Bruin Bites: Sun Bowl Edition

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

A roundup of news involving the UCLA Bruins football program in the weeks leading up to their matchup against the Virginia Tech Hokies in the Sun Bowl on December 31st at 11:30 Pacific time.

First and foremost, Happy Holidays to everyone at Bruins Nation. It's a weird time for me, not that anyone cares in particular, as it is my last week of finals as an undergrad student. Graduating in February after 4 and a half years in school. Surreal time for me and it hasn't really set in that, after all of these years, the safety net of school is about to be over.

I'm sure there are more than a few UCLA football players that are going through the same process, but with a bowl game to look forward to against a very capable opponent in Virginia Tech.

  • From the opponents' side of things, the Hokies are excited about heading to El Paso. I suppose the difference from Blackburg, Virginia to El Paso is a lot different than leaving Westwood and heading to the Southwest (always feel weird calling it that since California is technically the most southwest of any state in the mainland US). It's nice to see both teams being a little more humble than the Trojans were last season. There are a couple of short clips from Hokie players and they seem like a well-spoken group. I've always been a fan of Virginia Tech on the side, which should surprise no one since Frank Beamer is most well known for his defensive units and great special teams play. This is a matchup that I'd like to see pursued in the future. Good athletic program and a good university as well.
  • Here is an article where Sports Business Daily takes a look at the bowl gifts that each team will receive. The haul from the Sun Bowl is pretty meager, to be honest. A gift suite (complicated explanation in the article), a Timely Watch Co. watch, a Top of the World cap, a Majestic fleece pullover, an Ogio backpack, a coin and, the big headliner a Helen of Troy hair dryer. Yes, the representatives of the Sun Bowl decided that the best thing to give to the players in the Sun Bowl would be a hair dryer. I look forward to seeing some Twitter posts regarding the hair dryer once the Bruins get down to El Paso.
  • In a more on-the-field oriented look at the Sun Bowl, Jack Wang gives a "by the numbers" look at the game. The thing that I want to focus on are the impressive numbers of the Virginia Tech pass defense. The secondary of the Hokies might be the best that UCLA has faced all season. Freshman Kendall Fuller is a monster, who will be a very high draft pick one day. He might be better than his older brother, and the starter on the other side, Kyle Fuller. Both Fuller brothers, freshman Brandon Facyson and safety Kyshoen Jarrett were All-ACC honorees in some capacity. This pass defense held Alabama (the best passing offense they faced in terms of yards per attempt) to 110 yards on 10 completions. They give up just 165.8 yards per game and have intercepted 19 passes as a team. This is a great test for the UCLA WRs and Brett Hundley.
  • ESPN and CBS Sports both ranked the bowl games 1-35 in terms of watchability and the Sun Bowl was seen by both writers to be one of the better non-BCS games out there. ESPN ranked it at #14, in between Southern Cal-Fresno State and Texas Tech-Arizona State. In a needlessly derogatory comment, the ESPN writer says: "UCLA's Brett Hundley looks like a future NFL quarterback; Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas used to look like an NFL quarterback." While that's not necessarily untrue, why does ESPN need to rip on Thomas instead of putting a minimal amount of research into the matchup. Too much to expect from tWWL, I guess. Anyway... CBS Sports has the Sun Bowl at #13, with a simplistic take of "I want to watch Myles Jack run the ball against Virginia Tech's front seven". That's a more positive spin, but still really easy.
  • To be fair, both sites also have general previews on the Sun Bowl. CBS Sports' preview can be found here. The preview notes that VT will lean likely lean on their defense as they have all season. The defense is a great unit, ranking 8th in the NCAA scoring defense, 5th in interceptions, 3rd in 3rd down defense, 4th in yards per play, 12th in tackles for loss per game and 3rd in passing efficiency defense. That unit is stacked, so why are the Hokies playing in the Sun Bowl? Because their offense is atrocious, both running and passing. The ACC is by no means a powerhouse conference (5th in the conference rankings, last I checked), but the Hokies scored 28 or more points just 3 times all year (once against Western Carolina and Marshall). A lot of that blame can be placed on the lack of progression of their quarterback, Logan Thomas. Thomas might have suffered more as a prospect than any player in any sport this season. He was seen as a "in the first round discussion if he leaves early" by Mel Kiper at the end of last season. After a really bad 2013 (57% completion, 16 touchdowns to 13 interceptions, under 3000 yards passing on almost 400 attempts, 7.32 YPA, which is a terrible number for a QB prospect, just 61st among qualifying passers in 2013). He'll need to really perform well from this point forward to salvage his draft stock. He's got arm strength, mobility and above ideal size (6'6" and solidly built).

