Last season UCLA represented the South division in the first ever Pac-12 championship game.
They “won” the south because USC was not eligible for the post season despite having the best record. By playing in that game they went in with a losing record but were granted a waiver to still play in a bowl game.
They lost that, too.
Before the bowl, head coach Rick Neuheisel was let go. Jim Mora, Jr. was brought in although he has never coached a college game.
Noel Mazzone is the offensive coordinator and he brings in plenty of college coaching experience. He also brings knowledge of the conference, having spent the past couple seasons at Arizona State. His defensive coordinator, Lou Spanos, has been a position coach in the NFL since 1995 but this will be his first go as a coordinator.
Both Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut return to vie for the quarterback position.
I question whether this is a good thing.
On one hand you have seniors with plenty of experience. On the other hand neither one has been spectacular. Both of these guys are from the last regime, so it could be that Mora goes with one of his own recruits. He was able to bring in the third-rated high-school quarterback in the country in Devin Fuller.
As a unit I am not so sure about UCLA's offense, but I do know I like the first guy up.
Johnathan Franklin came up just short of back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons but was splitting touches with Derrick Coleman. Coleman is gone this year, and I don’t see anyone else on the depth chart who will take that many carries from Franklin. Franklin could become the UCLA career-rushing leader this year.
UCLA only returns two starters on the offensive line. They also get back Xavier Su’a-Filo who started evry game in '09. He has been on an LDS mission the last couple years. While there are a couple spots to fill, I think having Franklin in the backfield will help make up for any growing pains.
On the outside, UCLA is losing their top receiver Nelson Rosario. They are returning their next two most-productive pass receivers but Rosario alone out did those two combined. Shaquelle Evans is probably going to be the go-to guy, but any number of part-time players could step up. Highly recruited freshman Jordan Payton could also be in the mix.
UCLA’s defense didn’t rank very high in any major category last season. This year's squad returns a couple starters at every area of the defense. Eight starters in all are back, providing a solid foundation with experience; I think the defense should take large steps forward.
The line will be in good hands on the ends but will need someone to step up in the middle.
Datone Jones and Cassius Marsh have the experience outside to help force runs back into the waiting arms of whoever sets up in the middle. The likely tackles will be North Carolina transfer Brandon Willis or true freshman Ellis McCarthy, who was a 5-star recruit.
Having a good unit of linebackers will help the inexperienced part of the D-line. The linebackers are returning the defense's top three tacklers from last year. Patrick Larimore could be an All-Pac-12 player. The linebackers are clearly the strength of the defense.
Not far behind, though, is the secondary.
The pass defense was a bit better than the run defense last season, and I think it will be better this year. They return both corners and their free safety, and the new strong safety started games last year at corner and nickle. This unit is very experienced with quality depth, which will be tested in what I expect to be a very pass-oriented conference this year.
Punter Jeff Locke is one of the best in the conference but is really the only known factor for the special teams. Kicking duties will be handled by true Freshman Ka’imi Fairbarin. Locke did some placekicking last season but I think Mora would ideally want to keep him focused on punting. New return men will also need to be found.
My gut tells me that this is something of a rebuilding season and the Bruins will fall just short of a bowl game. On the other hand, if there are enough games where I think they fall just short, perhaps the Bruins win a few of these games to make themselves bowl eligible.