It's been a tough 16 years for UCLA football ever since Terry Donahue retired from coaching after the 1995 season. Things looked pretty good with Bob Toledo initially with two Pac-10 championships and top ten rankings the first three years. But in the next four years, UCLA could do no better than fourth in the conference, and Toledo was out thanks to discipline issues off-the-field. Next, former Bruin Karl Dorrell was brought back in an attempt to bring back tradition, but couldn't get the Bruins higher than third place. Four out of five seasons, the Bruins finished within a game of .500, and Dorrell was out.
Queue in one of college football's greatest flakes, Rick Neuheisel, who proceeded to make the Dorrell and Toledo years look pretty good in comparison. The Bruins never finished higher than .500 in Skippy's four seasons at his alma mater. Last year, the Bruins finished second in the Pac-12 South with a 6-6 regular season record. Because Southern Cal was ineligible to play in the Pac-12 Championship game, they were selected to play in the Pac-12 title game, losing 49-31 to Oregon. Despite a 6-7 record, UCLA was still allowed to play in the Fight Hunger Bowl,losing 20-14 to Illinois.
But Skippy wasn't around for the bowl game, as he was fired at the end of the regular season. Jim Mora, Jr. takes over UCLA in his first college head coaching job. Mora spent three years as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, but was dismissed shortly after expressing interest in becoming head coach of his alma mater, Washington...who weren't even looking for a head coach at that time. In 2009, Mora did return to Seattle, but as the head coach of the Seahawks. A 5-11 record was all the Seahawks needed to decide to replace Mora with Pete Carroll.
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Also yet to be determined is who be the Bruins starting quarterback. Seniors Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut were co-starters last season; each completed about 55% of their passes in the Bruin's old run-first pistol offense. Brehaut seemed to take command of the starting quarterback job in late September last season, only to break his leg against Washington State and miss most of the rest of the season. In the spring game, Brehaut and redshirt freshman Brett Hundley seemed to have the best days. Mora has given no indication which quarterback will start this fall, though he also says that he plans to pick a quarterback and stick with it. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone comes to UCLA from Arizona State, and favored a pro-style, no-huddle offense there.
While UCLA will certainly throw the ball more in 2012, they won't give up on the ground game completely. Not when the Bruins aren't sure who the quarterback will be and have a running back like senior Johnathan Franklin. Franklin rushed for 976 yards and five touchdowns last season; more importantly, he averaged 5.9 yards a carry last year. When it was short yardage time last year, UCLA turned to departing senior Derrick Coleman (152 carries, 765 yards, 11 touchdowns). This year, it'll likely be 6'0" 227 pound Malcolm Jones pounding away between the tackles. One player to keep an eye on is UCLA's version of Rex Burkhead: redshirt freshman Steven Manfro. He's not big (5'11", 195 lbs.), but he's described as a determined runner who's developed quite a fan following:
Something has happened that changed Manfro into a pass catching, run between the tackles, kick returning, back flipping, TD scoring scrimmage maniac of doom. Perhaps all the projections of Chuck Norris were understating his skills. He was juking veteran players, pushing piles and just generally making plays. People have been calling him white Mamba, which is silly, until you realize that Mazzone is using him in all the same ways that Oregon was using De'Anthony Thomas last year. I don't think he quite has Thomas's top gear, but he looks to have everything else, with a bit of power thrown in.
UCLA's receivers are going to be asked to do much more than they have previously this season. 6'1 junior Shaq Evans showed good potential last season, catching 19 passes for 309 yards and two touchdowns. He'll certainly see the ball more this season. Tight end Joseph Fauria caught 39 passes for 481 yards and six touchdowns last season; the 6'7" 258 lb. senior is a physical mismatch with whomever tries to cover him. After that, there is a whole crew of unproven players who'll need to contribute. At the "X" receiver, senior Jerry Johnson will probably give way to redshirt freshman Devin Lucien at some point this season. At the "F" receiver, it'll probably be junior Rickey Marvray or sophomore Jordon James. And keep an eye out for converted quarterback Darius Bell, who's moved to the "Y" receiver/tight end position. Oh, and there's this guy named "Jerry Rice" on the roster as well. Yep...son of the legend.
Besides the unsettled quarterback situation, the biggest issue with the UCLA offense had been the offensive line. The good news is that sophomore left tackle Xavier Su'a-Filo is back from a two year Mormon mission; the 6'4" 310 pounder earned honorable mention all-Pac 10 honors in 2009. The other returning starter is senior Jeff Baca, who's started 33 games in his UCLA career at both tackle and guard. He'll definitely start somewhere, most likely at right guard. At right tackle, redshirt freshman Torian Wright impressed enough in the spring to vault on top of the depth chart.
On the defensive line, the Bruins will shift from a 4-3 to a 3-4 under new defensive coordinator Lou Spanos, who spent the last three years as the Washington Redskins linebackers coach and, prior to that, 15 years with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He's a first time coordinator, though. Up front, the Bruins will be led by senior defensive end Datone Jones, who led the defensive line last season with 41 tackles. Sophomore transfer Brandon Willis jumped up and grabbed the starting nose tackle job this spring. He's a bit undersized at 6'3" and 275 pounds, but makes up for it with an explosive first step. But keep an eye out for blue-chip incoming freshman Ellis McCarthy. The 6'5" 311 pound five-star recruit will probably play right away, perhaps as a super-sized defensive end.
The star on the defense coming into the season is senior inside linebacker Patrick Larimore, who led the Bruins last season with 81 tackles. He's solid on stopping the run, but doesn't have the athleticism in pass coverage. By the end of the season, sophomore linebacker Eric Kendricks could be the big name on the Bruins defense. As a freshman, he tallied 76 tackles (4.5 for a loss) despite only starting three games. At outside linebacker, senior Damien Holmes moves back from defensive end, where he had 32 tackles last season.
In the secondary, the star power is sophomore free safety Tevin McDonald. His father Tim played in the NFL for 13 years, and his brother T.J. was an all-American last season at USC. He started 11 games last year with 56 tackles, and had a three interception game against Cal. Former walk-on Andrew Abbott tallied 44 tackles last season to earn honorable mention all-Pac 12 honors as a junior; he's moving to strong safety this season. Senior cornerback Sheldon Price has started 32 games for the Bruins, and will be matched up with fellow senior cornerback Aaron Hester, who had 57 tackles last season.
Success for the Bruins in 2012 will likely depend on how the quarterback and offensive line positions settle out. Looking over the Bruins, it looks like Neuheisel did a decent job of recruiting even if his coaching on the field was lacking. This is another one of those games Nebraska should win, but could lose if the Huskers aren't focused properly.