Jon Hays or Travis Wilson? We won't know until Saturday for sure, but all indications are pointing in the direction of Travis Wilson as the starter. Wilson still looks a bit scared out there, but increased reps in practice this week will help. He did move the ball well against USC's backups, but Wilson still has that dear in the headlights look. Against a UCLA team that is going to blitz and send Anthony Barr and Damien Holmes at the QB again and again, someone that is more comfortable in the pocket has to be the pick. That's what I'm surprised that Hays isn't the definitive starter for Saturday.
Wilson does bring skills to the table that Hays doesn't have though. He's a better runner, a bigger arm, and better size. If Wilson can get off to a quick start and the offensive line can keep him off his back, the true freshman's confidence will skyrocket and Brian Johnson will be able to open up the playbook a bit more.
Welcome back Devonte Christopher. Stay awhile. Christopher had his best game of the year last week against USC and needs to build on it. The offense, specifically the passing game, is much more dynamic when he's involved. If Christopher plays like he did last week, and Kenneth Scott gets more chances, especially against the UCLA corners that tend to let receivers get behind them, Utah could have a lot of success down the field. Scott has been a monster when the balls goes his way. Brian Johnson needs to throw the ball his way more often. Good things happen every time they do. Dres Anderson is the son of former UCLA great Flipper Anderson and has plenty of speed. The Utes haven't used him a ton down the field this year, but he has the ability to stretch the defense. Other Utes receiver that could make an impact are Anthony Denham and Reggie Dunn, although Utah fans may mutiny if Dunn takes another handoff this year.
UCLA has a lot of talent in the secondary, but it still isn't coming together. Senior corners Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester have had issues with deep balls and pass interference calls throughout the year. Price does have 4 picks on the year and the UCLA defense has 10 overall. Hester is the master of being out of position. He take more bad angles on quick throws than any starting corner in the history of college football. Safety Andrew Abbott is built more like a corner, and has can slide over there if necessary. He has two picks on the year and is the most consistent player in the secondary. Sophomore Tevin McDonald is the younger brother of USC standout TJ McDonald and could eventually end up being the best of the two brothers.
The Bruins play the short passes fairly well, which plays into the hands of what Utah does offensively with their short out routes they run over and over again. If Utah wants to beat UCLA, they're going to need to be more aggressive and take shots down the field against a defense that hasn't proved it can stop the deep ball yet this year.
Utah Running Backs and Tight Ends vs UCLA Linebackers
John White looked better last week, but it's clear that he's not yet 100%. It's imperative that Utah get White going, run the clock, and keep their defense off the field and rested. A lot of that falls on the offensive line. How they go, is how White has gone this season. Backing up White is Kelvin York who has looked good the last two weeks as the power back to White's shiftiness and speed. The reality is that Utah needs White to be the back that he was last season. If he breaks 100 yards, they win. If he doesn't they lose.
It's really going to be up to UCLA's inside linebackers to keep White under 100 yards, who despite what the depth chart says, will probably be Erik Kendricks and Jordan Zumwalt, while Anthony Barr and Damien Holmes line up as outside linebackers.
Barr leads the team in sacks with 7 and is more effective rushing the passer than in stopping the run. He's a beast coming off of the edge and has tons of speed and athleticism, enough that could make him an NFL first rounder eventually. Barr is a blast to watch track down running backs from behind as well. He's the UCLA equivalent to Star Lotulelei in terms of pure entertainment. Kendricks is a quality linebacker who leads the team in tackles. He's always around the ball. Zumwalt will likely be back at middle linebacker this week, a spot that he played as a true freshman and was most effective. He's a big kid, with a good football mind, and is a big hitter. Damien Holmes is listed as a starting inside linebacker, but should end up outside, where he too has been most effective, including a 3 sacks and 5 tackles for loss in one game against Colorado a few weeks ago. He'll use his patented spin move to try to get past Utah blockers and into the backfield in pursuit of White and whatever quarterback is under center.
