Bumped from a fan post. - BN Eds.
For most UCLA fans, the success of UCLA basketball is measured by banners in Pauley. UCLA football, on the other hand, has never had that clear of an expectation. National Champion, College Football Playoff team, Pac 10/12 Champion, Rose Bowl, beating USC, any bowl victory, or just plain being competitive are all different ways UCLA fans might measure football success. Whatever barometer that UCLA fans use, I think we can all agree that this year might be one of the most interesting and pivotal years in recent UCLA football history.
The Wasserman Football Center is set to open. UCLA signed a $280 million Under Armor deal. Jim Mora has recruited classes that have ranked at least in the top 20 each year he has been a coach at UCLA. Another group of highly touted freshman have arrived this year. UCLA has an already projected NFL first round junior QB.
But it’s the looming question marks that this team has that make this year so interesting. Moreover, if these questions are not answered correctly, Bruins Nation is set to have somebody higher up than assistant coaches answer as to why the questions were not answered correctly.
No matter what level of football you are in, if you are not solid on both lines, success is impossible. The offensive line’s inability to open holes for the running game was the team's biggest problem last year. Losing Josh Rosen did not help the unit, but a team cannot average 2.9 yards per carry, rank 127 out of 128 teams in rushing offense, and not have a single player even sniff 500 yards rushing for the year. That type of rushing futility had not been witnessed at UCLA since Khalil Bell led the 2008 Bruins with only 397 yards.
The offensive line has only two returning starters from last year. In most years, that could be a huge problem, but I’m not sure it can get worse than it was in 2016. While this unit does not have a full slate of starters returning, they do return Scott Quessenberry, their signal caller. In my opinion, his play last year was average, but it is always nice to return your center. In addition, they return Kolton Miller from injury, who is probably going to be their best power lineman. This unit will definitely need to be coached up and, with a more balanced attack, there should be improvement. However, it is as clear as the view from the Wasserman Center to the practice field that the pressure is on this group. The offensive line play this year is the unequivocal key to this team’s success. Opening holes for the backs and keeping Josh Rosen upright will equal victories.
One of the main positions on a football field where you expect big plays is from your receiver corps. Last year, it was a simple, yet unfixed problem with the wide receivers: too many dropped balls. You cannot extend drives or make big plays if you cannot watch the ball into your hands. The drops were part of the reason the offense only converted 35% of its 3rd down conversions. The biggest disappointment of the receiver corps last year was Eldridge Massington. There was a collective belief that his big frame would turn into a huge target for Rosen, but it just did not play out that way during the 2016 campaign as Massington caught no TD passes. Another issue with the group seemed to be that the mix of receivers just did not mesh. There was a collective belief by some that young receivers like Theo Howard should have been utilized earlier and more often.
There is not a huge influx of new talent with this group, but it is another group that should only be able to improve, especially if Rosen can stay healthy. I would look for Jordan Lasley to continue to be a primary target of Rosen with Massington looking to come back strong after a poor junior season. However, with Jake Butt hauling in 97 receptions the past two years in Ann Arbor under the coaching of Fisch, Austin Roberts might just turn into the main threat and register the biggest reception numbers of the group.
This will definitely not be a Coach Mora bashing section. With that being said, there have been some clear problems in this area over the last few years. The most glaring problem is the offense having three different offensive schemes over the last three years. This is difficult for any group to navigate. Remember, these players are student athletes. Ask pros that make a living playing football to learn three different offensive schemes in three years and I am sure they would agree that it's not optimal. So, the difficulty level for collegiate players is compounded, especially with the change in the way college programs practice in comparison to the past.
Coach Jedd Fisch has been brought over from Michigan to overhaul the offense once again and he’s been quoted as saying that his offense is a "label-less" offense. However, it is very clear that Fisch understands how important it is to run the ball and, with new offensive line coach Hank Fraley and the return to Westwood of running backs coach DeShaun Foster working alongside tight ends coach Rip Scherer, hopefully, the "label-less" offense can improve on last year’s numbers in the run game.
Interesting and pivotal are definitely accurate words to describe this year. However, the uncertainties in key areas of this football team are what make using the word "pivotal" to describe this year a little uncomfortable.