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UCLA has the pieces for a Pac-12 rebound. But it did last year, too.

Jim Mora’s squad is desperately seeking an offensive identity.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

This preview originally published May 30 and has since been updated.

In 2014, Oregon made the national title game, Arizona took down Arizona State in a “winner takes the Pac-12 South” battle, and UCLA was, per S&P+, the second-best team in the conference despite missing out on the South division title. The four teams combined to go 43-12 — 6-6 against each other and 37-6 against everybody else.

Things fall apart quickly sometimes. Just two seasons later, these four teams went a combined 16-32.

No offense to the Arizona schools, but based on nothing more than recruiting rankings and S&P+, their respective downfalls made a little bit of sense in hindsight. ASU was 28th in five-year recruiting heading into 2015, and Arizona was 44th. The teams had gone a combined 13-13 the year before, each falling out of the S&P+ top 50, and ASU returned just 35 percent of its 2015 production.

The other two, though? In semi-disappointing 2015 campaigns, Oregon and UCLA still combined to win 17 games and rank in the S&P+ top 25. Oregon ranked 19th in five-year recruiting, and UCLA ranked 13th. Oregon returned 64 percent of its 2015 production, and UCLA returned 75 percent. Both were serious bounce-back candidates, and they hadn’t even fallen that far to begin with.

Both teams went 4-8. Oregon hit rock bottom defensively, and a top-20 offense couldn’t save Mark Helfrich’s job. UCLA, meanwhile, found its way defensively just in time to lose any semblance of offensive identity. A new assistant hire failed to pan out, Jim Mora’s Bruins lost the one guy to injury that they couldn’t afford to lose, and poof. After three consecutive years in the S&P+ top 20, they plummeted to 59th.

For a while, the Bruins showed decent resilience despite injury and disappointment — they continued to play well enough to lose in frustrating fashion. That changed at the end, when they got outscored by a combined 72-24 by USC (understandable) and Cal (not), but before that, they had actually outscored opponents despite their 4-6 record.

They did collapse, though. And while the offense fell into a predictable funk when golden-boy quarterback Josh Rosen went down, the run game was inexcusably bad well before he got hurt.

When Mora replaced outgoing offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone with running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu, I wrote this:

Polamalu, a former USC fullback, is promising to bring toughness, through more significant roles for tight ends and fullbacks. ... It might mean more pressure on a shaky line to improve. While Rosen remained mostly upright, the run blocking was pretty leaky.

Whatever the approach, the primary goal will be better establishing it. Rosen showed a pretty exciting knack for bailing UCLA out on passing downs — the Bruins ranked 30th in Passing Downs S&P+ — but he was asked to do it too frequently because they were a pretty mediocre standard downs team.

In 2015, UCLA ranked 55th in Standard Downs S&P+ and 60th in Rushing S&P+; that wasn’t good enough for what was otherwise a potentially elite offense. But in 2016, with an intended focus on toughness and physicality, the Bruins plummeted to a ghastly 115th and 126th, respectively.

Blips happen. Coaches far more accomplished than Mora — Bear Bryant, Barry Switzer, Joe Paterno, etc. — have randomly had bad campaigns.

If it happened to them, it can certainly happen to Mora. And just as they rebounded, Mora could, too, even if not to the same degree. But a third offensive coordinator in three years has to craft an actual identity where one didn’t exist a year ago, and the defense, forced to carry so much weight a year ago, must avoid regression despite a thinned-out two-deep. Recruiting rankings and UCLA’s 2013-15 run suggest it’s possible. Last year suggests it’ll be difficult.

NCAA Football: Oregon State at UCLA
Jim Mora
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

2016 in review

2016 UCLA statistical profile.

It was evident from the start of the season that UCLA wasn’t going to be the team S&P+ thought it would be. The Bruins survived a trip to BYU and manhandled increasingly depleted Arizona but were more statistically shaky than expected in close losses to Texas A&M and Stanford. And the October 8 trip to Arizona State signaled the beginning of the end.

Against a bad ASU defense, Nate Starks and Soso Jamabo combined to gain just 40 yards in 17 carries, and while Rosen threw for 400 yards in between a couple of injuries, UCLA still only scored 20 points against a defense that otherwise allowed 45.3 points per game in conference play.

Rosen didn’t return to the field after the ASU game; replacement Mike Fafaul did his best and produced a few decent performances, but UCLA had no chance with this run game. And then everything officially collapsed in the final two games.

  • First 5 games (3-2): Avg. percentile performance: 66% (53% offense, 63% defense) | Avg. yards per play: UCLA 5.8, Opp 4.9 (plus-0.9) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-2.3 PPG
  • Next 5 games (1-4): Avg. percentile performance: 60% (32% offense, 69% defense) | Avg. yards per play: UCLA 5.2, Opp 4.7 (plus-0.5) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-5.5 PPG
  • Last 2 games (0-2): Avg. percentile performance: 36% (20% offense, 53% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.2, UCLA 5.0 (minus-0.2) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-19.2 PPG

The saddest part about the way the season played out is that the defense improved and the revamped receiving corps, which had returned only one of 2015’s top five targets, thrived when given the opportunity. But one key injury and an unfathomably bad run game wrecked everything.


