WR Eldridge Massington (Photo by Steve Cheng)

Players Who Must Step Up for UCLA to Go to the Next Level in 2017

Jun. 13 -- What's the difference between UCLA moderately living up to expectation for the 2017 season, or then going beyond expectation and having a special season? UCLA would need some step-up type of performances from various players on the roster, other than guys named Rosen, Young and Miller that are expected to be good...

We will start our now-annual countdown of the Top 30 most important Bruins for the upcoming season later this month. In the meantime, we think there is another angle to take on the roles some players could have in the upcoming season: These are guys we think absolutely need to step up with big seasons for UCLA to go beyond expectation in 2017.  This is not Josh RosenKolton Miller or Kenny Young. It's obvious UCLA needs the types that are expected to have big seasons to actually have big seasons if UCLA has a chance to even be successful. The players below are guys without necessarily high expectations but, if they put it together for 2017, it could really push the Bruins over the threshold to having a special season.

Denzel Fisher, Redshirt Junior Cornerback

UCLA's secondary looks to be in very good shape. It's not a stretch to think that Nathan Meadors is prepared to supply the lock-down corner role of Fabian Moreau from last season; we think that there will be an upgrade at safety with Adarius Pickett (who might have been spring practice's overall MVP) now the starter, replacing Randall Goforth; and you'd have to expect that returning starting safety Jaleel Wadood will be at least a bit better than he was last season.  So, that means UCLA needs a cornerback to pretty much step up and be the Meadors from last season -- or better. Fisher absolutely showed that capability in spring practice before he injured his elbow. which sidelined took him for the last week and a half of April. We've heard Fisher is healing well and should be 100% in time for fall camp (it starts a week early this year, by the way). Fisher, being a redshirt junior, is pretty battle-tested, having played in enough games to not be wide-eyed when he steps into the starter's role in fall.  In April, he looked like he had broken through with a veteran's type of confidence, knew what his strengths were as a cover guy, and we would actually go out on a limb a bit and say he played at a level better than Meadors comparatively in spring last year. 

We have to note, too, that perhaps an addendum player here is Darnay Holmes, the five-star freshman who came in early to participate in spring practice. Given how good Holmes looked, and given it was just his first experience on a college field, we're expecting Holmes to take another major jump by fall camp. He will have had a few more months of training and playbook study under his belt. If for whatever reason Fisher doesn't live up to expectation, we believe Holmes will be right there to provide the level of play needed at that other starting corner spot. And Holmes will bring his elite level of athleticism to the starting nickel spot, which is probably an upgrade from last season.  

UCLA had a very good secondary last year (in fact, it's had one for a while). If it can replicate that, or even improve on it from last season, and we think there's a good chance of that, it would be key to UCLA again having a good defense for the year. 

Denzel Fisher (USA Today)

Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, Redshirt Senior Defensive End

Tuioti-Mariner has been a solid player for UCLA for three years. Not greatly flashy. Not a real difference-maker.  But the lunch-pail, go-to-work-every-day kind of player with great versatility that has filled holes for the UCLA defensive line. 

This, now is, Tuioti-Mariner's time. He's physically where he wants to be as the strongside defensive end, at 6-3-ish and 285, and he has three years of some considerable experience, much of it as a starter last season.  He's now probably in his right position for college. And this isn't just going on hope here with Tuioti-Mariner; as we wrote in our review of spring practice, he was probably the best all-around DL on the team for all of April. He was very difficult to block on the edge, and very quick in containment against the run. Like, potentially All-Conference good. 

There is always a dynamic to take into consideration when analyzing the DL. You could have a great pass-rushing defensive end, but if you don't have another DE who is a threat as a pass rusher, opposing offenses can play away from the pass-rushing DE or double-team him. There was some worry going into spring practice that Tuioti-Mariner would be the experienced talent that opposing offenses would be able to shade, and be able to take away, but after watching the pass rushing by the players at the other Razor spot in spring, particularly true freshman Jaelan Phillips, we think offenses won't be able to dedicate more resources to taking away Tuioti-Mariner.  So, JTM could be poised to have a big season. 

DL Jacob Tuioti-Mariner (Photo by Steve Cheng)

UCLA's Right Tackle

Whomever that might be is going to have some considerable responsibility for the 2017 season. Like with the DL, there is a dynamic to the OL, too, and if there is one really strong tackle and a weak one, well, it's not rocket science to exploit the weak one. UCLA has a very known commodity at left tackle in Kolton Miller, so it will need at least some solid play from its right tackle so opposing offenses can't avoid Miller. 

