2011 Season Preview: Golden Boys And The UCLA Bruins

The seat is heating up for Rick Neuheisel, and he has endless quarterback uncertainty and a brutal early schedule going against him. Can a couple of new coordinators and a little more experience save the day?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

Last week, ESPN Classic showed the 1983 UCLA-BYU game.  The game was exciting enough -- BYU jumps out to a 14-0 lead, holds on for dear life in the fourth quarter, and wins, 37-35 -- but perhaps the most interesting part of the game for me came in UCLA's first series.  The old, old, old school ESPN announcers talked about UCLA's ongoing quarterback competition between Steve Bono and Rick Neuheisel and how Bono had the edge because he was "much more of a run threat."  (And sure enough, he broke off a 22-yarder at one point.)

This game taught me two things:

1) Steve Bono was once considered a mobile quarterback. (Then again...)
2) UCLA is no stranger to unique quarterback arrangements.

The home of the golden boy quarterback, of Troy Aikman, of Gary Beban, of Cade McNown?  It sometimes struggles to either decide between QB A and QB B, and it sometimes struggles to keep even QB C or QB D healthy.  In four of the last five seasons, due to either injury or ineffectiveness, the Bruins have had at least two quarterbacks throw 90+ passes.  The masterpiece came in 2007, Karl Dorrell's final season as the Bruins' head coach; that season, four quarterbacks threw at least 45 passes.

Since Neuheisel came back to town to claim the head coaching position in 2008, the revolving door has continued.  From Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel:

Here, Neuheisel hits on the most baffling aspect of his tenure to date: The inability to produce an even semi-productive quarterback despite the presence of a renowned QB guru (Chow) and Neuheisel's own QB pedigree (he's coached Troy Aikman and Marques Tuiasosopo, among others). Granted, injuries haven't helped. Two seniors went down before they could even play a game in 2008, forcing the Bruins to go with 11th-hour juco signee Kevin Craft. He threw seven touchdowns and 20 interceptions. Redshirt freshman Kevin Prince took over the next year with high expectations, but injuries have cost him nine starts over the past two years, and he's completed just 53.4 percent of his passes when healthy.

Through both injury and Neuheisel's Spurrier-esque lack of faith in his options, UCLA has cycled through the signal callers.  In 2010, Richard Brehaut took over for an injured Prince but was, at different times, briefly relieved of his duties in favor of Darius Bell, Clayton Tunney and, I swear, Neuheisel himself at one point.  The Bruins head into 2011 with the position as seemingly uncertain as ever.  It has defined Neuheisel's mediocre tenure (record: 15-22) to date, and it will continue to until somebody steps forward.  Even if it's a true freshman.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 4-8 | Adj. Record: 4-8 | Final F/+ Rk**: 72
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep at Kansas State 22-31 L 14.9 - 25.4 L
11-Sep Stanford 0-35 L 24.2 - 19.4 W
18-Sep Houston 31-13 W 28.4 - 15.6 W
25-Sep at Texas 34-12 W 32.9 - 24.5 W
2-Oct Washington State 42-28 W 32.1 - 33.8 L
9-Oct at California 7-35 L 6.6 - 35.3 L
21-Oct at Oregon 13-60 L 24.1 - 37.3 L
30-Oct Arizona 21-29 L 32.7 - 30.2 W
6-Nov Oregon State 17-14 W 21.7 - 27.5 L
13-Nov at Washington 7-24 L 6.2 - 28.3 L
26-Nov at Arizona State 34-55 L 29.6 - 37.9 L
4-Dec USC 14-28 L 21.5 - 28.1 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 20.2 104 30.3 86
Adj. Points Per Game 22.9 93 28.6 67


However intentionally or unintentionally, Neuheisel went all-in with the youth, and it showed.  As a result of both injury and general lack of depth, freshmen and redshirt freshmen saw quite a bit of action overall, particularly on the defensive line, and the Bruins were all over the place.  The defense took a couple of steps backwards after the opening month, but the offense still stole the show with it's incredible ups and downs in breaking in the Pistol offense.

Though it is unfair to define a team's season based on one position ... the season truly was defined by the travails of the quarterback position.

Adj. PPG By Quarterback
Kevin Prince (five games): 21.4 Adj. PPG
Richard Breheaut (six games): 27.0 Adj. PPG
Breheaut/Tunney/Bell (Washington): 6.2 Adj. Pts.

With Prince at the helm to start the season, UCLA's passing game was ridiculously conservative.  Prince averaged just 4.1 yards per pass (he had averaged 6.6 in 2009) and was eventually lost for the season with a knee injury.  Breheaut took over and, aside from a couple of extreme egg-laying sessions, did alright.  UCLA at least had an average offense with Breheaut, and only Brehaut, at the helm.  And against Washington, things went briefly, ridiculously sour.

