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Talkin' Texas: A Chat With Burnt Orange Nation

UCLA and Texas go head to head in a prime time game on Saturday evening, and in preparation, we had a little email exchange with the outstanding folks at Burnt Orange Nation, one of the Texas SBN blogs. Here's how it looked...

Caleb Benenoch leads the Bruins back to his home state of Texas for a road game with the Longhorns.
Caleb Benenoch leads the Bruins back to his home state of Texas for a road game with the Longhorns.
Harry How

gbruin, BN: Not sure what's better, playing a legendary program like Texas, or chatting with a legendary site like BON. Both rule and it's one of the highlights of a season. Of course, neither team is full of highlights yet. There are always growing pains with a new coach, and injuries and player issues aren't helping. What are your thoughts on the Charlie Strong era so far?

PB, BON: Bruins Nation and BON were the first two sites to join SB Nation, and I can tell you that we never would have guessed that one day Texas would be the basketball school and UCLA the football school, but here we are...

As for the Charlie Strong era, my thoughts are that I really like Strong and am rooting for him to succeed but right now he's still disassembling the broken mess left behind by the previous regime. On the one hand, I think what Strong is doing is a vital step to laying the proper foundation the program needs to rebuild. On the other hand, I worry a bit for Texas' new head coach, because I wonder just how much ugliness Longhorns fans can stomach. I hope that we can get out of the way and give Strong the time and space he needs to finish tearing down the old and building up something better, but everything is outsized in Texas -- including expectations -- so we'll see. Of course, Strong may well be here because Jim Mora decided to stay where he was. I have to imagine Bruins fans are pretty excited about the direction of the program right now, no?

JoeBruin15, BN: Well, heading into the season, our expectations were certainly high. The first two games of the season have left many Bruin fans scratching their heads already and their enthusiasm has been dampered. Before August 30th, many of us, myself included, had Texas-sized expectations and thought this might just be the year we win our second national championship in football. Right now, an 8-win season seems more likely and that does not live up to what was expected from this team or this coaching staff. How patient will Texas fans be with Coach Strong?

PB, BON: There won't be much tolerance for ass whippings like we saw last Saturday night in Austin, when BYU torched us 41-7 in the worst UT home loss since? UCLA and Rout 66. I mean, right now, I think fans know there's a long way to go, and a tough situation has been made worse by not having David Ash at quarterback. I'd expect fans will largely give Strong a pass on ugly results this season, but Texas fans aren't going to tolerate a long rebuild any more than Michigan fans were particularly willing to be patient with Rich Rodriguez.

Pivoting back to your Bruins, what sorts of problems have been plaguing UCLA? From your previous comment about an 8-win, it sounds like you think they're fundamental and not the type that the Bruins are likely to overcome. No chance in your mind that the Bruins are just off to a slow start?

JoeBruin15, BN: There are fundamental problems and they've been there the previous two seasons, making us wonder why they haven't been addressed yet. The first is penalties. Sure, the Pac-12 has some of the worst refs in the country, but when you are one of the most penalized teams in the country, you might think it should be fixable. A lap for each penalty yard should do the trick. Yet, we continue to have flags thrown. The second fundamental problem is the O-Line. For two seasons, we cobbled together our O-Line, but then the coaches started talking about all the experience we had on the O-Line. Then all of a sudden after Virginia, they did a complete 180 and started talking about the youth (read: inexperience) on the O-Line. The third issue is the offensive playcalling and personnel decisions. OC Noel Mazzone (aka "No-O Mazzne") really seems like he doesn't know what is going on at times. He had nothing to counter the 5-man rush by UVa. His playcalling is unimaginative at best. There are fundamental problems and I don't see solutions yet. Just how bad are things with all the suspensions and removals that have taken place?

Wescott, BON: From the perspective of assessing the discipline under Mack Brown and the type of players that he recruited, the dismissals tell a bleak story of a head coach who was barely in charge of the program. If so many players were behaving in a many that violates the simple core values of Charlie Strong (honest, treat women with respect, no drugs, no stealing, no guns), what exactly was going on in Austin?

From the perspective of assessing the players Texas lost, most of the dismissals were not especially significant, though they did hit three positions hard -- running back, wide receiver, and safety, leaving those spots short on depth. But none of those players were starters with the exception of junior wide receiver Kendall Sanders,who never really fulfilled his big-play potential at Texas and may never have done so based on his inability to avoid making terribly heinous decisions (allegedly).

The suspensions have been much more significant, as junior wide receiver Daje Johnson made plays as a punt returner last year and was featured heavily early in the season before he sprained his ankle and quarterback David Ash was injured. And the recent suspensions to senior offensive tackle Desmond Harrison and junior offensive tackle Kennedy Estelle deprived the Horns of two of the three experienced tackles on the roster, leaving depth at the position paper thin.

But in talking about bad things happening, the injuries to junior starting quarterback David Ash and senior starting center Dominic Espinosa were particularly hurtful. The odds of Ash staying healthy for a full season were never high after his repeated injury problems and concussions last year, but the bigger issue is that there just wasn't any experienced depth behind him. The same for Espinosa, who had the vast majority of the total starts along the offensive line for the Horns. All told, those were probably the two players Texas couldn't afford to lose on offense, with the starting tackles not far behind.

