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1. A hell of a debut
Remember when, upon hiring Rick Neuheisel, UCLA took out an ad in the L.A. Times proclaiming that, "The football monopoly in Los Angeles is officially over"? Remember how Neuheisel went 21-30 in four seasons and was fired? Remember how fans reacted when Neuheisel was replaced by Jim Mora, Jr.? Hell, remember how I reacted? Things always turn out exactly how we think they will, don't we?
I wrote that last year, right before UCLA went out and beat USC, 38-28 (its first win over USC by double digits since 1998), to claim the Pac-12 South title.
UCLA was incredibly up and down in 2012. Despite winning nine games and looking absolutely awesome at times, and despite coming within three points of stealing the Pac-12 title from Stanford on the Cardinal's home field, the Bruins also got whipped by California and Baylor and finished just 35th in the F/+ rankings. They were all over the map in 2012, inconsistent in both the inexperienced and just-damn-unstable varieties. The offense was inefficient on the ground, the quarterback took too many sacks, the offensive line was average at best, and the defense struggled versus the pass and was an outright sieve in the red zone.
Jim Mora, Jr., still has some work to do, in other words. But of course he does.
Remember where UCLA was before Mora took over? The Bruins ranked 79th or worse in three of Rick Neuheisel's four seasons in charge; they were 52nd in Off. F/+ and 99th in Def. F/+ in 2011. They had finished with one winning record in five years, and that one winning record was 7-6. UCLA was frustrating at times, but it's hard to deem Mora's first season in Westwood anything other than a colossal success. The team surged on the field, and Mora seems to be shoring up some of last year's weaknesses with steady recruiting. UCLA beat USC, reached the conference title game for the second straight year (and actually earned it this time, as opposed to 2011, when USC was banned from the postseason and everybody else in the South stunk), and won at least nine games for the first time in seven years.
Typically a team regresses a bit in the year following a major surge in the rankings, but with recruiting and better experience, UCLA has at least a shot of bucking that normal progression. Can the Bruins maintain their monopoly on conference title game bids?
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 9-5 | Adj. Record: 9-5 | Final F/+ Rk: 35|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|30-Aug||at Rice||49-24||W||46.7 - 23.2||W|
|8-Sep||Nebraska||36-30||W||42.3 - 25.8||W|
|15-Sep||Houston||37-6||W||31.6 - 15.5||W|
|22-Sep||Oregon State||20-27||L||33.5 - 29.6||W|
|29-Sep||at Colorado||42-14||W||22.1 - 27.4||L|
|6-Oct||at California||17-43||L||20.8 - 38.6||L|
|13-Oct||Utah||21-14||W||27.1 - 28.4||L|
|27-Oct||at Arizona State||45-43||W||46.3 - 27.4||W|
|3-Nov||Arizona||66-10||W||37.8 - 10.4||W|
|10-Nov||at Washington State||44-36||W||28.0 - 39.3||L|
|17-Nov||USC||38-28||W||30.8 - 30.8||W|
|24-Nov||Stanford||17-35||L||26.4 - 25.4||W|
|30-Nov||vs. Stanford||24-27||L||42.9 - 23.0||W|
|27-Dec||vs. Baylor||26-49||L||15.0 - 26.3||L|
|Points Per Game||34.4||31||27.6||58|
|Adj. Points Per Game||32.2||37||26.5||52|
2. Will the real UCLA please stand up?
A new coach can sometimes benefit from the element of surprise. Opponents cannot scout you when they don't really know what you are going to do, and for the first month of the 2012 season, UCLA took full advantage. Mora inherited a roster that was both underachieving and athletic, made some relatively risky moves (starting a redshirt freshman at quarterback, moving a receiver to starting outside linebacker), and watched them pay off handsomely. And then he watched things fall apart and come back together again.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 4 games): UCLA 38.5, Opponent 23.5 (plus-13.0)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 3 games): Opponent 31.5, UCLA 23.3 (minus-6.2)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 6 games): UCLA 35.4, Opponent 26.1 (plus-9.3)
A super-thin defense wavered then rallied, and three tremendous offensive performances -- 486 yards and 45 points in a win over Arizona State that eventually made the difference in the division race, 611 yards and 66 points versus Arizona, and 461 yards and 24 points against a wonderful Stanford defense -- both won the Pac-12 South for the Bruins and nearly landed a Rose Bowl bid. Aside from running back and defensive back, the Bruins were young almost everywhere, and it showed in general inconsistency.
