clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Duck Dive: UCLA Football 2023 Preview

Going deep with the Bruins’ scheme, returning personnel, and unknowns

Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl - Pittsburgh v UCLA Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images

Special thanks to Michael Hanna of The B Team podcast for joining me on the Quack 12 Podcast to discuss UCLA’s roster. LISTEN HERE

Nota bene: UCLA still hasn’t posted their 2023 roster, and last season they waited until August to post the 2022 update. They also didn’t play a televised Spring game, and while they opened practices to the media, made about half of them difficult to actually observe. I’m grateful to Michael for walking me through a frustratingly opaque roster, but with this much deliberate concealment of what every other program treats as public information, some mistakes are inevitable. I’ll post corrections before the season begins.


UCLA’s offense reached its peak under head coach Kelly’s tenure, ranking 5th in F+ advanced statistics in what’s clearly an offensively driven program. Two of the reasons for success were apparent before the season began: their fifth-year starting quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson as both a dynamic passer and a runner who’d conquered his turnover issues, and arguably the best running back in the league Zach Charbonnet in one of the few Pac-12 offenses that’s genuinely interested in explosive rushing and doesn’t abandon the run easily.

The third reason was quite a surprise given the previous four years of film study on Kelly’s time in Westwood, which is that he finally pared the playbook down from the massive and constantly shifting encyclopedia to a straightforward “best-of album” featuring the most effective plays.

What becomes of the playbook now that Thompson-Robinson is off to the NFL, drafted in the 5th round by the Browns, is quite an unknown. As Michael and I talked about for a while on the top of the podcast, it’s very difficult to disentangle Kelly’s UCLA offense from Thompson-Robinson’s skillset, they’ve been together as playcaller and starting QB for all five years. Other than the weekly changes in the playbook most years, the most eye-catching thing to me about the play design is the shortened passing progression. Rather than standing in the pocket and reading through every possible throw and only scrambling as a last resort if the pocket is breaking down, it was clear to me that most of Kelly’s plays only had one or maybe two “live” routes on them, with the rest being decoys meant to engineer the real options to be more open or with bigger running room after the catch. If the play wasn’t there, the quarterback was supposed to take off and run – scrambling wasn’t a panic button, it was the second or third read. (This is different from calling Thompson-Robinson a “one-read quarterback”, something that caused UCLA fans to blow a gasket whenever it would come up. It’s also something that I’d occasionally butt heads about with fellow film reviewer Chris Osgood, who’s been breaking down Kelly’s playbook for Bruin Report Online since the beginning. I respect Chris’ opinion immensely but am reminded of Nietzsche’s comment on gazing too long into the abyss.)

Replacing Thompson-Robinson is the greatest single task UCLA faces, and perhaps existential to their fate as a football program in the next few years. There are six scholarship quarterbacks on the roster, all of whom Michael said were practicing in the Spring. The three returners are #4 QB Garbers, a 2020 mid 4-star who originally enrolled at UW and has been the backup the past two seasons, #11 QB Griffin, a 2019 mid 3-star who was the backup in 2020, and #6 QB Martin, a 2022 low 4-star who redshirted. The additions are redshirt senior Collin Schlee, Kent State’s starter last year and backup the two before that, and true freshmen 5-star Dante Moore and high 3-star Luke Duncan.

I think those six can be broken into three categories. The first are the two pocket passers, Garbers and Moore. Garbers hasn’t been a bad backup, and Michael said he’s been the most consistent performer in Spring and his improved from previous years, but both of us think he’s a not very good fit for what Kelly wants to do and that he tends to check the ball down way too easily – that’s kept his yards per completion very low and dragged his career passer rating down to just 127.9. Moore has an astonishing Hudl film in terms of accuracy and power with maybe the quietest base I’ve ever seen, and as a pure pocket passer if he were given a perfectly vanilla playbook I suspect he’d beat out Garbers (and anyone else in the room) by the beginning of the season. I know from watching game film that Garbers isn’t a runner, and from talking to Michael and reading the extensive evaluations on Moore I think he can buy some extra pocket time and pick up a few yards on a scramble but wouldn’t be anything like the athlete Thompson-Robinson was for this offense.

The next category are the two dual-threats. I haven’t seen Martin play but the description that Michael gave on the podcast was pretty interesting – he used phrases like “combine warrior … highest physical upside, strongest arm, biggest build, fastest” and “if he learns how to play QB at a high level he’s a top-five draft pick.” However, Michael also said that he didn’t have much high school development or the same level of play, and he’s having a tougher time picking up this playbook; as he put it, “the problem is decision-making … pure inconsistency in making the right decision. The game still moves a little bit too fast for Martin right now.” Schlee is on the other end of the experience spectrum, clearly a veteran with a respectable 142.1 NCAA passer rating and pretty good rushing stats, 5.4 YPC on 130 career carries. As we described him on the podcast, Schlee looks like “a poor man’s DTR” with a low ceiling but a high floor and a decent fit for what Kelly usually puts on the field.

The final two I think aren’t serious candidates, and I doubt a more aggressive roster manager would even have them on scholarship. Duncan is simply the odd man out – he has no playing experience unlike the two guys he’s more talented than on paper, and if the Bruins are going to pick a freshman it’s unlikely they’ll go with a 3-star instead of one of their coveted bluechips. Griffin is now something called an “Athlete/Creator-in-Residence” (which rivals Stanford’s coaches for silly titles, though UCLA also created the powerfully redundant “Director of Leadership” position for Ken Niumatalolo), creating some scheduling tension between the two great American passions, football and brand monetization.

I don’t think Martin will be ready to play, even though he seems like a more ideal fit for Kelly’s offenses if in the future he develops a head for the playbook. As Michael aptly noted on the podcast, if UCLA is going with a pocket passer it’s illogical to invest in Garbers who has only one or two seasons left instead of a true freshman who appears ready to play now, which is the precedent Kelly set with Thompson-Robinson in 2018. My prediction is that Moore will take the soft launch (it’s two G5s and an FCS team, all played in southern California) and Kelly will attempt a more diverse passing playbook, with Schlee as the backup and safety net in case Kelly wants to go back to his bread and butter.

Whether or not Kelly sticks with a pocket-passing offense, and which of the idiosyncrasies I’ve documented over the last five seasons of watching UCLA film are unique to him and which to Thompson-Robinson, are anybody’s guess. I’ve spent the better part of the last 15 years figuring out Kelly’s offenses and I don’t know how this is going to work without a running QB. Everything I’ve ever seen in that time tells me Kelly needs a QB who a) is an active part of the designed rushing offense, b) uses his superior athleticism to break the pocket after a deliberately abbreviated passing progression, and c) bails out an overthought playbook and an underinvested offensive line through frequent scrambling, with none of those three elements being optional.

Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl - Pittsburgh v UCLA Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images

Zach Charbonnet was drafted in the 2nd round by the Seahawks. The former high 4-star and Michigan transfer was over a thousand-yard rusher with an elite 7.0 YPC, and on my tally sheet was the best “yaco” back in the conference, meaning the ballcarrier with the highest rate of flipping failed runs due to poor blocking into wins by running through contact. UCLA also loses Christian Grubb, a low 3-star 2019 recruit who was pretty much only used in their FCS game.

Parsing UCLA’s backup running back situation in 2022 is a little tricky, due to years of poor recruiting and roster management and a midseason absence of their most promising freshman. The three returners with multiple games are #22 RB K. Jones, a former walk-on from 2019, #25 RB Harden, a mid 3-star from 2022, and #7 RB Yankoff, who was a mid 4-star QB who signed with UW in 2018 then transferred to UCLA and converted to WR but has really only played as a backup RB. Here’s a distribution table of the carries last year:

Jones is probably best understood as last year’s primary backup, although at only 4.4 YPC and a far lower efficiency rate on my tally sheet, I agree with Michael’s assessment on the podcast that he’s not a great option and I wasn’t surprised to hear him say Jones has been practicing with the slot receivers this Spring instead. Harden had a very impressive 7.4 YPC, though over an odd sample – three games at the beginning of the year and two at the end (this is strange, Michael thought it was a midseason injury but I can’t find any reporting to confirm that, and Harden came in for a single run against Stanford right in the middle of that vacant stretch and looked healthy).

Yankoff is just too tall for the position at 6’4”, he might have some utility on gadget plays but his center of gravity is far too high to be an every-down back or a primary backup; he only got substantial run in one game when Charbonnet was held out, and when he opted out of the bowl Yankoff barely saw the field in favor of Harden and the underperforming Jones. There’s another putative returner, #31 RB Murrell, a high 3-star from the 2021 class, but in two years I’ve only seen him in one game against an FCS team, and he doesn’t appear on any practice reports – Michael said his status is something of a mystery and I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t appear on the revised roster.

There are three additions to the unit: Army transfer Anthony Adkins, Ball State transfer Carson Steele, and mid 3-star freshman Isaiah Carlson. Adkins had to sit out the 2022 season but was a bruiser the previous two years and Michael said he’ll be the short-yardage TD vulture (he also said Adkins has sneaky good hands out of the backfield from practice reports, though has no recorded catches in 23 games with the Black Knights). Steele has some astonishing stats – over 1,500 rushing yards on 289 carries last year, and another 29 receptions, meaning he was over 37% of the Cardinals’ total offense and took almost 46% of all touches. Carlson has such a logjam ahead of him that Michael suspects he won’t play this year and will switch over to linebacker in the future since he played defense in high school; his 24/7 profile lists that as a strong possibility as well.

This looks like a two-back primary rotation between Steele as the workhorse and Harden as the potential breakout, plus Adkins as the situational specialist. Steele has certainly proven he can carry the load, but even against weaker G5 defenses he wasn’t generating a particularly noteworthy average. Harden has shown some real flashes but last year’s dataset is weird enough that his average will probably come down once he’s playing against a full range of defenses. If either replicates what Charbonnet was doing for UCLA last year I’ll be stunned.

This unit was bound to be odd given how much Charbonnet – quite naturally – dominated it, but this is much stranger than it needs to be and it seems like there was no planning at all for his inevitable NFL departure. The room is simultaneously too big and too small – from reports and my own observations I doubt a more aggressive roster manager would have Jones, Yankoff, Murrell, or Carlson on scholarship, and for a unit that’s so essential to Kelly’s offense it’s bizarre to be relying on two G5 transfers and a kid with four FBS games’ experience in year six of his tenure. I don’t know what’ll happen if any of the three serious backs – Steele, Harden, or Adkins – were to be unavailable.

The tight end unit loses Michael Ezeike, who got 20 catches last year, David Priebe, who never caught a pass in five seasons, and Michael Martinez, a blocker who left last August.

Kelly’s offenses at UCLA for the previous four seasons had featured a highly reliable tight end who’d get four to five catches per game for 15 yards or so apiece, and then he’d go on to be drafted – that was Caleb Wilson in 2018, Devin Asiasi in 2019, and Greg Dulcich in 2020 and 2021. None of the tight ends in 2022 fit that description, however; instead that role and those stats shifted to a tall wideout, Duke transfer Jake Bobo (he’s since signed a UDFA contract with the Seahawks).

I’m not expecting any of the returners to take up the mantle in 2023. Two of them are blockers, #81 TE Habermehl (like Dulcich a former walk-on) and redshirt freshman low 4-star #28 TE Pedersen. The third, another low 4-star from 2022, #20 TE Ryan, may or may not have burned his redshirt (he got catches in the three non-con games, a tackle in a fourth, and was on the field but recorded no stats in a fifth) – according to Michael he’s more of a pass-catcher but he’s probably a year away from contributing.

The intriguing addition is Oregon transfer Moliki Matavao. He has the dimensions, experience, and talent to possibly become the next TE in that lineage under Kelly. He graded out pretty highly for me at Oregon last year, though he had only a third the receptions as the leading TE in a pretty loaded room in an offense that used 12-personnel a lot, and was more of the blocker of the Ducks’ pair of 2021 4-stars.

NCAA Football: Washington at UCLA Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

In addition to Bobo, the Bruins also lose Kazmeir Allen and Matt Sykes from the wide receiver room. Sykes transferred out after getting just a few catches as one of the many decoys in this offense, but Allen had converted from a running back to fill in for Kyle Philips, the slot receiver who was the other primary pass-catcher in this offense’s two-outlet approach for the first four years.

Four returners caught passes last year: #0 WR Brown, #2 WR Mokiao-Atimalala, #17 WR Loya, and #14 WR Norwood. A couple of 2022 recruits redshirted, low 4-star #18 WR Marshall and mid 3-star #15 WR Pegan. Mid 3-star #25 WR Staples has apparently rejoined the team after leaving halfway through Fall camp last year.

There are four additions to the wideout room. Two are pretty coveted transfers, former 5-star Kyle Ford from USC and former 4-star J. Michael Sturdivant from Cal. The others are a couple of low 4-star true freshmen, Grant Gray and Jeremiah McClure.

After talking to Michael I think we agree that there are several guys we can set aside for this year as likely non-contributors. Gray and McClure will probably redshirt, Staples will need more time to get back in the coaches’ good graces if at all, and Marshall’s hands are at least a year away from being reliable. Loya and Norwood are both very short, and are redshirt seniors who were passed up last year when Kelly needed a slot guy to replace Philips. A more aggressive roster manager would have processed Loya out long ago, instead he’s stuck around to likely be spurned again and former walk-on Norwood was given a scholarship (Michael thinks the running back Jones is ahead of Norwood at the slot position if it comes to it).

For the starter at slot, Michael thinks the leading candidate is Mokiao-Atimalala, who was a low 4-star in the 2021 cycle who originally signed at UCF. He graded out the best by a wide margin of any returner on my tally sheet last year and I thought on any team that used more than two main outlets he’d be a real weapon, so moving him up to starter made sense to me. But since he’s 6’1” I was surprised to hear Michael say he’d play in the slot, since that’s a shorter receiver’s job in general and definitely for Kelly over the last five years in particular – I’m interested to see how that’ll play out, though as mentioned above I think all other options are inferior.

