UCLA Football: 2012 Season Preview for the Bruins
No one quite knows what the UCLA Bruins will show in 2012.
One thing is for sure, and that's that head coach Jim Mora isn't messing around. He drew from his mass amount of NFL experience and has instituted a program designed to eradicate mishaps that have crippled the program in recent memory.
What are those mishaps? They include a lack of discipline, immaturity, the absence of accountability and unabated effort.
Mora and his staff have high hopes for the season. There's a great deal of optimism with every new season, but this one has a different feel for the Bruins. It's not one built upon empty promises and fluff catered towards the media.
It's build upon hard work and energy.
Here's a full preview to the 2012 season for the UCLA Bruins.
Here are the prominent storylines from the offseason...
A new regime is here
Make no mistake about it, Jim Mora and his new staff are here to work.
A new culture is being implemented in Westwood—centralized in discipline, accountability and energy. The pace of the practices is night and day from where they were a year ago, and the current staff is making a concerted effort to provide the team with constant enthusiasm and pep.
As a way to bring the team closer together, Mora packed up shop and took the team out to San Bernardino for the first two weeks of fall camp. This was designed in part to rid the team of any distractions so they could solely focus on football, but also to instill a sense of togetherness in the face of hardships.
This "Junction Boys" type training camp in a remote area had temperatures routinely over 100 degrees. It helped to get the team conditioned properly, but also aided in making the team mentally tougher.
Also to note on the staff is their willingness to experiment with players. Multiple athletes have been switched to different positions in order to maximize their overall talents. This is a far cry from the former staff, which seemed reluctant to do so.
Hundley is 'The Man'
Talented redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley has been designated as the signal caller this upcoming season—beating out incumbent starters Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut.
Hundley brings a lot to the table as a player. In terms of physical gifts, he has a far stronger arm than both Brehaut and Prince. In addition, he's extremely mobile and can elude the pass rush when the pocket collapses.
Not surprisingly, but by making Hundley the starter, Mora is in essence compensating for a somewhat below-average and beat-up offensive line.
From a leadership standpoint, Hundley is impressive. He's very vocal in his support of teammates out on the field, and often rallies the group together for motivational encouragement.
The decision to go with Hundley is as much about the future as it is about the present. He could have gone with the more experienced options in Prince and Brehaut, but why not roll the dice and go with the younger option. There's bound to be growing pains initially, but Hundley's upside far outweighs the possible interception or missed read.
Attitude on the field
There is a renewed sense of energy and excitement in the program. It's apparent through the play in practice, and by the atmosphere Mora is trying to instill. Of course, there hasn't been a game played yet, so one might want to operate in a wait-to-see mode. However, this current atmosphere hasn't been seen around the program in some time.
Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone brings the spread offense with him to Westwood from Tempe. It's not a conventional offense by any stretch, but it's not complex from the vantage point of learning the offense.
The goal of the spread is to create one-on-one match ups, where the skill players can get out in space and make people miss. It utilizes the perimeter of the field via swing passes, screens and reverses, while the slot receiver is employed on quick slants and drags.
Hundley will operate the offense with no actual on-field experience. However, the offense can rely upon senior Johnathan Franklin as the bell cow back. Franklin is the leading returning rusher on the team, and is the biggest stabilizer on the offense. Expect him to have a big senior season.
In terms of skill position players, tight end Joe Fauria is the biggest target (figuratively and literally). At 6'8", he's a nightmare match-up for any defensive back or linebacker charged with the task of defending him. Fauria has a great set of hands, and has shown the propensity to glide, rather than lumber down the field.
His ability will definitely be exploited on crossing patterns over the heart of the field, and on jump balls in the red zone. He's the top NFL prospect the Bruins have on offense.
The starting receivers are Shaq Evans and Jerry Johnson. Evans—a former Notre Dame transfer—is the top returning wide receiver. He'll be featured primarily on deep routes. Johnson has suffered a litany of injuries throughout his career in Westwood, and is now finally healthy as a redshirt senior. He has all the physical tools to be an outstanding player, but it's just a matter of him putting it all together.