In the end, an offense that needed to produce at a high level because of its fading defense, couldn't.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 78 54 89
RUSHING 38 27 49 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 111 103 115 45
Standard Downs 51 39 58 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 118 111 120 81
Redzone 98 92 100
Q1 Rk 49 1st Down Rk 54
Q2 Rk 103 2nd Down Rk 88
Q3 Rk 88 3rd Down Rk 106
Q4 Rk 60


It doesn't feel like a Neuheisel offense when you say this, but UCLA was an extremely run-heavy team in 2010 while attempting to get traction with the Pistol offense.  And you know what?  They were actually quite solid on the ground.  Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman combined for 1,614 yards and a +1.8 Adj. POE (why isn't it higher? because the offensive line got a lot of credit for their gains).  The quarterbacks threw in 350 non-sack yards, and even though star freshman Malcolm Jones (200 yards, 3.6 per carry, -6.5 Adj. POE) couldn't ever get going, the run game was efficient, and it could have been a weapon if UCLA had even the slightest of a passing threat.  But they did not.  Former 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Johnson comes aboard to attempt to resurrect the passing game (while apparently maintaining the Pistol), but ... we'll see.

With an entire stable of skill position players returning -- all three running backs and the top six passing targets -- focus once again goes back on the quarterback position to see if the Bruins are capable of taking advantage of the experience.  From Bruins Nation:

Richard Brehaut didn't impress enough to out-right win the job, so he's listed with injured former starter Kevin Prince in an "or" situation.  We won't know who Neuheisel goes with as his starter until well into fall camp, so this will be an interesting battle to watch unfold.  Brett Hundley is also in the mix,although he's still raw and a redshirt year would be ideal for him.  True freshmen QBs don't tend to hold up very well in Division I football. Hundley is definitely the future, but for now, Brehaut or Prince will need to keep the seat warm.  If Prince comes back completely healthy, that would bode well for the Bruins (and bad for Brehaut's chances of starting again), but Prince has yet to show any ability at not shattering like Humpty Dumpty.  Behind Hundley is oft-injured Nick Crissman.  If Crissman can put together a decent fall camp and make himself a viable third option at QB, that would make the decision to redshirt Hundley a no-brainer.  Last, Darius Bell is on the roster, but given his disastrous performance against Oregon, I doubt he'll be getting any serious time (if any at all) for the Bruins.

Hundley is indeed the star recruit and The Future™, but he showed that he wasn't quite ready to be handed the keys to the car this spring.  He has plenty of time to figure things out, at least in terms of his own eligibility, but it would appear that there might be at least one more season of uncertainty at the position, which could be bad considering the potential 'make-or-break' nature of 2011 for Neuheisel's own future.

Other tidbits:

  • While the skill position depth is better than it has been in quite a while, there has to be some concern over the fact that the line must replace four starters, including honorable mention all-conference selection Ryan Taylor.  We've discussed before that losing a ton on the line is far from a guaranteed dagger, but ... as we've also said before, it's still not a good thing.
  • Johnathan Franklin was the second-team all-conference guy, and Malcolm Jones the four-star stud, but give me Derrick Coleman.  Coleman had by far the best per-carry average and Adj. POE (Coleman +5.5, Franklin -3.7, Jones -6.5), and at 6-foot-0, 233 pounds, he had the best highlight yardage average as well (Coleman 2.57 per carry, Franklin 2.07, Jones 1.03).  These numbers make him a potential NFL prospect if he can get the carries.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 48 52 49
RUSHING 70 79 61 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 35 28 46 96
Standard Downs 54 69 51 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 32 27 41 27
Redzone 35 38 37
Q1 Rk 47 1st Down Rk 56
Q2 Rk 47 2nd Down Rk 46
Q3 Rk 49 3rd Down Rk 50
Q4 Rk 74


With linebacker Akeem Ayers swarming the quarterback and free safety Rahim Moore lurking, UCLA had a stellar pass defense in 2010.  Unfortunately for the Bruins, their super-young front seven couldn't stop the run, and opponents knew it.  Opponents ran a hair more than average on standard downs and a lot more on passing downs, and it worked.  Solid pass defense doesn't really matter when you're giving up a ton of 2nd-and-4's with your inefficient run D.

