The expectations for the UCLA Bruins in 2014 are at their highest in over a decade.
Mark Schlabach of ESPN.com has UCLA ranked as a top-10 team in the country heading into this upcoming year. Similarly, Bleacher Report analyst Brian Pedersen also has the Bruins as the ninth-best team nationally in his top 25 preseason rankings.
Fortunately for Jim Mora, the majority of the squad will return to Westwood. The most significant returnee in 2014 is quarterback Brett Hundley. With Hundley deciding to temporarily bypass the NFL, UCLA has the chance to truly ascend into the upper echelon of the college football hierarchy.
There are a few areas on the squad in which competition will be immense. These position battles will generally feature younger, up-and-coming members of the team.
Offensive tackle Poasi Moala is a very intriguing player.
The freshman out of Moreno Valley, Calif., redshirted this past season in order to get physically stronger. Moala registered at only 265 pounds in his first collegiate season.
In high school, Moala was known for his immense physical talent. He was a long, athletic player with very good mobility and lateral quickness. He possesses the requisite tools in order to eventually become a potential all-conference player.
Starting tackles Simon Goines and Torian White were both plagued by the injury bug this past year. Goines has battled knee troubles for the past two seasons. White was lost early in 2013 with a broken ankle.
It isn't a foregone conclusion Goines and/or White will retain their starting spots. It will be fascinating to see whether or not Moala can capitalize on this opportunity. With continued gains in the strength department, the feasibility of garnering a starting role isn't out of the realm of possibilities.
The offensive skill positions will be an area of much intrigue heading into the spring.
Who is the most intriguing player to watch this spring?
UCLA doesn't have a true bell-cow back on the roster. Senior Jordon James will assume the role initially as the top back, but he doesn't have the skill set nor size required to carry the proverbial load in an every-down capacity.
As a result, the Bruins will likely employ a running-back-by-committee system. Paul Perkins and Steven Manfro figure to battle James for carries. Perhaps the most intriguing option of the group comes in the form of freshman Craig Lee.
The Redlands High School product possesses a nice combination of size and speed. Based on his high school tape, he's got a great burst. Lee also demonstrated the ability to run with power and balance.
Lee has the ability to add a dynamic element to the running back position for the Bruins. A strong spring could go a long way in integrating Lee to the running back derby.
Another young skill player is wide receiver Eldridge Massington. The Mesquite, Texas native was a one-time commitment to Southern Cal before switching his pledge over to the Bruins. A torn ACL in high school forced Massington to redshirt this past season.
At 6'1", he's got good size for the position. The talented prospect was also clocked at 10.52 in the 100-meter dash as a junior in high school. A year of recovery should allow for Massington to regain his top-end speed.
The Bruins lack a true game-breaker at the receiver position. Massington could fit the bill as the pass-catcher to stretch the defense vertically.
Lastly, the linebacker corps features multiple intriguing prospects.
Mora will have to figure out a way to replace both Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt. When speaking about Barr's vacant spot, options include Deon Hollins, Kenny Orjioke and Aaron Wallace.
Of the three, Wallace is the most experienced. Hollins has the best burst and pass-rushing ability of the trio. Orjioke could have the highest upside of the group. He's a fantastic athlete and possesses a similar frame to that of Barr. The competition for the vacant spot should be fierce.
Sophomore Isaako Savaiinaea could have the inside track on Zumwalt's spot. Savaiinaea saw considerable time last season as a true freshman. The main challenger will come in the form of incoming freshman Zach Whitley.
The Houston native graduated from high school early. It enabled him to enroll in school and become available for spring practice.
Based on his tape, the former Alabama commitment and Army All-American looks to be extremely talented. He could very well push Savaiinaea for the open spot next to Eric Kendricks.