Bumped: perfect teaser for Spring Football. -BN Eds.
I recently saw a link for the top 10 questions for the PAC-12, and misread it as the top 10 questions for UCLA Football going into the Spring. As I often do with these list-type articles, I then jotted down what I expected the top 10 questions to be, so I could compare my expectations to the article. While I was disappointed that the article was PAC-12 and not solely UCLA related, I figured I could still share my thoughts with you, the Bruins Nation.
Here, then, are my top 10 biggest questions for UCLA Football, heading into the spring, in no particular order.
1. How Will The New Pro-Style Offense Develop?
After the departure of Noel Mazzone and his spread offense, Jim Mora has promised a more power-centered offense with traditional fullbacks, tight ends, and QB action under center. UCLA has new coaches, including Rip Scherer, a dedicated tight ends coach. This is a new look for everybody on the roster, and will impact both positional setup and playcalling. Who benefits? Who suffers? Perhaps most intriguingly, who changes position in order to accomodate the new setup? (Looking at you, Breland Brandt!)
2. What Will The New Defensive Scheme Change?
After getting abused by Stanford and Nebraska, Jim Mora asserted that UCLA needed to 'get bigger,' and promised a schematic shift to more of a 4-3, as opposed to the hybrid 3-4 and Nickel packages UCLA has mostly run the last few years. While Tom Bradley gets all the benefit of the doubt in terms of his ability to coach a 4-3, it remains to be seen how the players will adapt, particularly in the speed-happy PAC-12. This change could also see a renewed commmitment to going after the quarterbacks, something rarely seen in the last few years.
3. What Does Josh Rosen Do Next?
While many Bruin faithful were not surprised by his performances, Josh Rosen was the national college football talk of the town after an outstanding performance in Week One. Over the season, he cooled down with some particularly error-prone games, looking like a true freshman, even if the best true freshman in the country. With a year of experience under his belt, Rosen will look to improve on his freshman performance and emerge as THE premier quarterback in the conference. Gone, however, are leaders Paul Perkins, Jake Brendel, and Jordan Payton. Rosen will have to shoulder more offensive responsibility, with less experience around him. Is he up for the challenge? If so, his ceiling includes Heismans and record books.
4. How Does The Running Back Depth Chart Shake Out?
After Nate Starks' breakout 2014 season, many justifiably assumed he would take over for Paul Perkins upon Perkin's departure. However, undisclosed team discipline issues for Starks, along with the emergence of Soso Jamabo, the #1 Running Back in the class of 2015, cast doubt on that foregone conclusion. It seems fairly certain that Bolo Olorunfunmi, after a surprisingly impressive freshman campaign, will get carries as the #3 back in the rotation, and some combination of mainstays Nate Iese and Steven Manfro and newcomers Jalen Starks and Brandon Stephens will fill out the depth chart. The big question remains: Jamabo or Starks as #1 back? Don't be surprised if UCLA adopts the "running back by committee" approach they committed to after Johnathan Franklin left (at least until Perkins emerged as the dependable top option), but look to Spring to see who has the edge coming into the post-Perkins era.
5. Will Youth Or Experience Prevail At Linebacker?
The combination of injuries and reduced depth due to departures (most notably Kene Orjioke and Zach Whitley) made the linebacker rotation last year surprisingly unpredictable. Who would have guessed that Jayon Brown and Isaako Savaiinaea would hold down the fort all season, after expecting Myles Jack and Kenny Young to shine? This upcoming season, similar questions abound. Does the experience of relatively underheralded veterans like Brown and Savaiinaea earn them the starting spot? Does Kenny Young make a claim as the leader of the defensive he was supposed to become last year? How does the incoming freshman class- the best linebacker class in the nation- stack up? We know Mora plays talent regardless of age, so the newcomers have at least a chance of suprising and earning solid playing time.
6. How Much Impact Will Defensive Freshman Have?
This question is closely tied to the previous one, as UCLA really loaded up at linebacker this year. Expect signing day savior Mique Juarez to compete for playing time, if not a starting spot, from day 1. But don't be too quick to rule out Krys Barnes and Lokeni Toailoa, both highly rated and early commits who have flown under the radar due to UCLA's exciting recruiting finish. As noted above, these young linebackers will be competing with less heralded, but more experienced talent. There is also tremendous intrigue on the defensive line, as freshman Boss Tagaloa competes with a number of upperclassmen who have underwhelmed at time. Lastly, don't sleep on Keisean Lucier-South, who was UCLA's highest rated recruit not named Josh Rosen in 2015, and sat out the season as a redshirt.
7. Who Steps Up At Wide Receiver?
Again, the debate is between experienced talent that has underwhelmed, and exciting new freshman stars-in-the-making. UCLA retuns Darren Andrews as arguably the only productive receiver from last season. The receiving corps includes Eldridge Massington and Mossi Johnson, players who looked primed to take over in 2014, and thoroughly disappointed in 2015, as well as players like Alex Van Dyke, Austin Roberts, and Jordan Lasley, who have never seen enough of the field to make an impression, despite high recruiting marks in high school and sufficient time in the program. There's also Cordell Broadus, who if you haven't heard, is coming back to football, along with the most frustrating player on the roster, Kenneth Walker, to whom every pass is either a drop or a touchdown. Newcomers include Damian Alloway, Demetric Felton, Darian Owens (maybe) and Dymond Lee (probably), as well as highly touted Adewale Omotosho and Theo Howard. Howard, and to a lesser extent Alloway, have the potential to be the most important player signed in this class, as they represent the fast, shifty home run threat UCLA has consistently lacked in the Mora era. Now, look at the paragraph above. That's a lot of names, and a lot of potential talent. Who steps up?
8. How Special Are The New Special Teams?
While the coverage team has declined in efficiency over the last season, special teams has incredible promise for the next year- indeed the next four- as UCLA brings in top talent at kicker, punter and long snapper; JJ Molson, Austin Kent, and Johnny Den Bleyker, respectively. Between Howard, Alloway and Felton, the Bruins may have also added a new returner to compete with incumbant Ish Adams. True freshmen are always unpredictable, but the special teams looks potentially more exciting than any time in recent memory.
9. Is This The Year UCLA Finally Addresses The Penalty Issue?
This question uniquely has nothing to do with new personnel or schemes introduced in 2016. Penalties have been the thorn in UCLA's side since Mora took over. While holding penalties (and sacks) dropped in 2016, mostly due to Josh Rosen's pocket presence, as compared to Brett Hundley's scrambling, the overall penalty rate remained (slightly less) dismal in 2015. Gone now are frequent offenders Myles Jack and Caleb Benenoch (a name my wife knows only because of holding penalties), but will the team as a whole change? Given the new coaches, 30 new players, and new offensive and defensive schemes, there's no better time to institute a culture change and address this issue once and for all. We're looking to you, Coach Mora.
10. Will UCLA Stay Healthy Enough To Compete For The PAC-12?
Before you argue over the difference between a reason and an excuse, please acknowledge that UCLA's 2015 season was different than expected, in no small part related to the string of season ending injuries that took out all-conference talent. Rather than wish "what could have been," look to see whether UCLA's added depth and continued excellent conditioning pays off in 2016. Besides, there's no way we can be that unlucky again, right? This question will not be answered until the end of the year, but it starts with a successful spring- getting through spring without any major injuries is the first step.
Those are my Top 10 Questions for UCLA football coming into spring of 2016. Fire away with your own questions, or answers to mine, in the comments.