2012 UCLA Football Preview: The 1-Year Waiting Period

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 13: Jim Mora greets UCLA cheerleaders at a press conference introducing him as head UCLA football coach at the J.D. Morgan Center at UCLA on December 13, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Related: UCLA's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends and rankings galore.

For more on Bruins football, visit UCLA blog Bruins Nation, plus Pac-12 blog Pacific Takes and SB Nation Los Angeles.

Sometimes perfectly sensible, exciting coaching hires don't pan out well at all. And sometimes baffling, ridiculous hires end up spectacularly. There is no magic formula for hiring a coach -- if there was, teams would be a lot better at it. Instead, you basically take the most educated guess possible and let luck take over.

If hiring coaches were easy, Oklahoma would have never brought in John Blake. (They therefore probably wouldn't have replaced him with Bob Stoops three years later.) Texas wouldn't have brought in John Mackovic (and Mack Brown). Florida wouldn't have hired Ron Zook (or Urban Meyer). Alabama wouldn't have hired Mike Shula (or Nick Saban). Et cetera. As I've said before, almost all of today's great coaches coach where they do because their respective school's last hire was somewhere between poor and awful.

This is a long way of saying the initial reaction to UCLA's hire of Jim Mora, Jr., was both justifiable and unfair. I initially graded the hire as better than Kansas' hire of Charlie Weis (which, technically, could also work out just fine) and quite a bit worse than every other hire on the board in mid-December.

This seems like a transparent attempt by UCLA to find their own Pete Carroll, a long-time NFL guy who failed as an NFL coach but has loads of experience and charisma. It worked out quite well for Carroll at USC (sans the NCAA sanctions, ahem), and perhaps the UCLA administration is correct in assessing that charisma comes before resume when it comes to succeeding in Southern California. Still, Carroll is the exception to the rule when it comes to the often difficult pro-to-college jump.

There is a major leap of faith involved with this hire. Mora has certainly paid his dues -- he has been coaching since 1984, when he was a graduate assistant on Washington's 11-1 Orange Bowl squad. Starting in 1985, however, all of his experience has come at the pro level, and his career record as NFL head coach is just 31-33. This was a shot in the dark, and while this type of hire does sometimes work, it goes without saying that it usually doesn't.

A few months have now passed, and perceptions have eased a bit. Mora brought aboard an interesting staff, signed an outstanding recruiting class, and got solid "Everything Rick Neuheisel did, Mora does the opposite!" press during spring practice. The folks at Bruins Nation have relaxed from DEFCON 1 to cautious optimism.

Mora has at his disposal a group of players with mostly intriguing recruiting profiles, and aside from a running back and a handful of solid defenders, almost no proven potential whatsoever. It is difficult to determine a ceiling for his 2012 squad because we don't know what kind of ceiling most of his personnel had to start with, and we really don't know how much they have left. But if Mora can recruit well (which, let's be honest, should never be particularly difficult at UCLA) and actually develop some of the talent on the roster, he could be well-positioned for a decent run in Westwood. He could actually end up more Pete Carroll than Bill Callahan.

Or, who knows, maybe he won't. Why do we even bother reacting to coaching hires at all until about a one-year waiting period? We have a 50 percent chance of looking really stupid in a short amount of time.


Related: Check out UCLA's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about the Bruins last May:

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. [...]

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.

One of the many uses of a measure like Adj. Score (which you can read more about here) is that you can spot trends that may be hiding behind a particularly easy or hard schedule. If you play the top five teams in the country in successive weeks, for instance, then you are probably going to go 0-5 even if you play quite well; with Adj. Points, you get credit for playing well even if wins and losses don't follow.

For most teams, then, you'll see certain up-and-down trends. But not with the 2011 UCLA Bruins. They produced an Adj. scoring margin of plus-8.6 against Houston on September 3, minus-4.3 versus Texas on September 17, minus-9.5 against Arizona on October 20, plus-7.2 against California on October 29, minus-10.1 against Utah on November 12 and plus-9.9 against Colorado on November 19.

