Today is one day closer to the kickoff of the 2012 college football season. As such, we’ll preview the No. 63 team in our Rant Sports 100 in 100 college football previews, the UCLA Bruins.
It was an up and down season last year for the Bruins as they went 6-8, won the Pac-12′s south division, got trounced in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game and then went on to lose to Illinois in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Due to the inconsistency in the program they fired Rick Neuheisel and replaced him with Jim Mora Jr. It was a surprising move by UCLA to hire Mora who does not have any collegiate coaching experience and has a shaky track record in his other head coaching stints. Still, Mora answered the call and is eager to turn UCLA’s program in the right direction.
The Bruins will have a new offensive coordinator in Noel Mazzone so their will be an entriely new offensive system that will feature a primarily no-huddle, up-tempo attack. Who will run this offense is still up in the air as there will likely be a three way race for the starting spot between returning starters Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut and redshirt freshmen Brett Hundley. Prince and Brehaut shared starting duties last season while Hundley had an impressive spring, showing great mobility and tremendous upside. All three will duel for the starting role come fall camp and whoever grasps the new offense the quickest and most efficient will win that competition. I’m putting my money on Prince as he led a late season revival of the Bruins offense with the combination of his running ability and his passing. I think he will fit more comfortably in the new offense compared to the previous regime’s.
Whoever wins the starting QB role will have a quality crutch to lean on in running back Jonathan Franklin. The senior is returning after having a solid junior season rushing for 976 yards and five touchdowns on only 166 carries. His numbers were dimished because of sharing carries with departed back Derrick Coleman but it will now be Franklin’s show and he will be one of the featured players in this offense.
The quarterbacks will be throwing to a mostly unproven receiving corps this year after losing three of their top receivers from last season. Nelson Rosario, Josh Smith and Taylor Embree are all gone so now it will be up a crop of inexperienced receivers to catch passes this year. With that said, Shaquelle Evans and Ricky Marvray are two juniors that will be the main targets in Mazzone’s offense. Evans was an all-or-nothing type of receiver last year that averaged 16.3 yards per catch but also dropped plenty of passes along the way. Jerry Johnson is also a name to watch this year as he is fully healthy, for once, and had an impressive spring. If you don’t remember, Johnson was a four-star receiver coming out of high school so he does have the talent and potential to be the best receiver on the team.
The Bruins’ offensive line is solid all around with five returning players that have starting experience. They lost three of their main starters but other lineman gained valuable playing time due to the constant shuffling of personnel. The interior of the line, guard Jeff Baca, center Kai Maiva and guard Greg Capella will be the anchors of the group as they have the most experience. The left tackle position will be the least experienced position as Sean Sheller has only 13 career starts, which is still nothing to scoff at.
The Bruins will also have a new face leading the defense this season as Lou Spanos brings his NFL experience to the table. He has two decades of coaching experience including the past two seasons with the Washington Redskins. Spanos will look to improve UCLA’s porous defense that allowed an average of 31.4 points per game last season, which translated to 92nd best in the country. In other words they were not very good and needed a new face to freshen things up.
Spanos will be installing a 3-4 defense that will fit their personnel well. The interior of the line was particualrly weak last season so allowing for defensive ends Datone Jones and Owamagbe Odighizuwa to use their size and athleticism more effectively will help the entire defense. They will have a big guys stuffing the middle with the combination of sophomore Brandon Willis, 313-pound senior Donovan Carter, 323-pound junior Seali’i Epenesa and incoming five-star freshman Ellis McCarthy. They will be completely set with those four guys and they will have the opportunity to turn the defensive line in the right direction.
Junior Jordan Zumwalt and senior Damien Holmes will adapt well to their new attacking linebacker roles in the new 3-4 defensive format. Middle linebacker Pat Larimore was one of their more consistent defensive players last season and should continue his solid play up the middle. The one thing that will worry Bruins fans at this position is their lack of depth. They don’t have much talent behind those starters so someone will have to step up to make up for Neuheisel’s lack of recruiting at this position.
In the secondary they will be returning their entire backfield. Senior corners Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price will likely be standouts this season in the new defense. Combine the corner talent with the safeties Tevin McDonald and Andrew Abbott, the UCLA secondary can be one of the best groups in the entire conference.
Schedule and Prediction
The Bruins 2012 schedule is pretty daunting, although they do have all five of their highest ranked opponents at home this season. Their non-conference games seem manageable except for the home game against Nebraska in week two. I can see them starting 2-1 heading into the start of conference play. They have an interesting start to Pac-12 play as the first three games look like this: home vs. Oregon State, at Colorado and at California. Colorado always plays better at home and could be a game that they lose in Boulder. Looking at the rest of their schedule I think the Bruins can manage to win seven games and finish a decent 7-5 in Mora’s first season as head coach.