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the Gekko Files: UCLA Bruins 2015 Preview

The Bruins might be the best team in the Pac 12 in 2015. Or they might not.

Former Husky Jim Mora is fielding in 2015 what may be his best team during his time at UCLA.
Former Husky Jim Mora is fielding in 2015 what may be his best team during his time at UCLA.
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

UCLA has this coach.  He used to be a Husky ... and a Seattle Seahawk.  Many fans yearn for him.  But others said that he was too much of a hothead to succeed as a college coach.  As it turns out, he's pretty good.

His name is Jim Mora.

For the past three seasons, Jim Mora has delivered on his predecessor's promise to end the football monopoly in LA.  But for all his success, he hasn't yet broken the bigger Pac 12 duopoly currently shared between Oregon and Stanford.  2015 could be a watershed year for UCLA as they sport what might be their best team yet.  Could this be the time?  Can a new QB paired with a talented and experienced team bring new found glory to Westwood?

I know that there are a few Husky fans who are still weepy about the fact that Jim Mora is not coaching at Washington.  If you are one of them, please turn away now.  We are about to dive in deep into the UCLA Bruins as only the Gekko knows how.

2014 Recap - What I Said

Predicted Div Finish 2nd
Actual Div Finish 2nd
Predicted P12 Record 6-3
Actual P12 Record 6-3

Here were some of my verbatims:

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....

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....

This is a very good Bruin team, but one with a lot of youth and one bearing some disadvantages that other teams do not..

Nailed it!

If you recall what the college football chatter was all about in the 2014 preseason, it centered on the UCLA Bruins and how they were supposedly going to be a darkhorse candidate for the National Championship.  National pundits like Tim Brando loved the pairing of talk-show darling Jim Mora and his uber-talented QB Brett Hundley.  Add to the mix the charismatic defending Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year in Myles Jack and you had a story that was both glitzy (duh, LA) and easy for a national audience to digest.

The real Bruins team was something more closely resembling what we wrote about in last year's Gekko Files.  The real Bruins team featured a stud QB, a breakout RB, an underperforming offensive line and a middling defensive team.  The most bipolar of any Pac 12 teams, the Bruins demonstrated their paradoxical tendencies in several ways.  It started with their three underwhelming games in their out of conference schedule (all wins against Virginia, Memphis and Texas).  It concluded with a Pac 12 schedule that featured some first-pumpers (a 35 point demolition of ASU and a dominating win over USC) along with some head-scratchers (a 2OT win hosting Colorado and a throttling at the hands of Stanford).

Along the way, UCLA's personality really sparkled.  Let's just say that if UCLA were a diva, neither Beyonce or Mariah Carey would hold a stick.  Am I right Jeff Ulbrich?

As expected, 2014 concluded with UCLA looking more the bridesmaid and less the bride.  QB Brett Hundley took his talents to Green Bay just as Jeff Ulbrich took his temper to the Atlanta Falcons.  As Jim Mora continued to have success on the recruiting trail, questions started popping up relative to his yearning to return to the League.  Mix in a recruiting controversy regarding offensive line coach Adrian Klemm and you have the kind of drama that the Real Housewives of Orange County could only dream about.

With this almost certainly the last year of Myles Jack (and possibly Jim Mora) in Westwood, the question on the minds of Bruins fans everywhere is whether or not UCLA can make a championship run in 2015.  Let's dig in.

Previewing 2015: The UCLA Bruins

The Offense
Offensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Noel Mazzone RB Play
OL Experience
QB Experience
Pass Blocking
RB Paul Perkins
WR Jordan Payton
OL Jake Brendel

TE Chris Clark
QB Josh Rosen

Is there more glory like this in the future for junior Jerry Neuheisel or will true freshman Josh Rosen be the new QB in Westwood?

2015 is the year that UCLA finally gets the offense it has been building up to all these years.  The offensive line has grown in stature and experience.  The rushing attack features a bona fide workhorse with depth behind him.  The passing attack has size and a little bit of speed.  The quarterback ....  Whoops.  I forgot about the QB.

When Brett Hundley decided to forgo his senior year so that he could be selected far too late in the NFL draft, he took with him the hopes and dreams of UCLA fans everywhere.  Had he stayed, he'd be captaining an offense that would project as one of the best units in all of the PAC and would rival Oregon in terms of preseason hype.

