2014 Pac-12 Preview: UCLA Bruins

UCLA has gone from strong to stronger in Jim Mora Jr’s two seasons, finishing 9-5 in 2012, and 10-3 last season. However, while failing to win the conference has to sting a little, what’s more of a concern is UCLA’s struggles against the big dogs, Stanford and Oregon. In four games against the two opponents, the Bruins are winless and were outscored 128-65, with only one game, the 2012 title game, coming within single digits. Throw in a loss to a decent Arizona State team, and it’s clear what the school has to do to get over the conference hump – take care of business in their own backyard. They have a team loaded with talent, and the coaching staff to take advantage of it – can 2014 be the Bruins’ year, or will just beating USC again suffice?

Offense

There’s no question who the Bruins star is on offense. Quarterback Brett Hundley really stepped forward as a sophomore last year, taking the team on his shoulders and leading them in rushing as well as passing. With the team struggling against Nebraska following the untimely death of freshman receiver Nick Pasquale, Hundley led the team back from a 21-3 deficit to ultimately win 41-21. For the season, he passed for 3071 yards and 24 TDs, with nine interceptions and added 748 yards and 11 scores on the ground. Just for good measure, Hundley even found the time to catch a scoring pass. This season, he could take another step forward as a quarterback, but he can’t carry the load again on the ground, the risk of injury is too high.

The Bruins found that life after Jonathan Franklin was a little tougher than expected. Jordon James started the season in the backfield, gaining over 100 yards in each of his first three games, but an ankle injury ruined his season and he finished with just 534 yards and five TDs on 101 carries. Paul Perkins was the leading running back, with 573 yards and 6 scores on 134 carries, but while he’s good, he’s not the kind of back to build your offense on. That job could fall to redshirt freshman Craig Lee, who has the talent to be a factor. He has good size and speed, and does a good job of getting through the hole and navigating traffic. He could supplant James at some stage during the season.

Hundley will have to survive without Shaq Evans, his top receiver from last season, but there are options returning. Devin Fuller and Jordan Payton both return after combining for 81 receptions last season, while Devin Lucien showed big-play potential in catching 19 passes for 339 yards and 2 TDs. He could take over for Evans. Also in the mix is Thomas Duarte, a hybrid receiver/tight end, who has the size to cause matchup problems, and should have plenty of opportunities this season.

The line loses it’s best players in center Xavier Su’a-Filo (NFL) and left tackle Torian White (dismissed), and could be a problem area in 2014. Miami-transfer Malcolm Bunche will ease the losses a little, and may move to left tackle after playing at guard in the spring. Caleb Benenoch could then return to the more familiar right tackle spot. Jake Brendel returns at center, while Alex Redmond moves from right to left guard. Right guard is currently up in the air, but Scott Quessenberry started six games at left guard last season, but has to hold off the challenge of freshman NaJee Toran.

Defense

The defensive line loses a couple of starters in end Cassius Marsh (5½) and nose tackle Seali’i Epenesa, but the presence of great depth leaves little cause for concern. Owamagbe Odighizuwa has been a key reserve who showed a knack for making key plays. He missed last season with injury, but appears to be back to full health. He should start at one end, with Eddie Vanderdoes, a part-time starter last season, opposite him. Kenny Clark started the last three games at nose tackle, and will continue in that role in 2014. He’s added a few pounds to make him even harder to shift for blockers. When the Bruins switch to a four-man front, Ellis McCarthy will step in at end.

The linebacking corps lost second-leading tackler Jordan Zumwalt (91) and play-buster Anthony Barr (20 tackles for loss, 10 sacks). It’s not all doom and gloom though as inside linebacker and leading tackler Eric Kendricks (105 tackles) and freshman superhero Myles Jack (seven tackles for loss, 11 passes broken up) are back. Jack should take a step forward in his sophomore year, which is scary considering how productive he was playing out of the spotlight. Opposite him will be junior Kenny Orjioke, who had a couple of sacks last season as a reserve but gets to fill Barr’s shoes this year. Isaako Savaiinaea will take over for Zumwalt; he’s not as athletic, but he’s big and tough and should be decent in the middle.

The secondary was a young unit last season, with three sophomores lining up. They held up well enough, and now the whole unit is back, and even more experienced. Safety Anthony Jefferson, a senior, is the old man of the group. He made two interceptions and broke up five passes last season. His running mate, Randall Goforth, also had a couple of interceptions and forced three fumbles. Ishmael Adams, played a lot bigger than 5’8″, leading the team in interceptions with four, while Fabian Moreau broke up four passes opposite him. With a whole season together under their belt, this could be one of the FBS’ best secondaries in 2014.

Special Teams

Kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn is generally a reliable option inside the 40, and has made 18 straight field goals from inside 35 yards, but he’s an adventure from further out. He did put half his kickoffs into the end zone though. Punter Sean Covington had a nice freshman season, but has since left the team. JUCO Matt Mengel was brought in as a preferred walk-on to take his place. Steven Manfro, Adams and Fuller all returned kicks last season, and all were useful (particularly Adams). Expect more of the same from them in 2014. Evans will need to be replaced as a punt returner, and Adams could be the man for the job. Both coverage teams were excellent, and the line unit blocked four kicks.

Predictions

The Bruins are Loaded this year, capital ‘L’ intended. They lost a couple of key starters on each side of the ball, but there is plenty of talent waiting in the wings. On offense, they have a stud at quarterback in Hundley, but need some guys to step it up at running back and receiver. On defense, Barr and Marsh will be tough to replace, but they have depth all across the board. The schedule is pretty friendly. The non-conference slate sees a long trip to Virginia and a tough visit to Texas sandwiching Memphis coming to Westwood. The Bruins need to travel to Arizona State and unknown quantity Washington, but get Oregon, USC and Stanford at home. Is this the year UCLA closes the gap at the top of the conference and push for the PAC 12 title? With Hundley needing to make a big career decision at the end of this season, this could be their best chance for a few more years.