Last season the UCLA Bruins entered their first game against the Virginia Cavaliers as a top 10 team. Led by Brett Hundley, the expectation was for the offense to handle the Cavaliers fairly easily despite the fact that center Jake Brendel was going to miss the contest.
That was not what occurred. What happened was an offensive disaster.
The Cavaliers had a good defense last season, ranking in the 30th-50th range in most categories of importance on defense.
Let's take a closer look at the position groups that UCLA will be attacking on Saturday.
As Streaking The Lawn states here, losing an NFL defensive end in Eli Harold is tough, but the Cavaliers do have a healthy 5* replacement on the line in sophomore defensive tackle Andrew Brown. Brown was plagued by injuries as a freshman and was unable to make much of an impact. I would not be surprise to see him take a huge leap in his 2nd year. That will be a tough matchup for Brendel, Alex Redmond and Kenny Lacy inside.
At defensive end, the actual replacements of Harold's production as an edge rusher are going to be Kwontie Moore and Mike Moore, as well as senior Trent Corney. The two Moore's (unrelated) combined for 5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss.
Senior David Dean and junior Donte Wilkins both return at defensive tackle as well. Cavaliers should not miss much of a step up front.
Dean contributed 8 TFLs in 2014 and Wilkins was solid depth, starting 5 games in replacement for Brown during his injuries.
Virginia lost all 3 of their primary starters at linebacker from 2014, so previewing this group is tough because they are unknown.
The likely starter at the Mike is sophomore Micah Kiser, who played sparingly in 2014 as a true freshman. He'll be replacing a 2nd team All-ACC LB. Streaking The Lawn praises the impressive lateral quickness of Kiser but they're concern is the lack of instincts. It will be interesting to see how he works against an offense like UCLA's, which works laterally quite a bit.
Junior Mark Hall will have a tough task as well, replacing UVA's leader in sacks in 2014 at the Sam position. Hall has been a special teams player in his time at UVA, seems like a similar player to someone like Ryan Hofmeister was at UCLA. Not going to be the pass rushing threat that Max Valles was for the Cavs, but should be a competent backer for their defense.
The Will backer is projected to be a split role between junior Zach Bradshaw and true freshman CJ Stalker. Not much info on either, but the Cavaliers should be able to wrangle enough production to have a top 50 defense this year no matter how much talent they lost in the middle.
The secondary starts with the most high profile player on the Cavaliers defense in sophomore free safety Quin Blanding.
Blanding emerged instantly as one of the best safeties in the country as a true freshman in 2014, registering 123 tackles and 3 interceptions. He starts 2015 on basically every watch list for a defensive player. It would not be shocking for him to welcome Josh Rosen to college football with an interception in this game.
Junior Kelvin Rainey is the likely replacement for Anthony Brown at strong safety (UVA's 2nd leading tackler in 2014, whom graduated to the NFL). Streaking The Lawn notes that Rainey got enough praise in the spring to allow one of his competitors at the spot to move back to starting at a corner spot.
There is a lot of depth at corner for the Cavs. Four quality players in senior Maurice Canady, junior Tim Harris, junior Divante Walker and senior Demetrious Nicholson.
Harris and Canady are both big corners at 6'2", while Nicholson is a more athletic corner than either. Expect to see a lot of Nicholson in the slot, as he is the best man coverage option on the roster.
Overall, this is a talented group but not the same level as the Cavaliers' defense from last season. This is a great opening test for Josh Rosen against a solid defense that will bring unique looks all game.
Another angle to keep an eye on is how the Bruin offense line responds to unscouted pressure looks without Coach Adrian Klemm on the sideline (as Klemm is serving a suspension). That was a weakness last season and will need to improve with a true freshman taking the snaps in the passing game.
In the running game, I expect a big day out of Paul Perkins and all of UCLA's running backs with an inexperienced linebacking core for UVA trying to make plays.
Until Saturday, Go Bruins!