But this is not that offense.  Outside of QB, the skill positions are well-stocked.  A receiving corps led by senior Jordan Payton and complemented by senior Thomas Duarte, sophomore Eldridge Massington and true freshman stud TE/Y receiver Chris Clark make up one of the better units in the PAC.  The rushing attack is anchored by the Pac 12's leading rusher from a year ago - Paul Perkins - and is backed up by able bodies such as Nate Starks and Craig Lee.  True freshman Soso Jamabo, one of the highest rated recruits in the country, seems to have overcome his legal issues stemming from a prom night police chase in Texas and could be a major X-factor for the Bruins in 2015.

The Bruins offensive line is a question mark.  This unit has been stocked with top shelf talent for the last few seasons, but has consistently underperformed.  In fact, over his career, Brett Hundley was sacked 128 times, including 40 a year ago.  That is worse than WSU (125) over that same time horizon.  This is the year, however, that this line is finally "old" - they boast the most returning starts of any unit in the nation - and they project as a strength.  Despite their struggles in pass blocking, this unit did produce the PAC's leading rusher and was the only unit besides Oregon to pave the way for a 200+ yard per game average.  This unit will boast all upperclammen starters, including high-talent anchors in C Jake Brendel and OG Alex Redmond.  Their Tackles, Simon Goines and Conor McDermott are both experienced and I would expect that we finally see at least mediocre pass-pro from those two guys this year.

The big unknown is the QB situation.  Quite frankly, UCLA has one of the two or three worst QB situations in the PAC.  With Hundley gone and backup Asantii Woulard transferring to USF, there are only two candidates for the job.  Junior Jerry Neuheisel is the sentimental favorite given his loyalty to UCLA following the firing of his father as the head football coach and his Rudy-like moment in leading UCLA to victory over Texas last season.  As heady and scrappy and Neuheisel is, he lacks the physical tools to be a plus contributor at the position.  The odds-on favorite, therefore, is the top QB recruit in the nation from a year ago in Josh Rosen.  Big, strong and technically sound, Rosen does have the tools.  He simply lacks experience.  There are few examples where true freshmen have excelled at QB in PAC 12 history.  Thus, it is hard to bet good money on Rosen having success right off the bat.

The Defense
Defensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Tom Bradley Team Athleticism
LB Depth
Secondary Play
Pass Rush
DL Experience
LB Myles Jack
CB Fabian Moreau
DL Eddie Vanderdoes
LB Keisean Lucier-South
CB Dechaun Holiday

Prepare for the Myles Jack hype machine to kick into full gear as the Junior LB enters his last season at UCLA.

I alluded to the fact that nobody does drama quite like UCLA.  So, when a defensive coordinator leaves, why not make his replacement just as dramatic?  Tom Bradley replaces Jeff Ulbrich as the Bruins DC in 2015.  He comes over from West Virginia where he was the associate head coach in addition to running the defense.  While his stats with the Mountaineers were not overly impressive, he is widely credited with running some particularly salty defenses during his time working with Joe Paterno at Penn State.

Yup.  That's right.  Bradley was at Penn State...with JoePa...and Jerry Sandusky.

I'm not going to play the game of "guilt by association".  It's not a fair thing to do.  I'm going to presume that UCLA did its due diligence and decided that there were no issues in turning the reigns over to Bradley.  What he does from here is strictly a matter of how good a coordinator he really is.  The defensive unit that he is inheriting is pretty good themselves.

The Bruins D boasts 8 returning starters from a unit that was one of only three in the PAC to give up less than 400 yards of offense to opponents per game last year (Utah and Stanford being the others).  The strength of this unit - and I think it is going to be pretty good overall - is the linebacking corps.  With the loss of MLB Eric Kendricks and the addition of Bradley as DC, look for the Bruins to convert to more of a 4-3 scheme this season.  All-everything linebacker Myles Jack will shift from the outside to an ILB role which should be more of a natural fit given his versatility and his strengths as a cover guy.  He will most likely be paired with talented sophomore Kenny Young on one side and junior Deon Hollis on the other.  Hollis is my breakout candidate to watch for the Bruins.  He finished last season with 9 sacks overall, six of those coming in UCLA's last four games.

Myles Jack

Myles Jack doesn't just tackle linebackers. He likes to crush other students when he can.

