The Bruins enter year two under head coach Jim Mora Jr., who overachieved in 2012 by leading UCLA to a 9-5 record, finishing just three points shy of a Pac-12 title. Along the way UCLA upset sixteenth-ranked Nebraska, thrashed Arizona 66-10, and clobbered crosstown rival USC. Inexplicably, the Bruins also dropped games to unranked Oregon State and California, and got blown out by Baylor in the Holiday Bowl. When UCLA was good, it was very good, but inconsistency plagued the Bruins in 2012.
UCLA, after graduation gutted most of its skill position players, now looks to reload with a successful recruiting class. Of 2012’s significant playmakers, only sophomore quarterback Brent Hundley returns; however, Mora has built a solid foundation on which to build the 2013 season.
Despite starting as a redshirt freshman, Hundley had remarkable success at quarterback, thanks mostly in part to a brilliant supporting cast. Hundley had senior running back Jonathan Franklin, now a Green Bay Packer, who ran for 1800 yards and a bevy of talented receivers and a bruising tight end (the mustached Joseph Fauria) to throw to. Besides senior Shaquelle Evans, the roster is scattered with sophomores with a handful of touches. There’s talent here (seven four-star or better recruits) but not much experience.
At offensive line, the Bruins add some much-needed depth, which should give Hundley some more time to work in the pocket as he breaks in some new talent at running back and receiver. Lack of depth showed in 2012: Hundley was sacked no less than 52 times (3.7 per game), and opponents should thank their lucky stars the line was stretched so thin (imagine what Franklin’s 1800 yards rushing might’ve been with a good offensive line). The Pac-12 Conference is hardly one where offensive fronts are tested too harshly, and therefore UCLA’s line performed very well against bad defenses and poorly against good ones (Oregon State held Franklin to just 45 yards; Stanford, 65). When the running game was stuffed, Hundley was able to put up impressive numbers passing, but offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone would prefer to see more balance out of his unit.
I predict that it will take the Bruins a few games in 2013 to rebuild the consistency with which the offense operated in 2012.
Where the defining characteristic of the Bruin offense is inexperience and youth, the Bruin front seven is a different story. The Bruins return six starters from a front seven which performed exceptionally in 2012, but make no mistake, luck played a big factor. UCLA plays an aggressive, attacking style of defense that worked out in 2012 (the Bruins ranked 12th in the nation in sacks), and the Bruins return its three leading tacklers, all linebackers, who better hope they are able to generate a similar level of quarterback pressure this fall because the secondary is looking bleak.
While Pac-12 secondaries are seldom anything to write home about in the first place, the Bruins lose five of the six major participants from the 2012 season. You can bet Tim Beck is licking his chops as he examines a Bruin secondary which will include two sophomores at cornerback, one of whom is a mere 5’10”. If UCLA is unable to develop talent in the backfield quickly, watch out, because UCLA’s talented front seven can’t cover passes, too.
UCLA SPECIAL TEAMS
PK Kai’mi Fairbain returns after a modestly successful 72% field goal percentage in 2012, but will have to replace punter and kickoff man Jeff Locke, who led the nation in touchback percentage.
SO WHAT NOW?
UCLA might be in for a very frustrating season in which the product on the field is better, but the record is worse. UCLA pulls a very manageable home schedule (Nevada, New Mexico State, California, Colorado, Washington, and Arizona State), but its road schedule is absolutely vicious, with road trips to Nebraska, Utah, Stanford and Oregon in back to back weeks, an Arizona team that will be out for blood after being embarrassed 66-10 by UCLA in 2012, and lastly, across town to rival USC. After a 9-3 regular season last year it will be tough for the Bruin faithful not to be let down by 7-5, but it looks like a possibility.
NAMES TO REMEMBER: QB Brent Hundley, WR Shaquelle Evans, LB Anthony Barr
Nebraska plays UCLA in Lincoln on September 14. They last met on September 8, 2012 in Pasadena, CA. UCLA won 36-30. Nebraska leads the all-time series 6-5.