August may still be upon us, but with each passing day, September draws closer. And with it: football. Sweet, blessed football. The Hoos kick off the 2015 campaign with a road trip to Pasadena to face the UCLA Bruins. SB Nation's UCLA blog, Bruins Nation, lets us know what to expect. Be sure to swing over there for all your UCLA coverage in the coming weeks!
Things have been looking up for the Bruins since they hired Jim Mora in 2011. Any time a 10-3 season could be considered a mild disappointment, you're in pretty rarefied air. What's been the biggest change at UCLA in the past three seasons, and what do you expect to be Mora's legacy when all is said and done?
gbruin: There was a pretty big change in the mindset and expectations after Mora arrived. Previously, recruiting typically lagged behind, and often deferred to, other Pac-12 schools. Mora assembled a good recruiting staff and started competing for and landing more top end recruits. He then set higher standards on the field and held players more accountable than previous coaching staffs. As a result, the Bruins have better talent and better execution. Whether Mora succeeds in getting UCLA among the elite of college football remains to be seen, but that should now the accepted goal by Bruin fans. Many fans used to feel it was good enough to just beat Southern Cal and go to a decent bowl to be "successful". Most fans are aiming higher now.
uclaluv: Getting the best talent on the field. I agree with gbruin about higher standards and changes in recruiting. On top of that Mora puts the best talent on the field (for the most part). In previous years there seemed to be a seniority system. Players that were older or more experienced stayed on the field even as they made mistakes, while others with more talent sat on the sidelines. Now, if you can contribute you're out there. There is also more imagination with where the talent goes. The first and best example was moving Anthony Barr to linebacker in Mora's first year. Using Myles Jack in the run game when we were down a man is another. When players come in, they know they have a chance to play and they know that the staff will try to find the best fit for them on the field for them. This raises the competition level, helps bring in recruits that want to play sooner rather than later, and increases the level of accountability gbruin was talking about.
orlandobruin: Changing the culture of the program. Before Coach Mora, there was a day during the season in which the players would show up for practice and, instead or practicing, jump "over the wall" and ditch practice. This had become a "tradition" led by the seniors under previous regimes. Coach Mora immediately made it clear that there would be no more of this nonsense. When asked about it, he said something like, "if any player goes over the wall, he can just keep going." Based on his experience, he brought a very professional outlook to the program. Needless to say, nobody goes over the wall anymore. This tamped down the impression that UCLA is soft, which has helped in upgrading the quality of players and coaches UCLA now attracts.
Bruinette88: I think it's fair to say that in the past, UCLA had a reputation for being soft. Mora has changed that, or at least has us moving in the right direction in that respect. We're physically tougher, and I've been impressed by the work ethic that Mora has instilled. On the other hand, part of the "soft" reputation applied to the Bruins' lack of discipline, and unfortunately this is an issue that continues to plague the team in small but painful ways. The Bruins still haven't consistently demonstrated the discipline and mental toughness that characterize elite teams. We still commit far too many silly, avoidable penalties. Lack of discipline has even appeared in the coaching staff, as we saw last year when former Defensive Coordinator Jeff Ulbrich had a tantrum on the sidelines in the Oregon game. It's a problem that Mora needs to address if the program is going to achieve great things.
Joe Piechowski: I agree with OrlandoBruin that the biggest difference has been the change in the culture of the program. As far as his legacy is concerned, that remains to be seen. 10-3 can and should be considered an excellent season, but, to date, he hasn't been able to move the team into the elite echelon of college football quite yet by winning the Pac-12 Conference and playing in the College Football Playoff. Whether he is able to finally get over those humps and beat both Oregon and Stanford will ultimately determine what his legacy is.
Who are the most important players to watch who return from last season?
gbruin: Paul Perkins was the leading rusher in the Pac-12 last year (1,575 yds) and should be the focus of the offense while a new QB, presumably true freshman Josh Rosen, gets up to speed with the college game. The offense's success depends on a returning offensive line led by center Jake Brendel and tackles Caleb Benenoch and Conor McDermott. If the O Line stays healthy and get better at pass protection (41 sacks allowed in 2014), then Rosen can develop and the offense should be fine. The defense returns 9 starters including D Line stars Eddie Vanderdoes and Kenny Clark. Both could be dominant this year which should keep the talented LB crew led by Myles Jack now at ILB and Deon Hollins at OLB free to make plays all around the field.
uclaluv: The players on the offensive line. I think there are talented players that are going to be awesome to watch. The defense is going to be incredibly exciting and is two or three deep, with lots and lots of talent at every position. We have a bunch of talented receivers and running backs. Paul Perkins is in better shape than ever, but Nate Starks has also been running with great power and intelligence out there (as have others). The position that concerns me most, and therefore I think is most important, will be the offensive line. This could be the year when we have a line that has experience together and it is showing up in camp. The defensive players have noticed a vast improvement since last season. Jake Brendel is the leader of that line, but all of the players on the starting unit are crucial. I believe that this is the one place where UCLA cannot men and bring in others with no drop off. In practice, you can see a serious drop off between the ones and the twos (although I think the twos have greatly improved since the beginning of camp), and a serious difference in the quarterback's performance based on which linemen are in front of him. We will have someone new taking snaps this year, and for that person, and the team to succeed, the offensive line will have to succeed. That is why I am most excited to see healthy lineman returning this year.
