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College Football Preview 2017-2018: 23. UCLA Bruins

23. UCLA Bruins

Now healthy, Bruins ready to challenge for Pac-12 South crown

  • Location: Los Angeles, California
  • Conference: Pac-12 (South)
  • Schedule
  • Roster
  • Coach: Jim Mora (sixth year)
  • Last Years Record: 4-8 (2-7 Pac-12)
  • Bowl Result: None


With crosstown rival USC in a rebuilding stage, a quarterback on the rise, and a wide open Pac-12 South Division, the Bruins seemed poised for a great 2016. Things quickly soured in Westwood, as UCLA turned in a 4-8 record at the end of the day, amidst a season filled with injuries and little offense. The rough year included a stretch where they lost six of seven, and averaged just 24.9 points per game (11th in the conference, 91st nationally). As the team shifts it's direction towards 2017, the hope is that improved health and more experience can yield the type of year the team was planning on for '16. Much of the team's hopes rest on the recovery of junior quarterback Josh Rosen, as well as the development of the running game and offensive line. If those things happen, the underrated Bruins' defense can further light the way towards a resurgent year, and possibly Pac-12 Championship contention.

Josh Rosen
Offense: After throwing for 3,669 yards and 23 touchdowns his true freshman season, 2016 was supposed to be the year Josh Rosen emerged as a college football superstar. The flashy former five-star quarterback never really took to first-year offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu's scheme and later hurt his shoulder, limiting him to just six games and 231 passing attempts. Rosen did display the same poise and confidence that impressed so many his first year on campus, but he was unable to overcome a poor offensive line and turnover issues still haunt him. UCLA opted to move on from Polamalu after just one season, and brings in Jedd Fisch to run the offense. Fisch's main priority will be getting Rosen comfortable once more, while utilizing his impressive mobility and rocket arm. What will also help Rosen succeed in what could be his final season on campus will be the emergence of a reliable rushing attack. UCLA managed just 84.3 yards per game on the ground a year ago, second-worst in the entire country. The good news is that the Bruins have three capable backs returning, notably junior Soso Jamabo (321 yards, three touchdowns in '16) and senior Nate Starks. Fisch should rely heavily on the rushing attack early on, and the group looked much improved in the spring. With that in mind, it isn't hard to believe Jamabo and the rest of the running back committee could put together a much-improved season and make this offense much less one-dimensional. It is hard to see the ground game really becoming dominant, however, if the offensive line doesn't take a big step forward. The O-Line has been an issue for too long for UCLA, including last year when the group couldn't stop anyone. That issue could also soon be resolved: four starters are returning, including the anchor of the unit, center Scott Quessenberry. Now a senior, Quessenberry has done a fabulous job protecting up the middle, and seems to have great connection with Rosen. At the guard spots, fellow seniors Najee Toran and Kenny Lacy should open up some holes for the ground game, while left tackle is seeing a competition between sophomore Andre James and junior Kolton Miller. Miller was expected to play a big role for this team but was knocked out for the year, subsequently forcing James into a larger role. Miller is a proven blocker when healthy who should take over the starting job, while James can help at left or right tackle, where UCLA is replacing Conor McDermott. An important thing UCLA needs to identify as they head into fall camp is a true, No. 1 receiver for Rosen. The favorite has to be senior Darren Andrews, the team's leading returning receiver, after compiling 55 receptions for 709 yards and four touchdowns a year ago. Andrews isn't blazing fast or an insane athlete but he is so good at finding soft spots in defenses and running crisp, precise routes. The Bruins are also hoping fellow senior Eldridge Massington can put together a big final season in Los Angeles.
Nate Starks
Massington showed plenty of potential in 2014, his true freshman season, when he hauled in 25 receptions for 367 yards. Since then, he has had two seasons of lesser numbers, and hasn't really been able to break out. With decent size and athleticism, the tools are there for him, he just has to find out a way to utilize them correctly. Expect senior Mossi Johnson and rising sophomore Theo Howard to also see some targets in an offense that hopes to spread the field better and open things up for their receivers. All signs point to an improved 2017 for this offense, particularly if Rosen can regain his 2015 form. If the offensive line finally takes the step forward it needs to take, this group could go from one of the Pac-12's worst a year ago to one of its best.

