Here are the ten most-pressing questions that have a good chance of getting answered by the time the team breaks camp in San Bernardino August 16th.
1. What defensive formation will UCLA run?
One of the most interesting notes from spring practice was the near-total switch to a nickel defense about halfway through camp. UCLA varied the front, sometimes going with a 4-2-5, sometimes with a 3-3-5, but almost invariably, UCLA had five defensive backs in formation, particularly during the latter half of spring. Given what we saw of the defense this spring, it was an inspired switch, minimizing the impact of UCLA’s one significant weakness (lack of pass-rushing outside linebackers).
This fall, we’ll be interested to see if UCLA’s move toward that type of defense ends up being more of a permanent thing. Given how few of those prototypical 6’4, 235 pound outside linebackers UCLA has, we’d be a little surprised to see UCLA run a whole lot of 3-4 base defense, but there’s also a lack of defensive back depth, which we’ll get to in a moment. We actually wouldn’t be completely shocked to see some legitimate 4-3-type looks at points this fall, simply based on the depth at various positions.
This is the big lingering question for the Heisman Trophy candidate. It was the primary limiting issue of his 2013 season. He went into a lull for a few games halfway through the season as UCLA’s coaches wanted to expand the attack with more throws downfield but Hundley struggled to make the reads. It also seemed that the reads were almost completely eliminated from the zone read. While many national pundits were heaping praise on Hundley, and much of it deserved, this huge element to Hundley’s game was overlooked. As Hundley comes into his “money” season, he’s received more heaps of praise, but the question of whether he has and can improve on his pre- and post-snap reads will probably determine whether he has the kind of season he’s hyped to have, is an actual contender for the Heisman Trophy and whether UCLA contends for the College Football Playoffs. So, really, no pressure. In spring, it appeared that Hundley was making better post-snap reads in finding receivers downfield. It was impossible, really, to determine, if he was actually making the pre-snap reads in the zone read run. While it’s going to be a little difficult to completely conclude whether he’s better at his reads until he gets into a game, we’ll be able to get more of an idea from fall camp, particularly on the post-snap reads down the field. If he can, the UCLA offense opens up and takes its effectiveness to an entirely higher level.
3. Who are the top three running backs?
This is kind of a conservative question. The more aggressive question might be: Will UCLA have a featured tailback that is going to run for 1,000 yards? With the offensive line having one more year of experience under their belt, and a ton of starting experience under that same belt, the time would be right for UCLA to have that dominating running game Jim Mora wants. And with it you’d have to expect it gives a UCLA tailback the opportunity to be that featured back. The guy most likely to fill that role is Jordon James, who was looking like the guy last season through the first three games, averaging 174 yards per game, until he was derailed by injury, and the entire running game became unhinged by offensive line injuries. The question with James is durability; if he can stay healthy he has a chance to be a 1,000-yard rusher. More than likely we think UCLA’s running back will be that guy named By Committee, and a bunch of yards probably spread over a rotation of three different players. James will be in there, and so will Paul Perkins who, after a second look at the 2013 season, was better than we had remembered and had a good spring camp. Just because of injury, UCLA probably needs one more guy in the rotation. We think Steven Manfro, if healthy, probably has the best chance to be that third guy. We continue to hear that Craig Lee, the redshirt freshman, while very physically talented, just isn’t getting it mentally. The guy to really watch in fall camp is Nathan Starks, the true freshman who has gotten great reviews in the off-season workouts. He’s 6-0 and about 195 and physically developed enough to withstand the punishment in his true freshman season.
It’s one of the big unknowns heading into fall camp, and one that the UCLA coaches talk about quite a bit. If fall camp is anything like spring camp, we’d have to say the two top candidates are defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa and linebacker Kenny Orjioke. Owa looked close to beastly in spring, after having to sit out the 2013 season. Orjioke had an inconsistent spring, at times looking Barr-esque but at other times looking a bit clueless. He also had to sit out the spring game for off-the-field issues. We’ve heard during the off-season he’s matured and has really dedicated himself further to making an impact this fall. He’s just as athletic as Barr and it’s most a matter of experience and knowledge with him to take his game to the next level. Watch in San Bernardino to see if pass-rushing linebacker Deon Hollins is ready to be effective in his specialized role. We suspect we might see Myles Jack more in opposing team’s backfields this fall, so watch for him being used as a pass rusher in fall camp.
5. Who is the right tackle?
As we pointed out in the offensive line preview, there are plenty of options for UCLA at right tackle. Graduate transfer Malcolm Bunche, redshirt freshman Kenny Lacy, and redshirt freshman Poasi Moala all played there at times this spring. Junior Simon Goines, who says he’s healthy to start fall camp, started there each of the last two years. Redshirt sophomore Conor McDermott, who was impressive in San Bernardino last year, is reportedly healthy and could also contend for the starting gig.
We would assume that Bunche slots in at left guard to start with, which leaves four options for right tackle. The linchpin will obviously be Goines’ health. If he’s healthy, even if he doesn’t win the starting job, he gives UCLA a valuable safety net in the event of an injury to the starter. Without him, no matter what we think of the talent and potential of Lacy, Moala, and McDermott, UCLA will be relying on an inexperienced player to man the spot, which is not ideal.
This is likely the most important position battle heading into the fall, and one that we’ll be following closely all camp.