It’s obvious that Sturdivant jumps to the top of the depth chart at outside receiver, his numbers are very good already and from watching his film last year I think his actual talent is even better than what he could show in Bill Musgrave’s lousy offense. Brown is also an outside receiver and I haven’t been as big of fan as Michael has (I think he lacks the vertical for it), though it’s possible that could change with a different QB. Michael also said to watch out for the 6’4” Pegan emerging from Spring practices, I’ve never seen him play but reportedly he looks ready to compete … given how much of this room is likely to leave after this season a wise roster manager might give him plenty of reps to get him ready to take over in 2024, though this is UCLA.

I also think that Ford is better than his numbers at USC indicate, given my belief that the Trojans’ previous staff weirdly mismanaged their wide receiver room despite operating a quasi-Air Raid offense. I also think the massive wave of transfer receivers the current staff on the other side of Wilshire took last year in its “throw spaghetti at the wall” strategy caused a lot of guys to have more modest stats than their film would predict, Ford included. Given his size and the way he runs routes, I think that Michael is right when he projects Ford to replace Bobo as the big possession receiver, rather than a speedy outside burner down the sideline.

In my opinion, there are two ways this will all play out. The first is a multiple-weapon, full-progression passing offense – that approach has Matavao and Ford in distinct roles as do-it-all TE and big Y receiver respectively, Mokiao-Atimalala in the slot with a different set of routes from Ford, and Brown and Sturdivant as the starting flankers rotating with some of the freshmen to get them experience for 2024. There is a hopeful part of me that would like to see Kelly stretch his mastery of the playbook and employ Moore’s pocket passing ability to use that array of receivers.

But the more cynical part of me suspects we’ll see basically the same thing as the last five years: two guys getting almost all the targets while everybody else is a decoy, and the QB just tucks the ball if it’s not there, meaning a running QB takes over. In that case Matavao and Ford would be at odds for the singular Wilson/Asiasi/Dulcich/Bobo role, and the rest of the passes are engineered for Mokiao-Atimalala (or maybe one of the short guys if I’m really cynical) in the Philips/Allen role. That would sadly leave Sturdivant’s talents to waste, because Kelly’s playbook over the last five years really didn’t have a use for his type of sideline receiver.

The offensive line loses three of the five starters from last year, left tackle Raiqwon O’Neal, left guard Atonio Mafi, and right guard Jon Gaines, plus longtime rotational center Sam Marrazzo. Two redshirt seniors transferred out who never played, Baraka Beckett and converted defensive lineman Tyler Manoa.

There are two returners from the lineup, #62 C Clemens who’s been a starter on the interior since his true freshman season in 2019, and #72 RT DiGiorgio who was a new addition last year after both longtime tackles left at the end of the previous season. Both look like they’ll stay in the same spots.

Along with Paul Grattan’s departure last offseason, and Clemens’ after this one, the loss of Mafi, Gaines, and Marrazzo will represent the changing of the guard for the five core interior linemen who’ve defined the o-line in Kelly’s time in Westwood. However, rather than planning for this changeover organically through developing prep recruits and giving them backup time — as Michael brought up on the podcast might have been expected from an ostensible football purist — it appears the plan is to simply plug in three transfers with limited eligibility, and then do this all over again next offseason with more departing starters.

Those three transfers are Khadere Kounta, a 2-star from Old Dominion for left tackle, Spencer Holstege, a low 3-star from Purdue for left guard, and Jake Wiley, a low 3-star from Colorado for right guard, all of whom were originally in the 2019 cycle. I’ve been charting Wiley’s games for a long time and his grades are in line with the rest of the Buffaloes’ abysmal performances; I haven’t watched film on the other two but neither are considered 4-star transfer values as O’Neal was when he came in from Rutgers last year.

The data we have so far on starting transfer portal o-linemen right away show that the more you rely on them, the worse you perform. In 2023, more teams than ever are betting on lines built out of the portal and I’ll be able to massively expand the dataset on that question going forward, and so teams like UCLA in the upcoming season may cause me to re-evaluate that relationship in the future. But with what I know right now I’m pretty skeptical this is going to work.

As far as backup candidates go, there’s basically zero available playing experience. The one who’s seen the field the most is USC transfer #78 OL Douglass, who took a handful of backup reps with the Trojans over 2019-21 before transferring last season, but I’ve never seen him with UCLA and he’s been absent from practice reports all year (unfortunately I think a long-lasting injury has kept him from the field, I made sure to inquire after him with Michael but there isn’t much more information to be had). Michael said the two lowest rated players in the 24/7 composite, low 3-stars #54 OL Carlin and #52 OL Roy, have gotten some garbage time play; I don’t have that on my tally sheet so I can’t confirm. They’ve taken one Juco, Caleb Walker, but he was only at the College of the Sequoias for one year and I’m unable to confirm he played there as a freshman. There are six other scholarship linemen, including one other previous transfer and a true freshman, who average at a mid 3-star and who’ve never played college ball.

