Nowhere in the country do the lights shine brighter than Los Angeles, California. Those lights extend into the college football world where the star-studded program that Jim Mora has rebuilt is expected to shine year-in and year-out now. This year’s team returns a ton of starters and brings in a true freshman quarterback that was “chosen” for greatness. You probably tire of hearing it by now, but this division is loaded. However, the Bruins with all their talent and attention have to be at least somewhat disappointed by anything less than a conference title game appearance.
Running back Paul Perkins will be counted on early and often this season, and he’s not a bad one to lean on either. He rushed for 1,575 yards and nine touchdowns last season, even behind inconsistent offensive line play. I’d be surprised if he didn’t get to double-digit touchdowns and back to 1,500+ rushing yards this season, barring injury. Sophomore Nate Starks could also see an expanded role as Perkins’ primary backup, plus the additional help from two-way player Myles Jack.
This offensive line struggled early last season, but got better as the season progressed, and with almost every single one of those linemen back there is a very real chance that this group goes from liability to strength this season. Second-team All-Pac-12 center Jake Brendel and his 39 career starts return, as do three other linemen with twenty or more starts and a fourth with nineteen. If the line fails to improve as much as anticipated, it won’t be from a lack of experience or continuity.
The receiving corps also returns its top four receivers in terms of receiving yards from last season. Jordan Payton was less than fifty yards shy of 1,000 last season, and slot receiver Devin Fuller was a reliable, if not explosive, receiver last season. Fuller only managed 447 yards on 59 catches, but did catch 72% of his targets. Sophomore Eldridge Massington will also look to build on a solid freshman season that saw him catch 25 passes for 367 yards, and “Y” receiver Thomas Duarte turned his 28 catches into 540 yards last season.
All of this is great, but the only way this offense reaches its full potential is with solid quarterback play, which is kind of hard to assume considering we still don’t even know who the quarterback will be. Josh “Chosen” Rosen might be the highest upside play as a five-star true freshman, but with so much talent around the quarterback position there is a perfectly rational argument to be made for handing the keys to the safer option, which would be junior signal-caller Jerry Neuheisel.
UCLA’s offense is stacked, but there is a very good chance that they would get consistently beat in a starter vs. starter match-up in practice every day by this loaded defense. The Bruins are one of the strongest in the conference at virtually every defensive position and I don’t think it’s anywhere near an overstatement to say that this front seven is the best in the conference. That starts up front with the dynamic inside-out line play of Kenny Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes, who both had over 40 tackles last season.
Eric Kendricks may be gone, and his 123 tackles won’t be easy to replace, but I guess if you’ve read this far you’ll know that I believe that the Bruins have the players to fill that hole. Myles Jack, who I feel like I might have overmentioned but he’s earned it, had 72 tackles, an interception and seven pass break-ups last season. Outside linebacker Deon Hollins also proved very adept at attacking quarterbacks off the edge last season with nine sacks. Sophomore Kenny Young is the most likely candidate to play the inside linebacker spot alongside Jack, thus filling the actual physical void left by Kendricks even if not the whole statistical void.
Randall Goforth could not have picked a better time to come back from injury to cover the departure of Anthony Jefferson at safety. Goforth’s 2013 numbers are very similar to Jefferson’s from 2014, and it would be nice if he could pick up where he left off before shoulder injuries cost him almost all of the 2014 season. He will also benefit from playing right behind potentially the best pair of corners in the conference in Fabian Moreau and Ishmael Adams. The corner duo combined for three interceptions and twelve pass break-ups last season, and that was with Adams playing predominantly nickelback.
Prediction: 11-1 Pac-12 South Champion and Rose Bowl appearance
I know it may not be safe to put so much faith in a team that hasn’t completely settled its quarterback situation yet, but UCLA has so much talent that I actually feel pretty good about it. It also would not shock me at all, if they get good or better than good QB play, for them to take the conference and make an appearance in the playoff. The schedule isn’t exactly a breeze, but they avoid Oregon in conference, and don’t have back-to-back road trips until the last two weeks of the season when they go to Utah and then turn around and “travel” to USC.