orlandobruin: The secondary, which might be the best in the PAC 12. Both of our corners, Fabian Moreau and Ishmael Adams return. There is talk that Marcos Rios, who almost died a few years ago from a rare fungal infection that reduced his weight to 130 lbs.--incredible story, google it--may be pushing Adams for the starting spot. It may be most as UCLA is expected to play a lot of schemes with 5 DBs. At safety, UCLA has returning starter Jaleel Wadood, as well Tahaan Goodman, who started 9 games last season. The best safety, however, might be Randall Goforth, a natural team leader who missed all but two games last season due to injury. You may remember Goforth; he had a long fumble recovery for a touchdown in Charlottesville last season.
Bruinette88: For me, it's Myles Jack. Jack has rare athleticism which we've seen on both sides of the ball. In his first two seasons, he played as an OLB, which allowed him to rely on his speed and agility to make plays. With the loss of Eric Kendricks to graduation, Jack is being moved inside where he'll have to develop the cerebral side of his game. Jack will need to develop a lot more discipline too. As we've seen too often in the past, it's not his strong suit. Furthermore, it's time for Jack to take on a leadership role. In that regard, his skirmish in training camp last week suggests that he has some work to do in becoming the leader that the team needs.
Joe Piechowski: I'm going to say the entire defense. I believe the arrival of new Defensive Coordinator Tom Bradley is going to have a huge impact on not just Myles Jack or the secondary, but the entire defensive side of the ball. And, ultimately, I think that may be the difference which could allow UCLA to get past Stanford this year and find themselves in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Which newcomers are you most excited about?
gbruin: True freshman QB Josh Rosen. Our season goes as he goes. That certainly a lot of weight on a true freshman, but that's also the coaching staff's issue for not having a more seasoned and talented QB ready to go. Fortunately, Rosen looks ready to fill the role. He won't be as mobile as Brett Hundley, but he can move, and he already looks to be a more polished passer. I'm probably more excited about the new Defensive Coordinator Tom Bradley. He's obviously not a player, but I think his defensive schemes will be more aggressive, creative, and adaptive than the prior DC, and that should really take advantage of the returning talent and experience on the defense.
uclaluv: Going to watch camp this year and trying to focus on the new players has been like going to a twelve ring circus. There are so many exciting newcomers out there, that it's really difficult to even remember that they are all out there, let alone keep an eye on them. Obviously, as gbruin said, it is going to be exciting to see Josh Rosen out there. This young man seems to have real command of the playbook, gets rid of the ball quickly, can get out of trouble, and has an amazing arm. With the expanded group of talented receivers out there, watching him throw the ball could get really fun. Speaking of receivers, I am really looking forward to watching redshirt freshmen Jordan Lasley, Austin Roberts, and Aaron Sharp and true freshman Steven Johnson and Chris Clark (TE). On the other side of the ball watch out for DeChaun Holliday and keep an eye out for freshman running back Bolu Olorunfunmi who has excelled in camp and is a physical beast.
orlandobruin: Rosen. I echo gbruins sentiments. I am also excited about true freshmen TE Chris Clark and true freshman RB Soso Jamabo. Clark has not practiced much because of mono, but Coach Mora said "I didn't bring him in to redshirt him." Even though UCLA had nice depth at TE, expect Clark to feature in several packages. Same with Jamabo. UCLA is loaded at RB, so it says a lot when the coaches proclaim that Jamabo will see playing time, and that they are designing packages for him. 5 star true freshman, Keisean Lucier-South, has the potential to be a game changing edge rusher. He just needs to put on a few pounds.
Bruinette88: The obvious answer is freshman QB Josh Rosen. His ability to lead the offense will largely determine if the Bruins can get to the Pac-12 title game in 2015. However, I think freshman TE Chris Clark could be a key contributor this year. On defense, I agree with gbruin that the most important newcomer is DC Tom Bradley. If he can develop a more aggressive, tougher defensive unit, then the Bruins will have taken a big step forward.
Joe Piechowski: Considering that I'm so excited to watch the defense play this season, I'd have to say new DC Tom Bradley. For the first time in a very long time, we have a very experienced Defensive Coordinator and that is going to make a big difference this season.
