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You can read the entire UCLA preview in Athlon Sports' 2012 Pac-12 magazine, available for purchase now at the Athlon Sports store.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL PRESEASON TOP 25
Pac-12 South PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Jim Mora, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Noel Mazzone | DEF. COORDINATOR: Lou Spanos
New offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone made it clear that things were going to change around UCLA and in a hurry. Mazzone’s offense calls for a frenetic, no-nonsense, no-huddle pace, and the Bruins spent all of spring ball doing two things — trying to catch up and trying to find a quarterback.
UCLA has had questions at the position since Drew Olson left after the 2005 season. Through spring camp, the questions continued. Seniors Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut battled it out with redshirt freshman Brett Hundley, and the position still appeared to be under construction. Mazzone favors accuracy, and Brehaut is the sharpest arm of the trio, but Hundley’s potential could be too tempting to pass up. Prince has won every quarterback battle before, and his experience cannot be discounted. Also, Devin Fuller, a top-five quarterback recruit, arrives for fall camp.
The quarterback, whoever he is, has weapons around him, with returning senior Johnathan Franklin ranking among the conference’s best running backs. Franklin will now be asked to add pass-catching to his repertoire. Malcolm Jones, the 2009 Gatorade National Player of the Year, provides the power component, and flashy Jordon James and Damien Thigpen serve as options in the backfield, but both likely will be called upon to help a thin receiving corps.
The fate of the offense, though, will largely rest with a perilously thin offensive line, which is bolstered by the return of Xavier Su’a-Filo from his LDS Church mission.
The UCLA defense is undergoing a similar overhaul under new defensive-minded head coach and 26-year NFL veteran Jim Mora and new defensive coordinator Lou Spanos, who spent years honing the 3-4 defense with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins. Mora has said the defense will be a situational 4-3/3-4, and that should help the Bruins adjust to some of the dynamic offenses they will see in the Pac-12.
The defensive line should benefit the most from the switch, as UCLA returns perhaps the conference’s biggest wealth of unproven talent. Datone Jones, Cassius Marsh, Owamagbe Odighizuwa and Brandon Willis were all highly touted recruits out of high school, but now it’s time for a leap in production. None of the returnees, however, was as highly regarded as incoming freshman defensive tackle Ellis McCarthy, who has a chance to make a Brian Price-like impact on the interior of the Bruins’ line.
While the back eight returns talent — cornerbacks Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester and linebacker Eric Kendricks should be among the conference’s best — the group has been prone to massive lapses in concentration.
Perhaps the biggest unknown for the Bruins is the special teams unit. Returning punter Jeff Locke is among the best in the nation, but the rest of the unit is one gigantic question mark. Incoming freshman Ka’imi Fairbairn is expected to seize the kicking job, but the return duties are still undetermined, and could remain so until the season opens.
Ultimately, the talent level is not going to be the concern for the Bruins, who recruited well under Rick Neuheisel and had a top-10 class in 2012. Rather, concentration, toughness and discipline will be the deciding factors. Can Mora bring them? UCLA went a long way to find out.