UCLA Football: Grading Every Positional Unit
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When grading every positional unit on the UCLA football team, some things definitely stand out.
For one, the defensive side of the ball is primed to have a solid year. There are stars on every level of the defense, and some incoming freshmen might have vital roles this upcoming season.
Offensively, a lot of work needs to be done. Both the quarterback position and the offensive line need to be shored up if the Bruins are to be successful.
Let's take a look at every positional unit of the Bruins...
Defensive Line: B+
Odighizuwa should be in line for a breakout year
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Play on the defensive line has been subpar for years. Dating back to when Brian Price was drafted in 2010, there hasn't been a UCLA defensive lineman with any chance at progressing to the next level.
It's OK, Bruin fans, because help is on the way.
North Carolina transfer Brandon Willis is finally eligible to play, and he'll be slotted in as the projected starter at nose tackle. Willis has had a tumultuous journey getting to UCLA. With his eligibility questions answered, Willis is expected to make a huge impact on the defense this upcoming season.
Perhaps the biggest addition to the line will be the much-ballyhooed 5-star prospect Ellis McCarthy. He's expected to contribute right off the bat for the Bruins.
Owamagbe Odighizuwa also is primed for a big year. Like McCarthy, "Owa" was a former 5-star prospect. He's yet to live up to the hype, but it seems as if the proverbial light bulb went on during this spring. His potential is truly sky high. He has the best set of physical gifts out of anyone on the entire roster. If he can play with consistency, it'll give UCLA a big-time terror off the edge.
Returning starter Datone Jones led the Bruins last year in both tackles for loss and sacks. However, that only totaled 3.0 sacks and 6.5 TFL. As a veteran on a relatively young line, he'll be expected to produce more than he did last season.
Perhaps most impressive thing about the defensive line is the overall depth. UCLA can rotate up to eight defensive linemen during the course of any said game. Not only will it allow for the starters to stay fresh, but it provides ample insurance in the event of an injury.
Head coach Jim L. Mora called the defensive line "the strength" of the football team.
Larimore (42) with the tackle
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The linebacker corps has been decimated by injury during the spring period.
Both projected starters at inside linebacker—Patrick Larimore and Eric Kendricks —were slowed by injury throughout the entire session. Larimore suffered from concussion-like symptoms, while Kendricks dealt with a shoulder ailment.
In addition, reserve inside linebacker Isaiah Bowens suffered a torn ACL. Depth at this point is a cause for concern. Admittedly when healthy, the core of the linebacker unit should be a strength.
Larimore is a big-time hitter, while Kendricks plays like his hair is on fire. As a reserve last season, Kendricks was second on the team in tackles with 76. He has the potential to one day progress to the next level.
With the move to the 3-4 defense, the outside linebackers need to be able to rush the passer in addition dropping back and defending in space.
An interesting position move was switching former starting defensive end Damien Holmes to outside linebacker. Holmes has transformed his body, making him a leaner and more explosive athlete. As a result, he's been incredibly impressive in this offseason.
Linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich absolutely loves Holmes and feels as if he's an example of what a UCLA football player should be.
At the other outside linebacker spot, Jordan Zumwalt and Keenan Graham are vying for the starting job. If injuries do continue at the inside linebacker spot, it's very conceivable Zumwalt moves over to the middle.
It's imperative the outside linebackers get consistent pressure on the opposing quarterback. In a 3-4 alignment, the defensive line is responsible for taking up space, allowing for the linebackers to infiltrate the opposition's backfield.
For this to happen, the 'backers have to take the appropriate angles and make the instinctive play. UCLA and Ulbrich hope this can happen consistently.
Defensive Backfield: B+
Safety Tevin McDonald
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The secondary is one of the best units on the entire football team.
Senior Sheldon Price is the leader of the secondary. Price has the experience (a four-year starter) and overall skill set to be a true lockdown corner on the college level. He's blessed with extremely long arms in addition to having great height (6'2"). With some more time in the weight room, Price has the look of a future NFL cornerback.
Aside from Price, the most talented prospect in the secondary is safety Tevin McDonald. The Fresno native is an incredibly polished player. He plays the ball extremely well in the air and has the intelligence to put himself where he needs to be on the field.
McDonald is a budding star with the potential to play on Sundays one day.
The other safety is Andrew Abbott. Abbott, a former walk-on, is a very savvy player. Although not a physical specimen, he's a very smart football player with the ability to tackle well.
The other corner is senior Aaron Hester. Hester has great physical tools, but he uses his hands too much and often loses sight of the ball in the air. As a result, he's often flagged for pass interference. If there is a weakness in the secondary, Hester would be it.
The overall grade would be higher if not for the lack of overall depth. UCLA will surely have to rely upon untested players such as Anthony Jefferson. In addition, it's quite feasible true freshmen Marcus Rios and Ishmael Adams will see time as well.
The starting quartet should be one the better secondaries in the conference next season.
Offensive Line: C
The OL is a huge question mark
The offensive line has a chance to be serviceable. It also has a chance to be in shambles with one freak injury.
Simply put, both the talent and depth is low. Outside of Xavier Su'a-Filo, Jeff Baca and Greg Capella, the roster is full of underachievers, raw prospects and players that aren't necessarily Pac-12-level athletes.
Offensive line coach Adrian Klemm has to hope injuries aren't sustained by any of the aforementioned trio.
Baca is easily the most versatile of the bunch. He has literally played every single position on the line at one point or another.
Capella also is versatile in the sense that he can play both center and guard.