I have no idea what will happen if any of the starters are unavailable. Considering how much UCLA runs the ball they’ve had a remarkable streak of avoiding injuries that would test the precarious depth with which Kelly has operated this unit his entire tenure, and it appears his plan is to hope that continues. I don’t see any inclination to change how the development cycle has worked over the previous five years; as Michael put it on the podcast, “All you need to do to play offensive line at UCLA is to have played football somewhere else for at least one year, because Lord knows they’re not going to recruit and develop the offensive line position. It’s really just bandaided as you go along.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 19 USC at UCLA Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images


UCLA’s defense ranked 84th in F+ in 2022. It had switched schemes to a 4-2-5 under new defensive coordinator Bill McGovern, however he was away from the team for much of the year for health reasons, and on the day we recorded with Michael, UCLA announced his passing from cancer. Earlier in his life McGovern had recovered from pancreatic cancer to resume his passion of coaching football, and it was a wrenching loss for it to have returned and taken him away again.

Michael said that during McGovern’s time away from the team, the defense was called by new LB coach Norton, along with longtime DB coach Norwood. The structure was not the “Striker-Raider” system that Norwood brought with him from Navy which he’d been calling as the shadow DC under titular DC Jerry Azzinaro before he was relieved and McGovern arrived, but rather the same 4-3 modified into a base nickel that Norton was familiar with from his seven years as an NFL DC prior to joining the Bruins.

I’m sure that McGovern’s absence was a disruption, and weighed heavily on the entire staff. But it is my opinion, formed through long observation and offered with respect to the departed, that the Norton/Norwood defense produced substantially the same performance as we would have seen otherwise. I believe that the reasons the Bruins have had poor defenses for the last five seasons did not start or stop with McGovern, but rather are structural to Kelly’s program – underinvestment in recruiting, complacent roster management, over-reliance on transfers from lower divisions, a lack of toughness in run defense, and fundamentally poor technique in pass coverage.

DC Lynn, a rising NFL assistant but first time coordinator, has taken over and appears to be keeping a similar 4-2-5 structure. It remains to be seen what differences in playcalling will emerge throughout the upcoming season in terms of blitz patterns and man/zone preferences, though Michael said we’ve gotten the typical offseason boilerplate about increased aggression.

Last season, in switching from Norwood’s system (which was also technically a 4-down front but the pass rush and edge containment came from hybrid DB/OLBs as opposed to traditional ends), the Bruins took some time shuffling personnel among the various types of backers to re-sort who’d be ILBs, DEs, and DTs in this system. On top of this, many of the DTs were originally recruited (or flipped from other programs) to Azzinaro’s 3-down front, and the virtue of Norwood’s system was that those often stayed at similar techs along the line, whereas for 2022 they were asked to take on true 4-down DT roles.

The rush defense efficiency dipped to its lowest level I’ve charted in Kelly’s tenure, a 41.5% defensive success rate against opponents’ designed runs (121 successes vs 170 failures, given the down & distance, excluding garbage time). It was particularly poor situationally when they knew the opponent was inclined to run the ball: 26% on 2nd & short, 36% on 2nd & medium, 35% on 3rd & short. From charting each of UCLA’s games, rushing down defensive failures broke down to a pretty even split in terms of personnel problems at all three units of the front: the tackles didn’t have the ability to take on combos, the ends couldn’t reliably set the edge, and the backers suffered from a lot of confusion about which gap to flow to.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 22 UCLA at Oregon Photo by Steve Conner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The defensive tackles lose one of starters, Jacob Sykes, as well as a player who I think would have been in the main rotation had his injury status allowed it, Martin Andrus, and a transfer out I’d never seen, Hayden Harris.

They return the other starter, #93 DT Toia, a 4-star who’d flipped over from USC and who has the sheer size to be a very effective combo-eater in the structure of this defense, if not a gap-shooter. The other three players — in what looked like it was going to be a six-man rotation for two spots — also return, though none of their grades are particularly impressive: #58 DT G. Smith was the best of them though he missed a couple games with injury at the beginning of conference play and then again at the end of the year, as well as redshirt seniors #95 DT Havili-Kaufusi and former walk-on #94 DT Magna. The last scholarship returner was a low 4-star in the 2021 cycle and the only current bluechip d-lineman Kelly actually recruited from the prep ranks, #92 DT Somerville, but I’ve never seen him play and Michael said injury and weight room issues have kept him from physically developing or practicing much.

The tackles have three additions: transfer Keanu Williams from Oregon, and 2023 recruits Grant Buckey, a high 3-star, and AJ Fuimaono, a mid 3-star. The freshmen will likely redshirt, it’s very rare that DTs are physically ready to play right away and they don’t look like exceptions. Williams graded out pretty well on my tally sheet as a backup and I think he was just worked out by a crowded room in Eugene; transferring into a smaller and less competitive one seemed like a smart decision to me.