What are the biggest strength and the biggest weakness of the 2015 Bruins?
gbruin: The biggest strength is experience. The Bruins have 18 returning starters on offense and defense, and the place kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn is a senior who is very accurate inside 40. The Bruins are deep at running back and DB, have a very solid receiving crew, have a strong D Line, and all 5 OL are returning. Other than the big question mark of a true freshman QB, and that's a pretty notable position to have a question mark, the roster is better than it has ever been in 28 years. The biggest weakness is the lack of a killer instinct. Yes, the mindset is better under Mora, but there are still games every year where the Bruins don't play 60 minutes and squander a big leads, or they just don't ever compete or make adjustments at all, as we've seen against Stanford and Oregon the last 3 years. Once the Bruins get consistent with their performance and resolve and put teams away and compete with everyone, they will be a legit force in college football.
uclaluv: I agree with gbruin about experience being the Bruins' biggest strength. Along with that comes incredible talent, a lot of it, at almost every position. I would say the whole defense is going to be this team's greatest strength, especially with new DC Tom Bradley. I also agree with gbruin about UCLA's greatest weakness, conservative play calling. I think the defense will be aggressive this year, intelligently aggressive. But the offensive play calling under Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone has been, all too often, predictable and conservative. The Alamo Bowl provides another example. Both the offense and defense came out and played aggressive in the first half. Imaginative play calling was working and UCLA went into the locker room at the half with a large lead. Then the second half came and you could almost hear a gasp in the Bruin section as the same old plays were called. We were back to the play book that every Bruin fan knew almost by heart and I'm sure Kansas State had prepared for. Soon the game became close. UCLA had taken it's foot off the pedal and let a team back into it.
orlandobruin: UCLA biggest strength is depth. This team is loaded with the best talent since some of the teams in the late 80s. If the Bruins had an experienced QB, they'd be in the National Championship discussion. No longer do Bruin fans need to worry about an injury at a key spot (except maybe center). The biggest weakness is not being able to win the important games. Last season, after pounding Southern Cal, 38-20, all UCLA had to do to earn a place in the PAC 12 Championship Game was beat Stanford at home.Stanford was only 6-5 at the time and UCLA was 9-2. You figure that the team would be "up" for that contest, with everything riding on the game. UCLA came out flat, and was dominated, 31-10. Another weakness is long distance field goals, although Fairbairn is very accurate inside 40, he is a career 11-19 between 40 and 49 yards, and has never made a field goal over 50 yards.
Bruinette88: I agree with my colleagues that UCLA's greatest strength is the experience and depth at most positions. Our greatest weakness (besides a lack of consistency in focus and discipline) is our risk-averse play calling. I don't put this all on Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone because we've seen the same risk-averse philosophy in other situations (e.g., field goals, fourth downs). Certainly part of this is connected to the personnel that Mora inherited when he became head coach, but I think a portion of it is rooted in Mora's defensive mindset. On the other hand, Mora is relatively new to college football, so I hope to see some evolution in his philosophy.
Joe Piechowski: I'm going to disagree with gbruin with respect to the kicking game. I think it remains one of the biggest weaknesses. Sure, inside the 40, PK Ka'imi Fairbairn is extremely accurate, but, outside the 40, he has been horribly inconsistent and that proved to be a problem last season against Utah. I agree with Bruinette when she mentions discipline as a big weakness. The team was among the most penalized in the country last season. That has been a problem during the Mora era and it needs to be corrected. Another problem in the past has been sacks. It was refreshing to see the team working on a lot of blocking drills last Saturday.
What does this team need to do to count this season as a success?
gbruin: This team needs to be in the Pac-12 title game and be a legit contender there. Oregon may turn out still to be Oregon, so I can't unequivocally demand that the Bruins either win the conference and get a playoff spot or call the season a waste. But even though the Pac-12 South is absolutely loaded this year, anything short of a close look at the conference title and a possible playoff spot will be a letdown considering the talent and experience on this roster.
uclaluv: "This team needs to be in the Pac-12 title game and be a legit contender there." - Agree. There are also things this team needs to do to improve it's "eye test". Among those are fewer bad penalties and the issue of conservative, predictable playcalling we talked about before. Under Coach Mora, much has improved, but bad penalties have really held this team back. Why this is an ongoing problem for the football team is debatable. But images of Brett Hundley trying to move the offense forward when the o-line jumps on consecutive plays or repeated holding calls turn a 1st down into a 4th down, still give some of us nightmares. The defense also made their share of bad, preventable, game changing penalties. This is something that has to improve. We did notice that the refs were finally throwing flags at practice the other day. In the past, they pretty much had let everything go, well until there was a real game. I'm hoping this is a sign that the coaches are taking serious measures to clean this up.
orlando bruin: Many pundits put the PAC 12 South right up there with the SEC West as the best division in college football. That having been said, UCLA needs to win the division and be the PAC 12 South representative in the PAC 12 Championship game. This is a tall order, with Southern Cal, Arizona, and Arizona State all loaded and ranked in the top 25. The Bruins also play Utah in Utah in November (brrrrrrrrr), so it will not be easy, but there is no question that UCLA has the horses to get it done. I also agree with uclaluv that UCLA really needs to improve in the penalty department. Under Mora, UCLA has been one of the most penalized teams in college football. 1st and 20s were hard enough to dig out of with Brett Hundley under center. They are going to be even bigger drive killers with a true freshman under center (I am assuming Rosen will start over Jerry Neuheisel).
Bruinette88: I agree that UCLA needs to win the Pac-12 South for the season to count as a success. But more important to me is that the program continues to build on the progress made in the Mora era. If the upward trajectory of the program continues this season, then regardless of getting to the title game, the season can be considered a success.
Joe Piechowski: They need to win the Pac-12 South. That should almost guarantee at least a Rose Bowl berth because whomever wins the Pac-12 Championship should be one of the four teams in the CFP.