UCLA offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

In 2015, Josh Rosen showed a level of passing downs prowess as a freshman that suggested that he was well on his way to living up to all-world recruiting hype. Before injury, he did the same last year. On third-and-7 or more, he completed 17 of 28 passes for 256 yards, no interceptions, and a 149.3 passer rating. That’ll play. Fafaul (122.9 passer rating on third-and-7 or more) wasn’t awful in these situations either.

While Rosen faced a few too many passing downs as a freshman, though, it felt like that was all he and Fafaul faced last year. UCLA’s No. 115 Standard Downs S&P+ ranking placed the Bruins between offensive non-stalwarts like Rice (113th) and Buffalo (118th).

UCLA was in the upper third of an explosive conference when it came to big-play capability, but the efficiency was ... let’s see, I’ve already used “inexcusably” and “unfathomably,” so I’ll say it was incomprehensibly, profoundly awful. (Now I’m done with the adverbs.)

UCLA offensive efficiency & explosiveness

To fix these issues, Mora now turns to Jedd Fisch. It was a perfectly decent hire even if he twisted himself in a bit of a semantical knot in explaining it. Fisch has the kind of pro-style offensive experience that coaches love to sell to recruits — he worked as an NFL assistant for 12 years, including three as an offensive coordinator — and he spent the last two seasons helping Michigan to craft an underrated passing attack with new QBs each year.

With Fisch as passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Michigan ranked eighth in Passing S&P+ with Jake Rudock in 2015 and 28th with Wilton Speight in 2016. To state the obvious, Rosen’s upside is higher than that of either Rudock or Speight.

Rosen also brings back some exciting receivers. Darren Andrews and Jordan Lasley combined to average 8.6 yards per target as the top two targets — Andrews produced a solid 51 percent success rate, and Lasley averaged 15.1 yards per catch. Eldridge Massington, meanwhile, averaged 14.3 per catch from the Z-receiver position, and tight ends Austin Roberts and Caleb Wilson combined to catch 31 balls and average 9.1 yards per target with a 47 percent success rate. Add four-star redshirt freshmen Damian Alloway and Dymond Lee to the mix, and UCLA has exciting pass catchers in all shapes and sizes.

NCAA Football: Southern California at UCLA
Darren Andrews
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

So the Bruins will be able to pass. Great. But can they be less than awful on the ground? Will those glorious pro-style concepts and new direction produce anything more than progression to the mean?

UCLA’s run game will improve because it almost literally cannot get worse; plus, the Bruins do return every running back and all but one of the eight linemen who started at least two games last year. [Update: The Bruins also add four-game Miami starter Sunny Odogwu, an immediately eligible, 6’8 grad transfer.] (That includes center Scott Quessenberry, who managed all-conference honors despite the line’s woeful performance.) But it needs to improve a decent amount if the Bruins want to keep Rosen upright and healthy.

I won’t use any more adverbs, but it’s truly incredible how bad UCLA was at this last year.

  • Four-star junior back Nate Starks averaged 3.3 yards per carry and gained five yards on only 23.5 percent of his carries, barely half the national average of 40 percent.
  • Five-star sophomore Soso Jamabo averaged 3.9 yards per carry with a 34 percent opportunity rate. He was easily the most efficient option.
  • Sophomore Bolu Olorunfunmi averaged 3.9 yards per carry with a 30 percent opportunity rate. He also averaged 4.3 highlight yards per opportunity, well below average but still the best of the bunch.

In 150 carries in 2015, this trio, backing up Paul Perkins, gained a combined 923 yards. In 238 carries in 2016, they gained 882 yards. They found almost no open-field opportunities and generated nothing with the chances they got. UCLA ranked 117th out of 128 teams in power success rate, and it was the Bruins best run-related ranking. They were 124th in opportunity rate and 128th, dead last, in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line).

This was pathetic. Again, it will improve because it almost has to. But a team that recruits like UCLA should never be this bad in any single aspect of football. And until it improves, nothing else matters.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Arizona State
Scott Quessenberry
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports


UCLA defensive radar

As awful as Mora’s hire of Polamalu looks in retrospect (and there were plenty of reasons to question it at the time, too), bringing in Tom Bradley to run his defense seems to have been a decent call. In Mora’s first three seasons, UCLA had an average Def. S&P+ ranking of 32.7, but the Bruins improved to 26th last year. That’s not quite the level recruiting suggests they should reach, but it’s solid. They were good in terms of efficiency and finishing drives and great at preventing big plays.

UCLA defensive efficiency & explosiveness

You can win games with a unit that is sound in that way.

In 2016, Bradley had to figure out the best way to re-incorporate a lot of injured stars into an experienced unit. In 2017, he faces a different sort of test: he has to incorporate young blue-chippers to replace those experienced stars.