In spring, Kenny Lacy got most of the reps as the starting right tackle, to mixed results. Lacy is curious; there have been times over his going-on five-year UCLA career when he played like one of the best OLs on the team, and then times when he didn't. This spring was indicative of that. There have been issues of motivation, which leads to lapses in consistency. There is probably the issue of what position is really best for Lacy -- tackle or guard. Lacy could still be moved back inside to guard and Andre James return to right tackle.  James looked good at both guard and tackle in spring, and was the best right tackle when he worked from that spot in one-on-ones. Of course, if Miami grad transfer Sunny Odogwu, who verbally committed to UCLA last week, is good enough to be the starter at right tackle, the issue is solved. It would be a huge boost to UCLA's overall chances for the 2017 season. Not only would it nail down the right tackle spot, it could enable UCLA's OL coach Hank Fraley to keep James inside. And now, actually, UCLA could be bordering on having a decent OL. 

This could really be the most important entry on this list. 

(For the in-depth analysis on the potential impact of Odogwu's addition to the OL: GO HERE). 

Sunny Odogwu (InsidetheU)

Eldridge Massington, Redshirt Senior Receiver

We want to like Eldridge Massington. From everything we've heard, he's a great kid. He's worked hard. In fact, we've heard at times some of his liabilities have come from over-working, which has led to some minor injuries.  He deserves success. He certainly doesn't deserve, given all of this, to be a guy who is remembered for dropping passes.

This spring practice Massington really stepped up. He started out with the second string, but quickly surpassed Theo Howard with the ones. Day after day through the middle of April, Massington was probably the most consistent and effective receiver.  

Then, in the spring game, on the first play from scrimmage, he dropped a Josh Rosen slant.  It might have been the most deflating moment of spring, since Massington had been doing so well.

But still, that one dropped ball couldn't erase all of April.  Massington looked like he had matured and developed. He wasn't suddenly Mr. Sticky Hands, but he was far more reliable catching the ball. And it seemed like offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch was trying to exploit Massington's strengths and putting him in a position to succeed, which is using his physicality and straight-ahead speed, like with bubble screens.  

UCLA has a couple of known commodities in Darren Andrews and Jordan Lasley as receiver starters. A good, reliably-catching senior Massington is really the perfect finishing piece to the receiver puzzle. Plus a good Massington would take the pressure off Howard, who then could develop at his own rate.  

Added note here: Kind of Massington's compadre at arms (or hands) is fellow senior Alex Van Dyke, who also had a good spring.  Van Dyke is probably among the guys with the most promise on the team, with great size at 6-4 and 225, and very good speed (we've heard random rumors from the 40s the players ran a few weeks ago and Van Dyke was, surprisingly, one of the fastest on the team).  Van Dyke, too, has the dropsie reputation, and if he and Massington could both make everyone forget that reputation it would probably on its own make UCLA's offense a potent one.

A second added note: Y receiver Austin Roberts is in this boat, too. He's in that considerable-upside boat with Van Dyke, at 6-2 and 230, and also running one of the fastest 40s on the team. And Roberts, too, has had the dropsies over his UCLA career. 

If all three of these guys hold on to the ball UCLA's offense is completely different. 

Eldridge Massington (USA Today)

Bolu Olorunfunmi, Junior Running Back

We think it's time. It's time Bolu was designated the main man carrying the ball.  Ever since he and Sotonye Jamabo came to campus two years ago, he has consistently looked like the best running back between him, Jamabo and Nate Starks.  He looked the best overall in spring practice. He looked bigger and faster, if that's possible.  And we're told he's the healthiest he's been in a long time, that he had played pretty nicked up his first two years. Between Bolu, Jamabo and Starks, he best embodies the type of running back that coach DeShaun Foster likes -- one made in his image: big, punishing and one who runs downhill. And he's actually faster than Jamabo, who isn't the physical type of back anyway. It's time to hand Bolu the ball, let him get a primary-ball-carrier number of carries per game and give the offense a guy to build the running game around.  Bolu appeared ready to take that step up during spring practice; it's just a matter of UCLA designating him as the man and going with it. 

