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College Football Preview 2015-2016: 18. UCLA Bruins

Ishmael Adams
18. UCLA Bruins

2014-2015 Record: 10-3 (6-3 Pac-12)
Coach: Jim Mora, 4th year (29-11 overall)
Recruiting Rundown
Key Losses: QB Brett Hundley, LB Eric Kendricks
Heisman Hopeful: RB Paul Perkins
Breakout Player: DL Eddie Vanderdoes

2014-2015 was supposed to be the year that UCLA returned to national prominence. Entering Jim Mora's third year in Los Angeles, UCLA had a legit Heisman candidate in Brett Hundley, a veteran offensive line and talented playmakers all around the defense. In the end, UCLA would finish 10-3, certainly a strong performance that saw them in the Playoff mix for much of the year. Though, the Bruins were unable to win the Pac-12 South and were never truly able to prove themselves as a serious national title threat. While the loss of Hundley to the NFL will not make things easier, expectations should still be high in Los Angeles. 18 starters return to the ten-win team, and Mora brought in yet another fantastic recruiting class. Perhaps a year later than expected, UCLA could truly take off and prove themselves as a serious player on the national stage by winning the Pac-12.

Backfield: There was very little chance Hundley was going to use up his final year of eligibility with UCLA, and as many expected he left to the NFL and is now with Green Bay. The loss of the dynamic playmaker, who started the last three years for the Bruins, puts some pressure on the offense. Though, few teams have the luxury of having a first-year talent like Josh Rosen. The five-star recruit (by 24/7 Sports), earned the nickname of "Chosen Rosen" and he arrives in Westwood with huge expectations. The true freshman has maturity well beyond his years and he will certainly be the favorite to take over for Hundley from the get-go. His only competition comes in the form of junior Jerry Neuheisel, the son of former coach Rick Neuheisel. Neuheisel saw action last year for UCLA, and even led the Bruins to a victory over Texas when Hundley was injured. Neuheisel doesn't have the arm strength of Rosen, but he is a well-rounded veteran who has the genes to be a very good quarterback. No matter what happens between the quarterback competition, Mora and fourth-year offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone will lean heavily on the ground game. And, it is certainly huge for the offense to have junior Paul Perkins back in a Bruins uniform. Perkins ran for 1,575 yards last season, but still wasn't chosen as an All-Pac-12 running back. That will only serve as extra motivation for the dangerous back. Perkins has great burst and wonderful vision; he finds holes as good as anyone in the nation. With the offense relying even more on him, Perkins could quite honestly challenge the upper 1,000s and possibly even 2,000 in 2015. That would certainly give him some Heisman consideration, especially if UCLA finds themselves in Playoff contention near the end of the year. Backing up Perkins will most likely be sophomore Nate Starks, who is a very similar runner to Perkins. Starks is shifty and a smooth runner who managed 141 yards and two touchdowns in very limited action a season ago. UCLA also has two wild cards in the backfield, who have all the talent to turn into real talents. Five-star recruit Soso Jamabo was yet another huge recruit for Mora who absolutely dominated while at Plano West in Texas. But, he was arrested in his home state just weeks after signing day and his future with the team is somewhat murky. When he does get on the field, there are few that can match his mix of size, speed and explosiveness. Steven Manfro is the other wild card; the dangerous back has good hands and can break open games but he may not be fully recovered from a torn ACL. Don't be surprised to see Mazzone and Mora use linebacker Myles Jack as a fullback this season. He saw a lot of action at back his first two seasons in Los Angeles, including 28 attempts last year, where he recorded three touchdowns.

