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2015 Virginia Football Previews: UCLA

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The season opens, as it did last year, against a top 20 UCLA team. This time, however, the Hoos head to California to take on the Bruins at the Rose Bowl. A year, the Hoos surprised people by keeping the game close despite allowing 3 defensive TDs in the first half. Can the Hoos keep it close again? Can they pull the upset on the road?

Coach London takes his team to Los Angeles to open the season.
Coach London takes his team to Los Angeles to open the season.
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

A year ago, the Hoos opened their season against then #7 UCLA in Charlottesville. The game was closer than most experts predicted, with the Hoos falling 28-20. UCLA's offense did nothing, as the Hoos actually outgained the Bruins. But UCLA scored 3 defensive TDs in the first half and a Matt Johns-led comeback fell short at the UCLA 17 yard line with just over 3 minutes remaining.

UCLA's offense would rank 22nd in the nation, averaging over 465 yards per game. The Hoos defense completely shut them down, to the tune of 358 yards. That was the 2nd lowest total UCLA would have all year. The performance of the Hoos defense was a sign of things to come, as they finished 28th in the nation in total defense.

UCLA's defense, on the other hand, was not that good, ranking 63rd in nation, and giving up nearly 400 yards per game. The Hoos racked up 386 yards, just over their season average. Not a bad performance by the Hoos offense. Except for those 3 turnovers of course. UCLA scored 4 defensive TDs all season, and 3 came in the first half of the first game. Some of that was unlucky for the Hoos. If those plays had turned out differently, perhaps the Hoos would have come away with a big upset.

So, this year, the Hoos head to Los Angeles for the 2nd leg of the home-and-home matchup. UCLA, this year, is preseason #13 in the nation. However, they must replace the leaders of both their offense and defense. QB Brett Hundley is now on the Green Bay Packers and MLB Eric Kendricks is now on the Vikings.

UCLA Offense

With the graduation of UCLA QB Brett Hundley, the QB position was up for grabs. Enter Josh Rosen, the #1 (or #2, depending on your recruiting site preference) QB recruit in the nation a year ago. He was presumed to be leader for the job, but still had to win it in fall practice against last year's backup, Jerry Neuheisel. Complicating matters was the fact that Neuheisel's father, Rick, used to be the head coach at UCLA, and before that was the QB there.

Rosen is a very different player from Hundley. Hundley was an athletic QB who ran a 4.63 40 at the NFL combine at 6'3" and 226 pounds. Rosen is 6'4", 210 and may not break 5 seconds in the 40. He's a pure pocket passer. He is athletic though, and moves well in the pocket. But he's certainly not going to run for 600+ yards like Hundley did last year. Rosen has a strong, accurate arm, as you'd expect from a top recruit. He has experience playing in a west coast type offense, which is what Mora will run. But he's never played a snap of college football, and his ability to progress through his reads against a real pass rush, with 300 pound linemen coming at him as not been tested. (Of course, practicing against UCLA's defense will help.)

It's hard to say exactly what UCLA's offense will look like this year, with a new QB. They figure to still run a spread, multiple WR offense. A year ago, they run most plays out of either the shotgun or the pistol (actually a modified pistol, with Hundley 5 yards back and the RB nearly 10 yards behind the LOS). How much of that will we see this year? Hard to say. The Bruins brought in one of the nation's top TE recruits, Chris Clark. Clark may or may not see much action this year, but he brings a different look to the Bruins. He can line up as an inline TE, or he can line up in the slot. At 6'6" 240, he's a matchup nightmare.

They ran a fair amount of read-option with Hundley. That isn't likely to be as big a part of the offense with Rosen at QB. In last year's Texas game, Hundley left in the first quarter with an arm injury. With Neuheisel in, the play calls didn't change, but there was far less running from Neuheisel than there was from Hundley. However, that was an in-game change as opposed to a full off-season. In that contest, Neuheisel threw 30 passes in 3 quarters. With Hundley out, Texas was loading the box and daring UCLA to throw the ball. Perkins had one big run of 58 yards, but otherwise was held in check.

