It's no secret to UCLA football fans that Jim Mora's arrival in Westwood has sparked a run of success that hasn't been seen at UCLA for over a decade. The last two years, with 19 wins, have marked the most successful two-year stretch for the football program since 1997-98, when the program under Bob Toledo won 20 straight games.
The big difference between 1997-98 and 2012-13, though, is this: 1998 was the high point of Toledo's regime at UCLA, with the bottom falling out of the program over the next few years. In our estimation, though, the first two years of Mora's regime at UCLA are simply the precursor for what could be the best stretch for UCLA football…ever.
This coming year, UCLA returns its starting quarterback, Brett Hundley, who had the option of heading to the NFL after 2013 but elected to stay. The Bruins return an additional eight starters on offense, including four offensive linemen. On defense, UCLA loses defensive end Cassius Marsh, linebacker Jordan Zumwalt, and future top ten pick Anthony Barr, but returns each of the eight other starters. After years of youth, the team will be one of the most experienced in the Pac-12.
But it's not as if all UCLA has going for it is experience. The talent level of the team, even with the loss of a guy like Barr, should be better than it has been at any point over the last 15 years. Under Mora, UCLA had the No. 12 recruiting class in the country in 2012 and the No. 3 recruiting class in the country in 2013. This year, with the many players we project that UCLA could end up with come Signing Day, there's a very good chance that the Bruins will sign another top-ten class (you can read Tracy's predictions for the defensive class and offensive class here). With that kind of talent coming into the program, the potential for sustained success seems even likelier.
For a long time, we've said that 2014 shapes up to be the year when the combination of talent and experience for UCLA should finally reach a point of critical mass that puts the Bruins in contention for the Pac-12 title and a potential berth in the first College Football Playoff. Everything we've seen over the last two years from Jim Mora and company has only reinforced that idea.
UCLA will have more talented experience on both sides of the ball than it's had in a very long time. As we mentioned, UCLA returns its starting quarterback from the last two years in Brett Hundley, and you can't underestimate the value of having continuity at that position, especially given Hundley's talent and ability. The offensive line returns four starters in center Jake Brendel (two year starter), left tackle Torian White (two year starter), right tackle Simon Goines (two year starter), and right guard Alex Redmond (started in 2013 as a true freshman). Caleb Benenoch, who started most of the year at right tackle as a true freshman after injuries to White and Goines, will probably get a look at the starting left guard position if he doesn't win one of the tackle jobs.
At the receiver positions, UCLA only loses two real contributors in wide receiver Shaquelle Evans and Y receiver Darius Bell, but returns several key cogs in Jordan Payton, Devin Lucien, Devin Fuller, and Thomas Duarte, all of whom figure to start next season. Additionally, UCLA will enjoy an influx of what figures to be one of the best receiver classes in the country, with talented prospects Austin Roberts, Alex Van Dyke, and Jordan Lasley filling out the rotation.
At running back, UCLA will have a good amount of depth and talent, with senior Jordon James returning as the incumbent starter and redshirt freshman Craig Lee and freshman Nathan Starks providing a necessary influx of fresh blood.
It's going to be a very good offense, the kind that could potentially set some UCLA records, with the offensive line experience to both run and pass the ball at a high level. Barring a considerable amount of injuries, it should be able to score on virtually any team the Bruins face. Take a look at our projected offensive depth chart in 2014 (and ignore our prediction that Xavier Su'a-Filo would return).
Defensively, the talent and experience is perhaps even more prevalent. On the defensive line, UCLA was starting two true freshmen by the end of the 2013 season—Kenneth Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes—who beat out more experienced players for those roles. Both players project to start next season. They'll likely be joined in the defensive line rotation by returning senior Owamagbe Odighizuwa (who sat out all of last year with a hip injury), huge nose tackle Ellis McCarthy (whose light bulb came on toward the end of 2013), and a variety of younger players and freshmen who should combine to make this an extremely talented defensive line.
The linebacker corps loses Anthony Barr, the star outside linebacker, and Jordan Zumwalt, the physical inside linebacker, but returns the captain of the defense in inside linebacker Eric Kendricks and the all-everything freak at outside linebacker, Myles Jack. Filling in at the departed positions could be any combination of Isaac Savaiinaea (who started two games this year as a true freshman fill-in for Kendricks), Kenny Orjioke (who showed flashes of Barr-like ability as a sophomore backup), or the several talented true freshmen entering the program. Incoming freshman Zach Whitley and UCLA lean Kenny Young, have the talent to compete immediately for starting positions at inside linebacker.
In the secondary, UCLA returns every starter from a year ago, and has arguably brought more talent in at corner and safety than at any position over the last two years. The cupboard is stocked full, with guys like former five- star prospect Priest Willis, and four-star prospects Tahaan Goodman, Tyler Foreman, Adarius Pickett, Jaleel Wadood filling out the depth chart behind the incumbents. The competition for the starting jobs this spring and fall should be among the fiercest on the team.
The defense, in Mora's third year at UCLA, should be one of the deepest, most-talented defenses at UCLA since the 1990's. We'd be shocked if it were not among the best defensive units in the Pac-12, with the combination of speed, size, and ability it has at every position. Take a look at our projected defensive depth chart for 2014.
We've analyzed the 2014 schedule in depth before, but the long and the short of it is that it shapes up to be a generally favorable one for UCLA, with many of the difficult opponents at home, and more of the weaker opponents on the road. Oregon and Stanford, the class of the Pac-12 the past few years, both come to the Rose Bowl next year, as does rival USC. UCLA does have to play defending Pac-12 champion Arizona State on the road, but ASU should drop off considerably from a year ago after losing much of its defense to graduation. In a year where UCLA should have the depth, talent, and experience to make a run at 11 or 12 regular season wins, it doesn't appear that the schedule will pose an inordinate challenge.
Many times—as with last year's ASU team—a team will come together for one big run when many of the key contributors are experienced seniors who have started for two, three, or four years. In the past, UCLA fans have always pointed to some not-too-distant year as "the" year when the team would finally compete for a Pac-10/12 championship. That idea, of one big year where the stars align and everything comes together, has been a part of UCLA football for a long, long time.
2014, in the old paradigm, would easily be a candidate for that big year. UCLA will have an experienced, deep roster full of talented players, and a not-too-difficult schedule that should allow the Bruins to make a serious run at the playoffs.
But there's reason to believe that the Mora era constitutes a paradigm shift for UCLA football. Thanks to playing so many true freshmen over the last two years, UCLA's program still won't have many seniors next year, despite having a very experience squad. So, many of the players who'll contribute to a deep run next year will be back in 2015. Additionally, the talent is still flowing into the program. UCLA will likely end up with a top ten class in 2014, and then, in 2015, UCLA is already looking good for several five-star prospects in what should be one of the deepest classes in the past decade (including soon-to-be No. 1 quarterback in the country Josh Rosen and No. 1 tight end Alize Jones).
So, don't think of 2014 as "the" year, UCLA fans, because that way of thinking is tired and, honestly, in our estimation, undersells the situation. Rather, think of 2014 as the first year, of many, for UCLA to compete realistically for a national championship.
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