6. Who will fill out the depth chart in the secondary?
It’s funny. Everyone thinks UCLA’s secondary is deep. USC tells recruits it is. But when you really break it down it plainly isn’t. Especially if UCLA is going to opt for the five-defensive back look we saw in spring practice. You have the top five guys in Fabian Moreau, Randall Goforth, Tahaan Goodman, Ishmael Adams and Anthony Jefferson. But after that, the depth is a question mark. And there are now less candidates to choose from with Johnny Johnson out for the season and Marcus Rios still an uncertainty. Fall camp is going to be the time that UCLA Defensive Back Coach Demetrice Martin really gets the depth chart set. If we go by spring camp, Priest Willis looks to be the 6th guy, since he got a good share of reps with the 1s. We think, then, true freshman Jaleel Wadood, with his great natural ability and instincts, has a chance to earn a place on the depth chart and avoid the scout team in fall camp. Perhaps finding at least one more guy among Tyler Foreman, Ron Robinson, Adarius Pickett, Denzel Fisher or walk-on Charles Dawson who Martin is confident enough to put in a game will be a big goal of fall camp.
Now that UCLA is in the post-Shaquelle Evans era, there’s an open competition for the No. 1 receiver job. Devin Lucien, Jordan Payton, Thomas Duarte, and Devin Fuller might all have a chance to take the role, and if we had to put our money on any one, it’d likely be Payton. He is probably the steadiest of the four, with the best combination of consistent route-running, hands, and physicality.
Lucien, though, showed signs of deepening maturity this spring, and he has a knack of the spectacular that the other three don’t necessarily have. He has good hands, excellent body control, and good downfield speed.
The real limiting factor for Duarte and Fuller is that either Brett Hundley hasn’t shown a propensity for throwing over the middle or the offense is not designed to throw over the middle significantly. Either way, their chances might be limited in that respect.
8. Which freshmen will make an impact?
So much of whether a true freshman can contribute is based on whether he’s physically developed enough. We can cheat a little in answering this question since we had a glimpse of some true freshmen in spring. If there’s one true freshman we think has the best chance to make an impact it’s probably linebacker Zach Whitley. He looked physically capable of making an impact in spring practice, and now he’s been in a college training environment for four more months. So, we’ll be looking for him to stand out in San Bernardino. We’d suspect his colleague at linebacker, Kenny Young, will have a good chance, since he’s also physically developed. As we said, running back Nathan Starks has a chance. We’ve heard that defensive end Matt Dickerson looks like a man. Because of depth concerns at defensive back there’s Wadood. Receiver Alex Van Dyke, from what we heard, is also physically ready and impressed in the off-season 7-on-7s. If we’re counting redshirt freshmen the clear choice is Mossi Johnson, who was the most impressive freshman participating in spring practice. UCLA, though, probably won’t use as many freshmen this season as it has the last two seasons, just because there’s so much more talent in the program this year.
9. Depth at offensive line?
As we wrote in the offensive line preview, UCLA’s offensive line depth actually looks pretty good at the moment, as long as a few things break right. But those things do have to break right.
First, and most importantly, Simon Goines entering the season healthy would be a huge boon to UCLA’s line. Even if he doesn’t win the starting right tackle job, having him as a safety net in the event of an injury to either tackle spot would be a luxury for Adrian Klemm.
Malcolm Bunche will have had to get in better shape this offseason. If he’s still struggling to make it through practices in San Bernardino, that would be a worrying sign heading into the season. If he isn’t in shape to make it through a practice, it’s a question if he would be able to make it through a game, which might thrust Kenny Lacy or Scott Quessenberry into that left guard spot.
Between Lacy and Poasi Moala, at least one of the two needs to be ready to play this year. Neither has played in a game in almost two years, and if UCLA has as many injuries this year as it had last year, they could both be counted on to play this season. Their development will be key. Lacy’s readiness is arguably more important because he most readily projects as being able to play either guard or tackle.
OL depth, perhaps, was the biggest weakness of the 2013 seasons, with UCLA not having enough ready-to-play guys to compensate for the injuries. So a big thing to watch for is whether UCLA emerges from fall camp injury-free on the offensive line and with enough of those ready-to-play bodies.
For the last two years, UCLA has been well-stocked with defensive line talent, as evidenced by Datone Jones and Cassius Marsh both being picked in the NFL Draft each of the last two years. Now, heading into the season, UCLA has a great deal of elite talent between Eddie Vanderdoes, Kenneth Clark, Ellis McCarthy, and Owamagbe Odighizuwa.
What’s shocking is that none of those four has had a truly elite, breakout season yet, and all four could be poised for such a season this year. Odighizuwa, coming off the multiple hip injuries that derailed his true senior year, looked completely healthy this spring, not having lost any of his strength or athleticism. Vanderdoes may play his more natural 3-technique at times with UCLA’s varied front, which should drastically increase his production. Clark has flown under the radar nationally, but many think he could be UCLA’s best defensive player. And McCarthy, who may not start, is healthy heading into the season for really the first time and is finally in good enough shape to make a consistent impact.
Between the four, UCLA has the talent, and this could be the year when the defensive line finally makes the leap, and carries the rest of the defense with it.
An added #11 issue to watch: How will newly-acquired punter Matt Mengel perform in San Bernardino? He has a big leg, clearly, but there is a natural question if a JC transfer punter coming into a top-7 ranked team can perform under pressure. How he does in San Bernardino is his first test.