I was just reading through the exceedingly well-done WR pre-season preview by AHMB and had a thought that I was going to leave in the comments, but decided to expand on in a FanPost instead.
Basically, I think that the WRs and RBs are clearly the weakest spots on the entire roster. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it would be interesting to think about how the team breaks down in terms of talent position-by-position.
Let it be known that these are just my opinions, so we can debate these in the comments. I feel pretty confident about the order here.
Start out with the strengths of this 2014 Bruins football team.
1. Defensive Line
Perhaps I am overlooking the departure of Cassius Marsh (who I saw make several plays in the backfield watching the Seattle Seahawks practice on ESPN), but I think this is the easiest one to rank. Owamagbe Odighizuwa is a 5-star talent that returns for his redshirt senior season after a medical redshirt year in 2013. Based on what I saw personally and what I read and heard in the spring, Owa is every bit as physically gifted as former 1st round pick Datone Jones. It isn't a stretch to see Owa skyrocketing into the national spotlight the same way Datone did. The explosive power off the line is there, the natural instincts in run defense are there and the surrounding talent to minimize double teams is certainly there.
Eddie Vanderdoes and Ellis McCarthy are both 5-star players that have proven they can play at a high level in the Pac-12 (with both earning All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention honors in 2013). Big, strong, ludicrously athletic, versatile in bouncing between techniques along a defensive front. There aren't two better young anchors in the Pac-12 than those two.
That is without even mentioning Kenny Clark, who supplanted an NFL defensive tackle as a true freshman and might end up being the best player out of the entire group. Though, admittedly, my IE bias comes into play when evaluating Clark.
Brett Hundley is one of the top 5 quarterbacks in all of college football. I'd personally have him third at this point, behind Marcus Mariota and, unfortunately, Jameis Winston; but you can argue him as high as #1 and as low as #5 and not sound crazy. There is little argument to be had that Hundley is the most important player on the UCLA football team, and perhaps in the entire country. He still has a lot of room to grow as a quarterback, but Hundley will likely go down as a top 3 UCLA QB all-time by the time 2014 is over.
Behind him is Asiianti Woulard, who was the #1 Dual Threat QB and Elite 11 MVP out of high school. He might have not had everything click quite yet, but the talent is undeniable. Jerry Neuheisel will never win a skills competition at QB, but he is a more than capable backup QB. This is not even mentioning the future QB in 5-star Josh Rosen going through his senior year at St. John Bosco and likely arriving on campus in Westwood before 2014 is over.
3. Defensive Backs
This is a toss up for me between the LBs and DBs, I lean towards the DBs because of the frightening level of talented depth and the returning experience. This outstanding SB Nation piece shows that UCLA was one the best defenses in the entire country at limiting explosive plays by the opponent (just 16 30+ yard plays all season and 6 40+ yard plays, rankings 6th and 3rd nationally).
Fabian Moreau, Randall Goforth, Anthony Jefferson and Ishmael Adams (along with contributions from Tahaan Goodman, Priest Willis and departed graduate Brandon Sermons) were solid. Defensive backs are kind of like referees. If you notice them, they probably aren't doing their job very well. The depth is just insane at defensive back though. Tyler Foreman, Marcus Rios, Jaleel Wadood, Adarius Pickett and Johnny Johnson (unfortunately out for 2014 with another shoulder injury) are all 4-star recruits and it is probable that not one of them will see meaningful reps on defense this season. The 3rd string defensive backs could probably start at 70% of programs in D1. That is the future, the present is 4 players with strong chances to all end up playing on Sundays and a battle for the Nickel spot between a press corner prototype in WIllis and a prototype frame at safety in Tahaan Goodman. This unit will be very good again in 2014.
Returning Eric Kendricks, the leading tackler in the Pac-12 combining the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons, and Myles Jack, all-everything elite athlete with a ridiculously innate ability to defend against the pass would be enough to get most units at the top of a ranking like this. But losing two other All-Pac-12 and NFL talents in Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt leaves big holes to be filled. I personally have to see those holes filled before I'm comfortable saying the linebackers are better as a unit than the 3 listed above. Kenny Orjioke, Deon Hollins, Zach Whitley, Isaako Savaiinaea, Kenny Young, Aaron Wallace and Ryan Hofmeister are all talented players, but need to deliver in-game. I don't doubt that they will do so, it just has to happen.
The linebackers could end up as the #1 group and I wouldn't be shocked, but two position battles going into spring give me pause.
Notice that the defensive position groups are already done with?
I definitely did and find it a little bit alarming and also exciting at the same time. This could be the best UCLA defense since the late 80's. But is the offense going to be explosive enough to capitalize on that?
Let us get through the rest of the team before jumping to any conclusions.