Running backs have had mixed success against UCLA's run defense this year. The Bruins are difficult to watch in that they follow up a 2 yard tackle for loss with an 18 yard run or some variation of that time and time again. Tons of big plays mixed in with tons of big plays given up. There isn't much in between.
The Utah tight end use continues to fluctuate from game to game. Jake Muprhy is tied for the tea lead in receptions with 15, along with 2 touchdowns, while David Rolf, Westlee Tonga, and Dallin Rogers have chipped in a combined 10 catches. Utah is at its most successful when the tight ends are a big part of the offense.
Utah Offensive Line vs UCLA Defensive Line
Things are looking up in Ute land for their linemen. The offensive line was much better against USC, not allowing any sacks, and looking much more comfortable with Hays working out of the shotgun. The shotgun formation allows him to get the ball out quicker, which is helping mask the deficiencies of the line. Utah has seemed to find their group after weeks and weeks of mixing things up on the line. The left side is still the stronger side with Sam Brenner and Jeremiah Tofaeono, while Miles Mason and true freshman Jeremiah Poutasi are still coming together as a unit on the right side. Center Tevita Stevens may have had his most complete game last week against USC. How they handle the UCLA pressure could me the most important factor in this game. Utah has had a ton of issues keeping quarterbacks safe, while opening holes up for the running game, although things see to be moving in the right direction.
UCLA runs a 3-4 and has three pretty good ones on the line. Datone Jones is the best of the group. He's not the fastest guy, but is technically sound, is very strong, and plays both the run and pass well above average. UCLA fans have been waiting for him to break out for years and he's having his best season to date with 3 sacks and 10 tackles for loss while being UCLA's most disruptive lineman. In the middle is Seali'I Epenesa, who looks much bigger than his 6-1, 310 frame shows. Epenesa eats up blockers and takes up a bunch of space, but does have a tendency to work himself out of plays sometimes, which often allows opposing running games to exploit the middle of the line. Next to them is Cassius Marsh, a former defensive tackle who moved outside in the new scheme. He started the season off slowly, but has been UCLA's best defensive lineman over the past two weeks. The defensive line features a lot of depth and highly regarded recruits that are pushing to see the field. Donovan Carter, Owamagbe Odigizuhuwa, Ellis McCarthy, and Brandon Willis should all see the field.
UCLA QBs and Wide Receivers vs Utah Defensive Backs
Brett Hundley introduced himself to the world against Rice with a 70+ yard touchdown run on his first collegiate play. Since then, he's look nothing like a freshman, at least until he ran into Cal last week when he threw 4 interceptions. Most of those picks were due to poor decisions and forced throws. Hundley is a dual-threat guy, but is going to do most of his damage through the air as evidenced by his 287 yards per game and 13 touchdowns so far. He's still learning and isn't the world's most accurate passer yet, but throws a great ball on 8-12 yard routes, and can tuck it and run when the pocket collapses. If Hundley is on and has time to throw, this one is over.
UCLA lost their most dynamic receiver a few weeks ago in Devin Lucien to an injury. He wasn't be targeted a lot, but when he was, Lucien made big plays. Shaq Evans is the team's leading receiver, having hauled in 24 catches for 322 yards. The transfer from Notre Dame is a next level type of receiver that has plenty of speed and good size. He's very similar in ability to Devonte Christopher.
Steven Manfro is a running back turned receiver. He's not very big, but Manfro is shifty and has good speed. He was shutout in the catch department last week, but was the team's leading receiver before that. UCLA will use him in a varirty of different ways from bubble screens to deep throws down the field.
UCLA's receiving corps goes pretty deep with 8 different players having hauled in 10 or more passes on the year. By contrast, Utah has only 3 such players with 10 or more receptions.
We've come to the realization that Utah has one cornerback that they can count on right now in Ryan Lacy. Lacy has easily been the Utes' most consistent cover guy. He's still only grabbed one pick on the season, but has generally matched up with the other team's best receiver for most of the season.
