UCLA Football: 4 Biggest Adjustments Jim Mora Needs to Make This Offseason
The first year of the Jim Mora era saw vast improvement for UCLA football, as the Bruins won nine games, defeated crosstown rival USC and earned a berth in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Mora brought an element of toughness and dedication to UCLA that had been lacking in recent years, and he seems to have the program on a trajectory of sustained success.
But an ugly loss to Baylor in the Holiday Bowl exposed many of UCLA's weaknesses, and those issues will need to be addressed going forward. The honeymoon period is officially over, and the Bruin faithful want more.
The 2013-14 season will have drastically higher expectations for Mora and Co., especially considering the return of All-American LB Anthony Barr and emerging star QB Brett Hundley.
If the Bruins hope to build on a 9-5 finish in 2012, there are a number of tweaks that will need to be made in spring ball and fall camp.
Here's a look at the four biggest adjustments that Mora and the Bruins must make this offseason.
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One of the few areas that UCLA failed to improve upon the entire season was team discipline.
The Bruins bordered on the worst in the country in penalties against from start to finish in 2012 and ended the year in dead last by a wide margin.
UCLA was flagged 130 times for 1,281 penalty yards, an ugly mark that averages out to roughly 91.5 yards lost per game. The infractions seemed to come at the most inopportune times, either negating big gains on offense or prolonging opponents' drives on defense.
As Mora and the Bruins prepare for the coming season, a major point of emphasis will have to be cleaning up the penalties. UCLA cannot afford to continue digging its own hole.
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If you tuned into the snoozer that was the Holiday Bowl, you know first-hand how important this adjustment will be for the Bruins' chances next season.
In San Diego against Baylor, UCLA seemed to face a long third down on almost every possession because of poorly executed first and second downs.
The play-calling was vanilla throughout the game, as almost every drive began with a predictable run up the middle or short pass to the flat. The early-down struggles put massive pressure on an already-uncomfortable Hundley, and the results were telling.
Because of the tough third-down situations, the Bruins were a paltry 1-for-17 on third-down conversion attempts, which works out to a 5.9 percent success rate. The poor offensive showing forced UCLA into eight fourth-down attempts, of which only three were successful.
But the issue wasn't unique to the postseason, as UCLA had struggled on third downs all year, finishing with a 38.25 percent conversion rate (No. 76 in the nation).
Needless to say, the Bruins will be hard-pressed to win games if the offense continues to operate behind the chains.
Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone will need to be more inventive with his early-down play-calling in 2013, setting up more manageable third downs for his young team.
Defensive Assignment Integrity
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The UCLA defense was completely revamped in Mora's first year, improving from one of the least disruptive units in the country in 2011 to a downright menace this season.
The Bruins finished the year ranked No. 8 in the nation in sacks and No. 22 in tackles for loss despite a core of players that was mostly unchanged from the Neuheisel Era.
Linebacker Anthony Barr had a breakout year in defensive coordinator Lou Spanos' 3-4 scheme, finishing his junior campaign No. 9 in the nation in sacks and No. 14 in TFL. Alongside Barr was Eric Kendricks, a high-motor inside 'backer that finished No. 9 in the country in total tackles (151).
Unfortunately, the success of the front seven didn't translate to overall defensive excellence, as UCLA ended the season ranked No. 75 in total defense and tied for No. 58 in scoring D.
Much of the problem can be pinned on an inconsistent secondary that ranked No. 86 against the pass, but that's only part of the explanation.
Another major issue for the UCLA defense in 2012 was a lack of assignment integrity, most notably when the Bruins brought pressure from the second level.
The aforementioned sack and TFL numbers support Spanos and his aggressive methods, but far too often the overzealous blitzing backfired. Whether it was losing contain on a mobile quarterback or over-pursuing against the rush, the Bruins consistently found themselves in the backfield with nothing to show for it.
Mora and Co. will need to emphasize assignment football this offseason, especially if they intend to continue rushing five or more defenders frequently.
Special Teams Return Game
Utah recovers a muffed punt for a TD against UCLA
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Special teams play doesn't usually get the attention it deserves in practice, as coaches would much rather work on fine-tuning the offense or drilling the defense.
But after watching UCLA struggle to field punts and kicks in 2012, Mora will have to focus on the return game this offseason.
RB Steven Manfro shoulders most of the responsibility for the Bruins' failings, as the redshirt freshman muffed and lost four punts this year. Three of those came in consecutive games in October, including one recovered for a TD by Utah, which ultimately led to Manfro's removal from the return team.
But Manfro wasn't the only Bruin struggling to secure the ball this year. True freshman Kenny Walker saw some action fielding kickoffs this season, but fell victim to the fumble twice. In Walker's defense, both of the drops came after bone-crushing hits from opposing gunners, but that doesn't get the ball back.
Suffice it to say, UCLA fans were holding their collective breath every time a punt or kickoff was in the air, and especially when a Bruin returner got his hands on it.
The key to fixing the problem could be in pure repetition, a change in blocking schemes or simply personnel choice. But whatever it is, Mora will need to figure it out sooner rather than later.