Well, that was certainly different.
After four years of solidly top 40 offenses under Noel Mazzone, UCLA opted for more of a traditional, pro-style offense this offseason to disastrous effect. The Bruins finished 83rd in the country in Football Study Hall's offensive S&P+, and had one of the worst rushing offenses in the entire country. For some perspective, UCLA was 23rd in 2015, 8th in 2014, 20th in 2013, and 42nd in 2012. You have to go all the way back to 2008 to find a lower ranked UCLA offense (according to that metric) and keep in mind: Kevin Craft was the starting quarterback for that team.
In a nutshell: UCLA went from an objectively good offense (albeit with some obvious issues) to an objectively terrible one. There were many good and valid reasons why Noel Mazzone was encouraged to leave UCLA for Texas A&M, as he had become a very lazy game planner and recruiter in addition to his consistently weird play calling, but, in retrospect, there was little valid reason for hiring Kennedy Polamalu as offensive coordinator. He has turned out to be one of the worst coordinator hires we can remember UCLA making, as torpedoing the offense this season might very well have started the clock ticking on Mora's tenure in Westwood.
Mazzone's offense itself wasn't really the problem; the scheme was effective, but he was becoming a liability from a game planning and recruiting standpoint. Keeping that offense, but bringing in someone else to run it, would have, in retrospect, almost certainly been the better move.
So, now that UCLA has fired Polamalu, we have to consider what offense the Bruins will run. In effect, it's a binary problem.
Option 1: They can run something similar to what they tried to run this year.
Option 2: They can run something different from what they tried to run this year.
While it might seem obvious to go with option 2, and from a purely good sense standpoint I'd be stunned if they didn't, there's at least some reason to think option 1 will get some consideration. UCLA did just spend an entire year talking about how they wanted to be more physical, and develop into a more Stanford-like offense, so it would make some vague sort of sense if they tried to attack that idea with a new coordinator at the helm. Whenever you're installing an offensive scheme, unless it is something very simple like Noel Mazzone's, it's completely reasonable for it to take more than a season for it to get to its optimum potential, especially if the personnel isn't quite in place in year one to run it effectively. Knowing the way football coaches think sometimes, we could see a scenario where UCLA opts for a more experienced pro-style coordinator who might have a better chance of installing that sort of scheme, building on whatever baseline was established this year.
Obviously, that all sounds absurd and, again, it would be almost offensive to logical thought for UCLA to go that route, but it needed to be said.
Option 2 makes a good deal more sense, largely because of the personnel in the program and because of the must-win nature of next season. For Mora, 2017 absolutely has to be considered a must-win season. Now, that doesn't mean UCLA needs to go win a Rose Bowl, although that would help. At minimum, though, to keep fan apathy from reaching truly Neuheislian levels, UCLA probably has to get back to 8 or 9 regular season wins. That would probably convince a substantial portion of the fan base that the ship was righted after a 2016 bump in the road, and set UCLA up for some improved recruiting momentum and success in 2018 and beyond.
With that year being a must-win, UCLA needs to drastically improve its offense in a single season, going from about the 80th ranked offense in the country to something back in the top 25 (because the defense will almost assuredly drop off next season from its top 30 level). That's not easy, but it's doable, depending on what type of offense you're trying to build and what coordinator you attempt to hire. Here's the thing, though: while there are many examples of quick-fix offensive options throughout the history of college football, very few of them have the words "pro-style" attached to them.
As you might guess, the best offenses for those sorts of turnarounds, at least in recent history, are tempo-based spread attacks that don't require quite the same level of complex installation. Those can take a variety of different forms, from spread-to-run schemes like Mazzone's to the more pass-happy Air Raid based schemes you'll often see in the Big 12 (though even most of those are not pure-form Air Raid anymore). Either could work for UCLA, but based on the overall talent in the program, we'd be inclined to go with the spread-to-run form (though we're nowhere near married to that idea).
That might seem a bit counterintuitive, given UCLA's issues running the ball this year, but UCLA was able to scheme around its offensive line issues in years one and two under Mazzone to generate pretty damn good rushing numbers. Josh Rosen has already very competently run a version of that type of offense (his true freshman season), and he was not super competently running the pro-style scheme this year before he got hurt. He, too, ran close to the same type of Mazzone spread in high school, so he knows the concepts of the scheme well. Rosen, physically, isn't completely ideal for a spread; you'd rather have a quarterback that was a bit of a threat to run, which could allow you to utilize a read option. But what Rosen is mentally fitted to execute is more important. Assuming Rosen is fully ready for next year, him running a version of the scheme he ran in year one would make a good deal of sense.
UCLA's offensive line is still not going to be objectively talented next year, but it could be even more important to match the scheme to the offensive line talent than it is to match it to Rosen. UCLA loses Conor McDermott, and tackle depth is still not good. There are some more options on the interior, with whatever comes of guys like Paco Perez and Tevita Halalilo, but there isn't much that's proven there. At best, you can probably expect them to be a little more talented than this year, but they could also be about the same, or perhaps even a bit worse. Mitigating those potential issues, rather than hinging the entire offensive scheme around them, would obviously be the play. So it's key that UCLA take stock of its offensive line inventory and then hire an offensive coordinator who can best take advantage of the offensive talent on hand.
UCLA is just a year removed from running a spread offense, which means that all of the skill talent that played this year was more or less recruited to play in a spread offense. A guy like Sotonye Jamabo is far and away a better player in a spread-type scheme than whatever abomination of a pro-style offense UCLA thought it wast trying to run this year. All of those itty bitty speedy receivers UCLA spent so many years trying to land and then finally landed will actually have positions to play in this offense, meaning there could be a world where you see Darren Andrews and Theo Howard on the field at the same time.
Would it be too much to ask that UCLA could find an offensive coordinator that installs a scheme using much of the spread-to-run concepts that the current players, particularly Rosen, are comfortable with, but has some dynamic wrinkles added in, like perhaps a good short-yardage solution? And please, UCLA needs an OC who can call an imaginative game; after Mazzone's playcalling brain farts and Polamalu's alt-right conservatism.
Obviously, UCLA should take its time evaluating what it needs to get back to a top 25 level on offense, and that might involve some form of Baylor-type offense, or something like Mazzone's, or something else we're not considering at the moment. But, ultimately, trying to run a similar offense to what UCLA just tried to run is almost certainly going to lead to many of the same issues that the Bruins had this year. And perhaps the biggest priority is hiring an OC that has run a proven offense on the college level and can hit the ground running. After the Polamalu experiment, UCLA shouldn't leave anything to chance for its offensive scheme next season.
So, back to the spread. Hey, I hear Texas A&M's coaching staff might be getting the boot -- maybe give their OC a call...