Game Week: Five Things to Watch

Paul Perkins

SEP. 1 -- We break down the five questions to answer in advance of this Saturday's game against Memphis...

1. Will Jake Brendel be back?

If we learned nothing else from the first game of the season, we learned that Jake Brendel’s value to the offensive line can’t be overstated. Without Brendel in the middle, it seemed that there was constant miscommunication among the interior linemen, which led to many miscues and defensive players getting open lanes to Brett Hundley.

This week, we’ll want to see real, tangible signs that Brendel is on the mend and on his way back. Whether he plays against Memphis is not really the point. In fact, we’d probably prefer that he didn’t, because Memphis doesn’t have the quality talent that Virginia had and it’d be good to give Scott Quessenberry another week of seasoning, in the event of another Brendel injury later on.

But getting Brendel back for Texas pretty clearly just became priority number one for UCLA.

Mossi Johnson.
2. Will Mossi Johnson and Kenny Walker impact the rotation this week?

One of the biggest points of consternation with the receiver rotation last year was the over-reliance on certain players at the expense of Thomas Duarte and Nate Iese. We’re just one game in to the 2014 season, but we’re a little surprised we didn’t see more of Mossi Johnson against Virginia. Johnson was a budding star in spring practice, and though he was nicked up a bit in San Bernardino, still looked like a great option out of the slot.

We also didn’t see much of Kenny Walker, who’s about the only receiver on the team with elite, game-breaking speed. He had some issues with his hands during fall camp, but generally, his catching is improved from where it was two years ago. With the issues UCLA had catching the ball in week one anyway, it might have been worth running him out there more. Both he and Johnson have the potential to provide pressure relief for Brett Hundley.

3. Will UCLA make drastic changes for Memphis so they have time to iron out the kinks?

It’s quite clear that UCLA did not intend to use much offensive variety against Virginia. They didn’t break out passes to Nate Iese or true zone reads until the game was in doubt at 21-17 in the third quarter. This week, Memphis figures to be an even lesser opponent than Virginia, so it’ll be interesting to see how UCLA approaches the matchup.

Like we said up top with Brendel, UCLA may view Memphis as another opportunity to use a game plan similar to what it used against Virginia so that the team, and specifically the offensive line and running backs, can work on executing those plays better. Or, with the expectation that Texas will be a much tougher opponent, the Bruins could unveil some wrinkles to the scheme to get the team ready for the trip to Dallas the following week. It’ll be very interesting to monitor what strategy UCLA takes in what will be another matchup that the Bruins should, in theory, dominate.

Adarius Pickett.
4. What is the running back rotation?

The distribution of carries on Saturday would indicate that Paul Perkins has taken pole position in the running back room, and we’d have to imagine that continues this week. How the depth chart fills out behind him, though, is anyone’s guess. Jordon James was not impressive in week one, struggling to hit holes with conviction while also whiffing on a few blocks. Steven Manfro had issues catching the ball. If there was ever a week to try to get the freshmen up to speed, this would be the one.

At this point, admittedly not having watched any practice yet this week, we’d be a little surprised if we didn’t see Nate Starks, Craig Lee, or Adarius Pickett carry the ball for the first time this weekend. With Manfro and James both struggling last week, and it being imperative to have a solid rushing attack against Texas and entering Pac-12 play, we’d assume UCLA will start looking to work the freshmen into the rotation.

5. Who is the fifth defensive back?

It’s a lower level concern, because none of the options played that poorly, but figuring out the fifth and sixth defensive backs seems to still be a work in progress. Tahaan Goodman and Jaleel Wadood both rotated in as the third safety and fifth defensive back in the nickel formation. Goodman had some issues early, which led to Wadood getting the nod in the second half, and then he, too, blew a coverage. Priest Willis might still be in the running as well, but his blown coverage on the touchdown catch came at a critical times.

Marcus Rios may be a dark horse candidate as well. He played sparingly on defense, but he looked good throughout fall camp and might be able to make an impact on the rotation sooner rather than later. While it’s not something that UCLA needs to figure out this week, or maybe even against Texas, it’ll be critical for the Bruins to figure out a good nickel rotation when it opens Pac-12 play against Arizona State late this month.

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