From practice reports and Michael’s observations it’s looking like the top three guys are Toia, Smith, and Williams, which checks out – Williams’ experience puts him behind Smith but his grades and talent put him well ahead of the rest. Five DTs for two spots is a bit too small for a comfortable rotation given the high risk of dings to this unit and I’d be worried that Somerville isn’t going to be available yet — even in his third year — to be the sixth guy, which is why I understood reading some reports that one of the too-small ends was sometimes practicing with the tackles. It would have been better to have cleared out some cap space at one of the many other units with a lot of career benchwarmers and picked up some more actual tackles from the portal, however.

The defensive ends return all four players in the main rotation: #4 DE C. Jones, #15 DE Latu, and twins #11 DE Ga. Murphy and #12 DE Gr. Murphy. Each of them were pretty effective at generating havoc plays, especially Latu, which is incredible because before he transferred in from UW he’d received an injury prognosis that he’d never play again.

All four were part of the 2019 cycle, but only Jones played as a true freshman and will run out of eligibility at the end of this year. He’s a converted OLB from the previous scheme and is about 30 lbs undersized to really set the edge properly as a DE in a 4-down front, but I’ve always liked him as a savvy pass rusher and even more so as a veteran. The Murphys were transfers in from North Texas last year and graded out about where I expected – slightly less lengthy than the truly elite edges and not quite the same glowing performances as at the G5 level, but far and away the best unit on this defense. Those two and Latu each redshirted in 2019 so should be eligible in 2024, but given the premium the NFL places on edge rushers I would expect all of them to declare at the end of the season.

There are two other returners, mid 3-star #41 DE Aupiu who initially signed with Notre Dame in 2021 and low 3-star #48 DE Price from the 2020 class, but the former has basically never gotten meaningful reps and the latter I don’t believe has seen the field at all. There’s only one addition, redshirt senior Ivy League transfer Jake Heimlicher who’s racked up a lot of tackles in his career.

Astonishingly, UCLA has recruited no prep DEs at all in either the 2022 or 2023 cycles, even knowing they were using this defensive structure. The last time the Bruins recruited a prep edge was in 2021, but all of three of them transferred out at the end of that year. They took four in 2020; one was Price and the rest left the team without ever playing a snap. Other than Jones from 2019, UCLA has been completely dependent on transfers, and a very small number of them who’ve all paid off on their long odds.

The upshot in 2023 is that the ends have a good, tight rotation, but absolutely nothing behind them in terms of FBS experience and a looming void for next year. On a more prescient squad I would expect to see a lot of freshman recruitment, several portal additions, and an expanded rotation in 2023 to get new players some experience and lay a foundation for 2024. But as Michael and I discussed extensively on the podcast, none of that has happened or is likely to for the rest of the year. As long as Jones, Latu, and the Murphys stay healthy this unit should be very good since they won’t dilute their production with anyone else – they’re living on borrowed time and highly unlikely to get the same stroke of good fortune in the portal the next time they try this, but if all one is concerned about is today’s performance then tomorrow is another day.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 19 USC at UCLA Photo by Kiyoshi Mio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The linebackers don’t really lose any significant contributors, though there are a lot of players who’ve gone through this pretty big and somewhat confusing room due to the scheme changes, boom-and-bust recruiting cycles, and moving guys around in recent years. Bo Calvert and Shea Pitts have run out of eligibility, though Calvert had increasingly been playing up on the line rather than at depth, and Pitts was a former walk-on who mostly came in for mop-up duty. A couple of 2020 recruits who never played have transferred out, Jake Newman and Jeremiah Trojan, as has another walk-on who got a few reps, Adam Cohen.

Five returners got significant playing time last year. The two I’d probably call starters (though there was some debate over this question on the podcast) were Hawai’i transfer #53 ILB Muasau and 2020 low 4-star #21 ILB Vaughns. The next two in were 2020 high 3-star #9 ILB Bryant-Strother and 2019 low 3-star #20 ILB Medrano. The last one in, though he played in every game, was former walk-on #49 Schwesinger.

Also returning are #1 ILB Kaho, a former mid 4-star who’d previously transferred in from Alabama and played in 2021 but missed 2022 with a leg injury, and mid 3-star freshman #17 ILB Woods who maintained his redshirt last year but got in a handful of backup reps (Michael said Woods may be due for a breakout in 2024 so could get in some solid backup time in 2023). The last guy is #52 ILB Nelson, whom I haven’t seen play in his two years on the team nor is he mentioned in any practice reports, and Michael said may not be on the team, although UCLA sent out a recent tweet about him.