Speaking of NFL prospects, the status of Brett Hundley and Xavier Su'a-Filo moving forward is on the minds of every UCLA fan. Both are awaiting their results from NFL evaluators, but that is a really overrated process. Essentially what they do is ask for the opinion of 4 teams and 2 scouting services to try and get a consensus of the players value, after that they send the players a letter that says one of the following: "You have the ability to be drafted as high as the 1st round/2nd round/3rd round/4-7th round/undrafted." It's a rough process and one that is usually accurate, but there is no intense detail in those evaluations for players to learn from. Let's take a look at some general news to close this out.

  • One player who is guaranteed to be a part of the NFL Draft this year is senior WR Shaq Evans. Evans got some good news yesterday when he learned that he was invited to the Senior Bowl. Expect Anthony Barr, Cassius Marsh, Jordan Zumwalt, Damien Thigpen, Keenan Graham, Seali'i Epenesa, Darius Bell, Stan McKay and Malcolm Jones to get invited to various bowl games after the season ends. Not all those guys will get a shot in the NFL, but most will and it'll be nice to see them work to get there.
  • In this video from Inside UCLA with Jack Wang, XSF talks about the process of thinking he's going through with regards to the draft. I see him as a 2nd-3rd round guy right now, mostly because he doesn't strike me as a guy that is going to tear it up in testing and there isn't a lot of film on him at guard from this year (where he will be expected to play in the NFL). His age is a factor, but realistically an offensive linemen is the position with the most longevity of any in the NFL (outside of kicker/punter). I'd expect XSF to return, but that's just my opinion.
  • Brett Hundley's decision has a lot more layers to it than XSF's. For one, no mock draft has XSF going in the top 10. The majority have Brett going there, including the latest USA Today one which has him going 6th overall to the Jaguars (not an ideal location for a young QB). I've been giving this practical angle on Hundley pretty often, but I'll do it again here. There are between 4 and 8 teams that will be picking in the top half of the first round that either definitely need or probably need QBs moving forward (Texans, Rams, Vikings, Raiders, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Buccaneers, Titans). There is one 100% lock at QB in Teddy Bridgewater. After him, there is a group of QBs that have been thinned out by injury/returning to college (knee injuries to Aaron Murray and Mettenberger from LSU, Marcus Mariota returning to Oregon). That group includes a bunch of really talented guys with question marks (Derek Carr and his level of competition, Johnny Manziel and his size/off-the-field issues, AJ McCarron and his arm strength/"game manager" label, Blake Bortles and his iffy mechanics and Brett Hundley and his decision making). At least three of those guys will go in the first round, probably in the top 10. There is no reason for Hundley to believe he isn't as good or better than any player in that group. Do I think Hundley would be a better player with another year at UCLA? Yes. Is he skilled enough to warrant a top 10 selection? Yes. Do I expect him to return? I'll leave that to Coach Mora and staff to do their best recruiting job of the year.
  • On a final positive note, Coach Jim Mora was named a finalist for the Liberty Mutual National Coach of the Year Award, along with stalwarts Nick Saban, Gus Malzahn, Art Briles and Todd Graham. While it's unlikely that Mora will take home the award, you have to give him credit for getting UCLA through this season with the tragic death of Nick Pasquale. The only place that Coach Mora hasn't proven himself is on the field in games UCLA isn't supposed to win on paper. In the recruiting game and his vision for the program off-the-field, he looks to be a keeper. Vote for Mora at CoachoftheYear.com.
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