If Rosen throws that many passes, it'll be because UCLA has a lead and Coach Jim Mora wants to give Rosen as many reps as possible. Early on, with Rosen at the helm, expect UCLA to run the ball quite a bit. Perkins is going to be the MVP of the offense this year, and they will ride him hard. Facing multiple WR sets, and with the Hoos' uncertainty at LB, expect the Hoos to spend much of the game in the nickel. Either Demetrious Nicholson comes in, moving Maurice Canady inside to act as a LB/DB hybrid, or the Hoos will big on an extra safety (perhaps Malcolm Cook?) in a similar role. This will get more speed and experience on the field, without sacrificing too much against the run.

When Rosen passes, he has a deep and talented group of WRs to throw to. Led by Belitnikoff Award Watch List Jordan Payton, the WR corps also includes fellow senior and fellow future NFL WR Devin Fuller, plus Eldridge Massington, Thomas Duarte, and Mossi Johnson all of whom started games last year. This is in addition to redshirt freshman Austin Roberts, one of the top WR recruits in the nation last year. Thankfully for the Hoos, Cordell Broadus (Snoop's kid) is no longer with the team.

UVA defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta must be salivating at the idea of facing a true freshman QB. He is, I'm sure, coming up with new and exciting ways to pressure and confuse the youngster. However, the Hoos defense will be up against a very good OL. Anchored by Rimington Award Watch List member Jake Brendel at OC and Lombardi Award Watch List member Caleb Benenoch at RT, this is a veteran unit that returns all 5 starters from the last 7 games last year. (Only 2 of the 5 starters from last year's matchup return. Brendel didn't play against the Hoos.)

Surely Tenuta has something cooked up for Josh Rosen. He'll change up coverages. He'll show zone, he'll show man. He'll use zone blitzes, safety blitzes, and probably every other type of blitz he can think of. But, the key for the Hoos is going to be stopping Perkins.

With UCLA in the shotgun, many of those runs are going to be to the perimeter. Perkins is going to be looking for a cut-back lane. And he's going to hit that lane hard. This means that Mike and Kwontie Moore are going to be important in terms of edge contain. Once Perkins cuts back, the LBs and Ss are going to have to make tackles. Once Perkins gets a head of steam, he's tough to bring down.

Player to Watch

#24 RB Paul Perkins - Perkins led the Pac-81012 in rushing last year, with 1575 yards rushing. What is crazy about that is he didn't even start the season opener in Charlottesville. He did lead the team in rushing that game, with 80 yards on 16 carries. That total was only 2 yards above his season low.

Perkins is a one-cut back, who gets going north-south and doesn't stop. He's not really a big back, but he's compact and he'll run through arm tackles. And while he's not a true speedster, he's certainly fast enough, as evidenced by his 92 yard TD run last year against Colorado.

If the Hoos can get interior penetration, they can disrupt the timing of some of UCLA's read option looks. Since the Hoos don't need to be too scared of Rosen's running, they will focus on Perkins. When he gets the ball, the guys need to contain him. Don't let him get to the outside, but also don't give him a cut-back lane. Obviously, this is easier said than done, especially against such a good, veteran OL. The Hoos do not want Tim Harris having to make one-on-one tackles against Perkins on the perimeter. Harris is going to lose that battle more often than not.

UCLA Defense

The Hoos, as you well know, do not have the same uncertainty at QB. Matt Johns is the starter. There is no doubt about that. Is it possible that Johns is replaced sometime during the season based on ineffectiveness? Sure. But is it likely in this game? No, it isn't. Barring injury, Johns is going to be the QB for this entire game.

Johns was successful last year against UCLA, throwing for 154 yards and 2 TDs on 13/22 with no picks. That's a 148 QB rating, and was the best Johns played all year. Thing is, UCLA wasn't prepared for Johns. They were prepared for Lambert. Once teams were ready for the Matt Johns experience, he was less effective.

UCLA returns almost all of their defense from last year. But, they lose a big piece. Much like on offense, the defense also lost their leader. MLB Eric Kendricks led the team in tackles by a wide margin. In fact, he had more solo tackles than anybody else total tackles. He was also tied for the team lead in TFLs. He was 3rd in sacks, first in INTs. He also had the third and final defensive TD for the Bruins in the game against the Hoos.