5. Offensive Line
My issues with the level of play on the offensive line are well noted if you frequent this site. To sum it up, they improved across the board but weren't all that effective last season. UCLA was close to the bottom of the NCAA in both Sacks Allowed and Tackles for Loss Allowed, as well as penalties (and in the Eye Tests, it was clear that the OL was putting up their fair share of penalties every week) Those numbers have to change if UCLA is going to move from being a top 20 team up to being a top 10 team or a national contender.
Losing Xavier Su'a-Filo is a big deal, but the bright sides are an extra year of experience for basically every other key player up front (Alex Redmond, Jacob Brendel, Caleb Benenoch, Scott Quessenberry), a big time transfer in Malcolm Bunche and the return of a starter in Simon Goines and depth like Connor McDermott, Poasi Moala and Ben Wysocki. Again, there is plenty of talent, but it has to deliver better results in protecting Brett Hundley and keeping penetration from blowing up run plays.
6. Running Backs
Jordan James was disappointing for the first few years of his UCLA career, no way around that. He got off to an electric start in 2013, but was that a legitimate jump in ability or a result of playing weak defenses? The running game was sporadically effective without James, as Paul Perkins filled in admirably. Steven Manfro, Malcolm Jones and especially Brett Hundley also did their best to create a functioning running game week-to-week.
In 2014 perhaps Manfro, James and Perkins can all stay healthy and maybe Craig Lee delivers on the 4-star status to offer an explosive new element into the mix. These are all good running backs, make no mistake about it. If there were some way to combine them all into one player, that player would be an All-Pac-12 RB. By themselves, there is not much of a chance for any to gain that level of acclaim. I don't count Myles Jack here because I think he gets even fewer carries than he did 2013. Coach Mora learned his lesson after Arizona State, Jack is a LB who will occasionally get short yardage reps on offense. That's it.
I am personally past the point of desiring a bell cow type of running back because I don't think that football works that way any longer. If you have a Ka'Deem Carey or Bishop Sankey, good for you. Try to keep that guy healthy while he takes 30 knocks a game.
In most offenses, different backs do different things and UCLA has enough variety to effectively run the ball against any team. All should be able to create positive yardage though. I don't put the poor numbers in Tackles For Loss allowed solely on the OL. The RB play last year left a lot to be desired, whether that is the fault of injury, misuse or poor play.
Another thing missing, outside of Brett Hundley, is a running back that can score from more than 10 yards out. In 2013, UCLA scored just 11 out of their 36 rushing touchdowns from more than 10 yards out.
Brett Hundley was responsible for 7 of those 11 TDs and Myles Jack for another. In fact, after the third game of the year against New Mexico State, no running back scored from more than 10 yards.
That is an issue.
7. Wide Receivers
This is another unquestionably deep and talented unit without a single player capable of being an 1st Team All-Pac-12 player, at least based on what they have delivered on the field thus far. Jordan Payton, Devin Lucien, Devin Fuller and Thomas Duarte are all capable starters in the Pac-12. I think that guys like Mossi Johnson, Kenneth Walker, Nate Iese, Eldridge Massington, Alex Van Dyke and Austin Roberts have potential to reach that level as well.
But, there isn't a #1 option in that group. That's just being honest. There wasn't one last year either. Or for any UCLA team since maybe pre-injury Freddie Mitchell.
No player that a defense has to spend extra time game-planning for. No player capable of taking a screen and breaking a big play on their own. That shows up in the stats, as UCLA was basically a top 25 offense in every metric except for explosive plays, where they are mediocre (ranking 69th when adjusting for quality of opponent).
That is my big concern this season, just as it was last season.
I don't know if UCLA is talented enough at the skill positions to get through Oregon, Stanford and one of those two a second time in the Pac-12 Championship game. Having a QB like Brett Hundley and a defense as talented as the UCLA Bruins will trot out in 2014 is enough to win 8-9 games, regardless of the rest of the roster.
There would have to be a cataclysmic event for UCLA to not win 8+ games in 2014. Those aren't the expectations though. Not for the team, the coaching staff or the fan base.
If UCLA is going to win more than 10 games and gain a spot in the first College Football Playoff, there is going to be an increased level of play from the skill position players on offense.
There is no reason that a school with a cavalcade of 4* recruits at WR and RB should have to turn to a true freshman linebacker for an offensive weapon. I was enthralled by the Myles Jack experience, that Arizona game will always remain one of the most memorable experiences that I've ever had as a football fan. That being said, UCLA's hopes on offense should never have gotten to the point where that was a necessary event.
Somebody in that group of running backs and receivers is going to have to become a game changing player.
Who is that going to be?
I don't know.
Maybe Devin Fuller breaks through in his third year as a WR. Maybe Jordan Payton develops a second gear to go along with his frame. Maybe Devin Lucien finally puts it all together. Maybe Jordan James puts together a 2012 Johnathan Franklin type of season. Maybe Craig Lee's redshirt year was enough to put him over the top as a collegiate running back. Maybe Thomas Duarte is the next Marcedes Lewis.
Maybe one of those maybes becomes a "Remember when..."
UCLA needs it.
As always, Go Bruins!