UCLA Football: Bruins' Biggest Strengths and Weaknesses
With fall camp scheduled to start at the beginning of August, it'd be a good time to look at a few storylines leading up to camp in San Bernardino for the UCLA Bruins.
While it's no secret, the prospects of the upcoming year will rely heavily upon the development of redshirt sophomore quarterback Brett Hundley.
Additionally, a solid fall camp should foster in growth for a relatively young roster. It's key for Jim Mora's bunch that depth is built at multiple positions.
Here are some strengths and weaknesses heading into fall camp for the Bruins.
Strength: Brett Hundley
What didn't Brett Hundley do last season as a redshirt freshman?
The Chandler, Ariz., native threw for 3,745 yards and 29 touchdowns last season. He also set school records for passing yards in a single season, completions in a season and set the single-season record for total offense.
Hundley even ran for 355 yards. Those numbers would have been dramatically better, if not for the fact that he was sacked an eye-popping 52 times for -347 yards.
Aside from the statistical brilliance, Hundley demonstrated a moxie far beyond his years. The leadership he brought from the quarterback position is something that UCLA's lacked for multiple years.
As he continues to mature from a physical and mental standpoint, expect Hundley to shatter the records he's already set himself.
For the first time in a long time, the Bruins have an upper echelon quarterback behind center.
Weakness: An Established Running Back
As Bruin fans sadly bid adieu to Johnathan Franklin, a new running back will take the reigns in the backfield.
However, no one knows at this point who that will be. It could very well be a running-back-by-committee scenario this season.
A potential candidate would have been former Pitt running back Rushel Shell. The former 5-star prospect decided to transfer to UCLA. In a somewhat bizarre situation, the potential transfer didn't work out.
The best in-house option would have been Damien Thigpen. However, Thigpen suffered a torn ACL against USC last year. His health is still a major question mark.
With that said, who are the other options?
Jordon James is a potential candidate. The Corona native rushed for 215 yards in a reserve role last year.
He was somewhat tentative to hit the hole and would rather dance in the backfield east and west as opposed to putting his foot in the ground and heading up field. His confidence also seemingly took a dive as the season wore on.
Redshirt freshman Paul Perkins is also an option. He played well at times during fall camp and during the season on the scout team. With Perkins, he has no collegiate experience. It could be tough to rely on him for the lion's share of the carries.
Steven Manfro could see some carries. However, there are durability concerns, and he could be more of a wide receiver at this point.
The biggest (literally and figuratively) wild card is Malcolm Jones. The former National High School Gatorade Player of the Year had two nonexistent years under Rick Neuheisel, and left the team this past year after the first game.
He has since rejoined the team and could be an important cog going forward. If anything, he'll provide a different element as the big back on the roster.
Strength: The Linebacking Corps
UCLA's set of starting linebackers have the potential to be not only one of the best in the Pac-12, but also nationally as well.
Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks and Jordan Zumwalt are all on the Butkus Award Watch List. Along with Jadaveon Clowney, Barr is one of the most feared pass rushers in all of college football.
In his first season as a defensive player, Barr was second in the country in sacks with 13.5. It's scary to think how good he could be this upcoming year. This offseason will be his first as an outside 'backer. He'll be able to condition, and better understand the nuances of the position.
Zumwalt is a jack-of-all-trades. He's versatile enough to play in the middle or on the outside. This year, he'll most likely be paired with Kendricks in the middle. He's a long, rangy athlete with great lateral agility.
Kendricks is a ball of fire. He's very good at pursuing ball carriers, and has great closing speed. Kendricks led the Pac-12 in tackles with 150.
The fourth starter on the first unit is not clear as of now. Kenny Orjioke and Aaron Wallace figure to be heavily in the mix, as do incoming freshmen Deon Hollins and Myles Jack.
Weakness: Depth in Secondary
Heading into this year, UCLA will have to replace all four starters in the secondary from a year ago.
Of the returning players, Randall Goforth, Brandon Sermons and Anthony Jefferson figure into the mix. Although only a sophomore, Goforth is perhaps the most experienced member of the secondary coming back.
