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the Gekko Files: UCLA Bruins 2014 Preview

The second-to-last file in Gekko's cabinet zeroes in on this year's Pac 12 darling pick among the national pundits. Is this the year for Jim Mora and his UCLA Bruins?

Jim Mora is busy thinking over how he is going to meet that astronomical expectations around his program in 2014.
Jim Mora is busy thinking over how he is going to meet that astronomical expectations around his program in 2014.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It was six years ago that Rick Neuheisel famously proclaimed the football monopoly to be over.  Unfortunately, he was just a tad early with his proclomation and he now gets the pleasure of watching his rival, Jim Mora, deliver on that claim with the very players that Neuheisel himself recruited.

The Bruins have clearly established an edge over USC as "the Team" in Los Angeles.  Deservedly so.  They have the more charismatic coach, they have the better Quarterback, they are getting the high end recruits (at least to equal that of USC) and they are winning the head to head matchups.  They've also won the Pac 12 South two of the past three seasons (though 2011 they actually finished second to an ineligible USC team).  All of that has been great.  Yet, there is still something missing:  a Pac 12 Title.

Despite being the media darling pick in the Pac the last few years, the Bruins have been unable to turn Mora's charisma into a power that can compete with the Oregons and Standfords of the Pac.  Is 2014 the year that UCLA finally turns that corner?  With national expectations high up in the stratosphere, can Brett Hundley deliver the trophy in what is likely his swan song in Westwood.  What?  You don't know?

The Gekko knows.

2013 Recap - What I Said

I got hammered pretty hard for picking against UCLA last year, but my results weren't really that far off.  Here are the facts from last year's forecast.:

Predicted Div Finish 3rd
Actual Div Finish 2nd
Predicted P12 Record 5-4
Actual P12 Record 6-3

Here were some of my verbatims:

I actually expect Brett Hundley to take a step back in 2013. I don't come to this conclusion lightly...
...The truth is that this schedule is a beast for a young, inconsistent team...
...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

The Bruins season played out largely as I had portrayed it in my full Gekko File preview but for the two swing games going in the UCLA column that I had predicted to go the other:  @Nebraska and @USC.  Let's take a look at 2013 in its entirety.

The Bruins did a great job getting off of the block with a red-hot Brett Hundley steering a huge offensive output in their out-of-conference games versus Nevada, Nebraska and New Mexico State.  The schedule favored the Bruins to open up their Pac 12 play as they got to get their sea legs under them with warm ups against Utah and Cal - games that they easily won.  A 5-0 start at UCLA fans feeling good.

Their next two games were the murder's row @Stanford and @Oregon.  Unfortunately, the Bruins were not able to do much in either game as their offense was held to 24 total points across both games.  The matchups against the elite of the Pac 12 demonstrated the continued weakness of the Bruin offensive line and the hot/cold nature of their defensive unit.  The Oregon game was particularly interesting.  Last season when I previewed UCLA, I called them "the Huskies of the South" and, just like the Huskies, they took Oregon into the fourth quarter just to watch Marcus Mariota and friends hang 21 fourth quarter points on them.

UCLA got back on track with Colorado (much too close for comfort) and Arizona victories before that epic Friday night match-up against the Huskies.  Two early and uncharacteristic turnovers from Bishop Sankey and Austin-Seferian Jenkins turned into a quick UCLA lead would never get relinquished despite a brilliant debut by Husky QB Cyler Miles.  The magic ended the very next week as ASU would handily whip UCLA and effectively win the Pac 12 South.  The Bruins concluded their run with an emotional win over USC and a resounding Sun Bowl victory over a pretty bad Virginia Tech team that lost four of six to close their year.

