It’s a Friday afternoon installment of 7 Questions - better late than never, right?
Dimitri Dorlis from Bruins Nation generously donated his time to give us some good UCLA background info for the game tomorrow. An informed fan is a happy fan!
1. Might as well start with the elephant in the room – Chip’s first season UCLA thus far! Obviously the WL record isn’t quite what you’d hope for, but do you feel that he’s laying a solid foundation? Anything you wish he’d adjust at this point?
Dimitri Dorlis: It’s been more of a mixed bag than fans were expecting, to be sure. I think most fans are willing to accept the win-loss record at the moment, in part because UCLA’s schedule has been absolutely brutal (the pre-conference schedule of Cincinnati, Oklahoma, and Fresno State has a case to be the toughest any P5 team has faced this year), but also because most fans recognized that Jim Mora left this team in some dire straits when he was fired. So fans are more willing to cut some slack on that front, as long as the team has shown tangible developments. And in many aspects, the team has improved! The offensive line went from a tire fire in the preseason to “possibly good?” at this point, which is a minor miracle in and of itself considering the starting center was playing defensive line as recently as last season. Dorian Thompson-Robinson looks like he could turn into a good Pac-12 quarterback (and lord knows this conference always has a ton of those). The defense.....well, they’re really young, which is something. With how young the team is (and I’ll get into that more in the next question) fans are willing to take the lumps now for results later.
The one thing that has people a bit frustrated has been recruiting. Kelly is taking a, let’s be generous and use the word careful, approach to the recruiting game, with the staff not giving out a ton of scholarship offers and focusing more on measurables and intangibles than star ratings. Which would be all well and good if they combined that by actually recruiting their targets hard, but it’s been very laid back. There are reports that the staff is essentially punting on this recruiting class and looking to get going next year, which could create a problem where next year’s team resembles this year’s team, just a bit older.
2. I’ve heard it said from more than one UCLA fan that one of the team’s 2018 issues is that “the cupboard is relatively bare right now”, i.e. not a ton of roster talent available. FWIW some of us Oregon fans have been making the same case for our team. Folks from places like WSU or Utah often dismiss this sort of statement after comparing their own difficulties landing 4-5* recruits, but can you explain what might be going on here? Is there indeed a dearth of talent on the Bruins? Or is it more a player development and/or coaching issue?
Dimitri: It’s a bit of an interesting situation, really. It’s not that Jim Mora was necessarily a bad recruiter, but rather that he went star chasing rather than find good players who fit his system, so you end up with highly-rated guys who are fringe contributors. But the bigger reason there’s a dearth of talent at UCLA was the post-Kelly-hiring purge of Mora-era players. I’m sure you guys are familiar with Kelly enough to know he’s very “my way or highway”, and Mora’s program had a reputation of being very much a player-run program. This led to a lot of juniors and seniors transferring out and leaving the program. Off the top of my head, around 15 or so players left the program between Kelly’s hiring and the start of fall practice, with it being a combination of medical retirements and (mostly) transfers to a new program. That’s a huge talent drain, especially from a depth standpoint. It’s created a situation where UCLA has the third-youngest roster in the country, with a lot of contributions coming from true and redshirt freshmen and sophomores. No matter the star rating, trotting out guys fresh out of high school against guys with 3+ years in a college-level training program (hey Utah how’s it going) is going to be a bad time.
3. Who’s a Bruins player for us Oregon fans to watch on offense, and what should we look for? Not necessarily your most prolific offensive player - let’s hear about guys that provide something unique for your team or are otherwise instructive.
Dimitri: I mean, the obvious answer is Joshua Kelley, but he’s becoming more of a known quantity in the Pac-12 with each passing week. Still, his story is phenomenal: he only had 1 scholarship offer coming out of high school to UC Davis, then decided to walk-on at UCLA after two years when his coach was fired. UCLA took a chance on him, he earned a scholarship this spring, and has proceeded to put up rushing numbers UCLA has not seen in years. He took over as lead back against Colorado, and finally ended a 4-game streak of 100+ rushing yard games last week against Utah (and that streak included games against Cal and Washington). The other guy to watch is center Boss Tagaloa. Tagaloa was playing on the defensive line last year, moved over to the offense this offseason, and after a 3-game suspension to start the year, has started every game at center and completely changed the trajectory of the offensive line. When he plays well, the offensive line looks really good, so he’s pretty much the key to their success at this point.
4. And how about one on defense?
Dimitri: A few guys, though the defense is really riding the struggle bus at the moment. Darnay Holmes is a future NFL star at corner, and he had one of the most athletic plays I’ve ever seen live a few weeks ago against Arizona where he chased down a running back from a standing position and knocked the ball out from behind to prevent a touchdown. The other guy is nose tackle Atonio Mafi. Mafi’s a true freshman, and he’s BIG (he’s listed at 6-2, 380 in the press notes), but surprisingly quick. He’ll start, and while he might not have a huge impact on the game at this point, but watch for him in a year or two when he has a full offseason in a college training program (he didn’t even have his first practice until the second week of fall camp as he was recovering from ankle surgery).
5. What’s an advantage UCLA might be able to exploit against Oregon this Saturday?
Dimitri: I don’t know, is Justin Herbert playing? If he’s not playing, UCLA’s defense may be able to focus all of their attention on stopping Oregon’s rushing attack, which may be enough. Not perfect, but enough. Meanwhile on offense, I’m not super familiar with Oregon’s defense but it seems like they can get victimized by efficient drives, which is something UCLA’s offense is supposed to do well. Add on to that how Arizona ran all over the Ducks last week, and that UCLA needs to run to have success on offense, and you get the basic idea of what UCLA will have to do to be successful.
6. What’s a weakness or disadvantage specific to this matchup that you guys are worried about?
Dimitri: I mean....we did just give up 325 rushing yards to Utah. Our linebackers are really bad, so Oregon may not need to actually throw the ball to move it with any sort of consistency.
7. And the obligatory predictions - let’s do the final score, plus one other key team or player stat. What say you?
Dimitri: I was so willing to pick UCLA to get blown out here after our game last Friday, and then you all went out and got blown out by Arizona. Still, I think Oregon is the better team right now, and they seem to play better at home, so I’ll go 38-24 Ducks. As for a key team stat, I think Oregon’s QB throws for less than 150 yards. You can decide whether that’s because Herbert is out and the replacement isn’t that good or because the Ducks realize they never need to throw against UCLA’s porous run defense.