Other receivers expected to play include Ricky Marvray, Jordan Payton, Kenny Walker and Devin Lucien.
The offensive line is the biggest question mark by far right now.
The team's most gifted lineman is Xavier Su'a-Filo. However, he hasn't played a snap in two seasons due to him serving a LDS mission. Redshirt freshmen Torian White and Jake Brendel seemingly have cemented starting spots, but neither have played in an actual collegiate contest.
Jeff Baca is the veteran of the group, and is by far the most versatile. He just returned to the squad after sitting out the past two weeks with concussion symptoms. In addition, Alberto Cid and Greg Capella also dealt with concussion worries during the fall period. Simon Goines and Brett Downey will also be in the mix to add depth.
This unit needs to provide ample protection for their inexperienced quarterback. Offensive line coach Adrian Klemm needs to come up with a unit that can gel and create a level of cohesion. Fortunately for the Bruins, the spread offense is predicated upon quick throws, so that should help to combat any problem the team has in terms of pass protection.
*Watch out for the trio of Jordon James, Steven Manfro and Damien Thigpen. All three are similar in stature, but add a dynamic element to the offense.
Thigpen is the fastest of the three with his sub 4.4 speed. At only 5'8" 178-pounds, expect him to be used on bubble screens and fly sweeps.
James was grossly underutilized in his first two seasons in Westwood. At 5'8" 193-pounds, he's incredibly quick, and has perhaps the best agility of anyone on the roster. There's a reason his nickname is "joystick". James' value will come on draws, reverses and even in the slot if he lines up as a receiver.
Manfro has turned into a cult hero for the fan base. At 5'9" 192-pounds, he's built low to the ground—helping him evade defenders and squeeze through for yardage. He's essentially a more powerful combination of both James and Thigpen. Manfro could be showcased on swing passes out of the backfield with his great hands.
Expect all three to be used extensively on special teams as well.
Defensive coordinator Lou Spanos brought the 3-4 defense to UCLA. Spanos was a long time assistant with the Pittsburgh Steelers under defensive genius Dick LeBeau, so he should have a few tricks up his sleeve.
The defensive line is considered to be a good unit. In fact, Mora even went as far to say that the defensive line is the strength of the football team. By far, this unit has the most depth when compared to the linebackers corps and the secondary.
Defensive ends Cassius Marsh and Datone Jones will most likely start, but there's going to be a continual rotation throughout the unit. Each position realistically goes three deep, affording the staff lots of versatility and flexibility.
At nose guard, it looks as if Hawaiian native Seali'i Epenesa will get the call. He's a massive guy at 6'1" 310-pounds, and has great strength. As mentioned above, the three expected starters will not be the only option for the Bruins.
North Carolina transfer Brandon Willis should see lots of time from an end position, and former 5-star prospect Owamagbe Odighizuwa looked really good throughout the summer and fall. He's just beginning to scratch the surface on his immense potential and when he does, look out. The light bulb is just beginning to turn on for "Owa". Senior Donovan Carter will also get plenty of time, as will true freshman Ellis McCarthy.
McCarthy is the all-everything recruit with sky-high upside. At 6'5" 330-pounds, he's an absolute tank. Look for his play time to increase as the season progresses, because he's just too talented not to have on the field in some capacity.
The linebackers corp took a big hit when Patrick Larimore was forced to retire due to multiple concussions. He was by all accounts the heart and soul of the team from his inside 'backer spot.
Taking his spot will be converted defensive end Damien Holmes. Holmes is a great team guy and was unsurprisingly elected as a team captain. Of course, it's a bit concerning that the starting inside linebacker was a defensive end last season. However, he's very smart and should be an adequate option.
The other inside 'backer is Eric Kendricks. As a reserve last season, he was second on the team in tackles. He's just an energetic football player that's seemingly always around the ball. With a big season, expect him to garner All-Pac-12 notoriety.