Receivers: Well losing Hundley will certainly negatively hurt UCLA's aerial attack (at least to begin the year), nearly everyone is back at receiver. That includes reliable Jordan Payton, who proved to be Hundley's favorite target last season. Payton hauled in 67 catches, with 954 yards and seven touchdowns in 2014-2015. Payton proved to be able to make some truly acrobatic catches last season, and if a ball is anywhere in his vicinity, he'll get his hand on it. While Payton is certainly the most reliable of the bunch returning, perhaps Eldridge Massington is the most likely candidate to explode for huge numbers. Massington tore his ACL his senior year of high school football and redshirted his first year with the Bruins. But, fully healthy last year he showed some real upside, bringing in 25 receptions for 367 yards. Massington's ACL certainly didn't seem to bother him last season. He showed exceptional quickness and unreal athleticism. He is certainly a serious dark threat and him and Rosen, who has the huge arm needed, could become a lethal combination for opposing Pac-12 secondaries. Also returning is junior Thomas Duarte and senior Devin Fuller, who both proved to be very productive last year. Duarte is a well-built receiver, at 6'3", who uses his large frame to make plays on jump balls and also help as a run blocker. Fuller is a versatile veteran who was the team's second leading receiver, behind Payton, as he brought in 59 balls for 447 yards. Depth should not be a concern in the unit, as a number of playmakers will fight for more chances, including guys like sophomore Alex Van Dyke and senior Tyler Scott, who has great size. Incoming freshman Cordell Broadus' main claim to fame is his dad (Snoop Dogg, an infamous USC fan, is his father) but he has real talent, as well. Broadus is gifted with top-flight speed, and he could become quite the deep threat himself, much like Massington. Also joining Broadus in this year's recruiting class will be four-star tight end Chris Clark, a large, 6'6" imposing target with solid hands along with well-rounded three-star Octavius Spencer.
Offensive Line: Another major help to Rosen, or whoever does truly win the QB competition will be this year's offensive line. The unit returns four starters, with a ton of experience and a possible stud, while Mora helped it out more by bringing in a number of blue-chip recruits. Center Jake Brendel is the unquestioned leader of the unit entering his senior year. A gifted run blocker and All-Conference selection, Brendel is a very local leader and a guy that the young guys can follow. Also returning will be junior Alex Redmond and junior Scott Quessenberry. Redmond is another strong run blocker who will pave lanes for Perkins, while Quessenberry has impressive versatility. If anything were to happen to Brendel, there is a good chance Mora would look to Quessenberry to fill in at center. Those three give UCLA an extremely impressive interior to their offensive line. Another junior, Conor McDermott is the type of player that can give opponents nightmares. McDermott has measured in at 6'10" and is just around 300 pounds. Having a monster like him at left tackle is a major plus for the Bruins. Though, McDermott will have to become better at picking up blitzes and extra pass rushers and will have to work hard on cutting down penalties. The player with perhaps the most potential on the entire unit will be junior Simon Goines. Goines started as a freshman for the Bruins all the way back in 2012, but injuries have been the only constant since then. He has had severe knee issues and sat out all of last season. When healthy, Goines is a very productive tackle, who can ideally play on both sides. He is 6'7", with strong arms and a sturdy frame. If he can finally get healthy this year, he will be very, very good. But, unfortunately that is a big "if" for the longtime Bruin. The loss of productive Malcolm Bunche hurts in terms of depth, but junior Caleb Benenoch has the talent and experience to play a multitude of positions and roles. Sophomore Kenny Lacy is another player who will fight for increased snaps. UCLA went across the vast Pacific to land their top incoming offensive linemen, Hawaii product Fred Ulu-Perry Jr. Perry will be more of a backup and depth chart filler than anything at least early on with UCLA, but he has real talent, possibly enough to be the Bruins' top linemen since Xavier Su'a-Filo. Su'a-Filo was fantastic throughout his time in Westwood and ended up being drafted in the second round by the Houston Texans in the 2014 NFL Draft. Fellow guard Joshua Wariboko was a steal from Big 12 country who also has loads of talent, while four-star Andre James and junior college product Zach Bateman while lead on the perimeter. Bateman is a strong, solid talent coming from Orange Coast CC, from inside the state.

Defensive Line: Owamagbe Odighizuwa not only gave announcers problems saying his name, but he also gave opponents plenty of problems while at UCLA. He managed six sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss last year, and was an absolute pest to opponents. But, he is off to play on Sundays, leaving a slight pass rushing void on UCLA's defensive line. The top replacement? Look no further than a player with another tough name, Takkarist McKinley, a junior. While not the largest player on the field, McKinley has great lateral quickness but can still lay a big hit on opponents. McKinley is a former junior college recruit, who became eligible midway through 2014. The other player likely to step up and give the Bruins major pass rushing help is former big-time recruit Eddie Vanderdoes, who is now also a junior. Vanderdoes has the versatility to play on the inside, but defensive coordinator Tom Bradley will likely need him more at defensive end. The former second-hand man to Joe Paterno at Penn State who took over after Paterno was terminated, Bradley always gets the best from his players, and he will let Vanderdoes go off. Vanderdoes had two sacks in 2014, a number that should also certainly rise by quite a bit this season. While having those two breakout at end would help, UCLA has an established defensive tackle in junior Kenny Clark. Clark is as good of a run stopper as you will find in the entire nation. He managed 58 total tackles last season, with 5.5 of them going for a loss. He is deceptively quick for his size and continues to become more physical and stronger. Backing up Clark at defensive tackle will be junior Eli Ankou, who was very quiet a season ago. Ankou is a very similar to Clark in that he is quick and continues to get stronger and work on his power moves. Ankou has worked hard to improve and he could become more of a natural pass rusher than Clark. Big things are expected of defensive end Keisean Lucier-South, who joins UCLA after starring at Orange Lutheran High in Orange, California. Despite being included in a Bruins class that includes talents like Rosen, Jamabo and more, Lucier-South is being seen by many as the player with possibly the most superstar potential in the 2015 Class. He is rated as a five-star recruit by 24/7 Sports and as a top five end by nearly every recruiting service. If McKinley doesn't lock down a starting role, expect Bradley to unleash Lucier-South early.

Linebackers: The only other significant loss that UCLA suffered on the defensive side of the ball outside of Odighizuwa was linebacker Eric Kendricks. Kendricks joins former UCLA sack machine Anthony Barr in Minnesota. Kendricks played sideline to sideline as well as anyone in college football, and he managed 149 tackles in just 2014-2015 alone. He also had three interceptions, 11.5 TFL and showed some pass rushing ability, with four sacks. Clearly losing a talent like Kendricks will test the Bruins' defense in many different ways, but there is still some real talent in the linebacker corps. Yet another junior, Myles Jack, is ready to be seen as one of the nation's elite linebackers. He has already proven himself as a two-way stud and certainly has shown flashes of being a complete inside 'backer. Few linebackers possess the athleticism and ball skills of Jack, who showed just how great of a coverage 'backer he was last season, with seven pass deflections. He had 87 total tackles and showed a nose for the football, with eight of those being for loss. Jack earned All-Pac-12 honors for his performances last season, but I still believe he is only scratching the surface of what he can be as a linebacker. Joining Jack will be rapidly improving sophomore Kenny Young, who had 35 tackles last season. Young is a hard-hitting linebacker with who is fearless. His production in his first season with UCLA was very impressive, and he will also grow into a more complete player who should play on the inside. Outside linebacker Deon Hollins is actually UCLA's top returning sack leader (9 last season). Hollins was rather one-dimensional last season, rushing the quarterback without much of a purpose. He will still be allowed to blitz and rush the quarterback often, but he will also have to grow into a more improved run defender and well-rounded playmaker. The other outside linebacker slot outside of Hollins is likely to be a race between senior Aaron Wallace and junior Cam Judge. Wallace knows the system and has a little bit more experience, but Judge is no slouch and he will give Wallace a run for his money. Junior Jayon Brown is a beast with tremendous athleticism who will fight for snaps behind Jack.

Secondary: The defensive backfield is not devoid of losses either, as the Bruins said goodbye to quality safety Anthony Jefferson this offseason. Jefferson picked up 72 tackles last season, which was third on the team. While his loss will leave a void, the Bruins have enough at cornerback and talent in the wings for this unit to still be a considerable strength. Both Fabian Moreau and Ishmael Adams made such strong impressions last year that they earned All-Conference honors. Now, the pair enter their senior seasons with significantly higher expectations, which is not surprising. Moreau is the bigger and stronger corner who will be tasked with handling the bigger receivers on the opposing side. He won't make a ton of game-changing plays but he showed real shutdown ability last year and there is real hope he could be the Bruins' No. 1 corner. Adams is smaller, at just 5'8", 190 pounds. Though what he lacks for size he makes up for in quickness, agility and smarts. He closes on routes as well as anybody and has good hands for a cornerback. Both interceptions that Adams recorded last season he took home for six, totaling 115 yards in the process. While UCLA will have to break in a new safety in the back, there is experience there. Junior Randall Goforth has a real chance to take over at free safety, while sophomore Jaleel Wadood is the likely starter on the strongside. Wadood has some real upside, recording 59 tackles last season with the versatility to do a number of different things. Also back will be junior corner Marcus Rios and junior Tahaan Goodman, who can play a variety of different roles. Rios is tied with Adams as the leading returning interceptions guy, while Goodman showed impressive production last year, despite not seeing a ton of time. Big things are also expected of DeChaun Holiday, who arrives as a four-star prospect. Gifted with a powerful 6'3" frame, many coaches on the West Coast believe Holiday has as much upside as any corner in the area. Three-star cornerback Will Lockett is a solid prospect from Texas who is more of a depth chart-filler right now, but has some real potential.

Special Teams: Mora and the Bruins may rest a little bit easier at night, knowing they have a proven kicker in senior Ka'Imi Fairburn, who knocked down 18 of his 22 field goals last season. Punter will be in good hands with another senior, Matt Mengel, set to start at the position.

Mora has done a fantastic job at UCLA, and there is enough talent here that the team could definitely win the Pac-12 South, even with USC back and both Arizona schools on fire. The key will definitely be at quarterback. Rosen is a real talent, but he will need time and Neuheisel doesn't appear to be much more than a game manager. But, maybe with the talent UCLA has on both sides of the ball, that is all they need. Either way, UCLA's first two games, against Virginia and at UNLV aren't terribly tough matchups, and Mora will get time to test things. After that the schedule gets very difficult, especially in late September and early October. Although there will be some growing pains, this team clearly is a dangerous threat, who has a pretty decent shot at a great bowl, perhaps even a shot at the Playoff.

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