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the Gekko Files: previewing UCLA football in 2017

Jim Mora is in do-or-die mode as UCLA rebounds from an embarrassing 2016

UCLA v Arizona State
Jim Mora was 4-8 in 2016.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

By going 4-8 overall and 2-7 in the PAC 12 in 2016, Jim Mora did what every UCLA fan out there thought would not soon be seen again: he equaled the worst season that Rick Neuheisel ever posted as the Bruins’ head coach.

That Neuheisel got one more season to show that his 2010 season was more a fluke than a reversion to the Karl Dorrell days is the reason that this feels to me a “show me” kind of season for Mora in his tenure as the head coach at UCLA.

If you are an optimist, there are plenty of reasons to believe. After all, there isn’t really a talent deficit in Westwood. Any reasonably objective assessment, in fact, would lead one to believe that there is an abundance of such talent to build upon.

On the surface, the entirety of the failure of 2016 seems to be tied up in an impossibly bad rushing attack - UCLA was second-worst in the nation at 2.93 yards per rush. Even adjusting for what most analysts thought was a below-average offensive line, that kind of putrid rushing output was a shock.

But was the rushing attack the whole story for UCLA in 2016? If it is, a bounceback seems likely.

There are those that would argue more issues are percolating under the glossy surface of those powder blue uniforms. Could that be the case? If so, is there more trouble afoot in Westwood?

The Gekko is donning his shades as he casts his gaze towards the sun ‘n fun happening down at UCLA. Careful, this preview is about to get hot.

UCLA’s offense

UCLA Offensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
RB depth OL depth RB Soso Jamabo TE Devin Asiasi (txfr)
playmaking potential QB question mark TE Caleb Wilson QB Wilton Speight (txfr)
Chip Kelly WR Theo Howard WR Brian Addison (TFr)

It is easy to start with the argument that 2017 has to be better than 2016 due to the return of QB Josh Rosen. There is merit to that point of view.

Steve Clarkson's 13th Annual Quarterback Retreat
QB Josh Rosen looks to be back in full for UCLA.
Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

At his best, Rosen is not just a difference-maker for UCLA; he’s one of the best QBs in the nation. The junior shows good fundamentals, a cannon for an arm, and an ability to deliver a catchable ball in a variety of situations. But his won-loss record over two seasons is just 11-8 and falls to a pedestrian 6-7 when you look only at PAC 12 games (though, to be fair, Rosen has been in some legit OOC games including Texas A&M, BYU twice, and Virginia). It is a perfectly legitimate question to wonder why his talent isn’t translating into more success for his team.

Some of this might be Rosen. There are questions about his maturity and his commitment to the job of being UCLA’s starting QB. If this was once a factor, there does seem to be truth to the observation that Rosen enters 2017 reinvigorated under the leadership of new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, formerly of Michigan.

The bigger issue might be an offensive line that should be a lot better than what it is. The good news for the Bruins is that eight offensive linemen with starting experience return in 2017. If Jedd Fisch can transport some of that Harbaugh-esque nastiness into this group - a unit that features some talented stock with guys like OG Poasi Moala, OG/C Scott Quessenberry, and OT Kenny Lacy - we might just see an uptick in both run and pass protection. I like that there are some highly rated young players like OG Andre James and OG Josh Wariboko-Alali ready to compete. This could be a good-news situation for UCLA.

If that line comes together, the running game could explode. Nate Starks and Soso Jamabo were supremely disappointing a year ago, but nobody really disputes the underlying talent. Both players are game-breaking talents who could well be viewed as the most talented rushing one-two punch in the PAC. Add fan-favorite Bolu Olorunfunmi to this mix and this group looks unstoppable. However, we said this a year ago and, well, it was. Consider this a group that we’ll be waiting-and-seeing on in 2017.

The receiver corps, including tight ends, also boasts some talent. The top two receivers from a year ago, Darren Andrews and Jordan Lasley, bring nearly 100 catches and 9 TDs between them into the service of Rosen. In addition, talented speedster Theo Howard looks poised to break out as a true home run threat. In the perfect world, it would be good to see a big receiver emerge to complement what Lasley brings to the table, but Eldridge Massington (who returns) hasn’t shown up as that guy. Incoming freshman Jimmy Jaggers may get a shot to serve that role.

All told, it is hard to imagine that UCLA can’t get the offensive ship righted. All of the pieces are there.