Su'a-Filo is definitely the most talented out of any linemen. However, he just returned to football after serving a two-year Mormon mission. The physical tools are still there, but it's a matter of time before Su'a-Filo is fully caught up in regards to timing.
After the three, there is a considerable drop-off.
In a perfect world, Capella would be moved to guard and talented redshirt freshman Jake Brendel would take over the center spot. The most problematic position is the tackle spot opposite of Su'a-Filo. Baca is naturally a guard, but he'll play tackle if he needs to.
UCLA hopes that either redshirt freshman Torian White or incoming freshman Simon Goines can man the remaining tackle spot. That would allow Baca to play his natural position of guard.
With the perpetual inconsistency of the line, Klemm definitely has his work cut out for him.
This picture is emblematic of the QB play in the past decade
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The picture to the left is completely emblematic of the quarterback play of the Bruins recently.
Statistically, the Bruins were toward the bottom of the conference in every major passing category. Some of that was due to the pistol offense, but a majority of the problem resonated through inconsistency and mediocrity.
Currently, the team is embroiled in a quarterback competition. Heading into the summer, a starter has yet to be announced.
Beleaguered starter Kevin Prince was wildly inconsistent and often couldn't execute the simplest of throws on the field.
Richard Brehaut flashed moments which would lead someone to believe that he, in fact, could be a quality starter. Much like Prince, he just hasn't put it together. He's often plagued by poor decision-making when throwing the football.
The third competitor in the derby is the highly regarded redshirt freshman Brett Hundley. It would behoove the Bruins to name Hundley the eventual starter. Not only does Hundley has considerable upside, but he's in an evolving state at this point.
With Prince and Brehaut both being seniors, there's only so much they can personally implement in their respective games with a year left.
This is the key position for UCLA. If the Bruins can get solid play from the position, they're capable of winning 8-9 games. If the play is less than satisfactory, they will struggle to have a winning record.
Running Backs: B+
Star tailback Johnathan Franklin
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Solid but not spectacular, Johnathan Franklin has been one of the few constants on the offensive side of the ball for the Bruins the past few years.
Last year, Franklin led the Bruins in rushing with 976 yards. He also ran for a career-best 5.9 yards per carry.
The value Franklin holds also extends to the locker room. He's a very engaging individual with wonderful leadership qualities. His humility is quite impressive, and his infectious energy helps to boost the morale of the team.
With the graduation of Derrick Coleman, the former Gatorade National HS Player of the Year Malcolm Jones will assume the role of "the big back." During the first two years of his career, Jones hadn't been given a true opportunity to display his skills. However, he'll definitely be counted upon to get the first down in short-yard situation.
The new cult hero for the UCLA fanbase is undoubtedly redshirt freshman Steven Manfro. The tailback chose UCLA out of high school after getting one other offer: Wyoming.
Despite his rather low profile, he's more than opened some eyes this spring. He's shown the ability to make people miss in space with his quickness and agility. His vision has been extremely impressive, and he's also displayed some sneaky power despite his smallish frame.
The play of Manfro has even garnered some national attention as well. If he can perform with this type of excellence during the season, he has the ability to be a big-time X-factor for the team.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: B
Fauria is a projected first round pick in 2013
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Based on overall talent, this unit could well be an "A." However, much of the talent is considerably unproven and inexperienced.
The main culprit behind the "greenness"? The pistol offense.
The run-heavy offense employed by the former regime rarely looked to attack down the field with throws. To compensate for a poor offensive line, the throwing game was essentially an afterthought.
It's not easy for the receivers to get into any semblance of a rhythm if the quarterback throws no more than 12-15 times per game. There are not many chances for younger receivers to gain confidence when they're in the game to solely block and do nothing else.
With the implementation of the spread, the wide receivers on the roster should be pretty pleased. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's goal will be to get his athletes in space, looking to utilize all space on the field horizontally.
Success should be predicated upon creating one-on-one scenarios where the skill position players can display their respective speed and quickness. Redshirt freshman Devin Lucien should absolutely thrive in this offense.
In addition, UCLA returns two former Notre Dame transfers—Shaq Evans and Joe Fauria. Evans could be the best deep threat on the roster, while Fauria will be the best "overall threat." At 6'7", he's a walking mismatch. His value will surely come on routes down the heart of the field and also in the red zone.
The talent is definitely there, but it's just a matter of the unit gaining game experience and adapting to the pass-happy offense currently in place.
Special Teams: B
Punter Jeff Locke
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Easily the most consistent member of the football team the past few years has been All-American punter Jeff Locke. If this category solely focused upon him, the grade would be an "A."
Without a doubt, Locke can be counted upon as a force in the special teams game. His booming left leg often pins the opposition deep in their own territory, while he's also versatile to kick off and even kick field goals if need be.
After Locke, the special teams category has a bit of uncertainty.
The starting placekicker is slated to be incoming freshman Ka'imi Fairbairn. The Hawaiian prospect is highly regarded, but it's tough for an incoming freshman to enter college as a starter—especially at a position heavy on pressure and nerves.
Another question mark is the return game. UCLA has routinely played sure-handed receivers at the position for the sole reason that they'd receive the ball cleanly without any chance of a turnover.
While not turning over the ball is requisite, none of the former returners had the capabilities to actually score on a punt or kick return.
It's imperative the Bruins have a game-breaking threat back to receive kicks. Some possible candidates to fill this role include Manfro, James, Lucien and incoming freshman Kenny Walker.