The outside 'backers in the 3-4 scheme include Jordan Zumwalt and Anthony Barr. Both are physical specimens at 6'3" 235-pounds and 6'5" 240-pounds respectively. Zumwalt has all physical traits to be a dominant player, and truthfully, Barr does as well. Barr made the switch to linebacker after playing at the F-back position on offense. A learning curve is expected, but he could be special when it's all said and done.
Depth is a concern after the starting unit. True freshmen Nate Iese and Aaron Porter should be in the rotation, as will junior college transfer Ryan Hofmeister and Keenan Graham.
The secondary is the most experienced and possibly stable unit of the bunch. They are buoyed by a trio of seniors in Sheldon Price, Aaron Hester and Andrew Abbott.
Hester and Price make up perhaps the best starting cornerback duo in the conference. Both are long and lengthy, and can both run. Abbott is a former walk-on, but has impressed his teammates with his dedication to the game. He's a very smart football player, and a sure tackler.
The fourth member starter is sophomore Tevin McDonald. The safety is the son of NFL great Tim and the brother of current Southern Cal safety T.J. The youngest member of the McDonald football trio has great physical tools. He's a ballhawk out on the field, and is incredibly smooth. He might be the most talented member of an already talented secondary.
Like the linebackers, depth is a question mark. True freshmen Randall Goforth, Ishmael Adams and Marcus Rios will likely all play. Brandon Sermons, Stan McKay and Anthony Jefferson are also options in the secondary.
Special Teams Preview
The special teams unit starts and ends with decorated punter Jeff Locke.
The senior from Glendale, Ariz. is masterful in his craft. The ball gets "launched" off his booming left leg like a rocket into the heavens. His career punting average of 44.58 ranks second overall in UCLA history, and last season earned the Tommy Prothro team award for Outstanding Special Teams Player.
He's such a vital weapon for the Bruins in the sense that he can flip field position with one simple boot of the pigskin. Locke is a sure-fire NFL prospect, and is one of the best punters in the entire country.
True freshman Ka'imi Fairbairn looks to be the starting placekicker for the Bruins. He's displayed a strong leg throughout fall camp, and looks like a talented player.
However, he's a true freshman. Time will tell whether he can withstand the pressure of the position—namely when he's thrown into a raucous environment out on the road, or when he's tasked with making a game-winning kick.
The punt and kick returners are still a bit in the air at this point. Coming from his NFL background, Mora has been very secretive with providing the media any meaningful information.
As of now, it looks like Jordon James and Steven Manfro will handle the duties. Others in the mix could include Shaq Evans and Damien Thigpen.
It's a unit that needs protection immensely. Over the past four seasons, UCLA had a sure-handed returner as opposed to someone that had the potential to break one for a touchdown. That conservatism essentially shut down the return game.
With the new staff wanting to get their playmakers involved, expect to see a mass improvement in the return department.
The staff has been completely uprooted from the last regime, with the only holdover being defensive line coach Angus McClure.
One commonality between seemingly every member of the staff is their ability to recruit. Offensive line coach Adrian Klemm and defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin are outstanding recruiters.
First time college coach and former NFL player Jeff Ulbrich has turned into a very popular coach among recruits, and Mora has been called "a natural" by Martin.Running backs coach Steve Broussard is also a standout on the recruiting trails, and was instrumental in the Bruins landing 4-star RB Craig Lee.
Another common facet of the staff is the emphasis on teaching fundamentals. To be frank, UCLA has not been a very well-coached football team for some time. They've been unprepared, unmotivated and undisciplined.
Getting back to basics—which started in earnest in the spring—was a massive point of emphasis. Klemm basically had to start from scratch with a offensive line beset by injury, inexperience and a lack of overall talent.
Wide receiver coach Eric Yarber has been a true teacher on the field in every sense of the word, from catching the football, to route running, to blocking. Both Ulbrich and Martin center their "football education" around creating turnovers and flying to the ball.
New offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone brings over the spread offense from Arizona State. Also, new defensive coordinator Lou Spanos comes to the Bruins from the NFL, where he has over 17 years of experience.
