The UCLA Bruins ended the 2014-15 college football season ranked for the second straight year, a feat that hadn't been accomplished in Westwood since the Bob Toledo days. However, a late season collapse at home against Stanford knocked the Bruins out of the Pac-12 Championship game. UCLA lost two big pieces to the NFL in the offseason with the departures Brett Hundley and Eric Kendricks. Who will be the new QB? Who will replace Kendricks? Is this a make or break year for Jim Mora? We talked to Greg Burcham, one of the managing editors of Bruins Nation.
1) Paul Perkins broke onto the national scene in 2014, how much better did he get in the offseason and should we expect a heavy load to Perkins in every game?
It'll be tough for Perkins to have a better year than 2014 when he was the leading rusher in the Pac 12 and rushed for the second highest season total in UCLA history. He said he spent a lot of time in the offseason working on his speed and studying defenses so he can better dissect plays before the snap. I expect we'll see even more of him with the ball in 2015, especially in the early part of the season. The Bruins will be breaking in a new quarterback, and I expect them to use their proven run game to maintain time of possession, move the chains, and keep the pressure off of a true freshman taking snaps behind an offensive line that has struggled in the past with pass protection. Sophomore Nate Starks will get his share of carries after looking very good with increased playing time last season, and junior Craig Lee and newcomers Bolo Olurunfunmi and Soso Jamabo will compete for carries too, but Perkins will still be option 1 and 1A for the Bruins offense this year.
2) Eric Kendricks, who I think is a bigger loss than Brett Hundley, is gone. Who will be taking his place?
You may be right about Kendricks. That kid was so smart on the field and he was as reliable a tackler as we've seen in a decade. Now it will be up to Myles Jack to fill in that hole in the middle. Jack made the move to inside linebacker from his OLB spot in the spring and has looked good so far. His obvious strength is his amazing speed and athleticism which actually saw him tend to overrun plays from time to time on the outside. Now in the middle, he won't be freelancing as much and will be able to use that speed to move into holes and pursue plays rather than just chasing from the edge, but he will also need to be more responsible with pursuit angles and wrapping ball carriers as opposed to looking for the big thump. Jack's less obvious but even greater skill is actually in pass coverage and he is probably the best cover LB in the country, though that may not be as prominent at the ILB as at OLB spot. Though the Bruins ostensibly run a 3-4, the spread offenses in the Pac ensure that there will be lots of nickel packages, and the Bruins' new Defensive Coordinator Tom Bradley likes to mix up the fronts and alignments, so Jack's ability to drop and cover should make him an every down player, regardless of the formation or situation.
3) Is the quarterback battle going to be a season-long thing or do you think Mora sticks with who he chooses soon for the whole season?
I doubt it will be a season long issue, and even more than that, Bruins fans better hope it isn't. Everyone thinks the QB battle in preseason camp was just an exercise, partly out of respect for Jerry Neuheisel, who deserved an honest look, and also to make sure that the highly touted Josh Rosen understands that nothing is going to be given. Besides, considering the combination a true freshman quarterback and the history of issues with pass protection by the offensive line, getting little Neu some more reps was probably a good idea as he'll likely see some playing time at some point, though hopefully it'll be purely in mop up time. And looking to the future, this is going to be Josh Rosen's team, not just this year, but for the next 3, so it makes sense to just dive in the deep end right now, so I don't see Mora backing away from that commitment anytime soon. (UPDATE: Josh Rosen will start week one against Virginia)
4) A game that is circled on the UCLA schedule?
Can I cheat and circle two? Personally, I'm really wary of Arizona. They are the defending South champs, it's our first conference game, and the game is in lovely Tucson. That will be a huge test for the Bruins right out of the gate and it will be Rosen's first look at a high level Pac-12 opponent after the opening on conference schedule (though BYU in week 3 is a very respectable team). And the way the Pac-12 South is loaded this year, there is really such a tiny margin for error this season that no team can afford more than a couple losses along the way. Having said that, the game at the Coliseum at the end of November is THE game of the year. The stakes that day will be huge, certainly for the rivalry and bragging rights and recruiting and all the usual reasons, but I see that game as deciding the Pac-12 South winner this season, which doubles down on the importance of that game.
5) Jim Mora has changed this program however the Bruins have yet to reach that elite level in terms of putting in a complete season. What needs to change?
That's a great question. On the whole, the program is in a much better spot than it ever was or was going to be under Karl Dorrell or Rick Neuheisel, but UCLA hasn't been able to beat either Oregon or Stanford in Mora's first three years, and they have been Pac-12 South runners up the last two seasons. I think the way you describe "putting together a complete season" fits the issue very well. The Bruins have certainly shown the talent and ability to play great games, but they also have shown the propensity to go into some games flat, make boneheaded penalties, give up huge numbers of sacks, rest on big leads and let opponents back into games, and lose one or two games a year they probably shouldn't be losing. There haven't been very many complete 60 minute games under Mora. The Bruins still need to develop the mindset that the score doesn't matter and they need to play every play well, for every quarter and for every game. It needs to be less about challenging the opponent and more about challenging themselves, and I think the big push has to come from the coaching staff to not tolerate dumb plays and to play every snap with full intensity. Along those lines, I think there are a couple coaching positions that could be upgraded to getter better results from certain units within the team. Finally, I think the culture in the fan base tolerates some of that "good-enough" attitude. After a decade of pretty mediocre or worse football, lots of the fans are plenty satisfied with the program these days, so there is less urgency to achieve elite status like Oregon or Ohio State or Alabama. I bet those fan bases wouldn't be as content as U.C.L.A.'s is, given similar results by their programs. Now I sure don't want our fan base to go SEC-loony, but there is room to for the fans to say that we've made great strides and the progress is excellent, but now let's take it to the next level. Now, these are all really good problems to have, but they are still problems and so they deserve to be fixed, and until that push is seen across the board, I don't know if the program will make that jump from a top 15 team to being in the mix for a playoff spot.
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