The secondary boasts a lot of depth and some pretty good front-line starters.  CB Fabian Moreau is probably the best of the bunch and has one corner slot locked up while last year's starter, Ishmael Adams, is in a fight with junior Marcus Rios on the other side.  Safety may be a bit of a weak spot if oft-injured senior Randal Goforth can't return to form or if Jaleel Wadood doesn't break out.  Beyond the front-line, UCLA boasts great depth thanks to a couple of years of stellar secondary recruiting under former Husky assistant Demetrice Martin.  Incoming freshman Dechaun Holiday may very well see the field this year.

If you are looking for a reason to doubt UCLA, focus on the D-Line.  I know that most Bruins fans think that this is a strength.  However, they lost their best two pieces in Owa Odighizuwa and Ellis McCarthy from a unit that was inconsistent at best a year ago.  The two big names that everybody will be watching are DT Kenneth Clark and junior DT/DE Eddie Vanderdoes.  Both of those guys have flashed brilliance at times, but also frustrating inconsistency.  Of course, they are both younger players with a lot of upside to grow into.  Beyond that, things get a little more murky.  There isn't a clear line of sight to the other two starting positions (assuming a pure 4-3 is installed) but there is a good bet that redshirt freshman Jacob Tuioti-Mariner takes one end position.  Depth is a concern here as UCLA hasn't recruited the D-Line as well as other positions in the last few years.  While I like this unit against the run, I expect the Bruins to struggle generating a consistent pass rush without the aid of frequent blitzing.

Three Questions and a Comment: Greg Burcham, Editor,  Bruins Nation

1. The biggest story for UCLA in 2015 is moving on from the Brett Hundley era. How does UCLA football look different in 2015?

The good news for UCLA is that 17 of 22 starters are returning from a 10-3 team, so the core of both the defense and offense should be very solid, although the Bruins did lose a few really great players to graduation.

The QB spot is really the only unknown and is going to be one huge question mark, not just because it's the most important position on the field, and not just because the Bruins have to replace one of their greatest QBs in history, but because the Bruins are (probably) going to try to fill it with a true freshman. Josh Rosen was the top QB recruit in the country, but it's going to be a lot to ask for a true freshman to fill Brett Hundley's shoes. On the good side, Rosen ran a very similar offense in high school and he graduated HS early and enrolled at UCLA in January, so he's had lots of time and experience to get up to speed with the Bruins playbook. He also appears to be a more talented passer than Hundley. The question will be how he handles the speed and pressure of the game at this level. As a result, I expect the Bruins to rely more on the run game, especially early in the year. Returning RB Paul Perkins led the conference with 1,575 yards last year and should give the offense some reliability and consistency without having to count on Rosen to throw the ball a lot early, giving the freshman some time to adjust to the college game and to avoid some of the problems with the Bruins pass protection in recent years.

2.  The Bruins offensive line has been underperforming to its talent levels for the past few years, but looks like a pretty solid unit going into fall. What should Pac 12 fans expect to see out of Mora's big uglies?

Aside from the freshman quarterback, this is actually the biggest issue for the team in my mind. As I noted above, the offensive line produced the top rusher in the conference last year. It also allowed a conference worst 41 sacks, including a whopping 10 against Utah in a last minute loss that ultimately proved the difference between a Pac-12 title game appearance for UCLA and an Alamo Bowl as an also-ran.

OL coach Adrian Klemm is an ace recruiter, but it's clear the O Line has underachieved relative to its talent under his direction, and it's raising a lot of questions around Westwood. On the good side, the Bruins return the deepest and healthiest O Line in Mora's tenure and for well more than the last decade that I can tell. The group has 131 starts among its returning players, the most in the nation.

The Bruins return 2 true tackles in Conor McDermott and Simon Goines, plus Caleb Benenoch who played tackle much of the last 2 years, and all three should be ready to go this fall. Junior guard Alex Redmond is a 2 yr starter and was a freshman All American and Hon Ment All Pac-12 player last year. Redshirt senior center Jake Brendel is a 3 year starter who is on the Rimington Watch list for the second year. His experience and leadership at the QB position on the line will be vital. If the line can keep Rosen reasonably clean and comfortable to allow him to be just a solid QB to begin the year, then things will be fine. If the line is poorly prepared and vulnerable to stunts and blitzes coming from different places yet again, then it's going to be a real struggle for Rosen and the entire offense.

3. A lot of UW fans may not have a full comprehension of the rivalry that exists between UCLA and USC. Could you talk a little about your own experiences with that rivalry and what it has meant to UCLA fans to mount the current win-streak?