Perhaps the most important member of the new staff is Strength and Conditioning coordinator Sal Alosi. This is the first time where UCLA has had a S&C coach solely hired for the football program. The team has been criticized in the past for being bulky and unathletic.
Alosi has been working with the team for about six months, and already the transformation has begun to show. The team as a whole looks leaner, more conditioned and collectively faster.
Here's a look at the 2012 schedule for the Bruins...
At Rice: August 30th at 4:30 p.m. PT
Nebraska: September 8th at 4:30 p.m. PT
Houston: September 15th at 7:30 p.m. PT
Oregon State: September 22nd at TBD
At Colorado: September 29th at TBD
At Cal: October 6th at TBD
Utah: October 13th at TBD
At Arizona State: October 27th at TBD
Arizona: November 3rd at TBD
At Washington State: November 10th at TBD
Southern Cal: November 17th at TBD
Stanford: November 24th at TBD
One Game the Bruins Will Absolutely Win: Houston
Houston is an opponent that UCLA should have no problem in defeating this season.
Aside from the obvious disparity in overall talent, the Bruins have motivation in this game. Some of it persists from the notion that the Bruins should not lose a game at home against a lesser opponent. Most of the motivation stems from last year, as UCLA will hope to atone for season-opening 38-34 loss— which saw UCLA give up 469 total yards of offense.
This year, the Cougars come to the Rose Bowl in a full rebuilding mode.
Gone from a year ago is quarterback Case Keenum. Keenum had been the figure head of the program for good reason—as he threw for an astounding 19,217 yards and 155 touchdowns during his collegiate career.
Not only did the Cougars graduate leading rushers Bryce Beall and Michael Hayes, but they also lost a trio of super productive receivers in Tyron Carrier, Justin Johnson and E.J. Smith.
Last season alone, Carrier, Johnson and Smith combined for 299 receptions, 4,236 receiving yards and 71 touchdowns.
Defensively, starting linebacker Sammy Brown graduated after leading Houston with 30 tackles-for-loss last season. Marcus McGraw, another solid 'backer, has also departed.
With the amount of turnover from the Houston roster, there's no way UCLA should lose this game. If they do, the team is line for a very disappointing season.
One Game the Bruins Could Lose: Washington State
The November 10th game in Pullman, Wash. against Washington State just screams "trap game".
As many know, it's not easy to get to Pullman. Often teams have to fly into Idaho and then drive over the boarder to eastern Washington. In November, temperatures aren't usually above 50 degrees, and it wouldn't be out of the realm to see snow flurries and other examples of inclement weather.
Being out on the road in cold weather isn't a mix that favors the Bruins.
Above all that, captain Mike Leach is now in charge of the Cougars' pirate ship. He brings with him a swashbuckling attitude and the "Air Raid" offense.
Literally every skill position player should be licking their proverbial chops at the prospect of opportunities in this offense. Multiple groups of receivers will be utilized, and that group is led by star wide out Marquess Wilson.
Wilson is a bonafide NFL prospect, and perhaps a future high first-round draft choice. The Cougars will also rely on quarterback Jeff Tuel and tight end Andrei Lintz.
This game will take place towards the end of the season, and it's not crazy to think that Leach will have this high octane offense running on all cylinders by this point.
Leach thrives on playing against higher rated opponents. He's a master motivator of his squad, and the "me against the world" mantra firmly is embedded in his DNA. The Bruins are a more talented football team, but this will be a tough contest.
If anything, it provides an opportunity to prove that the Bruins are a tough-minded bunch. They'll have to do that, especially considering the opponent, the possible weather and the rowdy crowd.
One Game That's a Toss Up: Nebraska
Although only the second game on the schedule, this non-conference tilt against Nebraska could go a long way in telling how the season will go for the Bruins.
Provided that UCLA takes care of Rice and that Nebraska can defeat Southern Miss, both teams will be undefeated heading into the Rose Bowl on September 8th.