UCLA has to replace three of its top five linemen (including first-round pick Takkarist McKinley and third-rounder Eddie Vanderdoes), three of five linebackers, and four of seven defensive backs. There are plenty of seasoned stars returning — senior end Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, middle linebacker Kenny Young, safety Jaleel Wadood, corner Nate Meadors — but the ceiling of this defense will be defined by how quickly young studs look the part.

End Jaelan Phillips was the No. 1 recruit in the country per the 247Sports Composite, corner Darnay Holmes was No. 23, redshirt freshman Mique Juarez was a five-star recruit a year ago, and five other true or redshirt freshmen were four-star recruits. Then there are sophomores like tackle Boss Tagaloa, end Keisean Lucier-South, linebackers DeChaun Holiday, Lokeni Toailoa, and Krys Barnes, safety Brandon Burton, and corners Colin Samuel and Elijah Gates. All were four-star recruits.

The two-deep will have as much unvarnished upside as any this side of Tuscaloosa. How quickly will potential turn into production?

NCAA Football: Stanford at UCLA
Jaleel Wadood (4) and Kenny Young (42)
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The UCLA defense had all the balance the UCLA offense lacked. The Bruins ranked 21st in Rushing S&P+, 23rd in Passing S&P+, and 28th in Standard Downs S&P+, and when they leveraged opponents into passing downs, they finished the job (seventh in PD S&P+). Besides their ability to prevent big pass plays, they didn’t have many truly elite traits, but they also had minimal weaknesses.

Losing corner Fabian Moreau (a third-rounder, too) and safety Randall Goforth does hurt a secondary that was so good at minimizing explosiveness. But in Wadood, Meadors, and safety Adarius Pickett, the Bruins still boast some well-seasoned pieces, and experienced reserves like Octavius Spencer and John Johnson could thrive with more responsibility. Get something out of a sophomore safety (either Will Lockett or Burton) and a freshman corner (Holmes, Gates, or Jaylan Shaw), and the secondary will be strong again.

It’s more or less the same story up front. UCLA has senior leaders in Tuioti-Mariner, Young, and tackle Matt Dickerson, and solid contributions from a couple of sophomores and a freshman or two should suffice.

At some point, you’d like to think this defense has a ceiling higher than top-30. But until the offense rebounds, the defense will still be the star pupil on this team.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Arizona State
Matt Dickerson
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

The defense faced even more pressure thanks to a special teams unit that was mostly awful. Ishmael Adams was a steady, if not particularly explosive kick returner, but that was UCLA’s only strength, and he’s gone. Punters Austin Kent and Stefan Flintoft combined to give UCLA a No. 76 ranking in punt efficiency, kicker JJ Molson only found the end zone on 33 percent of his kickoffs, and Molson was unreliable in the place-kicking department. He was only a freshman, of course, as was Kent. So they should improve at least a bit. But the ceiling might still be low here.

2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Texas A&M 19 -3.4 42%
9-Sep Hawaii 109 21.4 89%
16-Sep at Memphis 61 2.0 55%
23-Sep at Stanford 12 -13.6 22%
30-Sep Colorado 50 5.8 63%
14-Oct at Arizona 68 3.3 58%
21-Oct Oregon 23 -1.7 46%
28-Oct at Washington 13 -13.1 22%
3-Nov at Utah 45 0.0 50%
11-Nov Arizona State 58 6.6 65%
18-Nov at USC 7 -17.0 16%
24-Nov California 55 6.5 65%
Projected S&P+ Rk 34
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 52 / 35
Projected wins 5.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 11.1 (23)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 15 / 11
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -2 / -1.6
2016 TO Luck/Game -0.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 54% (68%, 40%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 5.9 (-1.9)

The current over-under win total for Mora’s Bruins is 6. That this would represent a 50 percent improvement over last year’s win total is still rather stunning, and you have to wonder if 6-6 would be enough for Mora to keep his job, especially since that would mean the Bruins went a woeful 18-19 (plus maybe a bowl game) in the Rosen era, and with Rosen more or less looking the part.

With a No. 34 projection and 5.9 expected wins, S&P+ almost precisely agrees with Vegas. The Bruins face trips to Stanford, Washington, and USC, and of the eight other games on the schedule, only one falls into the “very likely win” category — a September 8 visit from Hawaii. To even reach six wins, they will have to probably go 5-3 in the other eight games, and five of them fall between 42 and 58 percent in terms of win probability.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that UCLA’s ceiling is obviously high. The Bruins have Rosen, an experienced receiving corps, and a defense that has both experience and a fresh, new blue-chipper for every hole to fill. Depth could be an issue in a lot of places, but a potential prospective starting 22 is going to be more talented than that of all but about 10-15 FBS teams.

The potential for a rebound is there, and now’s a good time to remember that Mora’s first four years on the job were UCLA’s most consistently strong since the mid-1980s. But last year showed how this can all go wrong, and there’s more than a slight chance it goes wrong again.

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