The story was ruined a bit by a poor ending versus Baylor, but the ending doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. If UCLA really is the team that it suggested it could be in September and November, the Bruins could do some damage in 2013.
|Q1 Rk||9||1st Down Rk||24|
|Q2 Rk||47||2nd Down Rk||20|
|Q3 Rk||83||3rd Down Rk||89|
3. Balanced balance
With a backfield of quarterback Brett Hundley and running back Johnathan Franklin, UCLA certainly could have been excused for trying to run and run and run and run last year; but it didn't. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone utilized every weapon he had, used every inch of the field, gave his young quarterback some easy throws to make, and achieved nearly perfect balance, no matter how you define it, in 2012. UCLA was almost equally successful running (40th in Rushing S&P+) and throwing (32nd in Passing S&P+), and its run-pass splits almost exactly mirrored the national averages.
UCLA's pass ratings were almost certainly aided by the threat of Franklin in the backfield -- he had some absolutely ridiculous games in 2012 (214 yards versus Rice, 217 versus Nebraska, 164 versus Arizona State, 162 versus Arizona, 171 versus USC, 194 versus Stanford the second time) -- but now that Franklin is gone, the frequency with which UCLA passed last year could help the Bruins quite a bit. Hundley and Shaquelle Evans developed a nice rapport last year, though Hundley will have to find a new red-zone threat with the departure of Joseph Fauria. The receiving corps is awfully young after Evans, but lord knows there is potential here; there are seven former four-star recruits in the unit.
Meanwhile, it's not as if the running game is guaranteed to fall apart. Franklin was special, but Jordon James and Damien Thigpen were at least average, and redshirt freshman Paul Perkins could work into the mix. Still, there might be more talent out wide than in the backfield this time around. And Mazzone will likely attempt perfect balance again.
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Brett Hundley||6'3, 227||So.||**** (5.9)||318||478||3,740||66.5%||29||11||52||9.8%||6.5|
|T.J. Millweard||6'3, 218||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Jerry Neuheisel||6'1, 191||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Asiantii Woulard||6'3, 205||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
4. Throw the ball, Brett
For most of 2012, Hundley looked the part of a talented dual-threat quarterback. His 6.1 highlight yards per opportunity proved his explosiveness on the ground, and his 67 percent completion rate (on mostly easy passes, yes) showed his potential for efficiency through the air.
But he lived up to the dual-threat stereotype in his inability to avoid sacks, as well. One of every 10 Hundley pass attempts ended in a sack; that sack rate is about twice as high as it should be. That UCLA still ranked 15th in Passing Success Rate+ tells us how efficient the Bruins were when Hundley actually got the ball off, but sacks are just so incredibly damaging to a drive. Throw the ball away, Brett.
(And yes, some more help in blitz pickup wouldn't be a bad thing; UCLA's passing-downs sack rate of 16.2 percent was 124th, dead last, in the country.)
Brett Hundley. Jayne Kamin-Oncea, US Presswire.
