LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 13: Mora-stomping day just doesn't sound like as much fun. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
UCLA has been one of the most disappointing schools in the conference for well over a decade. The Bruins almost always have top third talent, but they rarely have top third product. Three coaching hires in a row have been complete disasters, the facilities are a disaster, and their play has been as soft as the tones of their powder blue jerseys. Yet, that talent will always lure you into thinking they should be a good team and this year is no exception. Jim L. Mora, the NFL veteran of Atlanta and Seattle, is the newest coach to take over the program in Westwood. By all accounts, Mora has made it his #1 mission to change the soft football culture that has long been entrenched at UCLA and, if he can be successful, has the talent on hand for a quick turnaround.
The biggest problem plaguing the Bruins personnel-wise over the last several season has been the inability to find consistent play at the quarterback position. UCLA hopes they finally have a solution in Brett Hundley. Hundley was one of the top quarterback recruits in the country two years ago, and to Rick Neuheisel's credit, he didn't blow Hundley's redshirt in an attempt to save his job. Hundley has both a big time arm, and big time running ability, which should add a new dimension to OC Noel Mazzone's no-huddle offense. Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut return as experienced back-ups, but neither have proven ability to stay healthy or win games.
Hundley will be helped by one of the return of one of the top RBs in the conference in Johnathan Franklin, who is within earshot of UCLA's career rushing record. The Bruins also return four starters on the offensive line, so they should be able to get some protection. However, receiver will be key, and, while talent returns, a lot of production doesn't. Shaquille Evans hopes to stretch the field after averaging 16.3 ypc last season, albeit with only 19 catches. Tight End Joseph Fauria also returns after catching 39 balls last year. After that, its an unproven but talented group, with former 4* senior Jerry Johnson finally healthy, 4* freshman Jordan Payton, and Ricky Morvay, who caught ten balls a season ago.
The Bruins need at least three big targets, and preferably four, to really have success in Noel Mazzone's offense, so somebody will need to step up. The questions at quarterback and receiver are the questions that will have to be solved for the offense to be effective, but those positions shoud be helped by the fact that the running game seems very solid.
UCLA has not been good defensively the last few years, and nowhere has that been more evident than the defensive line. UCLA has allowed 191 and 206 rushing ypg the last two seasons despite having some of the best defensive line recruits in the conference. Despite the recruiting stars, the line has epitomized the soft team that UCLA has become, and its up to new DC Lou Spanos to try and get more out of a talented group (their top six players were all top-30 defensive line recruits). The Bruins switch to a 3-4, with the two deep a who's who of recruiting talent that hasn't lived up to expectations. NC transfer Brandon Willis, returnee Donovan Carter, and 5* recruit Kevin McReynolds look like the most promising options at nose tackle, while the Bruins return two starting ends (Cassius Marsh and Datone Jones, the only player on the roster with more than two sacks last season) and have two 5* guys backing them up ( Ellis McCarthy and Owa Odighuzuwa). The challenge Mora and Spanos face is to try and get these guys to play like elite athletes instead of the soft players they've become. If they can get this group turned around, they have the depth along the rest of the defense to be very solid on this side of the football.
At linebacker, UCLA returns their top three tacklers in Pat Larimore, Eric Kendricks, and Jordan Zumwalt, as well as returning starter Damien Holmes. They also return all four starters in the secondary, which was surprisingly good last season, and could be allowed to ballhawk more with more pressure generated by the defensive front. In all, these are two solid groups, and the defense has a chance to be really good if that line can finally live up to some semblance of its recruiting talent.
UCLA has one difficult non-conference game with Nebraska, but should have a shot at home. The other two are at Rice and with Houston. In conference play, the Bruins miss Oregon and Washington from the north, and their four road trips are all winnable, at Colorado, California, Arizona St., and Washington St. Home matchups with Utah, USC, and Stanford provide the meat of the schedule.
There hasn't been a really good reason for the disaster that UCLA has been over the last decade and, even with how bad the team has been, the talent is there on paper for a quick turnaround. But its really going to take fixing the two big problem units--quarterback and defensive line--to make that happen. If Jim Mora can get even average play at those two position, I like UCLA to be competitive because their schedule is really ideal. They should be favored in eight games and, with their top four at home, an upset or two isn't out of the question. But that talent has to prove that they are something more than just recruitng stars, and if they play with the malaise of last season it will continue the long line of disappointment in Westwood. That said, Mora seems to be demanding accountability from in players in a way Neuheisel didn't, and Noel Mazzone is an innovative OC with a talented, multi-dimensional QB to play with. I like UCLA to improve immensely and finish with eight wins this season.