After the world's longest replacement search, Neuheisel eventually hired Joe Tresey as his new defensive coordinator after firing Chuck Bullough; Tresey inherits a team that struggled with youth as much as anything else in 2010. To say the least, the training wheels are off this fall -- both Ayers and Moore took the leap to the pros a year early, and the Bruins' best tackle, David Carter (34.0 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks) is gone as well. Freshmen played significant roles up front last year, and players like tackle Cassius Marsh (20.5 tackles), linebacker Jordan Zumwalt (26.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks) and ends Keenan Graham (15.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks) and Owamagbe Odighizuwa (7.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, the definition of 'all or nothing') will have to take nice steps forward as sophomores.

Though the loss of Moore doesn't help, the secondary should still be solid.  Safety Tony Dye was a nice playmaker alongside Moore last year (3.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 9 PBU), and both Dalton Hilliard and sophomore Dietrich Riley could be ready to take steps forward. At cornerback, Tresey has three interesting options: Aaron Hester (2.0 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 4 PBU), Andrew Abbott (2.0 TFL/sacks, 1 FR) and Sheldon Price (1.0 TFL/sacks, 7 PBU).  The UCLA was physical and rather aggressive last year, and that shouldn't change.

Other tidbits:

  • Ayers is gone, but Sean Westgate (79.0 tackles, 11.0 TFL/sacks, 7 PBU) is a really nice weakside option at linebacker, and the Bruins will benefit from the return of Pat Larimore (35.0 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks, 3 FF, 3 PBU), who missed five games to a shoulder injury.  If the line is more seasoned and effective, the linebacking corps should help the Bruins' run defense improve quite a bit.
  • Tresey has had an interesting recent career. He took over Brian Kelly's Central Michigan defense in 2006, then followed Kelly to Cincinnati in the same coordinator role.  After the Bearcats' 2008 Orange Bowl run, Kelly decided to switch to a 3-4 and let Tresey go despite significant defensive improvement, and Cincy regressed significantly in his absence.  (They still went undefeated, but their defense fell from 13th in Def. F/+ to 70th.)  Tresey ended up on Jim Leavitt's final staff at South Florida and did relatively well there, too, but when Leavitt was let go, Skip Holtz brought in his own men and Tresey was left scrambling for a job. It looked bad when Neuheisel hired "the Omaha Nighthawks' defensive backs coach" as his new coordinator, but Tresey's background is still relatively impressive.

    2006: Central Michigan - 75th in Def. F/+, 104th in Rushing S&P+, 59th in Passing S&P+
    2007: Cincinnati - 25th in Def. F/+, 20th in Rushing S&P+, 55th in Passing S&P+
    2008: Cincinnati - 13th in Def. F/+, 15th in Rushing S&P+, 15th in Passing S&P+
    2009: South Florida - 32nd in Def. F/+, 35th in Rushing S&P+, 33rd in Passing S&P+

UCLA's 2010 Season Set to Music

I'm pretty sure the inside of UCLA fans' heads sounded a lot like The Stooges' "L.A. Blues" in the second halves of the numerous blowout losses (and the odd defensive coordinator search).

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here, sort of.

Summary and Projection Factors


Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's
Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 58
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 23
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -11 / -13
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 15 (7, 8)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +1.9


Over his final three years, embattled coach Karl Dorrell put together teams that went to bowl games and played almost precisely at the level of the average Pac-10 team.  For that, he was pilloried and run out of town, replaced by Neuheisel ... who has yet to produce a Pac-10 average team and has produced just one winning record in three years.  He is the 1984 Rose Bowl champion, and that has surely given him a bit of leeway (it gave him leeway when he was hired, anyway), as has the fact that he inherited the perceived 'mess' that Dorrell left behind.  After three years and multiple solid recruiting classes, however, it's pretty clear that Neuheisel needs to start producing, and fast.

This is bad timing, as the offense appears to still be potentially a year away from clicking, and the early schedule is absolutely brutal.  But October 2, UCLA will have faced Houston, Oregon State and Stanford on the road, and Texas at home.  Even if the passing game takes some steps forward, it might not be enough to prevent a slow start.  If the wheels haven't come off after five games, however, a rally is possible.  The Bruins could win each of their final four home games -- Washington State, California, Arizona State and Colorado -- and at the very least, bowl eligibility could be in the works.

Because of the potential momentum involved, anything between a 3-9 (if the wheels completely fall off) and 9-3 record is theoretically possible.  The experience level is much higher than it was a year ago, recruiting has certainly been decent, and the Bruins' YPP margin suggests potential improvement, but the turnover margin is not guaranteed to improve, and ... there's just been so much turnover and uncertainty, especially on offense. It's hard to be too confident in Neuheisel going forward, and if I were a betting man, I'd say the Bruins are looking at five or six wins and a new coaching search this December.

 

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter.  For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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