UCLA is coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time since 1997-98 and 18 starters are back from a team that nearly won the Pac-12 South last year. Coach Jim Mora has reeled in four consecutive top 20 classes on the recruiting trail, so talent certainly isn’t an issue for 2015. However, there’s a big question mark surrounding the Bruins, as standout quarterback Brett Hundley must be replaced. Talented freshman Josh Rosen enrolled in time to compete in spring ball, but Jerry Neuheisel has the edge in experience. Outside of replacing Hundley, UCLA also has to replace linebacker Eric Kendricks.
5 Storylines to Watch in UCLA’s Spring Practice
1. Quarterback Battle
The quarterback battle between Jerry Neuheisel and freshman Josh Rosen is easily the top offseason storyline to watch at UCLA. Brett Hundley left for the NFL after passing for 3,155 yards and 22 scores and rushing for 644 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Neuheisel has the edge in experience and guided the Bruins to a win over Texas in 2014 after Hundley left due to injury. Rosen ranked as the No. 12 prospect in the 2015 247Sports Composite and enrolled in time for spring ball. Can Rosen pass Neuheisel in time for the opener? Or will Neuheisel’s experience pay off for the top spot?
2. Solidify the Offensive Line
UCLA’s offensive line struggled early in 2014, allowing 25 sacks through the first six games. However, this unit showed improvement in the second half of the year, allowing 15 over the final seven contests. The emergence of Conr McDermott at left tackle helped to stabilize the starting unit, and all five starters from the Alamo Bowl win over Kansas State return in 2015. Center Jake Brendel earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors last season, while guard Scott Quessenberry and tackle Caleb Benenoch earned honorable mention honors. There’s no shortage of talent here and the overall depth has improved. Line coach Adrian Klemm was suspended indefinitely this offseason due to an investigation into rules violations. How will his absence impact this group?
3. Tom Bradley’s Stamp on the Defense
Tom Bradley was a key addition to UCLA’s staff this offseason, and the veteran assistant inherits a group with eight returning starters and a talented cast of young players. What stamp will Bradley put on this defense? Mora has used a 3-4 approach over the last few years, but Bradley is experienced in the 4-3 from his time at Penn State and the 3-3-5 from spending 2014 at West Virginia.
4. Who Replaces Eric Kendricks?
UCLA’s defense returns eight starters but has a massive void to fill at linebacker. Eric Kendricks won the Butkus Award in 2014 after recording 149 tackles and three interceptions. Kendricks has expired his eligibility and will be playing on Sundays in 2015, which opens the door for Myles Jack, Deon Hollins, Kenny Orjioke and Kenny Young to take on a bigger role in the defense. Jack is already one of the Pac-12’s top defenders and should elevate his performance even higher in 2015. But who replaces Kendricks? Could freshmen Keisean Lucier-South, Josh Woods, Cameron Griffin or Dwight Williams factor prominently into the rotation?
5. Replacing Owa Odighizuwa
Few question marks exist for UCLA’s defense in 2015, but the losses of Kendricks, end Owa Odighizuwa and safety Anthony Jefferson are significant. Odighizuwa recorded six sacks and 11.5 tackles for a loss in 2014. Who steps up to replace his production? The Bruins are set with Eddie Vanderdoes at one end spot, while Kenny Clark is a rising star at defensive tackle. Is Takkarist McKinley or Jacob Tuioti-Mariner ready to claim the other end spot opposite of Vanderdoes this spring?
Pre-Spring Outlook on UCLA in the Pac-12:
USC is the early favorite in the South Division for 2015. However, UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State aren’t far behind. The Bruins don’t lose much from last year’s team, but the personnel losses are significant. Quarterback Brett Hundley and linebacker Eric Kendricks will be tough to replace in 2015. Until a quarterback emerges, UCLA can lean on a solid defense and running back Paul Perkins. However, the schedule provides few breaks, as road trips to Arizona, Stanford, Utah and USC will be challenging, along with home dates against BYU and Arizona State. If the Bruins struggle to replace Hundley, finishing third or fourth in the South Division is a realistic possibility. However, if Rosen or Neuheisel steps up under center, UCLA will be in the thick of the South title picture.