Dietrich Riley is healthy after a major injury and figures to be in the mix for the hybrid safety/linebacker position, or "mini-backer" as UCLA calls it. Stan McKay is projected as the probable starter there.
With the lack of depth and experience, it likely means that incoming freshmen Tahaan Goodman, Johnny Johnson, Priest Willis and Tyler Foreman will all play this season.
The quartet are a highly talented bunch. Willis and Johnson will likely start out at corner, while Goodman and Foreman will play as safeties.
Jim Mora's staff has shown no qualms about playing true freshmen. However, in this case, it could be truly out of necessity.
It's incumbent upon Mora and defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin that the unit gets coached up. It's never easy to lose one, let alone four starters from one unit. Expect to see some growing pains with this young, but talented group.
Strength: Xavier Su'a-Filo
Xavier Su'a-Filo is easily the best offensive lineman on the team.
In terms of pure talent, he ranks alongside Anthony Barr and Brett Hundley as perhaps the top three players on the entire roster.
Su'a-Filo has the versatility to play at guard or tackle, depending on the situation. He predominantly played at left guard last season. However, he could very well play at left tackle this upcoming season—to protect Hundley's blindside.
The Pleasant Grove, Utah, native has tremendous athleticism. He's often able to get to the second level and block with effectiveness. Not coincidentally, much of UCLA's success on the ground last season came on Su'a-Filo's side of the line.
Last season as a sophomore, Su'a-Filo was named as a Second-Team All-America by FoxSportsNEXT, a Third-Team All-America by the AP and was a first-team All-Conference selection by the coaches of the Pac-12.
Now as a junior, he should be able to take the next step as a player—potentially earning even more accolades.
Weakness: Special Teams
It's not that the special teams unit is a perceived weakness, per se, but it's a definite question mark at this point.
From a kicking standpoint, the Bruins took a big hit with the graduation of punter Jeff Locke. Locke was unquestionably one of the best punters in the entire country. He routinely pinned opponents within the 20 yard line and helped to flip field position seemingly numerous times a contest.
Replacing Locke will be incoming freshman Sean Covington. While Covington is talented in his own right, it's not realistic to assume that he'll perform initially at the level Locke did.
Kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn had a somewhat rocky freshman campaign. In his first collegiate game, he had three extra-points blocked. Throughout the year, he battled confidence issues. However, he seemed to turn the corner against Arizona State, when he kicked a game-winning field goal as time expired.
It's imperative that Fairbairn becomes a more consistent option. With a season under his belt, he'll likely have a better year.
Lastly, the coverage team and returning group needs to improve.
UCLA lost two very good special teams players in Andrew Abbott and Dalton Hilliard to graduation. In addition, the returning options didn't provide too much in the way of excitement or production.
A game-breaking option, ultimately, might not be on the roster at this point. Damien Thigpen was the top returner for the squad last season. Unfortunately for the Bruins, he's not yet coming back from a torn ACL.
Look for the likes of Shaq Evans, Devin Fuller, Randall Goforth and others to fill the void.
The wide receiver corps should be an improved unit from a year ago.
Devin Fuller, Jordan Payton and Devin Lucien are all sophomores with experience under their proverbial belts. Along with Shaq Evans, the quartet has the potential to be a potent group.
The defensive line should also be deep and talented. Senior defensive end Cassius Marsh will lead the group. Keep an eye out for Ellis McCarthy. The massive nose guard is ridiculously talented and could overtake Seali'i Epenesa as the starter.
Two relatively big questions do lie in regards to Owamagbe Odighizuwa and Eddie Vanderdoes. At this point, it's uncertain as to whether either will suit up this season. Odighizuwa is suffering from a hip injury, while Vanderdoes' eligibility for this season is up in the air.
Lastly, the offensive line will be a question mark. The two concrete starters are definitely Xavier Su'a-Filo and center Jake Brendel. After that, it's anyone's guess as to who will start.
It's quite feasible to believe that incoming freshmen Caleb Benenoch and Alex Redmond could start at left and right guard, respectively. Additionally, incoming freshmen such as Poasi Moala, Scott Quessenberry and Christian Morris could all find themselves in the two-deep when the season begins.
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