2015: 8-5 OVERALL (5-4 Pac-12 South)
2017 NFL Draft Prospects: WR/CB Ishmael Adams, LB Jayon Brown, TE Nate Iese, OT Conor McDermott, DE Takkarist McKinley, CB Fabian Moreau, DT Eddie Vanderdoes
Jim Mora Jr. doesn’t get enough credit for the foundation he has built in UCLA. There, I’ve said it. In this day and age, it’s all about winning championships, as Sun Devils head coach Todd Graham will tell you. But re-branding the Bruins was going to take some time, and all that’s missing now is a Pac-12 Championship for the former NFL veteran head coach.
You look at the improvement in the talent he’s brought in through recruiting (second only to cross town rivals USC since 2012) and how his program has developed them into NFL talent (20 players drafted under his watch). The guy just knows how to get talent, evident just this past April when the Bruins had eight players selected in the 2016 NFL Draft, second only to Ohio State and Clemson.
But critics will then question why UCLA hasn’t seen more success with such talented players at Mora’s disposal. In fact many pointed to last season as being the year things would all come together for the Bruins, but injuries, especially on defense, derailed what could have been the year it all came together with the conference lacking that one imposing team to take on the likes of the SEC and Big Ten super powers.
During the off-season, along with the player turnover (six players left early for NFL glory) came the hiring of a new offensive coordinator as Noel Mazzone had departed for greener pastures to Texas A&M. While Mazzone’s offense had statistically continued to improve over the course of his four years in charge, Kennedy Polamalu brings the promise of a more traditional pro-style offense where tight ends and fullbacks will be utilized more.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR FROM THE BRUINS ON OFFENSE
2015 S&P+ Offense: 23rd in FBS
2016 Returning Starters Offense: 9
Percentage of Offensive Yards Returning: 61.9% (81st in FBS)
Career Starts Offensive Line: 63 (57th in FBS)
Gone are the swing passes and inside zones of Mazzone, replaced by what should be somewhat more of a power football approach (this should sound familiar among both sets of fans from the LA schools). And when you have a young prototypical drop-back passer in sophomore Josh Rosen, why not build a system around him to utilize the tools of a player that has the potential to be a once in a generation talent at the most important position in football.
To Polamalu’s credit, he’s been saying all the right things in terms of keeping some of the elements of Mazzone’s system while blending in new schemes to help lend flexibility to attack any defense in the conference and get away from how predictable the offense became over the past few seasons. He’ll be forced to replace the best running back in the conference last year not named Christian McCaffrey in Paul Perkins. Soso Jamabo, Bolu Olorunfunmi, and Nate Starks form a talented trio in the 2016 Bruins backfield, each complimenting at the position in their own way without one of them standing out so far in camp. They’ll have large expectations on them with how successful the Bruins running game was last season, as Mazzone looked to take as much pressure as possible off his true freshman quarterback.
Former defensive back Ishmael Adams becomes the latest player to transition from one side of the ball to the other (the most successful being 2014 NFL 1st round pick Anthony Barr) as the Bruins were desperate to add talent at the position that lost four of its top five pass catchers from a season ago. With Adams, Darren Andrews, Theo Howard, Mossi Johnson, and Alex Van Dyke getting the most reps so far this summer, one thing is for sure, the Bruins will have speed at their disposal to threaten opposing defenses. And Nate Iese adds the threat of the tight end position, new to the offense in 2016.
Rosen throws ill-advised INT
Mora: "Dumbass, what the f— are you thinking? You get on the cover of Sports Illustrated w/ that bullshit?"
— Matt Cummings (@mbcummings15) August 17, 2016
But the more things change for the UCLA offense, the more they stay the same with the high expectations Mora has for his sophomore quarterback, who is the early favorite to be the top pick in the 2018 NFL draft. The Bruins head coach has compared Rosen’s development path to that of Peyton Manning during his days at Tennessee. Which made all the more sense when Mora boldly stated that if Rosen were eligible for the 2016 draft, he would have been selected ahead of first overall pick Jared Goff from Cal.
