UCLA does not roll into town for another month and a half, but we spoke with the staff at Bruins Nation to get an early preview. You can read Ben Leonard and Jack Blanchat's Stanford preview here.
Between Josh Rosen and Jerry Neuheisel, who do you think will win the quarterback competition? Who do you think should win or be the better man for the job? (The answer to these could be the same or different)
Well, Jim Mora just announced Josh Rosen as the starter, so that makes it easy to answer part one, though pretty much everyone felt that was going to be the decision, and I was writing during spring camp that it would be Rosen (/gratuitous self-congratulatory comment). Rosen's ceiling is so much higher than Neuheisel's that if the Bruins intend to make a deep run this season, and the rest of the roster looks ready to do that, it was the only choice. Now it's still a bit of a gamble. Whereas Rosen's top end is higher, Neuheisel's floor probably isn't as low, and the Bruins entire team is talented enough that with Little Neu, they would in all probability win 8+ games. He's played against D1 speed and size, and he has 4 years in the offensive system, so he much less likely to make the types of freshman mistakes which could cost the team a game or two.
But if the Bruins have any plans about being a top 10 team at the end of the season and playing in the Pac-12 Title game, they will need a QB who can make big plays to win games against a loaded Pac-12 South this year, and Rosen has the talent to become that type of player. Now, whether it's this year or not will be the biggest determinant as to how U.C.L.A.'s 2015 season goes.
What do you think UCLA's identity will be? An offense-first, shootout type of team, or one more like Stanford's last season, with close, low scoring games, or something else?
I think that it's more likely to trend toward the Stanford style as a lower scoring team that relies on consistent drives and ball control and solid defense. Even though the Bruins are still running the same high tempo and (usually) high scoring offense they ran under Brett Hundley, I think we'll see more reliance on the running game this year. Part of that will be to allow Rosen to get more comfortable in the system, especially behind an offensive line that has really struggled with pass protection in recent years (41 sacks in 2014). The Bruins also return the Pac-12 leading rusher in Paul Perkins, so the running game should be very, very good.
Rosen is not the same running threat that Brett Hundley was but he's good enough to still run some read option effectively. Rosen has a lot of very good receivers including Jordan Payton, Thomas Duarte, Eldridge Massington, and Mossi Johnson, but they aren't necessarily the big home run threat on every play, so the offense looks more geared toward ball control and steady drives. On the other side of the ball, the defense returns 8 starters and under new DC Tom Bradley looks to be much less predictable and more aggressive this season, so I expect that we won't have to race to match points with a lot of teams this year.
I see UCLA's AP preseason #13 ranking and I smell overrated all over it. The quarterback's gone, and the defense was mediocre last season. Do you guys feel the same way? Where do you see UCLA's season ending up, record-wise?
I think it depends on how quickly that quarterback develops and how the offensive line plays in front of him. If Rosen can avoid the freshman mistakes in crucial times and be a reliable playmaker by the end of the year, which also depends on the O Line providing reliable pass protection up front, I think the offense will be more reliable and consistent with keeping the ball and extending drives.
Across the ball, I think a lot of the mediocrity in the Bruins defense had to do with scheme and adjustments. The Bruins defense usually game planned very well and looked good early, but when other teams adjusted and changed their play calls, the Bruins defense just stayed in base D and didn't adjust themselves. They also put very little pressure on opposing QBs. Looking at the Bruins defense by quarters last year bears this out, and the Eye Test frequently saw the Bruins get out to early leads and let other teams get back into games in the second half. We shouldn't see the same issues this year as the defense should come with more fronts and looks and be tougher to diagnose, and it should be much better in adjusting throughout the game. It will definitely bring more pressure from different spots, too, so I expect the D to be more consistent throughout the game.
So there are some ifs in the equation. The Bruins talent alone makes them better than probably 8 of the teams on their schedule, and if the ifs work out, the Bruins could see 11 wins.
X Factors for this season?
On offense, the O Line is the key. Left tackle Conor McDermott got healthy mid-season and sacks allowed per game dropped from over 4 to about 2 when he got back in the lineup. Center Jake Brendel is a 4 year starter and one of the best in the country. The OL returns all 5 starters and the 2 deep has starting experience, too. They were a very good run team last year and if they can get pass protection coordinated, and the ultimate X factor - stay healthy - the offense should be much more consistent.
Senior place kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn is another X factor. He is outstanding at kickoffs and deadly inside 39 yards, but he has struggled with accuracy outside 40 yards. The South is loaded this year and the season can come down to which team makes the big play or two, and Ka'imi needs to make those long kicks that can make or break a game.
On defense, I'll name Myles Jack as an X factor, too. Jack shouldn't need any introduction, as he has been a highlight player from day one, but now he's moving from his OLB spot to the ILB spot vacated by Eric Kendricks, last year's Butkus and Lott Award winner. Kendricks was a smart, active, nonstop tackling machine in the middle, and Myles will have to focus his freaky athleticism into becoming that type of solid stopper in the middle. The knock on Jack's defensive play was his tendency to overrun plays and look for the big pop instead of making the sure tackle. He has all the talent needed, and he's probably the best cover LB in the country, so if he can settle his game into becoming a reliable plug in the center of the D, the defense should be better overall.
Players you believe will surprise everyone?
I think OLB Deon Hollins will catch a lot of eyes this year. He led the defense in sacks last season and has an insanely quick first step that makes him a terror in the pass rush. Also look for two young running backs, Nathan Starks and Bolu Olurunfunmi, to shine. Paul Perkins is the unquestioned leader of the running backs coming off his Pac-12 leading 1,575 yards rushing in 2014. But presuming the Bruins will focus on the run game, especially early in the year, these two will add a power game that will catch defenses by surprise when Perkins isn't lined up in the backfield.
Fullback/TE Nate Iese looks like a Greek god of a football player and the offense will find ways to get him the ball on the edge. The Bruins have two fantastic D linemen in Eddie Vanderdoes and Kenneth Clark and a great linebacking group who will take up a lot of the focus by the opposing O Lines, so I think that 3rd D lineman is going to find a lot of space to work in. Look for Takkarist McKinley to make a lot of plays from that spot this year.
Do you think this is the year UCLA finally solves its Stanford problem?
Seven years ought to be enough, right? Well, I've thought for the last two years that year this is the year that is different, so why not again this year? Unfortunately for the Bruins, the trip to Palo Alto comes early in the Pac-12 calendar, which means Rosen will only have 2 conference games under his belt by that time.
Stanford always seems to look vulnerable on paper, whether it's a new coach or a new QB or a new RB, and then completely dominates us in every phase of the game. That's a testament not just to the outstanding players and the excellent development on the Stanford roster but also to the coaching staff that knows exactly what buttons to push on both sides of the ball on game day.
If Rosen had a few more games of experience, I'd like our chances better, but that's going to be a very difficult test. It's also exactly the kind of game that will show if Mora and U.C.L.A. are finally taking the next step in the progress of the program, or whether it indicates the annual October letdown that seems to cost them each year.
Stanford hosts the Bruins on Thursday night, October 15th at 7:30pm on ESPN