UCLA’s defense

UCLA Defensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
returning talent middle line depth S Adarius Pickett ILB Tyree Thompson (Txfr)
pass rush potential rush defense overall DE/OLB Jaelan Phillips DL Moses Robinson-Carr (RFr)
leadership OLB Kesian Lucier-South DB Stephan Blaylock (TFr)

The UCLA defense had one of those seasons where their relative success went mostly unnoticed due to the severe failings of other aspects of the program. But, all in all, the Bruins put together a pretty good résumé a year ago.

Kenny Young is the main man in the middle of the UCLA defense.
Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

The biggest aspect of that success that translates into 2017 is the play of the secondary. The Bruins were particularly effective in defending big plays a year ago. They were first in the PAC in giving up only 26 pass plays over 20 yards and were the only team in the conference not to surrender a play of over 50 yards.

It is true that UCLA needs to replace four of their most productive DBs. However, the stock to work with is high quality. S Adarius Pickett is a solid piece to start with and is complemented by fellow star S Jaleel Wadood and starting CB Nate Meadors. In addition, there is some bright, young talent ready to break out. I’ll be keying on a couple of true freshman in Darnay Holmes and Jaylan Shaw when fall camp opens.

The linebacking corps is in relatively good shape despite losing Jayon Brown, yet another in a string of tackling machines to grace Westwood over the last several years. Senior Kenny Young is a force in the middle of the unit. He might be the only sure thing, but there are so many good players competing for playing time that you have to expect the position group to work out. Junior OLB Josh Woods, sophomore OLB Dechaun Holiday, sophomore OLB Krys Barnes, and sophomore MLB Lokeni Toailoa are all really good players. On top of that, former 5-star phenom Mique Juarez - a guy who got sideways with his entire team as a true freshman - seems to be back in good graces and is working for a shot at some playing time.

Most UCLA fans won’t agree with me, but I’m most concerned about the defensive line. Senior Jacob Tuioti-Mariner (yes, he’s a senior) is the anchor of the unit, which to me is a bit of a yellow flag. Along with senior DT Matt Dickerson, the rest of the line rotation will likely be filled out by talented but young players like DT Boss Tagaloa, DE Keisean Lucier-South, and DE Ricky Wade. In addition, five-star DE Jaelen Phillips and fellow true freshman DT Greg Phillips arrive just in time to give the unit a boost. This is a talented but inexperienced line that I think will require some time to gel.

One Breakout Player

Theo Howard, WR

There are many players to choose from, but I’m a little gun-shy after having predicted a year ago that not only would Soso Jamabo break out for UCLA but go on to be the PAC 12 offensive player of the year.

That prediction was about as good as my eighties prognostication on the star power of Nelson.

While I’d love to repeat my mistake of highlighting a high-talent, high-drama kind of guy like Jamabo or Juarez, I just can’t go there. Instead, I’m going to turn my attention to another part of the roster. Keep your eye on WR Theo Howard in 2017. His playmaking ability isn’t exactly a secret to PAC 12 coordinators. The 6’0” 180-lb speedster got some run a year ago, but only found pay dirt one time last year. I expect him to be used more fully as both a receiver and rusher in 2017. He’s UCLA’s version of John Ross and I can’t imagine Jedd Fisch won’t make it a point to get three to five plays per game run his way. If that happens, look for some highlight-reel plays and six to eight TDs on the season.

Projecting UCLA in 2017

UCLA’s schedule looks to me to be a difficult one. Their out-of-conference features a winnable game against Texas A&M and a tougher-than-you-think road trip to Memphis.

Their in-conference is a five-road-game year. Those are always a disadvantage, but turn out okay if the schedule provides for all winnable games at home and at least two road-favorite situations. This is the case for UCLA in 2017 as their toughest games - Washington, USC, and Stanford - are all on the road. The other two road games - Arizona and Utah - are 50/50 or better. That complements a home schedule where Oregon is the toughest test. Their misses are two opponents that they match up well against - OSU and WSU.

So, what to do with that? Whenever I do these forecasts, I try to project the team I’m reviewing relative to everything else happening in the conference around them. It is therefore possible for me to like a team and what it is doing but to still harbor some pessimism about what the season ahead might hold for them.

With UCLA, I find myself somewhat conflicted. On paper, I think this is a good-looking team that can compete with USC and Utah for South. They have talent at all the position groups and shouldn’t suffer from a lack of depth. Their schedule is not-great/not-bad. This should be a good year for UCLA.

I felt this same way a year ago, though, and look what happened. Once bitten, twice shy? Maybe. But I’ll go out on a limb anyhow and project this as a bounce-back year for a team that ought to win five (or more) in conference and get back to the post-season. If they catch a few breaks from other teams in the South race, UCLA may well be in the chase for a division championship in November.