UCLA head coach Jim Mora
College football fans usually have high expectations every spring, but Bruin fans should have even higher expectations than normal when they converge on the Rose Bowl this Saturday for UCLA's spring game.
The Bruins' 9-5 record last season was a definite improvement over the last six years, but 2012 still ended with a thud.
UCLA dropped its final three games, losing to Stanford in back-to-back games and to Baylor in the Holiday Bowl. But the Bruins did beat Nebraska and USC.
Is this just another Bruin team that pulls off the occasional upset but can't take that momentum to a higher level? Or is this the beginning of something bigger and better?
Will those questions be answered this Saturday?
Many fans put a lot of stock in spring practice—which they shouldn't—and look for their questions to be answered in a spring game—which they shouldn't. That's because many of the incoming freshmen haven't enrolled yet, making it impossible to fully evaluate the competition for starting spots.
So what can UCLA fans expect this Saturday?
Attendance figures are always unreliable because those numbers are based on tickets sold, not butts in seats. But spring game numbers offer a different perspective—they can gauge the interest of a fanbase.
USC's spring game drew 15,284 fans two weeks ago, and that's fairly low, even for Los Angeles' standards. UCLA fans, over the past few years, haven't really shown up for spring games either.
In 2011, the Bruins' attendance was 6,400. That swelled to 13,000 in 2012. While those numbers are somewhat startling, it should be noted that the 2011 spring game was held at Drake Stadium (UCLA's smaller track-and-field stadium), so large crowds were not only not expected, they weren't possible.
Last year's spring game was held at the Rose Bowl on May 5, which coincided with a huge holiday celebration in California—Cinco de Mayo—as well as UCLA's Alumni Day, which was held on campus about 30 minutes from the Rose Bowl. Holding two important events at two separate venues on an unofficial local holiday clearly was not a great idea by the school's administrators.
This year's spring game will see a renovated Rose Bowl, beautiful weather and no apparent scheduling conflicts. Expect UCLA to surpass USC's attendance figures and set a school spring-game attendance record.
Stout Offensive Line
Once considered the weakest unit of the team, the offensive line looks to be impressive, led by guard Xavier Su'a-Filo. Despite the line returning four starters, there will be some spirited competition for the starting spots since the Bruins are now down to seven healthy linemen.
Bruin fans should expect to see the pass protection improve drastically. Last season UCLA allowed 52 sacks, which placed the Bruins at No. 11 in the league—USC led the Pac-12 in fewest sacks allowed with 17. Obviously, this is an area of concern since Bruin quarterbacks have had a difficult time staying healthy over the past few years.
Look for quarterback Brett Hundley to have more time in the pocket to go through his progressions.
A Rebuilt Secondary
One of the team's biggest concerns has been pass defense, but Bruin fans could at least count on veteran safety Tevin McDonald to be the secondary's leader this season. But that all changed in late March when McDonald was dismissed from the team due to a violation of team rules.
All of a sudden, the secondary looks inexperienced.
Randall Goforth and Dietrich Riley will be competing for the starting spot, but there are also two cornerback positions that need to be filled since both Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester are gone. While UCLA recruited several defensive backs in the class of 2013, fans won't see incoming safeties Tyler Foreman, Tahaan Goodman and Priest Willis until fall camp.
As of now, there are four defensive backs on scholarship who are healthy, so we may hear a lot of groans from the bleachers when Hundley carves up the secondary. Fans need to understand that this unit will improve in the fall once everyone has enrolled.
A New Starting Running Back?
UCLA's career-leading rusher Johnathan Franklin will have to be replaced, but UCLA has a lot of talented backs in its arsenal.
Jordon James, Malcolm Jones (a current walk-on), Steven Manfro, Paul Perkins and Damien Thigpen will all be competing to move up the depth chart, but not all will be seeing action this Saturday. Manfro is recovering from a shoulder injury and is limited to non-contact drills, and Thigpen is still rehabbing a torn ACL.
All eyes should be on Jones, James and Perkins, with the latter having an incredible spring camp thus far. It should also be noted that head coach Jim Mora has discussed using a running-back-by-committee approach this fall, so a starting running back may never be named.
One of the biggest criticisms of the Rick Neuheisel era was the perception that he ran unstructured practices and his team lacked discipline in drills. Last season Mora had the players gasping for breath during spring practices—he also demanded that his players pay attention to the smallest of details. As a result, receivers ran crisper routes and didn't give up on plays.
This spring should see the team in better condition than last year's team, and the players should also be more physical. There have been reported skirmishes throughout practice and that's a good sign. More from Inside So Cal's Jack Wang:
The spurt of energy did spill over into some minor scuffles throughout the day. The two-hour session concluded with a massive group of players bumping and pushing each other.
“We’ve been banging on each other now for six days, and you can kind of expect that,” Mora said. “As long as it doesn’t get out of hand and it doesn’t turn into a brawl or a fight or somebody throwing haymakers, you’re going to get a little bit of that. That’s part of football.”
This Saturday's spring game may not answer all of the fans' questions. But for the first time in years, two questions that seemingly pop up every year will finally be answered before the game even starts.
Question: Who is the starting quarterback? Answer: Brett Hundley.
Question: How hot is our head coach's hot seat? Answer: Jim Mora is sitting on an iceberg.
That's already a great start to UCLA's 2013 football season.