Just a few miles from Hollywood, Nebraska's defensive woes in 2012 were exposed by UCLA in the Rose Bowl. It wasn't so much the 36 points...it was the 653 yards by the UCLA offense. A three yard loss from taking a knee on the final snap of the game meant that this game wouldn't go down as Nebraska's worst defensive performance of all-time in terms of yards allowed...but it was still worse than anything a Kevin Cosgrove defense allowed.
And that was the sobering wake-up call. We thought it would get better, but then the defense cratered at Ohio State, and then again in Indianapolis against Wisconsin. So Nebraska has had to spend the offseason trying to recreate the defense, essentially from scratch.
The good news against UCLA is that, other than star quarterback Brett Hundley, most of the UCLA's stars from last year's game are gone. Running back Johnathan Franklin and his 276 yards of offense? He's heading to Green Bay. So is defensive end Datone Jones, who went unblocked on his sack of Taylor Martinez for the game changing safety. Uncoverable tight end Joseph Fauria? He's off to Detroit.
But Hundley is back after a sensational freshman season where he completed two-thirds of his passes for 29 touchdowns and eleven interceptions. He's mobile, though maybe not as mobile as he looked on his first collegiate carry, a 72 yard touchdown run against Rice. Hundley ended the season with 355 yards rushing and nine touchdowns, averaging 2.2 yards a carry. And with a full season of experience under his belt, he'll likely be even better. Heck, quarterback guru Steve Clarkson thinks that Hundley thought that Hundley would have been the first quarterback taken in this year's NFL draft, if he had been eligible to be drafted. That wasn't the case in 2013; it could be in 2014. If Hundley were to go down to injury, the Bruins would probably look to Wake Forest graduate transfer Brendan Cross (son of NFL great Randy) or redshirt freshman Jerry Neuheisel (son of Skippy, the former UCLA/Washington/Colorado coach).
Johnathan Franklin's departure left a big hole in the UCLA depth chart, and it's unclear who'll fill it. The default option is probably junior Jordan James, who rushed 61 times for 215 yards and two touchdowns. At 5'9 and 193 pounds, he's a better fit for the UCLA spread offense than 6'0" 220 pound senior Malcolm Jones. Injuries probably will hold senior Damien Thigpen (ACL) and sophomore Steven Manfro (shoulder) back. But if he finds his way to get cleared, incoming freshman Craig Lee might be the best bet. It's unclear at this time whether it's the NCAA or UCLA that's the last remaining snag, but the expectation in Westwood is that he'll be on the roster this fall. Lee was a four-star recruit who rushed for 1,787 yards and 20 touchdowns as a high school senior.
The Bruins only return one of last season's top four receivers, but the one is senior Shaq Evans. The 6'1" senior earned honorable mention all-Pac 12 honors last season with 60 catches for 877 yards and three touchdowns. A speedy deep threat, he'll undoubtedly see plenty of attention and double teams in coverage. Opposite Evans, sophomores Jordan Payton and Devin Lucien will be the other outside receiver. Payton is a little bigger, while Lucien is a little faster. Lucien caught three passes for 70 yards against Nebraska last season, but a collarbone injury ended his season in September. Both are going to need go grow into their role quickly to fill the hole departing tight end Joseph Fauria left. Officially listed as the "Y" receiver on the depth chart, neither 5'11" 216 pound senior Darius Bell nor 6'4" 252 pound sophomore Ian Taubler can create the mismatches that Fauria exploited last season. UCLA's best bet might be true freshman Thomas Duarte, who was a highly sought-after tight end target out of Santa Ana Mater Dei. The only question is whether he can be ready to play right away, or if he needs some seasoning in the weight room.
Four starters return on the offensive line, led by junior left guard Xavier Su'o-Filo, who took two seasons off on a Morman mission, only to return in first team all-Pac-12 form. Sophomore center Jake Brendel has started every game of his college career so far, while sophomore tackles Simon Goines and Torian White will swap sides this season. The bigger Goines ( 6'6" 320 pounds) will move to left tackle to protect Hundley's blind side better, while While (6'5" 282 pounds) moves to the right side. Last season, UCLA ranked 118th in division 1-A in sacks allowed, so improvement is vitally necessary. The battle between the UCLA offensive line and Nebraska defensive line should be our first real opportunity to evaluate the defensive line in 2013.
The UCLA defense improved greatly in 2012 under defensive coordinator Lou Spanos, and even with the departure of Datone Jones, the Bruins should be good up front. Senior defensive end Cassius Marsh put up an impressive 50 tackles (10.5 for loss) last season, toiling in relative obscurity opposite Jones. Now he's the star of the defensive line. Replacing Jones will be former Nebraska recruiting target Owamagbe Odighizuwa. Last month, Odighizuwa underwent hip surgery which was originally thought to be season ending, until the damage turned out to be less than feared. He now could be ready to go at the start of the season. The big weakness up front at nose tackle in the UCLA 3-4 scheme, where senior 6'1" 316 pound nose tackle Seali'i Epenesa hasn't distinguished himself. The Bruins ranked 66th nationally against the run last season, and many expect 6'4" 330 pound sophomore Ellis McCarthy to break out if the Bruins are going to improve on that.
Former running back Anthony Barr exploded when he moved to outside linebacker for his junior season. The 6'4" 245 pound finished the season with 83 tackles (21.5 for loss) and as a second-team all-American. The inside linebackers are pretty good as well, with 6'0" 228 pound junior Eric Kendricks totaling 150 tackles last season, with his speed and instincts more than compensating for his lack of prototypical inside linebacker size. Senior Jordan Zumwalt is more than capable as the other inside backer.
The secondary will be a complete rebuilding process now that safety Tevin Washington was dismissed. If he's finally healthy, junior cornerback Anthony Jefferson might be the Bruins' best cover guy. Redshirt freshman Ishmael Adams likely starts at the other corner position. At strong safety, part-time starters Randall Goforth and Stan McKay are battling for playing time, though both seem better suited for run support than pass coverage. With such inexperience, look for at least one true freshman, such as cornerback Priest Willis, to see action early.
Much has been made of the 11 am central time kickoff in Lincoln for this game, but much of that is overdone. The biggest effects will be on fans, especially with UCLA fans who'll have to adjust to a 9 am Pacific time start. Since UCLA doesn't start fall classes until Monday, September 23, UCLA has plenty of flexibility to fly into Lincoln early and practice before dawn, if the coaches find that warranted. If anything, the new black uniforms that Nebraska will be wearing might be a bigger factor if it's a sunny and hot late summer day.