There were no trends, just spectacular variance from one week to another. The 2011 Bruins were simply maddening. They were also selected for a bowl despite a 6-7 record, which, combined with their qualifying for the Pac-12 title game (in USC's banned absence), offered them the rarest of opportunities: they played in their conference title game, played in a bowl game ... and finished two games under .500.

Offense

Here are four things we know about new UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone:

  1. He has been around a while. He began his career as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, New Mexico, in 1980, served as a quarterbacks coach at different schools until 1994 and has served as an offensive coordinator at Ole Miss, Auburn, Oregon State, N.C. State, Ole Miss and (after a sojourn in both the NFL and high school ranks) Arizona State.
  2. Under Mazzone's guidance, Arizona State's offense improved from 102nd in Off. F/+ in 2009 to 44th in 2010 and 34th in 2011. The Sun Devils may have faded over the last half of 2011, but that can't really be considered Mazzone's fault.
  3. Mazzone wants to install a break-neck, no-huddle offense. To state the obvious, Oregon has proven that this style can work in the Pac-12.
  4. At Arizona State, Mazzone's offense passed the ball more than just about anybody in the West. This may not fit UCLA's personnel particularly well, however, so it will be interesting to see what changes he makes (or doesn't make) in this regard.

After Neuheisel's struggles to find a scheme that worked, Mazzone's scheme will basically be UCLA's fourth offensive system in five years. If he does indeed continue the pass-happy system he favored in Tempe, that will put a lot of pressure on an as-yet undetermined starting quarterback and a receiving corps that must replace three of its top four wideouts from last year.

First, the quarterbacks. Spring practices saw a three-way competition for the job, one that will evidently continue until August 16. Part-time starters Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut (each seniors) are in the running, but redshirt freshman Brett Hundley came on strong this spring. Hundley brings a strong level of mobility to the table, though Prince and Brehaut each showed decent mobility themselves -- they combined to rush 135 times (in non-sacks) for 750 yards last season.

Prince was easily the better runner of the two, but he trusted his legs a bit too much in 2011 and ended up getting sacked on 10 percent of his pass attempts. Despite Prince's generally lackluster impression -- he averaged 6.8 yards per pass attempt once sacks were factored in, and he threw just 12 touchdowns to eight interceptions -- he was still at the helm of an offense that improved from 90th to 66th in Off. F/+ last season. With Prince throwing mostly to since-departed Nelson Rosario and a solid run game setting up play-action, UCLA improved to 19th in Passing S&P+.

So really, each of the three have interesting claims to the starting job -- Prince with experience and improvement, Brehaut with system familiarity (he ran a similar system in high school) and Hundley with mobility and pure upside.

The quarterback of choice will cast his lot with an interesting, if unproven, receiving corps. Rosario, Taylor Embree and Josh Smith are all gone; they combined for 95 catches, 1,163 receiving yards and a per-target average of 10.5 yards. The all-legs Rosario was one of the more underrated receivers in the country last year.

The replacements in the receiving corps certainly have the recruiting profiles, but do they have the chops? Shaquelle Evans was a big-time signee that UCLA pulled away from Notre Dame; he was an all-or-nothing target in 2011, averaging 16.3 yards per catch, but with just a 56 percent catch rate. Three-star junior Ricky Marvray, meanwhile, was the opposite; he caught 10 of the 13 passes thrown his way, but gained just 57 yards in the process. Forgotten four-star senior Jerry Johnson, meanwhile, is healthy for the first time in a while and had a good spring. And then there are the youngsters; four-star true freshmen Jordan Payton and Javon Williams will join four-star redshirt freshman Devin Lucien in attempting to crack the rotation. And then, of course, there is Jerry Rice, Jr.

UCLA was able to successfully lean on the running game last year, and there is potential for doing the same in 2012. Senior Johnathan Franklin (976 yards, 5.9 per carry, plus-0.5 Adj. POE) returns, as do five linemen with starting experience (61 career starts). Three of last year's primary starters did depart, but thanks to shuffling of personnel, quite a few players got experience. Most of the experience, however, came on the interior; the tackle position will be rather raw.

