls and clock management issues this year, but really each of the last four years, and there's no time like the present to get those fixed. Obviously, this staff trends toward conservative decision-making, but there are a few obvious things that this staff could do better, and defining a set of 4th down rules that actually make sense given what we know of probability would be a nice first step. A good rule of thumb, taking UCLA's fundamental conservatism into account, might be this: if you're past the 50, and it's 4th and 3 or less, go for it. If you're past the 45, and it's 4th and 5 or less, go for it, and if you're past the 40, never punt, unless it's a very, very special end of game or end of half situation. Establishing those rules would also get UCLA out of that awkward situation of taking timeouts before a 4th down decision.
Clock management has been an issue in many games this year, and timeout calls have been peculiar at times. We'd love to see UCLA do some major self-scouting in the offseason (perhaps with a third party), not just looking at personnel and scheme, but also looking at the strategic thinking. But even without that, we'd like to see UCLA spend the next four games really focusing on nailing 4th down calls and managing the clock in tight situations.