A dual-threat QB who throws for high-percentage completion rates and is among the top 25 nationally in total yardage. A dominating, powerful RB who had big games against big opponents. A hot-and-cold Defense that would mix in spectacular plays with astonishing failures. A very young, but very talented offensive line that showed strength in the running game but exposed its young QB to far too many sacks over the course of the season. A young, young, young team complete with a few stars and a stable of 4-star prospects littered throughout the two-deeps. A brash head coach who oversaw a streaky season that saw a hot start, a cold spell, and another rally before dismal loss to Baylor in a bowl game.
Sounds like the 2011 Huskies doesn't it?
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the 2012 UCLA Bruins - literally, the Huskies of the P12 South. Going into 2013, the Bruins present an interesting mix of proven stars, unproven veterans, bright but untested youth and a coaching staff that won't be taking anybody by surprise. Let's open the Gekko File and see what we find (photographs excluded), shall we?
Gekko File Accountability - What I Said in 2012
While picking UCLA as my #3 team in the South last season, I said:
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...
I was tempted to call UCLA my #2 team in the South. In the end, 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.
Well, I was mostly right. The 2012 season, by any measure, was a huge step forward for a UCLA program that never was able to deliver the change in the LA market equilibrium that Rick Neuheisel had promised when he proclaimed the end to USC football hegemony.
The season started out on a something of a precarious note when the Bruins fanbase reacted in total disgust to the hiring of Jim Mora, Jr. as Rick Neuheisel's replacement. Nestor at Bruins Nation, who demanded the resignation of the UCLA AD at the time, wrote:
...Chianti Dan didn't have the courage to actually point to Mora's mediocre record to justify this BS hire.No one in LA's traditional media is mentioning how the guy has a pathetic record with just one winning season riding Michael Vick's talent. No one is mentioning how he was reviled by the fanbases of previous two teams he "coached".
Luckily, nobody seems to overreact to what Bruins Fans have to say in the heat of a moment and, as it turned out, Mora was able to get the team - a collection of stellar talent pieced together by the Weasel combined with some old school discipline installed by the new coaches - off to a great start. The first order of business was installing Brett Hundley in as the new QB to lead Noel Mazzone's balanced offensive attack. Hundley is a great talent that UW had targeted as a recruit the season before. Now a RS Freshman, Hundley took advantage of a strong rushing attack, led by the brilliant Jonathon Franklin, and a balanced passing attack that featured short, high percentage passes to big targets like Joseph Fauria and Shaquille Evans, in leading the Bruins to new heights offensively. The Bruins, in fact, would finish 2012 as the #24 team in the nation in Total Offense while Hundley would finish as the #23 player in the nation, and #2 in the P12, in player Total Offense. When combined with the huge contributions from Franklin, who had two +200 yard games and four others over 160 yards, it all added up to a 9-5 record and a second straight trip (this time legit) to the P12 Championship Game.
Despite the splashy aggregated stats, it was an up and down season from the get go. The season started off very well as the Bruins racked up 122 points in three non-conference games including a huge home win over Nebraska. The opening of the P12 schedule was not so kind as the Bruins lost to both Oregon St (a close one) and Cal (a blowout) while struggling ... kinda ... against Colorado. However, the Bruins rallied with five straight P12 wins, including a statement game against USC, before getting beat by Stanford in the season ender. The loss to Stanford, ironically, ensured that the Bruins would get a rematch with Stanford in the P12 Championship Game which they would go on to lose by a very narrow margin. The Holiday Bowl was a major letdown for the Bruins as they got stomped by Baylor and the #2 offense in the nation to the tune of 49-26.
2012 Rewind: UCLA vs UW
UCLA missed both UW and Oregon last season, on their way to a 6-3 regular season conference record.
Notwithstanding three straight losses to end 2012, UCLA enters 2013 with a lot of momentum and a lot of hope. Some of that hope is rooted in the accomplishment of the coaching staff. As noted earlier, just about nobody among the Bruins faithful believed that Mora and his well-conceived coaching staff (which included the likes of Noel Mazzone, DC Lou Spanos, Pass Game Coordinator Demetrice Martin, OLine Coach Adrian Klemm and, of course, Marques Tuiasosopo) could have success. Fast-forward a year and you will find a fanbase that sees this group as the best coaching staff in the nation. And, why not? Not only did this staff show that they had the skills and process to get the most of the talent that the previous regime had assembled, but it continues to show that it can be a factor in the relationship-driven world of recruiting. Bruins fans now recognize what many of had observed when this staff was first assembled: the UCLA coaching group is a great blend between disciplined, system-oriented coaching, creative schemers and young, enthusiastic recruiters.
Coaches aside, the true hope for this team lies in its brilliant young QB, Brett Hundley. No doubt, he had a brilliant 2012 campaign. But, not unlike Keith Price a year ago, Hundley soared to great heights on the backs of a strong running game, a series of high-percentage short passes to big receivers, and an affinity for big plays on QB scrambles. This year, he is going to have to take a significant step forward as many of the pieces he had last season are not in place. Gone are key playmakers in Franklin and Fauria. Shaq Evans returns as the only proven play-maker in the receiving game. The running game will be a by-committee anchored by unspectacular upper classmen Damien Thigpen (50 carries, 262 yards, 2 TDs in 2012) and Jordon James (57/193/2). The receiving corps, led by Evans, will be looking for new pieces to emerge. The mercurial Jordon Payton (remember his recruiting adventures?) will be counted on to pick up some slack as will the versatile and dangerous So WR/RB Steven Manfro. TE is a major question mark and a big hole considering the impact that Joseph Fauria had last year (45 catches / 620 yards). Young talents like Ian Taubler and Thomas Duarte are going to get shots to play as will QB turned receiver turned TE Darius Bell.
Regardless of what playmakers ultimately emerge, Hundley will also have to get better production out of young offensive line that, in all, protected him poorly in 2012. While Husky fans won't believe it, it is true that the Bruins were second to last in sacks allowed (52 - compared to UW's 38) in the P12. Only WSU was worse, but that stat is tempered by the fact that UCLA ran a much more balanced offense than WSU did. Despite being a "dual-threat", Hundley showed little ability to avoid pressure and was not very effective in plays that were designed to get the ball downfield in the air. According to SBNation's Bill Connelly, UCLA's passing-downs sack rate of 16% was worst in the nation. Just like Keith Price from a year ago, Hundley is going to have to improve in this area or a material setback in 2013 looms as a possibility. The UCLA O-Line, anchored by big G Xavier Su'a-Filo, has talent and hosts 67 career starts. However, it is still young - three starters are sophomores - and it lost its captain from a year ago in Jeff Baca. It will be prone to mistakes that Hundley is going to be solely responsible for erasing on the fly.
The Bruins defense is a work in progress that is sure to see highs and lows in 2013. The clear leader is Anthony Barr at LB. Barr, a senior, is considered a first round NFL talent and a player that should light up the stat sheets with his pass rushing abilities. He is complimented by the physically impressive Sr DE Cassius Marsh. Marsh was second to Barr in sacks for the Bruins last year and creates a lot of matchup problems for offenvise line coaches around the conference to contend with. Despite the presence of these two studs, the Bruins will have several holes to fill. A devastating ACL injury to 300 lb NT Brandon Tuliaupupu and a serious hip injury to Sr DE Owamagbe Odighizuwa - reported by some parties as season ending - is surely a blow to Lou Spanos. The lack of depth at LB beyond Barr and Eric Kendricks will create opportunities for young players, including Bellevue's Myles Jack. The secondary, which was among the poorest in the P12 last season, lost all four starters and will be looking to rebuild around some young talent like So CB Randall Goforth and SS Anthony Jefferson. The return of S Dietrich Riley, after a season lost to neck injury, also provides some hope for the Bruins. UCLA averaged 28 points surrendered per game last year and were 8th in the P12 in total defense - despite having the best Punter / Kickoff Specialist in the league last year (Jeff Locke averaged 43 yards per punt and a fair catch rate of nearly 50% while also delivering a kickoff touchback rate of over 76%). The young talent is going to have to really materialize if the Bruins intend to take a step forward in 2013.
- UCLA returns just 13 starters from a year ago including their FG only kicker. This is the second lowest total in the P12 in 2013 - one player more than Utah if you count kickers (equal if you don't).
- Anthony Barr was a total surprise breakout player in 2012 with 21.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. Why? It turns out that Jim Mora isn't blowing smoke when he says he wants to emphasize defense first. Considered one of the best athletes in the nation when he was recruited, Barr served as both a big receiver and a power running back under the Weasel. In two seasons, he had 15 rushes, 12 receptions and 2 TDs for UCLA. When Mora arrived, he didn't hesitate to switch the 245 lb man-child from offense to defense and the rest, as they say, is history
- The biggest loss from last season's team will easily be DE Datone Jones. A huge DE at 283 lbs, Jones was both a run-stopper and pass-rusher who made plays for himself and his teammates. Jones was drafted #26 overall by the Green Bay Packers.
- Brett Hundley, recognizing the need to be more robust in the pocket, went on an offseason quest to add weight to his frame. He enters 2013 17 lbs heavier at 227 lbs.
- The Bruins had three other players drafted. RB Jonathon Franklin went in the fourth to the Packers while the Vikings drafted both OG Jeff Baca in the fifth and P Jeff Locke in the sixth.
- If you are a recruitnik, one of the most interesting stories of the year involved uber DT recruit, Eddie Vanderdoes. Vanderdoes flirted with a number of teams to the bitter end of the cycle before opting for Notre Dame. Last month, Vanderdoes changed his mind and told Notre Dame that he was backing out of his Letter of Intent to play for them and switching to UCLA. ND, as most schools do, refused to let him out of his NLI (Brian Kelly said that he needed to "hold players accountable" just like he was held accountable in paying a $1 million buyout to Cincinnati when he left to join the Irish) which means, basically, that Vanderdoes will have to sit out this season AND lose a year of eligibility. Fortunately, his eligibility for 2014 comes just in time to step in for 2013 Sr. NT Seali'i Epenesa.
- Not counting Vanderdoes, the Bruins signed 23 players in their 2012 class and were considered by many as the top recruiting class in the P12. Key players for them were DE Kylie Fitts (that was a fun one) and the nations top dual threat QB in Asiantii Woulard.
- Red Zone receiving is going to be a big issues for UCLA in 2013. The graduated Joseph Fauria led the team in TD receptions in 2012 with 12. The next closest player was Shaq Evans with three. Look for Red Zone Efficiency, where UCLA finished fourth in 2012, to be a key stat for UCLA this year.
- The Bruins D was expected to be a little more stable in 2013 before the dismissal of S Tevin McDonald for "violation of team rules". McDonald has since transferred to EWU where he will play this year with Jr. eligibility.
- For fans of the big uglies, one interesting player for the Bruins is C Jake Brendel. Jake has started every college game he has ever played in.
2013 Prediction: The UCLA Bruins
I'm picking UCLA to finish third in the P12 South in 2013 and to not match the 9 win season that they had a year ago. This is a bit against the grain compared to the expectations of a third straight P12 Championship game that many analysts and reporters have documented. My rationale centers around two areas - player turnover and schedule.
On the player turnover front, I actually expect Brett Hundley to take a step back in 2013. I don't come to this conclusion lightly. Brett had a wonderful 2012 and certainly earned his status as, perhaps, the highest ceilinged young QB in the P12. However, I'm not not sure Brett can compensate for all that is changing around him in 2013. The loss of Jeff Baca on an already inconsistent offensive line is a key factor. The lack of an elite RB corps are going to make his zone-read keeps more difficult to pull off. The fact that he will no longer be taking people by surprise is an issue. And, perhaps most significantly, the pressure on him to make more plays down-field after a season that saw him rely heavily on dinks and dunks is bound to create more turnovers and sacks. This problem is accentuated by the fact that there are no proven, red-zone eating, third-down converting receivers in his ranks. Layer in the losses of big time contributors like Fauria, Datone Jones and Jeff Locke and, well, you have a lot of player turnover gaps that will take time for all of the young rising talent in the program to fill.
The schedule is an even bigger factor. Last year, the Bruins missed both Oregon and Washington. This year they miss Washington State and Oregon State. Last year, they played five home conference games. This year, they play four. Last year, they played Nebraska in the Rose Bowl. This year, they play Nebraska in Lincoln. Last year, they played Stanford, twice, back to back with one of those games at home. This year, they play Oregon and Stanford, back to back, with BOTH of those games on the road (ouch). The truth is that this schedule is a beast for a young, inconsistent team. To equal their 9 wins of last year, they'd have to win all of their home games (including vs Washington), they'd have to win two on the road against the likes of Utah, Stanford, Oregon, USC, and 'Zona, and they'd have to upset Nebraska in Lincoln.
I don't see any of it.
The 2013 UCLA Bruins are a dangerous team that nobody is going to want to play, but one that is going to struggle to win on the road and to overcome the lapses of execution that are often associated with youth. Call this a 7 to 8 win team and a 3rd place finisher in the P12 South.