|Brett Hundley||QB||6'3, 227||So.||**** (5.9)||108||666||6.2||6.1||9||+10.2|
|Jordon James||RB||5'9, 193||Jr.||**** (5.9)||57||193||3.4||2.6||2||-8.5|
|Damien Thigpen||RB||5'8, 180||Sr.||**** (5.8)||50||262||5.2||4.9||2||+1.7|
|Melvin Emesibe||RB||5'9, 191||So.||NR||16||40||2.5||0.8||1||-3.2|
|Steven Manfro||WR-F||5'9, 193||So.||** (5.4)||8||70||8.8||4.4||2||+3.8|
|Malcolm Jones||RB||6'0, 220||Sr.||**** (5.9)|
|Paul Perkins||RB||5'10, 198||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Shaquelle Evans||WR-Z||6'1, 211||Sr.||**** (5.9)||91||60||877||65.9%||9.6||19.8%||68.1%||9.3||100.7|
|Steven Manfro||WR-F||5'9, 193||So.||** (5.4)||44||28||287||63.6%||6.5||9.6%||59.1%||6.5||33.0|
|Jordon James||RB||5'9, 193||Jr.||**** (5.9)||35||25||176||71.4%||5.0||7.6%||71.4%||5.2||20.2|
|Jordan Payton||WR-Z||6'1, 210||So.||**** (5.9)||26||18||202||69.2%||7.8||5.7%||57.7%||7.7||23.2|
|Devin Fuller||WR-F||5'11, 194||So.||**** (6.0)||22||20||145||90.9%||6.6||4.8%||45.5%||6.1||16.7|
|Damien Thigpen||WR-F||5'8, 180||Sr.||**** (5.8)||21||18||211||85.7%||10.0||4.6%||57.1%||10.1||24.2|
|Devin Lucien||WR||6'0, 192||So.||**** (5.8)||12||10||188||83.3%||15.7||2.6%||66.7%||14.9||21.6|
|Kenneth Walker||WR-F||5'9, 175||So.||*** (5.7)||10||7||39||70.0%||3.9||2.2%||50.0%||3.7||4.5|
|Darius Bell||TE||5'11, 216||Sr.||*** (5.5)||9||7||143||77.8%||15.9||2.0%||44.4%||15.3||16.4|
|Tyler Scott||WR-X||6'2, 205||So.||NR|
|Ian Taubler||TE||6'4, 252||So.||*** (5.6)|
|Thomas Duarte||TE||6'3, 225||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Eldridge Massington||WR||6'3, 205||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Xavier Su'a-Filo||LG||6'3, 304||Jr.||**** (6.0)||14 career starts; 2012 1st All-Pac-12|
|Jeff Baca||RG||45 career starts; 2012 2nd All-Pac-12|
|Torian White||LT||6'5, 282||So.||*** (5.6)||14 career starts|
|Jake Brendel||C||6'4, 276||So.||*** (5.6)||14 career starts|
|Simon Goines||RT||6'6, 320||So.||*** (5.7)||13 career starts|
|Alberto Cid||RG||6'2, 325||Sr.||** (5.2)||8 career starts|
|Brett Downey||RT||2 career starts|
|Alexandru Ceachir||RG||6'5, 302||Jr.||*** (5.6)|
|Kody Innes||C||6'3, 275||Jr.||**** (5.8)|
|Christian Morris||LT||6'6, 293||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|Caleb Benenoch||LG||6'5, 321||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Poasi Moala||RT||6'5, 270||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Lacy Westbrook||OL||6'4, 320||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|John Lopez||OL||6'6, 315||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Kenny Lacy||OL||6'6, 270||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
5. The reinforcements arrive up front
Hundley attempted 38 passes and eight rushes per game. Mazzone and Mora put an incredible amount of responsibility on the redshirt freshman, and it paid off quite a bit.
It could have paid off even more if the line weren't both green and held together with chicken wire and duct tape. The UCLA line was perilously thin in 2012 and started three freshmen (of either the true or redshirt variety) and a sophomore.
The line was brilliant at creating opportunities for Franklin, Hundley, and company, but it suffered quite a few breakdowns as well. Not only was Hundley sacked an incredible 52 times (including once every 6.3 passing-downs pass attempts), but opponents made run stops behind the line 21 percent of the time as well. Once a runner got past the line, great things tended to happen, but line breakdowns led to quite a few passing downs (which often led to third-and-long sacks).
This year, the reinforcements arrive. They are young, of course, but six four-star freshmen will be in uniform to spell six returnees with starting experience (77 career starts). All-conference guard Xavier Su'a-Filo is great, and even though relying on true freshmen up front is a dicey proposition, the depth here is possibly better than it was last year, and it will only get better in 2014 and beyond.
|Q1 Rk||32||1st Down Rk||43|
|Q2 Rk||47||2nd Down Rk||52|
|Q3 Rk||18||3rd Down Rk||25|
6. UCLA toed the line with injuries and depth
Only four linemen and four linebackers logged even 15.0 tackles in 2012. The front seven of Lou Spanos' 3-4 defense came together incredibly well -- much better than should have been expected, really -- but the Bruins were a little bit lucky, too, in escaping any major injuries (the nature of luck was then made apparent by expected 2013 starting defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa's possible season-ending injury). There was some luck involved in UCLA's defensive surge, but it's difficult to argue with the product up front: 32nd in Adj. Line Yards, 12th in Adj. Sack Rate. The Bruins were fantastic on passing downs, in part because of the pressure they generated on opposing passers.
