The Gekko File on the Pac 12 South continues with a tour of this year's projected #3 finisher UCLA. While it is still hard for most of us to digest the notion that UCLA was the first Pac 12 South representative to play in a Pac 12 Championship Game (yes, that really happened), the truth of the matter is that there are some pieces to work with down there in Westwood. The campus is nice. The girls are plenty hot enough. There is a big beach. Oh, and they have a few decent football players.
More Gekko File on the UCLA Bruins, after the jump.
UCLA finished 2011 with a 6-8 overall record, but a winning 5-4 record in the Pac 12 South. Thanks to the USC penalties and an epic choke job by the Utah Utes, this was good enough to send UCLA to the inaugural Pac 12 Championship Game where they got throttled by Oregon in what turned out to be the last game of the Rick Neuheisel era. It was an odd, surreal situation since the fate of Slick Rick was already known in advance of the game and the result of the game still was viewed as an epic failure. In fact, the season was marked by a number of epic failures including the championship game, the opening loss to Houston at home, a 29 point whipping by a not-very-good Texas team, a loss to Illinois in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, and, most significantly, a 50-0 thrashing at the hands of USC in the regular season finale.
The struggles of the QB position and the inconsistencies among the WR crew were the ultimate undoing of the 2011 Bruins season. Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut effectively split the QB duties throughout the season while one-time UW recruit, Brett Hundley, sat out his redshirt season. Neither Price or Brehaut were able to stay healthy for more than a few games at a time and it led to an endless rotation of QBs throughout the season. Prince ended up taking about 2x the snaps of Brehaut despite never really beating him out. His muted production of 55% completion percentage plus 12 TDs plus 8 INTs wasn't nearly enough for the Bruins, who had come into the season with aspirations of utilizing Prince's dual threat skill set by rolling out a new Pistol attack. The Bruins finished the season 9th in Total Offense and 10th in Scoring Offense.
The Defense wasn't much better. While showing some decent defensive secondary play, UCLA was completely over-matched on the defensive line. In fact, they recorded just 13 sacks over their 14 game season - a horrible less than one sack per game average. Combine this with a nearly 50% third down conversion surrendered rate, and you had an overall toxic mix on the defense.
Despite the horrible stats, UCLA did enough at times to position themselves to win games they needed to win and, let's face it, they did enough to be positioned as "#2" and to qualify for the Pac 12 Championship Game. When they did win, it was because they were able to establish their running game behind slashing style of Jonathon Franklin, the pounding style of Derrick Coleman and the deception of Kevin Prince. It was also in those games where the potential of breakout WR Nelson Rosario and stud TE Joseph Fauria shone the brightest. Their most impressive stretch came during a two game homestand where they throttled Cal and squeaked by a ranked ASU team, effectively positioning themselves as a Pac 12 South contender. While things would not be that good again for the rest of the season, we all saw a glimpse of what UCLA could be with the talent that they had and those two games, in particular, become the basis for how we look at the 2012 edition of this team.
2011 Rewind: Arizona @ UW
UW and UCLA did not play in 2011. Pity.
2012 will not look anything like 2011 for the UCLA Bruins. New Head Coach has not only overhauled the coaching staff, he has overhauled the culture. This was never more evident than when he blew up the UCLA "Ditch Tradition". The UCLA team that we will see in 2012 will be the antithesis of a soft, undisciplined, loose Slick Rick club. This team will be built upon the foundation of its running game and the strengths that the team has on the offensive line, in the running back corps and at TE. All tolled up, UCLA returns 14 starters and their punter.