Defense: While the offense struggled mightily in 2016, UCLA's defense looked the best it has in years, as defensive coordinator Tom Bradley used creative blitz packages and different schemes to put together a solid group. Bradley, a long-time coordinator for Joe Paterno at Penn State, needed some time to settle into the vastly different Pac-12, but seems to have found a way to build sustained success at UCLA. This year, the team will undergo some tough losses at a number of different levels on the D, but still have enough talent for a successful year. The big loss for the Bruins on the defensive line was first-round NFL Draft pick Takkarist McKinley. A powerful force blessed with an incredibly high motor, McKinley was quite the disruptive force a year ago, racking up 10 sacks and 18 tackles for loss in 11 games. His departure leaves the Bruins searching for a new top pass rusher, and overall stability at defensive end. Sophomores Rick Wade and Keisean Lucier-South are expected to step up. Wade is a rock-solid defender, while Lucier-South was a five-star pickup a season ago who showed flashes of brilliance in '16. Bradley and staff could also be hoping for bigger things from some of the young guys, most notably true freshman Jaelen Phillips and Osa Odighizuwa. Phillips is a consensus five-star addition and considered by many to be the gem of the 2017 recruiting class, while Odighizuwa is the younger brother of former Bruin defensive linemen Owamagbe Odighizuwa, who was a third round selection in the 2015 NFL Draft. In the interior of the D-Line, UCLA is hoping for a big year from senior Matt Dickerson and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner. Dickerson proved to be especially adept at stopping the run a year ago, with 34 tackles. UCLA is also undergoing some changes in the linebacker corps, where star Jayon Brown (119 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 3 interceptions) departs. That will put pressure on middle linebacker Kenny Young, who will be asked to do just about everything for the Bruins this season. Young had 90 tackles in '16, and is an extremely underrated pass rusher, with five sacks last year. The outside linebacker spots are question marks, but UCLA has proven they can develop playmakers at the position (Myles Jack, Anthony Barr). Sophomore DeChaun Holiday has loads of potential to be a disruptive force off the edge, while junior Josh Woods has proven to be an incredibly versatile defender. The Bruins were very good against the pass for much of last season, putting them at a real advantage in the pass-happy Pac-12. With a number of key players back to the secondary, they could get even better as they look ahead to 2017. Senior free safety Jaleel Wadood was the key returnee to the unit, after recording 76 tackles and four pass deflections last year. He isn't a great weapon in pass coverage, but has proven his speed and downhill hitting ability. He'll be joined at the safety position by junior Adarius Pickett, a playmaking defensive back. Pickett had three interceptions last year and the Bruins will lean on his ability to jump passing routes even more this year, as they didn't force enough turnovers a season ago. The cornerback spots are somewhat concerns, even though junior Nate Meadors is a returning starter. The CB spot opposite of him is a complete mystery, with true freshmen Darnay Holmes and Elijah Gates considered the top candidates for the starting job.

Special Teams: There are also concerns on special teams for UCLA, who will have to rely on an inconsistent kicker and must find new playmakers in the return game. Sophomore J.J. Molson had a rocky 2016 (12 of 20) but the coaching staff believes he will have a wildly improved year with more experience under his belt. The Bruins will miss Ishmael Adams, who controlled most of their kick and punt return duties. Adarius Pickett will be expected to handle punts (81 yards on eight last year), but the kick returner job is wide open.

There is a sense of optimism around Westwood this year, but also the sense of much more pressure on sixth-year head coach Jim Mora and staff. While the team obviously struggled through injuries and inexperience last year, it was a brutal-to-watch campaign that followed up a mediocre 8-5 in 2015, making some boosters and fans question the direction of the program. The talent returning in 2017 has the chance to be special; Josh Rosen could be one of the best quarterbacks in the country if he's healthy and the rest of the offense has plenty of weapons. Defensively, there will likely be some growing pains as UCLA identifies a new pass rusher and figures out the cornerback position, but the group should still be a strength. However, a return to the Pac-12 elite will take near perfect health and maybe some luck, as they stare down a schedule that includes Texas A&M in the opener and road games against Washington, Stanford, Utah and USC. That schedule and some of the issues on the roster should restrict the Bruins from becoming Pac-12 South Champions but if things go right, this team should still challenge for double-digit wins and a return to a respectable bowl.

Player to Watch
Soso Jamabo, RB
A former five-star recruit, Soso Jamabo made waves when he announced he was heading to UCLA. Yet, while he has shown flashes, Jamabo has yet to really put together a big season, having 725 yards and seven scores in two seasons at the running back spot. The hope as UCLA heads into 2017 is that Jamabo can get the bulk of the carries and utilize his impressive vision and shiftiness, finally cashing in on his vast potential.

Five-Year Trend
2012: 9-5 (6-3 Pac-12)*
2013: 10-3 (6-3 Pac-12)*
2014: 10-3 (6-3 Pac-12)*
2015: 8-5 (5-4 Pac-12)*
2016: 4-8 (2-7 Pac-12)

*= Bowl game

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