RB Bolu Olorunfunmi (Photo by Steve Cheng)

Josh Woods, Junior Linebacker

If you expect Kenny Young to be about as good as he was at the end of last season, but let's say with an incremental improvement, that means, for UCLA's linebacking unit to be about as good as it was, Woods would have to fill the shoes of departing star linebacker Jayon Brown. On one hand, those are big shoes, since Brown was such an exceptional player, leading the team in tackles, being all around the ball on just about every snap. Woods, on the other hand, has a chance to be as good, and even more, with some considerable upside in terms of his size, athleticism and instincts. Since UCLA will probably play just two linebackers in most of their defensive alignments, Young and Woods are the the guys getting most of the snaps; we know what Young can do, and we expect him to do that. So, for UCLA to take its defense to a new level, Woods will have to be one of the guys that takes his game to the next level.  

Josh Woods (Photo: Steve Cheng)

Jaelan Phillips, Freshman Defensive End

There are some big shoes to fill here, too, trying to replace the production of NFL-drafted Takkarist McKinley. McKinley didn't just have an impact with his pass-rushing, but his motor and relentlessness gave UCLA a different type of defensive mindset. Of course, we have to provide the requisite caution of heaping too much expectation on the true freshman Phillips for the season. But once we're past that political correctness, we're going to go out on a limb and say that, at some time during the 2017 season, Phillips is going to be so good you might forget what a Takkarist is. Once he's accustomed to the speed of the game, gets the rhythm down, and understands the level of his ability and what he can actually do, we're expecting Phillips to be a defense-changing type of player like McKinley.  If UCLA wants to go beyond expectation, it will need Phillips to be a consensus freshman All-American.  

Jaelan Phillips

Najee Toran, Senior Offensive Guard

In an ideal scenario for UCLA's offensive line, Sunny Odogwu is a good addition at right tackle, worthy of starting, thus moving Andre James to left guard. That then creates a competition at right guard for the starting spot between Toran, Kenny Lacy and Poasi Moala.  If this plays out this way, we think Toran will win the right guard spot, but this entry could be either Lacy or Moala if they do. The ideal OL scenario is also contingent on none of these OLs getting hurt for any significant time. 

Toran has had a mixed career at UCLA. He started in his first game as a true freshman at offensive line, on the road against Virginia, and then didn't have a great year on the OL. It might have been because he probably weighed 265 pounds and was, well, a raw freshman. He then switched to the DL for a while, but then flipped back to the OL.  This spring he had added some weight, up to about 300 pounds and some strength. He was always a good run blocker actually, being pretty strong to begin with, but lacked experience and technique, particularly in pass blocking. He had a good spring, one worthy of a starter.  

For UCLA to have a standout season, it's going to need some superior play from its offensive line, and that means its starting five are good, not just serviceable. So that means it will have to all come together for Toran.  

Najee Toran

UCLA Offensive Coaches

***We added this entry after some users on the BRO Premium Forum made this assertion -- and we liked it.***

The new UCLA offensive coaching staff is an unknown quantity at this point. Yeah, we saw them and their offense in spring, and we came away thinking it was an elegant, well-designed, multi-look offense.  But we've learned that schemes can look one way in spring practice and come out the other end during the season looking considerably different.

We do have some confidence in new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, given his pedigree, and from what we've heard about him from other coaches.  We've heard very good things about his relationship and what he's done so far for Josh Rosen.  

It's not just about Fisch's scheme, though. It's also about the receivers under new WR coach Jimmie Dougherty taking a step up this season from last, and a great deal of that is just catching the ball.

It definitely needs to be evident that the running backs improved under DeShaun Foster after last year's dismal showing of seemingly missing holes consistently.  

If you haven't gotten the gist, a great deal of UCLA potentially having a season that goes beyond expectation is about the offensive line, so there's a good deal of responsibility for that laid at the feet of new offensive line coach Hank Fraley.  The early reports of Fraley are good -- that the players really like him, like learning under him, and that he's very knowledgeable, given his NFL background. It's not just about developing the OL as individual players, but the other big element is about Fraley being about to coach the OL within Fisch's multi-look scheme.  The big reason he was hired was that he was very well-versed in it and that he and Fisch saw eye to eye. 

But it can't be emphasized enough: For UCLA to have a special season, a great deal of it rests with the new offensive coaching staff. 

Jimmie Dougherty, Jedd Fisch and Hank Fraley

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