The margin for error was minimal, however. First of all, the depth showed in the per-quarter splits above: UCLA got worse as each half progressed. Beyond that, UCLA was also mediocre when it couldn't be aggressive. The Bruins were a big-play sieve on standard downs; it doesn't matter how good you are on passing downs if you can't force any.
The depth up front could be better this year if a couple of many four-star freshmen come through with solid play, but with the secondary hitting the reset button, opponents will be unafraid of passing on standard downs.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Cassius Marsh||DE||6'4, 268||Sr.||**** (6.0)||14||40.5||5.0%||10.5||8||0||2||2||3|
|Owamagbe Odighizuwa||DE||6'3, 265||Sr.||***** (6.1)||14||34.5||4.3%||6||3.5||0||3||0||2|
|Seali'I Epenesa||NT||6'1, 316||Sr.||*** (5.6)||14||17.5||2.2%||0||0||0||0||1||0|
|Ellis McCarthy||DE||6'4, 330||So.||***** (6.1)||9||9.5||1.2%||1||1||0||1||0||0|
|Keenan Graham||DE||6'1, 246||Sr.||**** (5.8)||11||7.5||0.9%||1||1||0||0||0||0|
|Brandon Willis||DE||6'1, 268||Jr.||**** (5.9)||6||3.5||0.4%||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|Brandon Tuliaupupu||NT||6'1, 302||So.||*** (5.6)||5||2.0||0.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Kylie Fitts||DE||6'4, 260||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|Kenneth Clark||DT||6'2, 275||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Eric Kendricks||ILB||6'0, 228||Jr.||*** (5.6)||14||120.0||14.8%||6||2||1||4||2||3|
|Anthony Barr||OLB||6'4, 245||Sr.||**** (6.0)||14||71.5||8.8%||21.5||13.5||0||5||4||0|
|Jordan Zumwalt||ILB||6'4, 230||Sr.||**** (5.8)||13||61.5||7.6%||8||2||0||1||2||1|
|Ryan Hofmeister||ILB||6'0, 222||Jr.||*** (5.6)||13||12.5||1.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Aaron Wallace||OLB||6'2, 228||So.||*** (5.6)||10||3.0||0.4%||0||0||0||0||1||0|
|Kenny Orjioke||ILB||6'4, 229||So.||*** (5.6)||5||2.0||0.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Aaron Porter||ILB||6'0, 230||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Nate Iese||OLB||6'3, 241||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Jeremy Castro||LB||6'2, 243||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Isaac Savaiinaea||ILB||6'3, 235||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
|Deon Hollins, Jr.||LB||6'2, 225||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Myles Jack||LB||6'2, 215||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
7. The ultimate "ATH" recruit
Anthony Barr missed most of his senior season in high school with an injury, but he was still rated the No. 50 player in the Class of 2010 by Rivals.com. He was the No. 5 player in the country in the Athlete position, No. 1 ATH by MaxPreps. Scout.com listed him as a linebacker, but most recruiting services had no idea what position he should play. Neither did Rick Neuheisel. In two seasons as a big receiver and short-yardage back, he had 12 catches for all of 82 yards, 15 carries for 54 yards, and two total touchdowns. He didn't warrant a mention among the 3,000 words I wrote about UCLA last summer.
But then Mora and Spanos decided to listen to Scout.com, evidently. In desperate need of warm bodies to fill out the two-deep at linebacker, they moved Barr to OLB ... and he became potentially the best 3-4 outside linebacker in the country. He sacked quarterbacks more times than Miami or Iowa did, more times than Eastern Michigan and Boston College combined. He broke up passes, he forced fumbles, he nearly broke USC's Matt Barkley in half ... he was the tone-setter for this active, aggressive front seven. And he also decided to return for his senior season.