Defense

For years under Karl Dorrell, UCLA was seemingly guaranteed to have an exciting, stout defense and a lackluster offense. Under Rick Neuheisel, that shifted. The Bruins ranked third in Def. F/+ in 2007 (for comparison purposes, think of LSU's or Texas' defense from last year), 35th and 30th in 2008-09 (think Rutgers), 52nd in 2010 (Iowa State) and 93th in 2011 (just behind Baylor). That's … not good.

To breathe life back into a once-proud defense, Mora brought aboard Lou Spanos as defensive coordinator. An NFL assistant coach for nearly two decades (he was the Washington Redskins' linebackers coach for the last two years), Spanos does not have a specific profile on which we can call, but his watchwords are predictable: aggression, "hunt the ball," et cetera.

Spanos is installing a 3-4 defense, and at first glance that might fit the personnel well. A defensive line that was simply atrocious last year (113th in Adj. Line Yards, 112th in Adj. Sack Rate) might conform nicely to a three-man alignment. Big ends Datone Jones (once a four-star signee) and Owamagbe Odighizuwa (five stars) were not particularly amazing last fall (they combined for just 9.5 tackles for loss), but they have size and athleticism.

Meanwhile, the tackle position looks to be in great hands with the combination of four-star sophomore Brandon Willis (a North Carolina transfer turned UCLA transfer turned North Carolina transfer), 313-pound senior Donovan Carter, 323-pound junior Seali'i Epenesa and incoming five-star freshman Ellis McCarthy. One cannot expect a putrid line to turn into an elite one in a single offseason, but it is fair to assume solid-bordering-on-drastic improvement.

If the line improves, the linebackers should follow. Junior Jordan Zumwalt and senior Damien Holmes should conform nicely to the attacking requirements of 3-4 outside linebackers, while inside linebacker Pat Larimore was one of the steadier players on the defense last year. Neuheisel did not recruit as well to the linebacker position as he did to other areas on the defense, but there is at least potential here. The depth might be iffy, however.

Any improvement in the front seven could mean great things for a secondary that did the best it could last year. UCLA ranked 102nd in Rushing S&P+ last fall, but ranked a healthy 48th in Passing S&P+ despite an awful pass rush that saw just one player (Datone Jones) log more than two sacks. The defensive backs were not allowed to be sufficiently aggressive last year, but with opposing quarterbacks feeling no pressure, the secondary had almost no choice but to play conservatively.

Facing quarterbacks under duress, senior corners Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price, who still combined for two picks and 14 passes broken up, could shine. Between those two and active safeties Tevin McDonald (4.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions, nine passes broken up as a freshman) and Andrew Abbott (two tackles for loss, four interceptions, three passes broken up), one can see how a more aggressive unit could thrive.

Defining Success

UCLA gets the five most highly-ranked teams on its schedule at home in 2012. That does interesting things to expectations. If the Bruins can go just 2-3 in those games, then the rest of the schedule sets up nicely for seven wins or so. Considering that would clinch, at worst, a match of the best record of the Neuheisel era (7-6 in 2009), that'd have to be considered a success for a hire that was so quickly maligned.

Prognosis

Jim Mora, Jr., has seemingly done almost everything right (other than offering Diddy's son a scholarship, at least) in his first six months on the job. But starting in another two and a half months, success on the field is all that will matter. Mora put together a solid coaching staff and has quite a bit of talent to work with, and while I cannot see the Bruins challenging USC for Pac-12 South superiority anytime soon, I can certainly talk them into a solid, seven- or eight-win season, at least if Mora is able to do a better job of coaxing the potential out of former star recruits better than his predecessor was.

For more on Bruins football, visit UCLA blog Bruins Nation, plus Pac-12 blog Pacific Takes and SB Nation Los Angeles.

While we’re here, let’s watch some college football videos from SB Nation’s new YouTube channel together:

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