In summing up the season for the Bruins, it was really a contrast of styles on offense and defense.  Offensively, the Bruins were #13 based on F/+ rankings.  However, that overall ranking was driven by a very high level of efficiency and a shockingly low ranking in overall explosiveness.  In short, outside of Brett Hundley, the Bruins lacked true playmaking on offense (last in the Pac 12 in plays over 40 yards).  By way of contrast, the Bruins D was very streaky.  They finished 23 overall in Defensive F/+ but were 69th in defensive efficiency.  Their ranking was driven by their prevention of explosive plays - #1 in the country (only 6 plays surrendered over 40 yards - tops in the Pac).  Some of that is luck (UCLA benefited from 82 penalties in favor), but a lot was turnover margin and a pretty decent pass defense.  Individually, Brett Hundley did slightly regress as I had predicted - particularly in total yardage and TD passes.  But his accuracy was exactly the same as 2012 and he continued to show an ability to make plays with his legs behind an offensive line that really did little to help him out.  Back to back years of this kind of play in that kind of situation established Hundley among the nation's elite quarterbacks and position him as a Heisman candidate going into 2014.

Previewing 2014: The Bruins

While the prospect of a young and talented defense finally turning the corner and becoming a top of the nation kind of unit is what has most experts particularly excited about the Bruins, this team is all about Brett Hundley and what he can do on offense.  Our preview begins with the offensive side of the ball.

I mentioned a moment ago that junior QB Brett Hundley enters this season viewed as one of the true superstar QBs in the nation.  Despite not having the kinds of numbers that Mariota or Sean Mannion have put up, a legitimate case can be built that Hundley is the best QB in the conference.  After all, he is literally the only proven playmaker on the offensive side of the ball.  He accounted for two-thirds of the Bruins offense a year ago and he did so behind an offensive line that let him get sacked 36 times (second highest in the Pac).  He threw for over 3000 yards and ran for nearly 1000 yards (sack adjusted).  That is some major production.

Unfortunately for Brett, he still has few established weapons to work with.  The graduation of Shaq Evans leaves him with a trio of junior receivers who have yet to fulfill their recruiting hype.  Somebody between Jordan Payton, Devin Lucien and Devin Fuller is going to have to step up and fill a void.  Payton is the one with the most "breakout potential" given Hundley's comfort level with him.  The key for him is to avoid taking mental timeouts.  Lucien has the most potential as a deep threat, but is plagued with the "dropsies" and inconsistency of his own.  One back up to watch is RS Fr Eldridge Massington, a speedster who many people are eager to see hit the field.  Soph TE Thomas Duarte also has shown a few signs that he may be able to contribute, though his limitations as a blocker make him more of a "Y" receiver in the Noel Mazzone offense.

The Bruins would love to see a workhorse back emerge out of a group that includes Paul Perkins, James Jones and Steve Manfro.  None of these guys were really able to break through the perception of being anything more than "servicable" last season.  Jones probably is the starter based on his abilities as a blocker and as a steady-not-sexy runner.  Perkins has more upside, but isn't as refined as Jones.  Manfro is a wild-card, but the smallest of the backs looks to be a clear third in the competition.  If none of these guys can really seize the job, don't think that Jim Mora will hesitate to turn to Myles Jack again (though he has repeatedly said that Jack is a LB) or give RS freshman Craig Lee a significant opportunity.

To this point, I've avoided talking about the O-Line, but we can't ignore it.  This is a unit that is very much like UW's in that many people expect it to do well in 2014 thanks to all of the returning experience.  There are 79 starts on the depth chart.  However, unlike UW, this unit hasn't really show an ability to even establish a consistent rushing attack, much less pass protection.  Some will argue that this line's production was somewhat hindered by Hundley's scrambling and poor RB play.  That could be.  If it is, then there is some reason for hope here because the talent is there.  The anchor of the line is C Jake Brendel, a Rimington Award watchlist candidate.  Along with Miami transfer OG Malcom Bunche and OG Alex Redmond, the middle of that Bruins line looks like where the strength lies.  Tackle looks to be a an area of question given their youth and the dismissal of 2-year starter LT Torian White last April.