So what's going on with the UCLA defense? Memphis isn't exactly known to have world-beating offenses, but the Tigers were able to hang in that game last weekend, scoring 35 points and gaining 469 total yards in the process. What areas can Texas exploit there?

AHMB, BN: For the first two years of Jim Mora’s tenure, Lou Spanos coordinated the defense and we had some very gifted natural pass rushers in Anthony Barr, Cassius Marsh, and Datone Jones that allowed our defense to get pressure with four pass rushers. Spanos, Barr, Marsh, and Jones, are all now in the NFL, and the first two games under new defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich have not been pretty. Our defense got a lot of praise for scoring three times against Virginia, but once they changed quarterbacks they lit us up too. On the bright side, Kenny Clark has been very disruptive in the middle, and Owamagbe Odighizuwa flashes from his end spot, but our pressure is very inconsistent overall. I don’t know if Swoopes is capable of throwing the ball down the field like we saw against Virginia and Memphis, but our pass rush has not been up to par at this point. Our defense also borders on overaggressive in playing the ball, which may be a byproduct of Ulbrich’s personality, but we frequently got beat on misdirection and play action against Memphis. We have good size and a lot of speed on defense, but so far we haven’t been able to harness it.

Speaking of Swoopes, is he the long term answer at quarterback or is he placeholding for Jerrod Heard?

PB, BON: Swoopes has some really impressive attributes and there are universes in which he develops into a highly effective quarterback with a strong arm, a massive frame, and enough mobility to extend plays and buy his receivers time. All things considered, he acquitted himself reasonable well in his first career start last week at home against BYU, but it's apparent that Swoopes is on a long, gradual developmental curve, and it's difficult to envision it being one that Texas is willing to invest in all the way through.

In part that's a statement about Swoopes himself, but the driving force behind it is the presence of Jerrod Heard, who unlike Swoopes does offer the Longhorns a true dual threat quarterback who can run a fast-paced spread offense and possesses the ideal skill set to run the prevalent college offenses. The consensus opinion is that Swoopes' odds of holding off Heard are fairly long, and if that plays out, then the only real question for the Texas staff will be related to timing. At what point do they play this season for the 2015 season? How soon is too soon for Heard?

A lot remains to be seen, but it's going to be Swoopes out there under center against UCLA on Saturday. BYU provided the Bruins with the defensive blueprint for neutralizing the Texas running game and forcing Swoopes to win the game with his arm -- something he's just not capable of at this point in his career -- and it could be another long game for the UT offense.

Flipping it back to UCLA, tell us Texas fans about a couple players on each side of the ball we need to be aware of, and then close us out with your prediction for Saturday's contest.

AHMB, BN: Well, for starters you have to be aware of Myles Jack on both sides of the ball. Jack was recruited as a linebacker, but had offers to play running back. He managed to somehow be the Pac-12 Defensive and Offensive Freshman of the Year last year, despite only playing running back in a handful of games. Whether the awards were gimmicky or not is up for debate, but the guy can flat out play. He’s really just a short yardage back, but he’s shown that he can break outside and run.

Another guy to keep an eye on defensively is Kenny Clark at DT. Like Jack, Clark is a sophomore that has exceeded expectations thus far. He came in much less heralded that Eddie Vanderdoes, who has performed well in his own right, but Clark lives in opponents backfields. If there is on guy that I feel confident about getting consistent pressure, it’s Clark.

On offense, the obvious choice is Brett Hundley. Hundley is the heart and soul of the team, and where he goes, the team follows. The team has been plagued by the dropsies, yet he’s still completed 69% of his passes for 638 yards this season. He has not ran the ball much this year, but he’s more than capable of tucking and running for long gains.

Prediction wise, I say UCLA wins a tightly contested game. I think Hundley makes the difference, but the game won’t be decided until deep in the 4th quarter.

Now it’s your turn. Tell us UCLA fans about a couple players on each side of the ball we need to be aware of, and then close with your prediction for Saturday's contest.

Wescott, BON:For the Horns, junior defensive tackle Malcom Brown is a player to watch for Bruins fans -- he had 11 tackles, three sacks, and five tackles for loss against the Cougars last weekend. He's married now and playing for his family to get to the NFL, so an always high motor is operating at an even higher level right now. Oh yeah, and he's also really fast and strong.

Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of other difference-makers right now, though senior cornerback Quandre Diggs had a nice interception last week and senior linebacker Jordan Hicks has been playing an impressive brand of football for the most part and has even managed to stay healthy for two straight games.

Offensively, Texas has been so disappointing that it's hard to pick out any one player who should be especially threatening to UCLA, but senior wide receiver John Harris has stepped up early. He's leading Texas with 15 catches for 187 yards and two touchdowns after managing only five catches last season. Big and physical on the outside, Harris has done a nice job of creating separation and using his body to shield defenders.

In terms of predictions, I'm not big on those usually, but I'm going to call this one a 31-10 win for UCLA with ease.

Our sincere thanks to PB and Wescott from Burnt Orange Nation. Drop by their excellent site and say howdy.