The greatest change you will see in 2012 is the impact that new OC Noel Mazzone will have on the overall offense. Mazzone joins UCLA from ASU. Mazzone is a true aerial wizard in the spirit of Don Coryell, LaVell Edwards, Mike Martz and Mike Leach. Mazzone has twice coached QBs to record setting passing efficiency records in the NCAA and his work with Philip Rivers is well known. Mazzone is expected to work magic with either Brehaut or Brett Hundley as his starting QB in 2012. While Rosario has graduated, Mazzone has Fauria, Devin Lucien, Richy Marvray, Shaquille Evans and Franklin returning at key skill positions. In addition, the UCLA offensive line, particularly the left side, will be a strength featuring Jeff Baca and the return of Xavier S'ua-Filo from a Mormon mission despite the loss Sr C Kai Maiava.
Defensively, UCLA should make strides. They've recruited well under Neuheisel and return key contributors in S Tevin McDonald, LB Patrick Larimore and DE Datone Jones. The new DC is a Lou Spanos who comes from the NFL with visions of a 3-4 scheme in mind. Spanos has no college coaching experience, which is a definite red flag, but he does have 15 years experience with the Pittsburgh Steelers which, let's face it, is a very credible qualification. The new 3-4 scheme should feature the pass-rush abilities of Jones and introduce more opportunities for young talent including breakout candidates Cassius Marsh and Owamagbe Odighizuwa. While I expect some learning curve in the X's and O's from the coach and the maturation of the young players, this unit should be an up and coming one for the Bruins.
- There are lots of connections between UCLA and UW, not the least of which is Jim Mora, himself. Marques Tuiasosopo, Demetrice Martin and Eric Yarber are all staffers with UCLA who have obvious UW backgrounds.
- S Deitrich Riley had neck surgery and is expected to miss 2012.
- Trevin McDonald is the son of former NFL all-pro Tim McDonald. Trevin's brother, Tim McDonald, Jr., is an All-American at USC.
- Mora has already started a very public process of cleaning house and has already dismissed DB Randall Carroll and TE Raymond Nelson. Mora has said that he expects other incumbents to "not make the final roster"
- Despite being brand new to the college scene, Jim Mora had quite the haul in his first ever recruiting class netting four ESPN150 prospects including uber-recruit, 305 lb DT Ellis McCarthy. Expect McCarthy to play as a true frosh
- The son of Rich Neuheisel, Jerry Neuheisel, is still on the UCLA roster as a back up quarterback
- In spite of having some talented players eligible, in particular Rosario and Maiava, no Bruins were drafted in the 2012 NFL Draft
- The son of Puff Daddy/P-Diddy/Sean Combs, Justin Combs, earned a scholarship offer from the Bruins. This, apparently, is controversial. Please.
- For some interesting entertainment, go google something called the UCLA undie run. I recommend having safe search "on". It is interesting to note that there is very little running and even less undies.
While there is definitely uncertainty associated with a brand new head coach - particularly one that has never coached in college, I can't help but to think something is brewing in Westwood. For all the grief Neuheisel took, he recruited some pretty good talent. Hundley looks like a stellar talent at QB. The running game featuring Franklin, backup Stephen Manfro, and the left side of the O-Line looks solid. Fauria, coming off a 480 yard, 6 TD season looks like a stud. We all know what Noel Mazzone can do. Even the Defensive side of the ball looks like it is slightly to much better than its 2011 comparison.
What really intrigues me is how the schedule lays out for UCLA. They open on the road at Rice - winnable - and then get Houston and Nebraska in the Rose Bowl. Their Pac 12 slate features winnable road games at Colorado, ASU, Cal and WSU. It is not outside the realm of possibility for the Bruins to go undefeated on the road this year. They close the season with two home games: USC and Stanford. They miss Oregon and Washington this year - a huge break for them.
The key game in all of this is a home tilt against Utah in the middle of the season. Win this one and UCLA is the legit #2 contender in the South. Lose it and and they surrender the advantage to Utah.
I was tempted to call UCLA my #2 team in the South. In the end, I like the stability of Utah a little bit more and I expect UCLA to experience some bumps in the road with the new coaching staff. Thus, I'm going to call it a seven win season ... maybe eight ... and a solid first step for the newly remodeled UCLA Bruins.