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With less than a week to go before the UCLA season kicks off in Houston against the Rice Owls, I’m still wondering how I’m feeling about how this season is going to go.
The straight up truth is, I have no clue how this team will perform this year, no idea what its final record will be or should be. I could see us winning eight or nine games, definitely. The schedule is in our favor, that’s for sure, what with us not playing Oregon or Washington (again) and most of what appear to be the tough games – Nebraska, USC, Stanford – at home in the Rose Bowl.
On the other hand, this might be a .500 team at best, no matter who we get to play. There is simply no avoiding the fact that we have an offensive line that is, and I’m being kind here, a work in progress. If one believes the practice reports that have appeared here and elsewhere, offensive line Coach Adriam Klemm is still experimenting with different line-ups, even trying out Xavier Sua-Filo at left guard when all this time XSF at left tackle seemed to be the one sure thing we could count on up front.
The other question mark is at quarterback.
Don’t get me wrong, as a fan I’m glad that redshirt freshman Brett Hundley has ascended to the top of the depth chart and will be under/behind center (whoever that center turns out to be) when we run our first series on offense against Rice. While I’ll admit I have a certain grudging respect for co-incumbents Richard Brehaut and Kevin Prince for doing the best they could under trying circumstances that included a misfired attempt to install the we’ll-try-never-to-mention-it-again Pistol offense, not to mention Prince’s willingness to play hurt and injured, which he always seemed to be.
Hundley is the future and even if he hadn’t emerged as the clear starter through his performance in fall camp (he did), I feel him becoming the starter is almost equally important as a representation of a new beginning, even if technically he’s a player from the prior regime.
(more after the jump)
But, none of that changes the fact that Hundley has never taken a snap in a college football game and last saw real action as a high school senior in Arizona. We really don’t know how he’s going to play and while the practice reports have been encouraging, nobody seems particularly blown away. As recently as earlier this week, I was reading stuff about Hundley’s "tired arm." (For the record, Chip Kelly has named redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota as his starting quarterback.)
So, really, what are predictions about a football team worth when the offensive line is in semi-permanent flux and the quarterback is in his first year?
On the other hand, Neuheisel managed six wins last season against an arguably tougher schedule. One has to believe that the improvement of Mora over Neuheisel, the improvement of Mora’s staff over Neuheisel’s staff, the universal agreement that this fall camp was superior to any we’ve seen in recent memory – how can this team not improve on 2011’s six win performance.
And, don’t forget, there are a bunch of teams in the league going through the same new-coach growing pains as UCLA, including Arizona, Arizona State and Washington State. And even Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel, who remains bearish on Mora’s long-term ability to return UCLA football to past glory feels that Mora has advantages over the other new coaches in the league. He said in in a video (linked here) regarding which of the new coaches in the Pac 12 would win the most games "It kind of pains me to say this because I did not like the hire at the time, I don’t necessarily think he’s the guy to restore the program to glory ultimately. But if you talk just about who’s got the most to work with, I think it’s Mora at UCLA. UCLA definitely underachieved the last few years under Rick Neuheisel considering some of the talent they brought in. But I think with a promising young quarterback Brett Hundley, a very good defensive line, some playmakers that started to emerge in the spring, it’s entirely possible they rise up and win eight or nine games in his first season." (In his column predicting the regular season records of all new coaches, Mandel went with 7-5 for Mora/UCLA.)
At some other positions, I see us most definitely improving. I’m very excited about the receivers, for example. I love seeing the duo of Jerry Johnson and Shaq Evans and believe they are a real upgrade over Nelson Rosario and Taylor Embree, who seemed to regress over time. Y-receiver Joe Fauria might be one of the most potent receiving weapons in the conference.
Of course, it’s on defense where we might really see the improvement. I’m not going to go unit-by-unit, but when was the last time a national college football writer praised our defensive line? And when was the last time our head coach was a former defensive coordinator – as opposed to an offensive-oriented head man?
Speaking of the defense, I’d feel bad if I didn’t lament the loss of middle linebacker Patrick Larimore. I don’t know if you heard his interview on the Dan Patrick radio show (linked here) but it turns out Larimore had a total of six concussions before retiring from football – that’s four more than the two we knew about (one from this past spring and the other this fall). It’s tough to say how or if Larimore will be remembered; he had the misfortune of being a very good college linebacker at a time when the team and the defense weren’t very good. It’s truly unfortunate that he won’t get the chance to play for Mora and defensive coordinator Lou Spanos, because the defense might actually be really good this year, particularly if senior cornerbacks Sheldon Price (who might actually get the words "lock down" written before "corner" when he’s discussed this year) and Aaron Hester. We’ve also got a killer safety in RS Tevin McDonald. I’m dedicating this version of Pregame Guesses to Larimore.
You know, I sort of worked on this post off and on all day yesterday. And the more I wrote, the more excited I got. We have an awful lot of unknowns – new coaches, new quarterback, an offensive line that needs to get better quick and we’re down one top linebacker. But I like what I see from the new coaches, I’m enthusiastic about Hundley and I can’t remember a time when I was jacked up for our defense – maybe when Troy Aikman was our quarterback and big time studs like Carnell Lake and Eric Turner were lining up for us.
I’ll be back Wednesday with the first real Pregame Guesses, Rice Owl edition. Until then, we wish you were here, Patrick Larimore.
Here are your Pregame Guesses, Wish You Were Here edition:
- How many regular season games do you think UCLA will win this season?
- What was your favorite Patrick Larimore moment from the past few seasons?
- When comparing this year to last year, what are you most excited about for the upcoming season?