Defensively, the Bruins will have to figure out how to replace key contributors in OLB Anthony Barr, DE Cassius Marsh and OLB Jordan Zumwalt.  I'm particularly interested in how the front seven comes together.  From a pass rush perspective, the losses of Barr, Marsh and DE Keenan Graham leaves UCLA with 21 sacks to replace.  This isn't to say that it cannot be done.  After all, there is a lot of talent there to draw upon.  Sophomore Eddie Vanderdoes and junior Ellis McCarthy are both very large men who are going to serve in that 3T role.  Vanderdoes is a future stud, but was very inconsistent as a freshman.  Senior Owa Odighizuwa is a stud athlete who has been held back by injuries but who absolutely must deliver the pass rush that the Bruins need.  Look for other young players like sophomore DE Kylie Fitts (editor's note: scratch Fitts. Looks like he is transferring), sophomore DT Kenny Clark and sophomore DT Eli Ankou to see lots of time on the field.  The talent is indisputable, but neither is the youth.

The Linebacking corps is anchored by one of the Pac 12's leading tacklers a year ago in ILB Eric Kendricks.  He's the ace UCLA's 3-4 scheme and one of the leading tacklers in the Pac from a year ago.  Injuries caused him to regress as a junior last season, but he's still a tackling machine.  He'll be joined by sophomore OLB Myles Jack as one of the two returning starters from a year ago.  Jack, who won Freshman Defensive Player of the Year over Colorado's Addison Gillam despite having some significant ups and downs, has all the potential in the world.  He only had one sack a year ago (to go with only 7 TFLs), so he has to really step up to replace the production lost in Anthony Barr.  I suspect the Bruins want to feature him on the strong side, but getting him more active in attacking the pass seems a natural given his elite athleticism.  Other competitors include the young but athletic OLB Kenny Orjioke (a potential pass rush breakout player) and sophomore ILB Isaac Savaiinaeo.  Again, the theme here is a lot of potential to go along with a lot of inexperience.

UCLA's best defensive unit is probably its secondary.  They return all of their starters including what I think may be the best safety duo in the Pac 12 with junior Randall Goforth and senior Anthony Jefferson.  CB Ishmael Adams was more than adequate as a sophomore last season when he recorded four interceptions and generally held his own against a tough crew of Pac 12 receivers.  His partner, sophomore CB Fabian Moreau has been talked up a lot by Mora this offseason.  As one of the best secondaries in the Pac, these guys are going to erase a bunch of the mistakes made by the youthful Bruins front seven and should be the engine behind what is a rising P12 defense.

Three Questions and a Comment: Greg Burcham, Bruins Nation

1. Are the Bruins a legit national title contender in 2014?

Yes, and it's not just the biased Bruin faithful saying it. Tim Brando of Fox Sports has the Bruins as his preseason #1. Phil Steele has the Bruins ranked #5 ahead of Oregon at #6. Early odds in Vegas have the Bruins favored in every game except Oregon so far. Most other pundits have UCLA and Oregon as the favorites to get to the Pac-12 Title game, so there are plenty of national media types who see the potential UCLA has this season.The biggest reason for the optimism is the return of their best roster in 25 years, led by QB Brett Hundley who had an outstanding year in 2013 and is an early Heisman contender in 2014. Besides Hundley, the Bruins return 4 of 5 offensive line starters, their top 2 running backs and several key receivers. The defense lost 3 key players in OLB Anthony Barr, MLB Jordan Zumwalt, and DL Cassius March to the NFL, but the roster should have enough to reasonably fill in the gaps. The Bruins probably don't have the depth of talent at the skill positions that teams like Florida State or Oklahoma or Oregon, so a lot will depend on the Bruins staying healthy, but if they can do that, the schedule sets up nicely. UCLA gets Oregon, Stanford, and Southern Cal at home. Certainly, everything needs to break right for the Bruins, as it does for any title contender, but the Bruins should be in the conversation of teams who could have a look at the National Title

2. Who is the best player that fans outside of Westwood have never heard of?

If a starting middle linebacker for 3 years can be an unknown, then it's senior MLB Eric Kendricks. Kendricks has been overshadowed by big names like Barr and Zumwalt for the last couple years, and by freshman phenom Myles Jack last year. But Kendricks has been the Bruins' leading tackler and at or near the top of the Pac-12 for the last 3 years and is the heart of the Bruins defense.. If Kendricks isn't obscure enough though, I'd offer up redshirt junior center Jake Brendel. Linemen don't get much run, but Brendel could be one of the top centers in the nation. He has started every game in his 2 years on the field, and is on the preseason Rimington Trophy watch list. In the Bruins high tempo offense where keeping in rhythm and keeping defenses off Hundley is key, Brendel has anchored the OL that has made UCLA one of the highest scoring offenses in the country.

