July 25th, 2013
With the Bruins getting ready to open training camp, it’s time to ask: can the team build on last season’s surprising success? UCLA’s 9 wins, and 2nd straight trip to the Pac 12 Championship game last season was more surprising than a sorority girl being sober on a Saturday night on the row. Head Coach Jim Mora Jr. completely change the culture of the program in one season, and quarterback Brett Hundley emerged as the best UCLA Quarterback since I was causing trouble in my college days.
Despite some big wins over ASU, USC, and Nebraska, the Bruins also had some nasty losses to Cal and Baylor, where they looked like a completely different, and horrendous team. The schedule will be much tougher this year, including back-to-back road games at Stanford and Oregon. Fortunately for UCLA, there’s quite a few winnable games at home.
The Bruins return 7 starters on offense, and 5 starters on defense. The biggest question mark on offense right now is who will be running the football? With Jonathan Franklin leaving for the NFL, UCLA will look to Jordon James and Damian Thigpen to emerge as a #1 running back. The Bruins were a solid 37th in the nation in rushing yards last season, but they’ll need to have someone step up in order to be just as effective as last season. The offensive line is still young, but added 6 four star freshman to the mix, which will provide some much needed depth. They are led by all-conference guard Xavier Su’a-Filo, who is entering his junior season.
Meanwhile, the receiving corp is still looking strong, led by the return of Senior Shaquelle Evans. Evans was recently named to the Biletnikoff pre-season award list, as a potential candidate for the top receiver in the nation. Sophomore Steve Manfro should emerge as a solid #2 receiver for this group as well, which was 34th in the nation in passing last season. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone made use of a very well balanced attack, and Hundley figures to improve in his second full season as a starter, which should make the offense just as lethal.
On defense, UCLA was surprisingly effective last year due to a solid pass rush. However, their lack of depth up front hurt them in the 2nd half of many of their games. This years defensive front will be led by senior defensive end Cassius Marsh, but will take a major hit with the potential loss of Owamagbe Odighizuwa, who will likely be lost to a hip injury. The Bruns added depth here with some quality freshman, but they key will be avoiding giving up the big play, which this unit was known for at inopportune times last season.
The linebacking corp is led by Senior Anthony Barr, who is one of the best 3-4 linebackers in the country, and also was 2nd in the nation in sacks last season. Junior Erik Kendricks should be very effective alongside of Barr, so the Bruins shouldn’t have much of a drop off here after losing Damien Holmes and Datone Jones.
As for the secondary, this is where Bruin fans might wet their pants in fear. 5 of last seasons 6 top defensive backs are gone, and that unit was horrendous. The Bruins added several 4 star recruits in their defensive backfield, so its hard to image this group getting any worse, but nevertheless, it’s the teams biggest concern.
If the Bruins are going to return to the Pac-12 Championship for the 3rd year in a row, they will have to come up with a couple of big wins on the road. Here’s my prediction:
vs Nevada- Win
@ Nebraska- Loss
vs New Mexico St – Win
@ Utah – Win
vs Cal- Win
@ Stanford- Loss
@ Oregon- Loss
vs Colorado- Win
@ Arizona- Win
vs Washington- Win
vs ASU- Loss
@ USC – Win
An 8-4 finish for the Bruins. As more teams get more film on Jim Mora Jr’s squad, UCLA is unlikely to surprise teams like last season without further adjustments. A number of incoming freshman will have to make an impact on the defensive side of the ball, and they will need a full season to develop. The road schedule will be a challenge for this group, but they certainly have the chance to go undefeated at home to keep them in the Pac-12 race. The 2013 season may not be as promising as the previous season, but the Bruins are building a new brand of football in Westwood, which could be a national player in 2014 and beyond.