There are four additions to the unit. Femi Oladejo transferred in from Cal, where he was a starting linebacker last year. There other three are freshmen, each an appropriately sized mid-to-high 3-star (which is far more healthy prep recruiting than I’m accustomed to seeing from this squad), and I expect to redshirt.

I thought that Vaughns and Bryant-Strother had the highest upside when watching their film last year. Michael reminded me that for reasons that surpass understanding the Bruins have been playing Bryant-Strother out of position up until last season which has probably hurt his development, but hopefully he’ll catch up quick. Michael raved about Kaho; his Spring workouts have just been conditioning but he should be good to go by Fall and assuming so he’ll have a starting job as the most talented guy on the field … I remain skeptical, Kaho has played four of the last five years since 2018, including the 2021 season I charted, and has never had the breakout year we probably should have seen even before his injury. Oladejo had a very productive year for Cal, but in a scheme that funnels everything to the ILB. Michael and I both think those four will form the primary rotation, probably with Oladejo starting and then Vaughns next to him or perhaps Kaho if he’s both healthy and up to billing.

The two returners who seem not to be working out as much as hoped are Medrano and Muasau. The former is a converted wide receiver that they tried to bulk up but keep his speed, but on film he just wasn’t picking up the technical aspects of diagnosing the play and flowing properly as linebackers have to. The latter was dominant in the Mountain West and all anybody in Westwood could talk about last Spring when he transferred in, but in the Fall it was clear that he was a step slow and constantly running himself out of position. Michael wondered why a 2-star who’d played well in a G5 conference and outperformed every other UCLA linebacker in Spring practices had such a disappointing season against Pac-12 offenses; I thought that question answered itself.

Given all the experience here and a fair amount of talent by Pac-12 standards, I think this group of backers should perform fine. I think the staff made a lot of personnel mistakes in the past in terms of having guys out of position and mismatching talent to playing time, so I’m interested to see what if anything they do differently with largely the same personnel in 2023. I count a dozen players on scholarship in this unit, which is maybe four or five too many and as a result they’re hurting for depth at other positions, but at least they have a lot of options to choose from here.

The outside corners return both of last year’s starters, #3 CB Kirkwood and #6 CB Humphrey, as well as the primary backup #24 CB Davies who took over when Kirkwood was lost for the rest of the season with an injury early in their week 10 game against ASU. There are two other returners in the room, #31 CB Newcombe and #22 CB Stewart, both young mid 3-stars whom I don’t have on my tally sheet last year. There are no departures or additions to this room (the Bruins recruited one freshman, Ethan O’Connor, but he’s currently enrolled at Wazzu instead; Michael said this was for academic reasons).

The nickel defender in UCLA’s system is more of a slot corner than a third safety. Last year they brought in Azizi Hearn from Wyoming for his final year of eligibility for the position. It looks like the replacement starter in 2023 is going to be former walk-on redshirt senior #36 CB A. Johnson, who’s been a backup all over the secondary for the last few years, followed by mid 3-star #19 DB Justice (son of MLB All-Star David) whom I haven’t seen in his two seasons, and Michael says they’re projecting high 3-star freshman recruit Ty Lee to swing into this role as a backup when he arrives in the Fall.

UCLA was underwater in their pass defense efficiency at 47% (186 successes vs 207 failures), which given a fairly effective pass rush is much lower than expected. They allowed 7.8 adjusted YPA and 17.5% of opponents’ passes gained 15+ yards, which are pretty poor explosive passing defense numbers.

From watching film it was clear to me the chief culprit was simply very poor coverage by the secondary. Underlining this statistically was the discrepancy in short- and medium- vs long-yardage pass defense success rates: in any 2nd, 3rd, or 4th down situation with 6 or fewer yards to go the defensive ends had to hang back and set the edge against the possibility of the run, and the pass defense collapsed to under 37%; however, on those downs when it’s 7+ yards to go and the ends were free to just rush the passer, the success rate jumped astronomically to 76%. Reader, a nearly 40 percentage point situational jump in effectiveness is staggering. This indicates the pass rush was almost the entirety of the pass defense, and the coverage was accomplishing virtually nothing on its own.

Subjectively, I’m simply not impressed with the personnel here and I don’t hold out much hope of improvement, an opinion it seems Michael shares. Kirkwood is easily fooled by double moves, Humphrey doesn’t have great instincts or lower body technique to mirror better receivers, and Davies is constantly lunging for interceptions and leaving himself out of position. The fact that Hearn was their best option for slot corner is an indictment of the poor recruiting and development throughout the secondary, and they’re back to the same poor options again without any portal additions this time.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 22 UCLA at Oregon Photo by Steve Conner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

UCLA loses both of last year’s starting safeties, Stephan Blaylock and Mo Osling. Blaylock had been a starter for all five seasons with the Bruins and had an overall unexceptional career on my tally sheet, but in his final season I thought he’d refined his angles and tackling technique pretty well. Osling had been playing since 2017, including a mid-career redshirt in 2019; he’d bumped around to multiple positions in the secondary, including at one point at outside corner where I thought he was their best performer. I was a little surprised Osling wound up at safety instead of slot corner in 2022, but he became the team’s leading tackler by a wide margin and landed a UDFA contract with the Seahawks. I didn’t think they were any better in coverage than anyone else, but their effective tackling was, in my opinion, the biggest contributor to one of the few bright spots in the Bruins’ defense: opponents gained 10+ yards on only about 13.5% of their designed runs, which is a much better explosive rush defense rate than the rest of their statistical profile would have predicted.

