UCLA Football: 5 Unanswered Questions Heading into the Spring Game
An experienced and talented roster has UCLA football striving for lofty goals in 2014. Head coach Jim Mora enters his third season at UCLA with the Pac-12's most veteran starting lineup, led by Heisman Trophy contender and quarterback Brett Hundley.
But as the Bruins finish the first phase of an expectation-filled year, they still face some burning questions that must be addressed if they are to meet their ambitious bar.
Answers to some of those more significant questions should be somewhat more clear after Saturday, when UCLA concludes its spring practice season at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif.
Who Will Shoulder the Rushing Load?
As if replacing All-American running back Johnathan Franklin was not enough, the Bruins faced a rash of injuries in the backfield last season.
By season's end, the team's best ball-carrier was a linebacker, the leading overall rusher was quarterback Brett Hundley and running backs coach Steve Broussard was dismissed prior to the Sun Bowl.
Former USC assistant Kennedy Polamalu is the new positions coach and is looking for someone to take over the role linebacker Myles Jack was filling at season's end.
"Yeah, we definitely need to have the leading rusher be a running back," Jordon James told Chris Foster of the Los Angeles Times.
The Bruins are not lacking for options in the backfield, though there is not yet a clear No. 1.
James was the heir apparent to Franklin and broke off 100-plus yards in his first three starts but was slowed by an ankle injury.
Paul Perkins was the most productive of the Bruins running back with 573 rushing yards, but he lacked consistency. Perkins is best suited as a change-of-pace back and receiving threat.
Redshirt freshman Craig Lee has turned some heads, including that of Hundley. Hundley offered high praise of Lee to the Los Angeles Daily News:
He’s still developing as a young running back, but he has such an upside to him. Once he gets it, and understands the game and gets the concepts and everything that we’re running, he’s going to be lights out.
What Is Myles Jack's Role?
Jim Mora faces an enviable dilemma in slotting Myles Jack into the lineup. Jack can flourish in all phases of the game, and last year did so.
Jack was one of college football's premier freshmen in 2013 and among the most exciting Pac-12 defensive players. However, he did not command the national spotlight until he filled UCLA's running-back void.
Jack was so effective on the offensive end that he actually played more running back than linebacker in the final month, and his two-way proficiency generated some Heisman Trophy buzz. But Jack has been steadfast in his desire to focus on his development at linebacker, and he foresees new opportunities at the position under first-year defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich.
"I'll get chances to rush a little bit more than strictly just coverage like last year," Jack said via the Orange County Register. "I feel better as a pass rusher...I have a long way to improve on. I'm definitely not Anthony [Barr]."
However, according to Ryan Kartje of the Orange County Register, running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu might make Jack an offer he can't refuse via former Bruins standout Maurice Jones-Drew. Jones-Drew will be in attendance at Saturday's spring game.
"I’m not sure I can turn Maurice Jones-Drew down,” Jack said. “I guess I’d have to be a running back."
Who Replaces Anthony Barr?
Replacing fearsome pass-rusher Anthony Barr at outside linebacker was among the more obvious challenges facing UCLA from the outset of spring practice. Barr was an All-American and the tone-setter for the Bruins' aggressive style.
Junior Kenny Orjioke and sophomore Deon Hollins will compete for the starting spot Barr vacated.
Of course, replicating Barr's 23 sacks and 41 tackles for loss over the last two seasons might require a committee. Beyond Orjioke and Hollins, Myles Jack could see more blitzing opportunities, as he detailed to FoxSports.com's Abbey Mastracco:
Sometimes I'm more on the outside, I'm more rushing and I cover the flats and stuff like that. When I'm on the inside I've got more vertical jumps and everything. It's what I'm used to, it's what I've been doing since I've been here.
Freshman and 4-star early enrollee Zach Whitley has made a quick impression. Though Whitley is an inside linebacker, Jack told FoxSports.com the freshman is "playing a similar or same type of role."
Who Will Start on the Offensive Line?
Some uncertainty surrounding UCLA's offensive line was cleared this spring. Per the Los Angeles Times, Torian White was officially released from the team this month, the result of a November arrest.
Miami transfer Malcolm Bunche gained admission to the university earlier this month and joined the team for practices on April 7.
"He gives us another big body, gives us that experienced offensive lineman that we need," head coach Jim Mora told the Orange County Register.
Bunche joins a unit teeming with experience, though most of the Bruins' returning offensive linemen gained it through sheer necessity. Caleb Benenoch, Scott Quessenberry and Alex Redmond all started as true freshmen.
Jake Brendel is back at center. Simon Goines is rehabilitating from the broken leg that sidelined him at season's end but could be ready by the start of the 2014 campaign.
With redshirt freshmen Kenny Lacy and Poasi Moala also in the mix, offensive line coach Adrian Klemm has any number of combinations with which to work.
Is Brett Hundley Ready to Take the Next Step?
Quarterback Brett Hundley is the face of UCLA's high expectations for 2014.
Jim Mora tweeted a photograph of the Heisman Trophy and the hashtag "Hundley4Heisman" in January, the same month Hundley mentioned pursuing UCLA's first national championship in six decades to a Pauley Pavilion, per the Los Angeles Daily News.
Hundley has reached high peaks in his two seasons captaining the Bruins offense, and endured low valleys. He finished 2013 with two of the better individual efforts in his career, going for two rushing touchdowns in a rout of rival USC and torching Virginia Tech for two rushing and two passing scores in a 42-12 Sun Bowl romp.
Still, Hundley must rise to the occasion against the top tier of opponents. Last season, he struggled in losses at Stanford and Oregon, throwing more interceptions (4) than touchdowns (2) in those high-profile contests.
Certainly some of his shortcomings in those losses were because of the team's collective growing pains—UCLA was one of the younger squads in the Pac-12 last season and acclimating freshmen into the offensive line.
But with a loaded wide receiving corps and a more experienced offensive line, Hundley has the supporting cast to help him take that next step.
"The next step for Brett is to lead this team to wins over Texas and Oregon and Stanford," Mora told Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated.