As UCLA opens Spring camp, there are more questions than answers on both sides of the ball, and there is barely a position that isn’t under a microscope.
We are going to skip the Jim Mora hot seat debate. Of course the seat is warm because the team took huge steps backwards last year with a 4-8 record and second consecutive loss to USC. Yes, Josh Rosen was hurt, but the team was barely above mediocre before the injury and the lineup on the field played a role in his shoulder injury. That having been said, UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero has about two years left before retirement. The concept of firing the fourth football coach during his tenure, coupled with Mora’s massive buyout clause, makes it certain that short of a complete repeat of last season, the head coach is not going anywhere any time soon.
One thing Mora did, as does every coach who feels some level of discomfort, is he gutted his coaching staff. Last year, he went to more of a pro-style offense without all of the proper tools in place to pull it off, and then hired coaches who were ill-equipped to get it in place before the season started. Thus heads, other than Mora’s, had to roll.
- Offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu was replaced by Jedd Fisch. Polamalu was in over his head from the outset. Fisch spent the last two season as passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Michigan.
- Hank Fraley replaces Adrian Klemm as offensive line coach. Fraley spent the last three seasons as the offensive line coach of the Minnesota Vikings. Klemm’s offensive line was statistically one of the worst in the nation in 2016 and he had a two year NCAA Show-Cause penalty attached to him.
- Jimmie Dougherty becomes UCLA’s passing game coordinator and wide receiver’s coach. We can say this about Dougherty. He is quick. He took the UCLA job only seven weeks after taking the same job at Oregon. He coached last year at Michigan with Fisch. That means quarterbacks coach Marques Tuiasisopo is also gone after just one season in Westwood.
- Former Bruin all-conference running back DeShaun Foster will be the new running backs coach. He spent 2016 as the running backs coach at Texas Tech after a couple of years of graduate assistant work at UCLA.
- That means the only holdover coach on the offensive side of the ball is tight ends coach Rip Scherer. Since the offense still found few ways to utilize the tight end last year, there was not much to critique Scherer about.
Holes to Fill on Defense
Mora’s 2017 recruiting class was generally decent if not fulfilling. What he did do though was fill holes on defense. Generally, the grades for a recruiting class take a couple of years to start being of relevance. But the Bruins are losing six starters, (eight regulars), on defense so testing time for some of the incoming class of 2017 is going to come early. UCLA loses Takkarist McKinley and Eddie Vanderdoes off the defensive line, as well as linebacker Jayon Brown and half of the starting defensive backfield among others. That means super recruits Jaelan Phillips, (defensive end), Darnay Holmes (corner back), and Greg Rogers (defensive tackle) could see significant playing time early. Phillips and Holmes were enrolled in school in January and have already been going through workouts ahead of Spring camp. That also makes inside senior linebacker Kenny Young the dean of the defense. He finished 2016 with 80 total tackles and one interception.
With the overhaul of the offensive coaching staff, it should be clear that the fixes are neither easy or quick. There is little doubt that the switch to the pro-style offense was ill conceived based on the talent on the team and the amount of time needed to make it work. The coaches coming in all have experience in the pro-style, so make no mistake, Mora is committed to it. But the questions, even a year later, are does he have the personnel to pull it off?
Everything on offense is clearly built around Josh Rosen in what will likely be the junior’s last season at UCLA. He was injured in week six of the season against Arizona State, scrambling for his life, as he often had to do behind that offensive line. He was driven into the turf, injured his shoulder, (which ultimately required surgery), and was done for the year. All reports are that physically he is fine, but how much he works at full speed during the Spring is still to be seen. Healthy or not, he is now working under his third offensive coordinator in three years. The question at quarterback really is not Rosen however. It is the backup quarterback. When Rosen went down last year, UCLA was exposed for having no one even remotely ready to step in. Fifth year senior and former walk-on Mike Fafaul became the starter having thrown all of six passes in his entire college career. His effort was admirable, but he lacked the skills needed. It was reasonable to wonder how highly touted recruits Devon Modster, and Matt Lynch were not options. Both were true freshman, but clearly had a talent level that was beyond Fafaul, and saving the redshirts for each of them was a curious choice. Thus, as Rosen went down so did any prospects for the Bruins turning the season around.
Pass, Run and Block
UCLA’s run offense was anemic even with the big play ability of Rosen on the field. It got worse once Fafaul became the starter as he did not possess the same threat. The talent was and is there with Soso Jamabo, Bolu Olorunfunmi and Nate Starks. Jamabo ran for more than 400 yards and four touchdowns as a backup his freshman year, but his numbers went down as a starter last year. The problem was clear. The blocking up front set new lows. The only team in FBS that was worse than UCLA rushing the ball last year was Texas State. The Bruins averaged only 84.3 yards on the ground per game, placing them 127th out of 128 teams. The offensive lineman got so tied up by opposing defensive linemen that the linebackers had an easy route to make all the tackles. The good news is much of the offensive line is back with a year of experience under its belt. The bad news much of the offensive line is back. Tackle Connor McDermott is the only one gone. The rest of the offensive line will be built around senior Scott Quessenberry and is going to be a patchwork of people moving positions and trying to find a cohesive five that is capable of getting to the second level/linebackers on run blocking. Najee Toran, Kolton Miller and Kenny Lacy are all experienced, but that did not prove very beneficial last season. Mora mostly whiffed on getting them help via recruiting this year, although he did get a pleasant surprise when 6-5, 290 pound tackle Stephan Zabie announced for the Bruins on NLI day. UCLA has 18 offensive lineman on the roster. Someway, somehow, five of them have to be able to block.
Catch the Ball
If you have a quarterback that throws like Rosen, you are going to have some great stats for the receivers, right? Only if they actually catch the ball. UCLA had miles of depth at the position last year. What they lacked were receivers that could catch with any consistency. Prior to Rosen’s early season departure, he had seven would-be touchdown passes that were dropped in the end zone by UCLA receivers, all the while, natural talents like Theo Howard sat on the bench. For whatever shortcomings the true freshman might have had, (his blocking needs work), the lack of catching ability by the others should have gotten him more downs. The likes of Eldridge Massington, Jordan Lasley, Mossi Johnson and Darren Andrews all return, with Howard. Logic says the rotation will grow shorter as people who can catch step up.
The Bottom Line
The Bruins have a manageable schedule. They are at home against the Myles Garrett-less Texas A&M Aggies and have a setup game against Hawaii. But they also travel to Memphis for an out of conference game, and are on the road against Stanford, Washington, Utah and USC in conference. Under the best of circumstances, this would be a tough season for Jim Mora. He of course, does not have the luxury of the best of circumstances and much of that rests on him. However, being in the Pac 12, he will never feel the heat of an SEC coach with the same record. Being at UCLA, he will seldom feel the heat of an actively outraged fan base. Flip 4-8 to 8-4 and he will have the breathing room to be comfortable again.