UCLA vs Southern Cal doesn't get the same press as rivalries like Alabama-Auburn or Ohio St-Michigan, but we know the West Coast is always runner up in the national limelight, and I think the cross town LA rivalry has every bit the history and hatred as those others. The schools are just 14 miles apart but couldn't be more different. UCLA is the public University and the SC is the expensive private school. UCLA mocks USC for its academics. USC mocks UCLA for not being rich. The programs compete for the same top recruits and the opposing players know each other well. Football is the big one, of course, but the two sides compete in 19 different sports so the hatred is renewed every few weeks in something. Neighbors, friends, coworkers, and families are divided in their loyalties to either school. Things get pretty nasty between the two sides, and bragging rights get thrown right in everyone's face every day, whether it's at work, around town, or right in the home, so a year's worth of peace and happiness is on the line whenever the teams meet.

Now in all honesty, the visible intensity of the football rivalry has waned in the last couple decades, and I think there are a couple of reasons for that. First, the rivalry got very one sided for long periods of time. The Bruins ran off 8 wins in a row in the 90's while SC's program struggled, then USC ran off 7 in a row and 12 out of 13 (though two were vacated for cheating) while UCLA tanked. Rivalries are understandably more intense when both schools are playing well and the fans are in a good optimistic mood to begin with. I also think the advent of the BCS, and now the CFP, has hurt regional rivalries.

The one player that UCLA can least afford to lose to an unfortunate event this season is ...

...starting C Jake Brendel.  He is our best offensive lineman and the director of the line. The play of the line, particularly in pass protection, will determine the Bruins fate this year. We know they can open holes for the run game, but that was with a dual threat like Hundley in the pocket keeping defenses honest. Now the Bruins will need to have a legit passing threat with a true freshman QB to keep defenses from stacking the box against the run. That means the line is going to have to give Rosen plenty of time to develop a comfort level in the pocket and generate a passing attack that defenses must respect, and that's not going to happen if the Bruins allow sacks and QB pressures the way they have the last three seasons.

To emphasize the point, go back to the Virgina game last year.  With Brendel injured, the Bruins offense scored just 7 points and needed 3 defensive touchdowns to eke out a 28-21 win over a 21 point underdog. If Brendel stays healthy and has another All Pac-12 type of year, the Bruins have a chance to make a run at the Pac-12 South and beyond. (knocking on wood...)

Predicting 2015: The Bruins

This should be, without a doubt, the best Bruins team that we've seen in Westwood over the last 20 years.  They've got depth at most position groups, they have a stable rushing attack, they have an experienced offensive line and they have a bevy of young playmakers, at least a few of whom are bound to break out.  If Brett Hundley were still in Blue, these guys would be not just my dark horse pick to make a run at Oregon, but my favorite to win the whole PAC 12.

But Brett Hundley isn't here.  A true freshman who we have no data on is most likely going to take the helm of the offense.  Whether we are talking about Arizon's 3-3-5, or ASU's rabid blitzing or Stanford's enormous front 7 or USC's smothering back 7, he's going to see something that he's never seen before in every single game he plays.  There are a lot of reasons to like the future of UCLA with Josh Rosen at QB, but there are just as many to doubt 2015 with Josh Rosen at QB.

It's not like he's the only question mark.  We've discussed the inconsistencies on that UCLA offensive line.  Returning starts are a great indicator, but our own UW proved last year, when they were third in the nation in returning starts, how misleading that can be.  In addition, I'm not as convinced that there is capable depth on that UCLA defensive line - particularly when it comes to generating a pass rush with four guys.

If there is one nice break for UCLA with a new QB, it is the schedule.  By my assessment, it might be one of the two or three most team-friendly of all P12 schedules this season.  This is mostly because they miss both Oregon and Washington.  It is, unfortunately, only a four home-game conference schedule and they do play three of their last four on the road.  However, two of those games are OSU and WSU which should help ease the burden a little bit.

Despite the conveniences on the schedule, I don't like how things shape up with a true freshman QB behind a line not known for pass protection.  UCLA showed last year that while they can definitely get up for a game emotionally, they have a tendency to not be technically sound in how they execute.  That team last year got away with a lot of free-lancing.  I don't see it as quite so easy to replicate that this year.

To me, UCLA projects as a 5 or 6 win team in-conference.  They should be competitive all throughout the season, but I see them making too many mistakes and dropping a few close ones along the way.  I'm looking at them competing with ASU for that second or third spot in the South in 2015.  In the end, I expect UCLA fans will be frustrated with this outcome and not too incredulous as Jim Mora looks at opportunities in the NFL.