Quarterback Brett Hundley's decision to return to UCLA for his redshirt junior season has the university thinking Heisman Trophy and some pegging the Bruins for Pac-12 Championship contention.
To reach either of those lofty goals, UCLA needs the teammates around him to excel.
Hundley finished 2013 with a flourish, with two of his more individually impressive performances coming in the regular-season finale against USC and the Sun Bowl victory over Virginia Tech.
Offensive line play presented head coach Jim Mora and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone with arguably their biggest challenge in 2013, but the growing pains of starting three freshmen across the front five will pay dividends.
"We’re building tremendous depth at that position, which is a position we need to have depth at,” Mora told the Los Angeles Daily News in November. “The cupboard was pretty bare when we got here."
The line loses All-Conference anchor Xavier Su'a-Filo to the NFL draft, which is a big loss to be sure. Su'a-Filo played both on the interior and tackle in his career and excelled in any role. Replacing him might be more than a one-man job, but the Bruins have numerous options.
Caleb Benenoch, Scott Quessenberry and Alex Redmond all started as freshmen, with Benenoch and Quessenberry stepping up after injuries to the returning Simon Goines and Torain White. Redmond thrived and was named a Freshman All-American.
The addition of Miami transfer Malcolm Bunche to that group renders inexperience and depth problems of the past.
Hundley should get more consistent protection, the first signs of which were evident in the Bruins' final two wins, when the quarterback rushed for 80 and 161 yards against two of the better front sevens in the nation.
For the first time in Hundley's career, the dual-skilled playmaker will operate behind one of the conference's better front fives. In 2014, it's the development of the other offensive units around Hundley that will determine the Bruins' championship chances.
UCLA says goodbye to Shaquelle Evans, the Bruins' leading receiver in each of Hundley's first two seasons captaining the offense—which were also Mazzone's first two in his role.
Good news for the Bruins is that while Evans was Hundley's primary target, he was hardly the sole pass-catcher. Mora recruited plenty of talented wide receivers in his first two years at UCLA, none of whom arrived with quite as much fanfare—or at least attention—as Jordan Payton.
Payton enters his third year in the offense and playing alongside Hundley. He's a top candidate to become the breakout playmaker in the receiving corps, along with Devin Fuller.
Fuller was another highly touted recruit in the 2012 signing class, pursued by some suitors as a quarterback—a skill set he showed off when he threw a touchdown pass to Hundley last October at Utah.
Mazzone's penchant for trickery aside, Fuller was the second-most productive receiver behind Evans last season. His speed and athleticism make him a candidate to fill that void at No. 1.
As for the supporting cast, there are a number of possibilities. Hundley completed passes to eight traditional wide receivers last season in addition to other targets.
Hundley's use of the receiving corps was a noteworthy departure from his freshman campaign, when two of his top three and four of his top six most productive targets played tight end or running back.
Returning running backs Jordon James, Steven Manfro and Paul Perkins are capable of giving Hundley checkdown options next season. Perkins in particular came on strong at season's end with seven of his 24 receptions coming in the final four games.
The reliable tight end is more difficultly replaced. Joe Fauria was an integral part of the passing attack in 2012 with 46 receptions, more than a quarter of which went for touchdowns. At 6'7" with a 35.5-inch vertical leap, Fauria was the consummate red-zone threat on jump balls and back-shoulder throws.
Now, the tight end was not a prominent part of Mazzone's offense at Arizona State, but his use of Fauria in 2012 added an element to the offense worth exploring again next season.
Though not quite as big as Fauria, Thomas Duarte could be the player to give UCLA that goal-line presence. Three of his 16 receptions last year went for touchdowns and he was a tight end All-American selection at prep powerhouse Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei in 2012.
Even without the reliable Evans, Hundley should have no shortage of options in the passing game. The running back corps is also stocked with potential breakout performers.
Turning that potential into production is the challenge.
For all the attention linebacker Myles Jack generated as UCLA's most prolific ball-carrier in the final stretch of the Pac-12 season, that he was such a prominent part of the offense was the result of a need at running back.
The void all-time leading rusher Johnathan Franklin left was particularly noticeable after James suffered an ankle injury in early October. James rushed for 100-plus yards three times in the four games prior to the injury.
Getting him back at full strength should solve the matter of who takes on the bulk of the rushing duties, though it doesn't address another possible issue of the ground game.
|Top UCLA Rushers in 2013|
|Player, Pos.||Games Played||Carries||Yards||TD|
|Brett Hundley, QB||13||160||748||11|
|Paul Perkins, RB||13||134||573||6|
|Jordon James, RB||8||101||534||5|
|Myles Jack, LB||13 (appeared on offense in 5)||38||267||7|
At 5'9", 194 pounds, James is not a typical goal-line back. Likewise, Perkins has explosive potential as a change-of-pace and pass-catching back, but lacks the build of a prototypical power back capable of pounding the goal line for touchdowns.
And since UCLA didn't have that kind of ball-carrier consistently available, Jack and defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes were called on to pick up the slack late in the season.
Red-zone offense wasn't necessarily the most vexing issue for UCLA last season. The Bruins converted opportunities into points a respectable 85.9 percent of the time and into touchdowns an impressive 71.9 percent of the time, the latter of which ranked 14th nationally.
However, in losses to Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State, UCLA's overall red-zone conversion rate fell to 72.3 percent and its touchdown conversion rate was 55.6 percent.
The difference between a good season and a championship campaign is cashing in on such opportunities, and the Bruins will need the most from its skill positions to capitalize.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer.