2014 Record: 10-3 (6-3 Pac-12 South)
2016 NFL Draft Prospects: defensive tackle Kenny Clark, linebacker Myles Jack, offensive tackle Conor McDermott, corner back Fabian Moreau, running back Paul Perkins, defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes.
It’s been some time since there was this much pre-season hype thrown at the two Pac-12 schools separated by 13 miles within the city of Los Angeles. And while NFL owners squabble over who might be the team to fold up tent and head to the City of Angels, at least a generation has gone by since both the USC Trojans and UCLA Bruins were predicted to be this good at the same time. But the story plot couldn’t be any more different between these two teams heading into the 2015 season.
As we portrayed in an earlier Sun Devil Schedule Study, USC has a coach in his second year with the school hitching its wagon to an experienced senior quarterback with two years of starting experience. The Bruins on the other hand are turning the page on the only starting quarterback head coach Jim Mora has worked with since coming to Westwood in 2012. In fact, it’s safe to say that Brett Hundley was the best signal caller at the school going back at least two decades since the likes of the southpaw Cade McNown (sorry Drew Olsen).
All Jim Mora at UCLA is win more games than any other coach in a three year span while helping sheppard nine of his players into becoming NFL Draft selections. But while he narrowly missed going to the Rose Bowl in his first season at the helm, you can’t help but wonder if this team should have won more games recently with the talent at hand. Sure, you could give them a pass on their 42-30 loss to Oregon at the Rose Bowl, but losing to both Utah and Stanford there as well initiated some head scratching by the thousands. A Pac-12 South title was there for the taking if they wanted it, much like it was for ASU heading into the Oregon State game, but neither team could string together the wins to secure a berth in the conference championship game.
That being said, you really can’t say enough for the job Mora has done in upgrading the talent level at the school. It seems hard to believe anyone running a FBS program in the Southern California area would have trouble recruiting at least Top-30 classes year-in and year-out. But while Mora’s predecessor Rick Neuheisel landed a Top-15 class three of his four years in charge, he failed to cultivate that talent into production on the field (21 wins with a 7-6 2009 season being the best of the bunch). Coming off back-to-back ten win seasons, Mora and his staff have recruiting well and won a lot of games in turn with two Top-10 recruiting classes and two bowl game wins in 3 years. This is certainly a team with the needle pointing up from a national perspective.
There was no better example of UCLA turning the corner as a program than the 62-27 blowout of Todd Graham’s ASU squad last September at Sun Devil Stadium. And while you could argue that the loss was the turning point of last season for the 10-win Sun Devils, no coach will tell you that they want to get embarrassed in front of their home fans as was the case on that lowly Thursday night eleven months ago.
What to look for from the Bruins on offense
2014 S&P+ Offense: 116.1 (18th in FBS)
2015 Returning Starters Offense: 10
Percentage of Offensive Yards Returning: 53% (89th in FBS)
Career Starts Offensive Line: 131 (1st in FBS)
Now to the six million dollar question: can Jim Mora, or more specifically, offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone replace Hundley’s production at the quarterback position? As this preview hits the site, UCLA had yet to name its starting quarterback going into their season opener against the Virginia Cavaliers.
While true freshman Josh Rosen and juniors Jerry Neuheisel and Mike Fafaul are all supposedly involved in the competition to be the starter this fall, it would be hard for Mazzone not to go with the top rated quarterback in the 2015 recruiting cycle. As an early enrollee, he was able to participate in the Bruins 15 spring practices and showed the ability by all accounts to run the offense. Whether or not that continues to be the case when ASU rolls into Los Angeles on Saturday, October 3 is anyone’s guess. Looking great in practice, even against this stout UCLA defense, and winning games in a competitive Pac-12 South division is two completely different things.
What we do know is that whomever is throwing passes for the Bruins this year will be surrounded by a ton of players with loaded with Pac-12 experience. In fact, no team in the conference returns more starters (ten) on offense than the Bruins including all five along the offensive line that cleared a path for the Pac-12 leading rusher in 2014, former Chandler High running back Paul Perkins. The 131 career starts by the offensive line with standout senior Jake Brendel (39 starts) at center and junior Conor McDermott (7 starts) at left tackle is tops in the country heading into 2015. What’s even more amazing is the fact that Brendel is the only senior among the two-deep.
On Monday, the Bruins witnessed three of their five starting offensive line go down to injury. At this time it’s unknown as to the severity of the injuries to Brendel, McDermott, and guard Alex Redmond (21 starts). This is scary news to the team on two fronts. First and foremost this is a team that has seen its fair share of injury woes over the past two years along the offensive line. It’s part of the reason why so many young players have received playing time. Secondly, this could certainly affect Mora and Mazzone’s willingness to send the young Rosen out there to start the season if his offensive line is not at full capacity. That’s the same sort of thing that got Neuheisel into trouble during his time at the school.
