There is a lot of mojo in Westwood right now.
And it has nothing to do with the basketball team’s recent run into the Sweet 16. No, it’s UCLA football that is turning heads in Los Angeles and it could be poised to steal headlines this fall.
After a few offseason flirtations, quarterback Brett Hundley and head coach Jim Mora return for their third season together at UCLA. Hundley is among the nation’s best and has led his team to a 19-8 record in his two seasons under center. Now, he is an upperclassman with three full Mora recruiting classes at his disposal.
It means expectations are sky high entering spring camp. A division title, Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl berth might be the starting point for UCLA fans this summer as the Playoff Era begins. It also means Mora has his work cut out for him this spring.
UCLA must replace a star in Xavier Su’a-Filo but the O-line is in great shape. As is the secondary and quarterback position. The front seven and offensive skill players might be the area of focus but, really, this spring is about fine-tuning for Mora and company out West.
UCLA Bruins 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 10-3 (6-3 Pac-12)
Spring Practice Opens: April 1
Spring Game: April 26
Three Things to Watch in UCLA's 2014 Spring Practice
Fill some holes at linebacker
Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt have moved on to the NFL after a combined 158 tackles and countless big plays a year ago. Eric Kendricks is back but had surgery to fix his ankle in late December. Myles Jack is a star in the making but finding depth and developing a replacement for Barr will be key this spring. Kenny Orjioke, Aaron Wallace and Deon Hollins figure to compete for time on the outside where Barr was such a force the last two seasons, while Isaac Savaiinaea is poised to step into Zumwalt’s shoes on the inside. Cameron Judge, Taylor Lagace and early enrollee Zach Whitley should all be competing for snaps this spring as well. This group has loads of potential but leadership, maturity and production all must develop for a team that plays in arguably the best offensive league in the nation.
Find a best supporting actor
Brett Hundley is as good as it gets under center, but even the best of the best need a great supporting character to win a championship — be it at running back or wide receiver. Jim Mora has an entire cast of weapons returning to the offense despite the loss of leading receiver Shaq Evans. Devin Fuller, Jordan Payton and Devin Lucien all return among the receiving corps bringing unique abilities and loads of upside with them while Jordon James and Paul Perkins return to the backfield. Ideally, Mora and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone will find a go-to target in the passing game and a go-to ball carrier in the running game this spring. James, if he stay healthy, and Fuller, should he continue to develop, appear to have all the necessary tools to become elite playmakers in this offense. But be sure to keep an eye on Lucien as well. If he can stay focused and iron out some inconsistencies, he may develop into a special athlete in Westwood.
Organize the defensive line
Much like the wide receivers, running backs and linebackers, the Bruins' defensive line has plenty of talented upside. But this group is somewhat in a state of disarray currently due to graduation (Cassius Marsh, Keenan Graham), injuries (Owamagbe Odighizuwa, Eddie Vanderdoes) and youth (Ellis McCarthy, Kyle Fitts). Tackle Kenny Clark is really the only guarantee this spring up front on defense. Odighizuwa has long been thought of as a potential All-American but needs to prove it after missing all of last year. Vanderdoes is out for the spring after his freshman All-American season a year ago. This means gifted youngsters McCarthy and Fitts should see plenty of snaps this spring. With the loss of Barr at linebacker and both Marsh and Graham up front — who combined for 21.0 sacks a year ago — Mora is having to replace his top three sack masters. He and new defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich need to find some edge pass-rushers who can get after the QB this offseason.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 9-11
UCLA has massive expectations heading into the College Football Playoff Era with a superstar quarterback returning and stability on the sidelines for what feels like the first time in more than a decade. The talent is obvious as every position on the roster appears to be stacked with upside prospects and breakout candidates. That said, Mora is breaking in a new defensive coordinator (Ulbrich) and will have to fill voids among his front seven on defense. The schedule isn’t easy either, as UCLA has to face Oregon, Stanford and Washington in crossover play once again. The good news is the Ducks and Cardinal, as well as Arizona, USC and Utah, will have to come to Pasadena to face the Bruins. Should things fall right, Mora and company could be smelling Roses at season’s end.