Moe Lee and Reggie Topps have looked outclassed at times and far from Pac 12 quality corners. With UCLA using 3 and 4 receiver sets (which often have a running back split out as one of the receivers) for much of the game, both will be on the field a lot.
Brian Blechen and Eric Rowe will again be at the safety spots for Utah. Blechen has struggled since returning from suspension against speedy teams in Arizona State and USC. UCLA has as much speed on offense as either of those teams and Blechen could be in for another long day. He's been a step behind on multiple deep balls, and has missed on a lot of tackles where you just see him flying through the air and whiffing completely. Don't be surprised if he sneaks up into the box a lot to help the linebackers, or makes the jump to full time linebacker against UCLA to get more speed to that position. Rowe had a great game against the Bruins last season and has the speed to match up with what UCLA does offensively. He'll need to patrol the middle and help on the deep balls that will surely be coming to Evans and Manfro, as well as the 15 yarders down the middle to Fauria.
The corners and safeties are going to have to do a much better job of taking advantage of any errant passes by Hundley, and actually bring them in for an interception. 2 interceptions as a team, and with only one of them being credited to a DB, is inexcusable, especially considering the 10 or so drops we've seen this year. The secondary has to be more opportunistic in forcing turnovers than they've been so far to hang with the Bruins.
UCLA Running Backs and Tight End vs Utah Linebackers
Who's actually going to start for Utah at linebacker? Who the hell knows anymore. Whoever it is, the'll have their hands full with running back Jonathan Franklin who has rushed for over 800 yards in his first six games, including 2 200 yard games, and 5 100 yard performances to date. He's second on the UCLA all-time rushing list and should break the record in the next few weeks. He's probably the best and most complete back Utah will face this season. Franklin hits the hole quickly, so the Utah line needs to fill those gaps. Jordan James and Damien Thigpen are speedsters that UCLA uses in many different roles. Both catch the ball well and their presence will keep the Utah defense guessing.
Then it will be on the linebackers to make plays. Reshawn Hooker or Jacoby Hale will get the start alongside LT Filiaga and Reilly. Whether or not those are the linebackers that Utah sticks with throughout the game, but Jason Whittingham, and VJ Fehoko should see reps as well.
Utah had issues stoppin the run to the right side of their defense last week against USC. Much of that ended up being on Reshawn Hooker who was pushed back time and time again against the Trojans. He's on the field to add speed and athleticism, but his overall size isn't at a Pac 12 level for a linebacker. Taking on a block from a guy like Xavier Su'a-Filo and then trying to tackle a strong runner in Franklin looks like more than he can handle right now.
UCLA Offensive Line vs Utah Defensive Line
If there's an area where Utah has a big advantage, it's with their defensive line matching up with UCLA's young offensive line. Offensive tackles Torian White and Simon Goines. Are both freshman, with Goines a true freshman. They've had a tough couple of weeks recently, and the Cal game was a disaster with White being beat repeatedly. Goines has had his ups and downs as well. Throw in redshirt freshman Jake Brendel, who is the starting center, and UCLA's line could be in for a long day against Star Lotulelei and company. Anchoring the line are two veterans in Jeff Baca and Xavier Su'a-Filo at the guard spot. Baca has played pretty much every spot on the line in his career and Su'a-Filo might be the best guard in the conference. He's a big reason for the success UCLA has had in the run game.
Star was a man amongst boys last week against USC in the first quarter, putting up one of the most dominant 15 minute stretches you'll ever see out of a defensive lineman. With UCLA's freshmen tackles. Utah needs to be able to get pressure. That falls on Joe Kruger, who is expected back this week, Nate Fakahafua, and Trevor Reilly. The sack totals out of the defensive ends has been disappointing this season, but with two freshman tackles to take on, the Utes need to be able to exploit the Bruin youth.