Other than Kendricks, only Owamagbe Odighizuwa is gone from the starters in last year's matchup. (Late addition, UCLA will also be without starting CB Ishmael Adams, after he was arrested this past weekend. Adams has been suspended indefinitely. Marcus Rios, who was reportedly taking first team snaps even prior to Adams' arrest, will start for Adams.)

Still, despite those departures, UCLA has a ton of talent left on the defense. UCLA defenders are all over the preseason award watch lists. In fact, let's take a look at UCLA's projected starters and the preseason watch lists they are on (again, note that Adams is suspended and will not play against the Hoos):

Player

Position

Year

Watch list

Kenny Clark

DT

Junior

Bednarik, Nagurski, Outland, Lombardi

Eddie Vanderdoes

DT

Junior

Outland, Lombardi

Myles Jack

ILB

Junior

Butkus, Bednarik, Nagurski, Lombardi, Walter Camp

Deon Hollins

OLB

Junior

Lott IMPACT

Ishmael Adams

CB

Junior

Thorpe

Fabian Moreau

CB

Senior

Thorpe, Nagurski


Um, yeah. That's a lot. For comparison, the list of Hoos defenders on preseason watch list has 2 names on it (Blanding, Canady). And the Hoos defense is pretty good.

Last year, UCLA finished a disappointing 63rd in the nation in total defense (and 75th in scoring defense). With all this talent on the roster, that finish led to Defensive Coordinator Jeff Ulbrich leaving UCLA. Replacing him is Tom Bradley, formerly of West Virginia and Penn State. Bradley, you may recall, was the interim head coach at Penn State after Joe Paterno was fired following the Jerry Sandusky scandal. He resigned after he was not named head coach the following year. With 35 years of coaching experience, and 12 of those as Penn State's DC, Bradley is a big step up from Ulbrich.

Ulbrich ran a combination 3-4, 3-3-5 defense. The Hoos saw a 3-3-5 for most of their contest last year. Bradley, having coached under Joe Paterno, was used to running a 4-3 defense. However, WVU ran a 3-3-5 last year with Bradley coaching the DL. It seems, from the talk coming out of UCLA camp, that they will run a hybrid 4-3/3-4 scheme. For years, Penn State ran a Cover-3 defense. This type of defense is largely out of style these days, so it will be interesting to see how much Bradley adapts to the spread, quick-strike offenses of the Pac-12.

Bradley coached some great LBs at Penn State. Guys like Lavar Arrington, Cameron Wake, and Paul Posluszny. In that group, you have pass rushers, tackling machines and many other varieties of LB. UCLA has as diverse and talented a group. There's Myles Jack, who will play in the middle and likely lead the team in tackles. There's Deon Hollins, who is a pass rusher and will likely lead the team in sacks for the 2nd year in a row. The 3rd LB will probably be Kenny young or Aaron Wallace, although there are several other options for that position.

Whichever scheme UCLA uses, they are still likely to run a lot of nickel packages this year. Against the Hoos, though, they may not, especially if the Hoos are serious about running a pro-style offense emphasizing the run. Even if UCLA opens in a nickel, they would not stay in it for very long if the Hoos are able to run the ball early on. Any running success would open up play-action for Matt Johns and his receiving corps. The Hoos have a big set of WRs, led by 6'2" Canaan Severin and 6'3" Andre Levrone. UCLA's secondary is very good. But not very big. Rios is the biggest, at 6'0" 185. The Hoos would have some advantages if they can get one-on-one matchups.

However, with a front 4 (or 3) as good as anybody in the country, it would be surprising if the Hoos are able to run the ball very well. With Kenny Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes in the middle of the DL, it is going to be hard for anybody to run up the middle. And the interior of the Hoos OL is not exactly a strength. So the Hoos may try to run off-tackle. Eric Smith and Michael Mooney are a solid set of OTs. UCLA's defense is fast, and pursues well. So this strategy may not work either.

So if running isn't going to be successful, then the Hoos will have to fall back on Matt Johns' arm. Johns was successful last year against UCLA, so maybe there's a chance this year as well. Without the benefit of play-action, the Hoos are going to have trouble getting open against UCLA's secondary. And the UCLA pass rush should be improved this year with Bradley at the helm. Furthermore, after giving up 3 defensive TDs last year, the Hoos will likely be careful to avoid that kind of thing this year. This does not bode well for a strong offensive game.