Rosen and the passing offense will be challenged right off the bat in the opener against Texas A&M and one of this year’s best NFL prospects in defensive end Myles Garrett. Think back to how nasty that defensive front was against former ASU quarterback Mike Bercovici and the ASU offensive line in the 2015 season opener. But Rosen has shown if his offensive line can keep a clean pocket, he has the ability to perform as one of the best quarterbacks in the country even as an underclassman.
Conor McDermott, the Bruins massive left tackle and all-conference performer, will be tasked once again with keeping Rosen upright against the likes of Garrett and pass rushers in the Pac-12. Much like Rosen, the new offensive style fits McDermott’s strengths much better on an offensive line that allowed the least amount of sacks in the the conference but loses three of its starters from 2015. In fact last year showed that given good health, UCLA could actually form a solid offensive line unit, as injuries and bad luck had decimated this position group the previous three seasons under Mora.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR FROM THE BRUINS ON DEFENSE
2015 S&P+ Defense: 51st in FBS
2015 Havoc Rate: 81st in FBS
2016 Returning Starters Defense: 8
Percentage of Total Tackles Returning: 82.8% (4th in FBS)
The decision to hire long-time Penn State assistant Tom Bradley as a replacement for Jeff Ulbrich at defensive coordinator paid off in spades for Mora. Even with the slew of injuries sustained, Bradley produced a Defensive S&P+ improvement from 51st in the nation in 2014 to 25th last season including the best pass defense in the conference. Amazing when you consider Bradley didn’t have defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes for 11 of those games, while tacking on season ending injuries to his best linebacker in Myles Jack, and best cover corner in Fabian Moreau along the season went on.
The return of a healthy Vanderdoes will do wonders to improve on the weakness of the 2015 defense, its ability to stop the run. Add to it that the Bruins will be transitioning from a 3-4 front to that of a 4-3 which fits the roster construction much better. Losing Kenny Clark at nose hurts, but he and Vanderdoes played like carbon copies of each other so that subtraction looks to be taken care of. Takkarish McKinley and Deon Hollins are a formidable pair of rush ends and compliment Vanderdoes on the outside of what should be the best defensive line in the Pac-12 this fall.
Jayon Brown is one of the steadiest tacklers at linebacker position in the conference and will once again be joined by Isaako Savaiinae whose skills as a pass defender downfield rivaled only that of Jack before his injury. These two will stay on the field in sub-packages to help compliment a decorated secondary that only adds to its riches by welcoming back Moreau and his 28 career starts at corner.
When the Bruins roll into Sun Devil Stadium they will have already faced two tough opponents on the road during the Aggies and the BYU Cougars during the month of September. Given a tune-up against a rebuilding Arizona defense the week before, the Devils could be witness to a Bruins offense hitting full-stride, given their offensive line stays healthy and Rosen finds a go-to receiver among a deep and talented depth chart.
The match-up against the Bruins defense looks to be frightening at this point for the Devils with a green offensive line going up against a very talented group of pass rushers on the defensive line. The Bruins look to bring the best defense the Devils will have seen at this point in the schedule, and this game will prove to be Chip Lindsay’s biggest test of his first season as the new ASU offensive coordinator.
Since Graham and Mora Jr. took over their programs going into the 2012 campaign, the series has split with each team winning on the other’s home field each and every season. Will the pattern continue? Or will a win at home help propel Graham into a surprising run in conference against the team the media picked to win the conference back at Pac-12 Media Day?
For more statistical information on UCLA, check out Gary Doran’s Advanced Stats Report.
**Havoc Rating was devised by Bill Connelly – “The percentage of plays in which a defense either recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble, or defensed a pass (intercepted or broken up). If QB hurries were a reliable stat (at the college level, there is far too much inconsistency in how they are recorded), they would be included here, too.”
**S&P designed by Football Outsiders – “Takes into account efficiency (Success Rates), explosiveness (IsoPPP), and factors related to field position and finishing drives. It is now presented in two forms: the first is a percentile, and the second is an adjusted scoring margin specific for this specific season’s scoring curve.”