And while Mazzone has gotten a bit of a bad wrap from both the Sun Devils and Bruins fan base for his love of the screen and swing pass. While he can be somewhat predictable at times, the guy knows how to coach an offense and has shown the ability to be flexible with the tools he’s been given. He’s never going to utilize a traditional tight end in his offense, but Perkins was the real deal in 2014 and showed the type of explosion that should help keep defenses honest as the quarterback play catches up to the rest of the team.
You’d expect ASU to do what it does best with inexperienced quarterbacks, blitz early and often from multiple looks. Mazzone in turn will try to make ASU pay for its heavy handed approach by throwing quick passes to its slew of talented receivers out in space forcing the Devils to make open field tackles.
What to look for from the Bruins on defense
2014 S&P+ Defense: 109.6 (36th in FBS)
2014 Havoc Rate: 0.142 (91st in FBS)
Percentage of Total Tackles Returning: 65% (55th in FBS)
2015 Returning Starters Defense: 8
It’s never a good thing for your job security when your boss takes holds on to your head with both hands while you’re having a meltdown for all the world to see. But that’s exactly what happened to former defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich on the sidelines during the team’s loss to Oregon. It was then announced shortly after Signing Day that Ulbrich would be leaving his post to join the Atlanta Falcons coaching staff as the team’s new linebackers coach.
In steps Tom Bradley who built up his coaching chops under Joe Paterno at Penn State. He takes over a team that returns a ton of talent but perhaps needed to hear a new voice for motivation. Juniors Kenny Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes form one of the best pairs of defensive linemen from an ability standpoint you’ll see out west, but you have to wonder how great they could be if Bradley gets the best of their abilities for an entire season. Both are fantastic run defenders in this scheme and really make it difficult for teams to establish any positive gains between the tackles offensively.
Much like the game a week earlier against the Trojans, we should really get a good eye test of how good the interior of the Sun Devils offensive line is matched up against such quality opposition in the trenches. All-Pac-12 honors should be decided in these two weeks of football along these two position groups.
The strength up the middle continues into the second level of the defense as do-it-all linebacker Myles Jack will slide inside from the outside spot he manned the first two years of his college career. He’s one of the best linebackers in the country in his pass coverage abilities, let alone his run-stopping abilities. The move should put him in a position to do what he does best while linebackers coach Scott White looks to find other options (Deon Hollins more than likely) to rush the passer.
If there is one major concern on this side of the ball for the Bruins, it is the question of who will replace the production of inside linebacker Eric Kendricks? Thankfully Mora has found a healthy stock of stud linebackers in each of his recruiting classes and has helped turn the Bruins in the the Pac-12 version of Linebacker U long term. Maybe it’s not a coincidence then that the head coach turned to the former Nittany Lions assistant to run his defense after all.
The secondary will be replacing cornerback Anthony Jefferson, but once again the depth chart was stacked with four star talent. But with a loaded depth chart comes players looking to find starting positions elsewhere, leading the likes of former Arizona high school prep stars Priest Willis and Jalen Ortiz to transfer earlier this summer.
Second Team All-Pac-12 cornerback Fabian Moreau is a solid NFL Draft prospect with good size and is a dependable open field tackler, critical against the multitude of spread teams in conference. Heading into his third year as a starter for Mora, he’s more solid than flashy.
Mike Bercovici knows UCLA Moreau’s defensive backfield partner Ishmael Adams all too well after a 95-yard interception was run back for a touchdown to give the Bruins a 10-point lead going into the half in the game last season. Mid-way through fall camp, Adams looks to be the slot corner for the team while super soph Jaleel Wadood and Randall Goforth return at the safety spots to complete the three levels of defensive strength up the middle for this defense.
Golden Nugget Casino early line: UCLA -6
Watching how this UCLA defense continues to grow leading up to this game should be one of the key storylines. Will Bradley get them to play with more discipline while finding leaders to replace the likes of Kendricks and Jefferson? Will he be able to nurture a roster oozing with talent to birth him a pass rusher like Hollins on the outside to replace the production of draftee Owa Odighizuwa?
Bercovici has a Barringer-sized meteor crater on his shoulder after the dissapointing loss to the Bruins at home in his first collegiate start. By this point in the season his team will have already squared off against two very impressive offenses in Texas A&M and USC, so he’ll know whether he has the defense to back him, or if he’ll be in a shootout against the Bruins.
In a game that pits two of the most experienced teams in the league, it could come down to how each teams’ offensive line comes together (and/or heals) between now and October 3rd.
**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.”
***Graphs provided by Gary Doran.