The returning backups are #23 DB Churchwell, who also played a kind of quasi-linebacker role different from the slot corner position, and #32 DB Nimmo, who the official stat sheet says played in all 13 games but I only saw on the field a handful of times. Both are redshirt seniors who have been career backups, and I don’t have any real confidence based on Churchwell’s tape and Nimmo’s lack of it that they’re going to replicate Blaylock and Osling’s reliability.

The two scholarship additions are Jordan Anderson, a low 3-star from the 2019 cycle who was a starting safety for Bowling Green last year and an All-MAC contender, and borderline 4-star freshman recruit RJ Jones who’ll probably redshirt. Anderson and Churchwell are no doubt locks to be the day-1 starters here, nobody else in the room has anywhere close to their amount of experience, though I’d be concerned that Anderson may be a repeat of the Muasau situation and Churchwell’s experience isn’t exactly on-point to this position.

A couple of low 4-stars from 2022 redshirted last year, though got in a handful of backup reps, #27 DB Ramsey and #14 DB Stephens. On paper both appear to be much better talents than anyone else in the room, and Michael thinks their athleticism is going to make them impossible to keep off the field. In fact Michael made the bet that Ramsey will take one of the starters’ jobs away by midseason, and Stephens (assuming he’s healthy, he’s had some injuries in practices) will easily beat out Nimmo for the primary backup.

Anderson is at least a proven player, beyond him this really isn’t enough experience for a reliable safety unit to predict anything but a step down in performance. It’s barely enough depth in scholarship athletes at six guys for two spots, and even then one guy’s never played and three more have scarcely seen the field. They might wind up playing the unrated Juco they just took who I believe isn’t on scholarship, Zeke Thomas, just for some previous experience, in case they run into some injuries.

The secondary has by far been the biggest area of neglect on the entire team for years, and as Michael pointed out it’s especially baffling for a team in Los Angeles to not have effortlessly filled up with twitchy defensive backs. As we discussed extensively on the podcast the entire backfield could have used a massive overhaul through the portal, but they don’t have the cap space for it as has been detailed en passim throughout this article with all the scholarships expended on career benchwarmers and sentimentally gifted walk-ons.

Accountability Corner

In last year’s preview, I started out discussing Kelly’s tendency to outsmart himself, which I certainly think holds true, though I was shocked he finally curtailed the playbook. The description QB order was correct, though that was pretty easy. A lot of space was devoted to going through the backup RB options and concluded that there weren’t any really good ones, which would be obscured by how good Charbonnet was but still affect the management of the unit, and I think that proved true. I pushed back on the suggestion that Habermehl would effortlessly replace Dulcich as a TE producer (I was skeptical, that somehow Kelly would just magically get NFL TEs out of walk-ons every year), and sure enough my prediction that there would be no real TE production was correct. I thought they needed a replacement slot receiver for Philips and that it was more likely to be Allen than Loya, which was right. I thought Bobo would be the other primary pass catcher and every single one of the remaining WRs would be decoys, which was also right, but my description of him as an outside receiver and the entire discussion of inside vs outside feels pretty off to re-read. I should have made the intuitive connection that he’d be a Y-receiver replacing the missing TE production, since I had already figured out they didn’t have a TE and that’s what Kelly wants, not an outside guy – I had the individual pieces, but I failed to put them together. The personnel for the offensive line was all correct, though that wasn’t difficult, they had no other options. I thought that the tackles were going to be a problem, and their grades were certainly lower than the vets they were replacing, but O’Neal did better than I expected – I might have benefited from watching his Rutgers tape. DiGiorgio performed exactly how I thought, however.

On defense, I think the prediction that the scheme change wouldn’t fix anything in the rush defense due to not having the right bodies outside of Toia for it was correct. I got the Murphys at end right and properly dismissed everyone else, but Latu getting healthy and playing so well was possibly the biggest single-player surprise in the entire league last year. I got the ILB rotation correct and was skeptical of Muasau, though a couple of the backups I predicted wound up not playing. I expressed skepticism about Hearn at slot corner and thought it would be Osling instead, but I was wrong about that, otherwise all the starters in the secondary were exactly as predicted.

Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio - Wisconsin v Oregon