It's hard to be UCLA.
Seriously, I mean it.
Think about the circumstances. You've got an incredible university. You are located in not just a national hub, but a global nerve center. Your catchment area for recruiting athletes in just about any sport includes not just one of the richest densities of populace (the law of large numbers, and all that), but a geothermal climate that allows for yearlong training and competition in just about any sport not requiring ice skates. Oh, and did I mention the Undie Run? What? I didn't?
GTFOOH...I mean...get outta here.
With all of that going for the Bruins, it is inexplicable that UCLA hasn't had more success as a football program. It hasn't been bad, mind you. Just not stellar.
I kind of feel bad for them. In much the same way that one might feel bad for a Kardashian.
The biggest factor may well be the program located across town. UCLA has to share those unreal recruiting grounds with USC...the same USC program that over the past five seasons has endured a mini-death penalty, a tarmac firing of head coach Lane Kiffin, a revolt in the locker room over the treatment of the doltish Ed Orgeron, and of course, Sark-nado.
For whatever reason, UCLA just hasn't been able to reach its full potential. 2016 was another one of those seasons. Despite the loss of stud QB Brett Hundley, most UCLA fans thought that the Bruins were due for a big season. Their offense was stocked with playmakers like WR Jordan Payton and RB Paul Perkins, their offensive line was "experienced," and the defense was like an all-star team that featured NFL talents such as LB Myles Jack and DL Eddie Vanderdoes. It was supposed to happen.
But it didn't.
Humiliating losses conspired with uninspired wins to dampen the mood of the fanbase. The Bruins ended up going 5-4 in the PAC, much as I had expected. They closed on an awful note, dropping their final conference game to a completely discombobulated USC team and then getting thrashed by Mike Riley and his Nebraska Cornhuskers down in the Foster Farms Bowl. The offseason threw more shade on the Bruins as NFL rumors surrounded Jim Mora, as Mora's wife filed for divorce, and as six - SIX - underclassmen left the program for the NFL draft.
What does 2016 hold in store for a program that seems to keep taking gut punch after gut punch? Time to open the Gekko Files.
|Offensive Coordinator||Strengths||Weaknesses||Key Players||Newcomers to Watch|
|Kennedy Polamalu||QB Potential
Explosive Play Potential
|QB Josh Rosen
RB Soso Jamabo
LT Conor McDermott
|OL Jake Raulerson (txfr)
WR Theo Howard (TFr)
I normally like to start the research on these kinds of pieces by looking at the overall team stats - both traditional and advanced - from the year prior before I jump into looking at the talent that occupies each position group. Normally from looking at those stats, I can get a good feel for the unit's trajectory as they head into the current season.
When you I look at UCLA, I see in the numbers much of what you and I both saw with our eyeballs. A bunch of stars - Payton, Perkins, QB Josh Rosen, WR Thomas Duarte, and so on - but a relatively pedestrian performance overall. The scheme was good enough and produced "upper middle of the pack" overall numbers in both passing and rushing offense. But something wasn't "sharp" about any of it. Perhaps it was the hit or miss days that come with enduring a true freshman QB. Perhaps it was 0.0 turnover margin. Perhaps it was a pedestrian TD conversion % in the red zone.
Whatever it was, it led to the offseason dismissal of offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone and a mass exodus of underclassmen, many of whom would have benefited from another year of development. So, now, Jim Mora gets to hit the restart button.
The rebirth of the UCLA offense will officially be owned by phenom sophomore QB Josh Rosen. He is "the man" now that Jerry Neuheisel has left the program (he was before) and he will be directing every aspect of the new UCLA offense. When you watch Rosen play, he evokes images of Robert Redford in "The Natural." He just seems to get the game and he has all of the physical tools to execute it. If there is a red flag, it might be that he doesn't seem to have developed a sense of when or how to improvise when programmed situations break down.
Given the state of the UCLA offensive line, this could be problematic for the Bruins. After finally turning the corner and putting up a season to be proud of - their 18 sacks allowed were the fewest in the PAC - the UCLA line was ripped apart by having three starters go into the NFL draft. The good news is that the rebuild will start with accomplished LT Conor McDermott. Scott Quessenberry returns from a medical redshirt while Texas transfer Jake Raulerson is a viable candidate to step in right away. There are bodies here - many of whom have upperclassmen levels of experiene - but there are just as many questions. Not to mention the fact that the coaching under offensive line coach Adrian Klemm has been a question mark to Bruins fans from day 1. We'll see.
Junior Darren Andrews, with 49 catches, is the leading receiver returning to the club now that Duarte and Payton have left. He's a serviceable guy, but the future is now for some of the young UCLA talent. It's time for 6'4" 210-lb. junior Eldridge Massington to show that he can be a real #1 guy. In addition, big Alex Van Dyke is going to be counted on to move sticks and score some TDs. The real intriguing prospects are some of the inside guys like sophomore Austin Roberts and true freshman Theo Howard. These are the gamebreakers who need to make hay for Rosen and new OC Kennedy Polamalu.