The Cornhuskers are led by tailback Rex Burkhead and quarterback Taylor Martinez. There's no secret that they employ a run-based attack with the option being a concrete principle.
In addition, they traditionally have a staunch defense that looks to stop the run and force the opponents into third-and-long situations. Look for Nebraska to pressure Hundley—hoping that he makes rash decisions which are translated into turnovers.
On the other hand, Nebraska struggles big time with throwing the football. The Bruins will more than likely stack the box to take away Burkhead, and make Martinez beat them with his arm. That's not an ideal scenario for head coach Bo Pelini—who wants to run the ball and control the clock.
Nebraska is program with great prestige. A win against a reputable opponent like the Cornhuskers would be the first feather in Mora's cap.
I could see this game truly going either way, and it could even resemble Neuheisel's first game in charge of UCLA, when the Bruins defeated another reputable foe in Tennessee for Neuheisel's first win.
Offensive MVP Prediction: Johnathan Franklin
The surest thing heading into the season on the offensive side of the ball is Franklin.
The tailback from Dorsey High School has been one of the few bright spots for the the Bruins in the past couple seasons. Last year, he rushed for a team-high 976 yards and averaged 5.9 yards per carry. He should expand upon those numbers this year in his senior season.
While not exactly the most flashy back, he's a solid option that always keeps his legs churning forward for extra yardage. He hits the hole with good acceleration and he's good at reading his blocks and exploding forward.
One thing Franklin has to work on is his fumbling problem. He's had the propensity to cough up the rock during inopportune times—which have killed promising drives more than once. If he can shore up that area, he'll be even more dangerous.
Expect him to be one of the better players at his position in the conference, and he should compete for All-Pac-12 accolades.
Defensive MVP Prediction: Cassius Marsh
I'm going out in a limb with this one, but I think Marsh will be the defensive MVP in this upcoming season.
The 6'3" 275-pound defensive end had tons of hype coming out of high school. He was originally committed to LSU before switching over to UCLA. He probably could have used a redshirt year as a true freshman, but he was forced into action out of necessity.
With the unstable nature of the coaching staff and defensive line, Marsh hasn't fulfilled his big potential. But this looks like the year that he'll break out and have a stellar junior campaign.
All indications from fall camp express that Marsh has improved immensely from a year ago. He's leaner, more explosive, and took the next step in becoming a good football player.
UCLA desperately needs production from the defensive line. They lacked the ability to get after the quarterback last season, and ranked towards the bottom of the conference in sacks. In fact, their leader in sacks only had three for the entire season. As a team, they only had 14 sacks for the entire year.
Mora also thinks that Marsh will have a great season, and had some very complimentary comments about Marsh in this interview.
Newcomer of the Year: Ka'imi Fairbairn
Make no mistake, there will be plenty of true freshmen hitting the field for the Bruins this season.
Guys like Marcus Rios, Randall Goforth and Ishmael Adams will add depth to a thin secondary. Ditto for tackle Simon Goines, who will plug in a member of the weary offensive line. Freshmen linebackers Aaron Porter and Nate Iese will also play in a reserve role as well.
At wide receiver, most certainly expect to see both Kenny Walker and Jordan Payton get minutes, and no one can forget about the much ballyhooed defensive tackle Ellis McCarthy. Once McCarthy is fully healthy from a minor knee surgery, expect him to be a prominent member of the rotation.
The one freshman, however, that will make the biggest impact is kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn. Why? Because he's the only true freshman that will start right off the bat.
Fairbairn is the only scholarship placekicker on the roster right now. He undoubtedly will be the first option when the team takes the field against Rice on Thursday.
The Honolulu, Hawaii native has shown a strong leg throughout fall camp. He's looked composed, and has demonstrated range north of 50 yards. Of course, practicing in training camp and kicking in front of thousands of screaming fans is a different animal.
It's a pressure-packed position, and the Bruins hope that they can rely on their freshman kicker to give them a consistent threat in the kicking game.
Best NFL Draft Prospect: TE Joseph Fauria
One player that UCLA should look to use ad nauseum is Fauria.