Player to Watch

#30 ILB Myles Jack - With the departure of Eric Kendricks, Jack is moving from OLB to ILB. (And with UCLA's likely move to a 4-3 defense, Jack will play MLB). Jack is an impressive athlete, at 6'1" 245 and with outstanding speed. He's doubled as a RB during his first 2 seasons, rushing for 380 yards on 66 carries with 9 TDs. As Jack figures to be the centerpiece of a very good defense, and UCLA is stacked at RB, don't expect to see Jack in the backfield very much this year. He did not see any action on offense against the Hoos last year.

As an OLB, Jack has recorded 163 tackles, 15 TFLs, 19 passes defended and 3 INTs. His move to ILB will likely increase his tackles, but reduce his pass coverage numbers. He may also be asked to rush the passer a bit more than he had been in the past. Henricks totaled 6 sacks over the past 2 seasons (along with 255 tackles).

The move to ILB is an interesting one. On paper, he's a great fit for an ILB. He's fast enough to go sideline-to-sideline and he's strong enough to take on blockers in the middle of the field. But he was also a good fit at OLB where his pass coverage skills were so strong. MLBs have to play in traffic a lot more than OLBs. Is Jack adept enough at avoiding the big interior OLs and getting to the ball-carrier? Will his reads be quick enough from a new perspective? It'll be interesting to see if he is capable of handling the position.

By moving Jack to Kendricks' old spot, and replacing Jack, UCLA may have gotten worse at two LB positions. But it may pay dividends in the long run if Jack is able to handle MLB.

Special Teams

Aside from the all the talent UCLA has on offense and defense, they are also fairly loaded on special teams. Ka'imi Fairbairn is on the Lou Groza Award Watch List (as is Virginia's Ian Frye), and Ishmael Adams is one of the top return men in the nation (oops again). This is where Adams' suspension will hurt most. UCLA can replace him on defense, where they are deep. His explosiveness in the return game will be tougher to replace. There are a number of options for the Bruins here. Randall Goforth, Mossi Johnson, Jaleel Wadood, and true freshman Octavius Spencer are a few options for the return game.

The Hoos are also without their primary option on punt returns (T.J. Thorpe), but his absence is due to injury. It is possible that a true freshman will handle PR duties. On KO returns, Daniel Hamm is the likely first option and he's never taken a KO return in his career. Also, the Hoos coverage teams have been terrible over the past few years.

Conclusion

The Hoos are outmatched in this game. That is clear. UCLA has more talent on both sides of the ball. They have a better head coach. They are playing at home.

However, they are starting a true freshman QB. And the Hoos have a very good secondary and a very good defensive coordinator. That combination could make things very difficult for Josh Rosen. As we saw last year, a big play or two from a defense can really swing a game. The Hoos outplayed UCLA for most of that contest, and came away with a loss because of 3 defensive TDs. It would likely take that kind of defensive performance for the Hoos to knock off the Bruins at the Rose Bowl.

Once again, the Hoos catch a break by getting UCLA early in the season. Rosen is almost undoubtedly going to get better as the season progresses. And with a possibly new defensive scheme put in place by Tom Bradley, the defense will probably get better as well.

Even with all that, the Bruins are favored by around 20. The Hoos defense may not be as good as last year's, but should still be pretty solid. Combine that with a true freshman at QB (sorry to keep harping on that, but its the key to the game for the Hoos) and UCLA may have trouble scoring points. The Hoos are also going to have trouble scoring points against UCLA's stout defense. So we could get a pretty low scoring game.

Thing is, UCLA is going to run the ball. And they are going to run the ball. And if the Hoos can't get anything going on offense, the defense is going to be on the field a lot. After a trip of 3000 miles. And against a very good OL. Eventually, UCLA is going to break through offensively with Perkins.

I think the Hoos keep it close for a while, but eventually UCLA pulls away. It may be a big play on special teams, or another defensive TD or even just a long Paul Perkins run. But something is going to break the game open.

Prediction: UCLA 31, Hoos 10