UCLA has a couple of interesting pieces to replace up front -- namely, OLB Damien Holmes and end Datone Jones -- but with Barr anchoring the pass rush, Erick Kendricks vacuuming up every tackle, and a wealth of four- and five-star talent ready to crack the rotation on the line, it's hard to fear much of a dropoff here ... at least, as long as the injury bug stays away.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Randall Goforth||CB||5'10, 187||So.||*** (5.7)||14||33.0||4.1%||1||0||1||3||0||1|
|Dietrich Riley (2011)||SS||6'0, 200||Jr.||**** (5.9)||8||29.5||3.8%||2||0||0||3||1||1|
|Stan McKay||FS||6'0, 198||Sr.||*** (5.6)||14||27.5||3.4%||3||3||2||3||1||0|
|Fabian Moreau||CB||6'0, 182||So.||*** (5.5)||11||4.0||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|Anthony Jefferson||SS||6'1, 184||Jr.||**** (5.8)||8||4.0||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Marcus Rios||CB||5'11, 185||So.||**** (5.8)||9||2.5||0.3%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Brandon Sermons||FS||5'11, 195||Sr.||**** (5.8)||9||2.0||0.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Ishmael Adams||CB||5'8, 185||RSFr.||**** (5.8)||3||0.5||0.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Dylan Price||FS||5'10, 195||So.||NR|
|Priest Willis||CB||6'2, 185||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
|Tahaan Goodman||SS||6'2, 185||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
8. A new secondary
There is, however, ample reason to fear the defensive backfield. The secondary was easily the weakness of the 2012 defense, and that was with senior corners Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price, senior safety Andrew Abbott, and recently dismissed ball-hawk Tevin McDonald. In all, five of last year's top six DBs are gone.
When a unit stinks, a little bit of new blood is sometimes a good thing, and lord knows there are some four-star youngsters who could turn out alright. But there is no immediate reason to think that last year's weakness will be any different in 2013. If opponents can still pass at will on standard downs, and if opponents can once again avoid passing downs, UCLA's defense will be on its heels even more frequently than it was last year.
|Ka'imi Fairbairn||5'11, 181||So.||56-59||14-16||87.5%||2-6||33.3%|
|Damien Thigpen||KR||5'8, 180||Sr.||14||26.9||0|
|Devin Fuller||KR||5'11, 194||So.||9||18.6||0|
|Steven Manfro||KR||5'9, 193||So.||8||22.0||0|
|Steven Manfro||PR||5'9, 193||So.||15||8.8||0|
|Special Teams F/+||73|
|Field Goal Pct||60|
|Kick Returns Avg||55|
|Punt Returns Avg||55|
9. The ultimate field-position weapon is gone
Despite sack issues on offense, and despite standard downs softness on defense, UCLA ranked 15th in Field Position Advantage last season, and it isn't hard to see why: Jeff Locke was just awesome. Locke boomed unreturnable 44-yard punts and sent three of every four kickoffs into the end zone, repeatedly pinning opponents deep and forcing them to work the full distance of the field. Without him, UCLA could lose a few yards per possession.
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|21-Sep||New Mexico State||123|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||66|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||10|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||+7 / +6.0|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||12 (7, 5)|
10. What a road schedule
UCLA gets Nevada, New Mexico State, California, Colorado, Washington, and Arizona State at home. That is about as winnable a home schedule as you could ever hope to have. But to make the Pac-12 title game for a third straight year, the Bruins are going to have to steal some road wins as well. Beating Utah is reasonably likely, but ... who else are they going to beat? They get both Stanford and Oregon on the road in back-to-back weeks (yuck) and have to face revenge attempts at both Arizona and USC.
In Brett Hundley, Anthony Barr, end Cassius Marsh, Xavier Su'a-Filo, Shaq Evans, and others, UCLA quite possibly has more star power than USC this year. But the tendency to regress after a surge, the rebuilt and terrifying secondary, potential issues at running back, and the loaded road slate could hold them back.
Jim Mora, Jr., engineered a hell of a turnaround, and he is putting the pieces in place for a long stay in the Top 25, but matching last year's nine wins might be as good as one can expect from the Bruins in Mora's second year. Still, after UCLA's recent history, that's pretty impressive.