At 6'8" 255-pounds, there's no one that can match up with him on the field. He's far too big for a cornerback or safety to handle, and he's too mobile for a linebacker to check him.
His athleticism for a guy his size is just impressive. With his height, he'll often be the targets on fades and out patterns in the red zone. He literally can go up for a pass and box out defenders like a power forward going for a rebound.
His value should also come across the middle of the field on crossing patterns and slants.
His blocking needs to improve, but he's a dynamic player. He's easily the most dangerous player the Bruins can offer on the offensive side of the ball. With a consistent passing game, expect him to be up for both conference and national honors.
The former Crespi product has the look of a future first-round NFL draft pick. With the NFL transitioning to a more pass-happy league featuring receiving tight ends like Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski, Fauria fits that same mold perfectly.
Best 5 Twitter Follows
One of the better twitter handles in all of college football easily is UCLA offensive line coach Adrian Klemm.
Klemm is a young guy that really related well to the college athletes, and fully utilizes his twitter account to entertain UCLA fans and even educate recruits. Yes, it's plausible to believe that his tweets about the prestige of the university and the wonderful weather of the area might be catered towards prospects!
However, his most famous tweets include #8CLAP. The #8CLAP hashtag is written when a recruit commits to UCLA. Of course per NCAA rules he cannot divulge the name of that recruit, but nonetheless he alerts the fan base of a commitment when he crafts that specific hashtag.
How many 18 year olds have a verified account on twitter? Justin Combs, a 5'7" 165-pound cornerback from UCLA does. How you ask? Simply because he's the son of rap mogul P Diddy aka Puff Daddy aka Diddy aka Sean Combs aka any other name he's used in the past.
With over 250,000 followers, Combs is unquestionably the most followed member of the football team.
Other standouts on the twitter circuit include safety Tevin McDonald, head coach Jim Mora, and tight end Joe Fauria.
Here are links to their respective twitter handles...
What Does Vegas Say
According to VegasInsider.com, here are the odds for the contest between UCLA and Rice on Thursday, August 30th.
Right now, UCLA is a -15.5 point favorite.
The goal every year for the Bruins is to make a New Year's appearance in the Rose Bowl. While that might be considered a "pipe dream", they should be a member of postseason play by the time the regular season ends.
The talent is there for a bowl appearance and truthfully, not making it to a bowl game would be a massive disappointment. In terms of making a BCS bowl, a number of things would have to happen.
First, Hundley would have to have a monster first season as the signal-caller. In addition, the offensive line will have to gel and withstand injury. UCLA could have as many as three redshirt freshmen on the line, so they'll have to grow up in a hurry.
Also (like every team in the country), injuries will have to be minimized. Injuries to key players such as Johnathan Franklin or Tevin McDonald will hurt the team's chances at great success.
Realistically, expect the Bruins to end up in a game like the Hyundai Sun Bowl or MAACO Las Vegas Bowl. With a nine win season, UCLA could conceivably end up in the Bridgeport Education Holiday Bowl or in the Valero Alamo Bowl.
Final Prediction: 7-5
This will be a very interesting season for Mora and the Bruins. Not only does he break in a new coaching staff, but he also will be starting a quarterback with no experience on the collegiate level.
Success for UCLA this season is incumbent upon not turning the football over, developing come cohesion on the offensive line, putting Hundley in a position to succeed and perhaps above everything, competing on a consistent level.
Far too many times over the past decade UCLA would win a game rather impressively—only to lay an egg the next week. A level of consistent play and continual effort is needed if the Bruins are to rise from a malaise of mediocrity.
With that in mind, the Bruins should finish with a 7-5 record. They have the talent to win up to nine games, but too many questions persist in regards to the quarterback, the beleaguered offensive line and with depth issues on the defensive side of the ball.
At Rice: W
Oregon State: W
At Colorado: W
At Cal: W
At Arizona State: W
At Washington State: L
Southern Cal: L
Here is a game-by-game, comprehensive look at every contest on the Bruins' schedule this year.