Speaking of Polamalu, we know that he'll bring to the table more pro-style tendencies than "Bubble Screen" Mazzone. Fortunately, he's got himself a workhorse back to feed in his system. I'm convinced that Soso Jamabo is going to be mentioned with Christian McCaffrey as one of the best RBs in the conference by the end of the season. Sure, the man is a knucklehead of the highest order, but he exudes talent in all that he does. He's a powerful slasher who makes quick decisions to the hole and who has a frighteningly sudden burst through it. I'm not sure if he can be completely trusted not to fumble the ball and I don't think that he does much in the blocking game.However, he is a star back on a team that needs one. This isn't to say that he won't get competition from the underrated Nate Starks, but this is Soso's job to lose.
|Defensive Coordinator||Strengths||Weaknesses||Key Players||Newcomers to Watch|
|Tom Bradley||LB Depth
|Interior Line Depth
|LB Kenny Young
DT Eddie Vanderdoes
|LB Mique Juarez (TFr)
DL Boss Tagaloa (TFr)
We need to start our defensive preview with a look at the UCLA defensive line - a group that underperformed (again) its potential in 2015. While stud DT Kenny Clark is now off doing his thing in the NFL, the Bruins expect Eddie Vanderdoes to return from injury and help renovate a defensive interior that looks lackluster, at best. Vanderdoes has always been more hype than performance, but his physical skills are impossible to ignore. He has the kind of athleticism that Husky fans recognize in Elijah Qualls, but he may well be stronger. His challenge is to amp up his motor and to attack the line snap after snap.
The Bruins need Vanderdoes to be a big producer on a line that has bodies but no other A-listers within the interior. Fortunately, UCLA does have some talent to apply to the edges with the pass rush. Senior Takkarist McKinley is the top returning sack guy with 4.5 in 2015. He's a classic speed "tweener" guy who has steadily improved every year. He will get pushed by young Rick Wade - a versatile 255-lb. redshirt freshman whom UCLA fans are eager to see on the field.
UCLA might have some questions on the D-line, but they project well at the LB corps. The starting unit includes junior Kenny Young, senior Ike Savaiinaea, senior Deon Hollis, and senior Jayon Brown (assuming a 3-4 alignment). There is a lot of discipline in this group with Young and Brown, in particular, carrying on the UCLA tradition of being tackling machines. However, the group overall is a little light and can be muscled by bigger teams. It'll be interesting to see how the bevy of young talent - guys like true freshman Mique Juarez and redshirt frosh Keisean Lucien-South - get worked into the mix.
The secondary also looks solid for UCLA. While Ishmael Adams now owns the Ifo Ekpre-Olomu title of "most overrated corner in the PAC," he is surrounded by some excellent, experienced players. Senior Randall Goforth has really locked down the the safety position. Seniors Fabian Moreau (assuming healthy) and Marcus Rios are one of the best cover corner tandems in the PAC. Safety Jaleel Wadood is a versatile cover safety who can play nickel. For depth, UCLA rotates in two fine young corners in Nate Meadors and DeChaun Holiday. This is a good unit - as good as Washington's - and one that should be a strength for UCLA overall.
One Breakout Star
RB Soso Jamabo
A few people with whom I've spoken about it have expressed some reservations about Jamabo's role in Polamalu's pro-style offense. The argument is that Jamabo has always played in spread-style offenses where he has had both the time and the patience to pick the right reads. It was the same kind of scheme that he was recruited into at UCLA. Some don't believe that Jamabo will do well adjusting to a more scripted, pro-style attack and that junior Nate Starks may, in fact, be the better option.
Maybe. But I have to believe that talent trumps tactics most of the time. Talent is something that Jamabo is blessed with. At 6'3" and 205 lbs, Jamabo is a physical specimen. His game is all about smooth motion and no wasted effort. He has that Eric Dickerson look when he's running, almost as if he is gliding instead of grinding, but he hits his holes quickly and has the power to blow through tackles.
I think that Jamabo is going to blow up for UCLA this year and take a great deal of pressure off of Rosen to carry the team. If that happens, I can see Jamabo making a dark horse run at the PAC-12 POY title.
The Bruins should be in a position to compete for a South division title in 2016. They've been recruiting well under Jim Mora and much of that is starting to pay dividends. They possess one of if not the best QBs in the conference, they have playmakers on both sides of the ball, and they have depth to absorb attrition.
Like many UCLA fans, I've been burned by the false promises of Mora's Bruins in seasons past. There always seems to be more talent than performance with this team. Mora, I'm sure, recognizes the same thing and has allowed his coordinator positions to turn completely over because of it. If there were a red flag for me, it is the relative weakness -and I stress the word "relative" for my UCLA readers - of this team along both sides of the line of scrimmage. UCLA just looks more like a finesse team than what you'd ideally like to see in a division that features jumbo-sized teams like Utah and USC.
The schedule ought to help UCLA. Sure, they have a brutal out-of-conference lineup that features road games against Texas A&M and BYU. But they get five conference games at home this year. The four that they have all happen to come against teams that UCLA will likely be road favorites against. The fact that UCLA has a couple of weekends off in the second half of the season along with a final four game stretch that includes Colorado, Oregon State, USC, and Cal leads me to believe that there is a strong possibility that the Bruins will close on an upswing.
I'm thinking that UCLA looks like a 6- or 7-conference-win team. Their out-of-conference might be too difficult to allow for a double-digit win projection on the season, but I can definitely see UCLA duking it out with Utah for a chance to represent the South in the PAC-12 championship game.
The question is whether or not there is a "doh" game in there along the way. Not even the Gekko can project that.