3. UPSET ALERT - what one team on the Bruins's schedule has fans most worried?

Looking at the schedule, I worry the most about the game at Cal and the game at Washington. I worry about Cal because the Bruins just seem to go brain dead with every trip to Berkeley lately. If UCLA has serious designs on a big year, they have to take care of business against a Cal program that is down. The Huskies are a real threat, however. Seattle is such a great home field for UW. I also believe you have a great upgrade with Chris Petersen, and prepping for his team will be a brand new activity for Coach Mora and his staff. Not that it would be that big of a surprise, but since the odds currently favor the Bruins on November 8, and the Bruins have Southern Cal and Stanford the following two weeks, that is the potential upset that worries me the most.

The Bruins will beat out Oregon, Stanford and USC for the Pac 12 title because ...

... Brett Hundley returned for this season with one purpose - to win the conference, because the offensive line is the most experienced and most talented unit at that position the Bruins have had in memory, because Jim Mora has put his stamp on this program and established a culture that is focused on championships,
and because the the Bruins get all 3 of those teams at home in Pasadena.

Predicting 2014: The UCLA Bruins

I cannot recall a pre-season in the Pac 12 where a team that has achieved so (relatively speaking) little on the field is hyped so greatly on the national scene.  Welcome to your 2014 UCLA Bruins.  Early season plugs from pundits like Tim Brando and Phil Steele have fueled a national debate about Jim Mora's team and his QB Brett Hundley.  The Bruins are widely viewed by those in the media as a national title contender, although the oddsmakers in Vegas generally see UCLA as the fourth most likely team to win the Pac 12.

Even though it probably drives Jim Mora crazy to have expectations set so high for such a young team, I get the hype.  UCLA has been stocking up on talent in a pretty big way and Mora, given his last name and his stint in the NFL, is going to provide talk show fodder on a national level.  Given the fact that this team has beaten USC a couple of years in a row and that it has a super-exciting, super-charismatic quarterback, it is natural for the Bruins to draw the attention that they are receiving.  However, to really call this team a national title contender, you have to first conclude that they are a legitimate Pac 12 contender.  I'm not ready to do that.

Assessing them by position, this is not a complete football team.  It has the potential to be a complete team, but a lot has to come together that, heretofore, has not yet done so.  There are major questions as to where the running game is going to come from, where the pass rush is going to come from and how reliable the receiving corps can be.  There is also a dire need to see this middling offensive line really take a step forward.  I don't doubt Brett Hundley in any way - he is fabulous.  I'd take him over Mariota in a Pac 12 draft right now.  However, the supporting pieces aren't fully baked.  And this includes the defense which doesn't look like it will hit its prime (and, when it does, look out!) as an elite unit until Brett Hundley is throwing TD passes on Sundays.

Even if you assume that all this talent comes together and peaks early, you still have the natural disadvantage of the UCLA schedule.  It's not so much that this schedule is harder than it was a year ago - it clearly is not.  It is more the case that this schedule is harder than that of most of the rest of the Pac 12 South and is backloaded, to boot.  Two OOC road games, two of their first three Pac games against Oregon and ASU and then a killer 3-game stretch to close the season @UW, vs USC and vs Stanford make this a uniquely challenging schedule.  When you consider that USC misses both Washington and Oregon this season, it is hard to not see the significant disadvantage that UCLA has in 2014.

This is a very good Bruin team, but one with a lot of youth and one bearing some disadvantages that other teams do not.  Could they win the Pac 12 South?  Sure.  The South is a crazy division and we are already seeing signs of USC's injuries threatening their depth.  If they can get to the title game, anything can happen.  Is it probable?  I do not think so.  I see six wins on their Pac 12 schedule, though that number could range from four all the way up to seven depending on how good or not good teams like Arizona, Arizona State and Washington turn out to be.  Regardless, I think second place in the South is a fair expectation for what will likely be Brett Hundley's final season.