Monday, July 29, 2013

Pac-12 Football Preview: UCLA's Encore

UCLA and USC will be opening up fall camps this week to get ready for the 2013 season. To get ready, I'm doing a two-part preview of both schools assessing strengths and weaknesses, key players to watch and my outlook this year. I'll also do a brief follow-up before the season kicks off on August 31. First up, UCLA.

UCLA's 2012 season was one to remember. It wasn't just the best season the school had since 2005, it was a renewed optimism that the program was headed in a positive direction and could stay there. What Jim Mora Jr. did last year was more than wins and losses as he created an identity and attitude that programs could build upon for years to come.

Last year, they finished 9-5 and won the Pac-12 South Division. For the first time since 1998, they had a better record than USC, who they defeated 38-28 for the first time since 2006. While they lost three straight to end the season, including twice to Stanford, there was reason to be optimistic about the road ahead.

Four Bruins were drafted, including first round selection Datone Jones and second rounder Johnathan Franklin, both to Green Bay. So what's next for Year 2 under Mora? Improvement and more of the same to get even better. High expectations as they were the media pick to win the Pac-12 South division.

"We're not where we want to be but we have a vision of where we want to be," Mora said at Pac-12 Media Day.

The Bruins have seized control from USC in terms of sharing the football spotlight and for once, they can stare at their crosstown rivals instead of look up at them. For me and other fans, it's a moment of pride we've waited for but at the same time, I admire the players for staying focused on themselves, not their rival.

"We control what UCLA can control," lineman Xavier Su'a-Filo said, "12 miles across town, they're preparing for this season and we're doing the same thing."

Quarterback: Brett Hundley had a fantastic debut leading the Bruins to the Holiday Bowl, setting single-season records in passing yards, total offense and completions. But entering his sophomore year, he has things he can improve on.

I agreed with Mora's assessment of Hundley that he needs to improve his decision making and that's something that comes with experience. Know when to throw the ball away and get ready for the next play. Know when to run and improve his sliding. The good thing is that these are normal things any young QB can work on.

Offensive Line: 4 starters return, led by one of the top linemen in the conference in Su'a-Filo. That bodes well for Hundley's growth as well as the tailbacks who will try to replace Franklin.

Anthony Barr: One of the top defensive players in the country, Barr is another testament of hard work and persistence as he's moved from tailback to linebacker. His fierce hit on Matt Barkley that knocked Barkley out of the USC game was one of the highlights of the year.

Barr said at Media Day that he focused on improving his play in pass coverage. He's already a standout in delivering hard hits and stopping the run so that should make him an even greater weapon.

Secondary: UCLA has to replace their entire group who graduated last year. The corps also was weakened when standout Dietrich Riley was forced to retire due to medical reasons. The most experienced returning DB is sophomore Randall Goforth so that corps is going to have grow up and play well in a hurry.

Running back: Replacing Franklin, the school's all-time leading rusher, is no easy task on or off the field. Franklin's character, leadership and reliability made the Bruins that much stronger in 2012. So who's going to try and fill his shoes on the field? At Media Day, Mora said that he's going with a tailback by committee so we'll see who steps up or if it's two or three that do it.

Defensive Line: Losing Datone Jones to the NFL Draft is one thing. Losing returning defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa to a hip injury possibly for the season is another. The line has been battling injuries since the spring camp so the hope for fall camp is that guys can be healthy enough for the team to assess what they have.

I like sophomore Ellis McCarthy to step up this year and I'm hopeful Cassius Marsh can build on a solid 2012. There's hope that 6-4, 305 lbs. freshman Eddie Vanderdoes will be declared eligible at some point in the season but Mora said that the team hadn't been updated by the NCAA yet on Vanderdoes status.

Breakout Player
Shaquelle Evans:  With Joseph Fauria having graduated, look for the senior WR to lead the Bruins' receiving corps. The Inglewood HS alum had a great 2012 (60 catches, 877 yards) and I expect Hundley to rely on him heavy at first but often later on.

My outlook
UCLA is in great position to win the Pac-12 South again and they're poised to keep the tide shifted in Los Angeles for at least another year.. As Hundley matures on offense, so goes this team. If the Bruins can find some stoppers on defense besides Anthony Barr, they'll find themselves playing for another chance to go to the Rose Bowl.

The schedule doesn't start off easy with an opening game hosting Nevada and then traveling to Nebraska on Sept. 14. It gets tougher with back-to-back October trips to Stanford and Oregon. While I think the Bruins can win 8-10 games this year, it's going to be a tougher road. And that's fine because when you're building off past success, it shouldn't be as easy as the first time around.

"We're going to have to be a mentally tough football team," Mora said.

UCLA's heading in the right direction and for the first time since I was in high school, I see consistency and greatness in Westwood. Last year was about the rise, this year's about maintaining it.

(Ed. Note - Late Tuesday evening, word got out that Eddie Vanderdoes became eligible. Suddenly the Bruins' defensive line got a bit stronger, if not still inexperienced.) 

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