Unprecedented, sustained success defined Jim Mora’s first four seasons as UCLA’s head coach. Never before had the Bruins won nine or more games three consecutive times, and only once previously had UCLA put together back-to-back years of 10 wins.
Mora accomplished both in his first three seasons.
However, a regression to eight wins and missed opportunities to return to the Pac-12 Championship Game in 2013 and ‘14 sour the Bruins’ recent success.
Turnover on both sides of the ball and special teams leave questions after a disappointing 2015 campaign. However, Mora and his staff excelled on the recruiting trail in recent years, so there's no shortage of talent ready to step in.
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1. A Changing Offensive Philosophy
Former offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone left for the same position at Texas A&M, opening a promotion for Kennedy Polamalu.
With Polamalu’s new role comes talk of the Bruins running a “pro-style” offense – just don’t ask Mora about that.
Semantics aside, Polamalu’s tenure promises a shift from the spread philosophy Mazzone implemented, which relied heavily on multiple-wide receiver sets, one-or-no-man backfields and swing passes a-plenty. The Bruins' new scheme promises more two-man backfields, and talented sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen taking more snaps under center than out of shotgun.
2. Rosen’s Sophomore Encore
The 5-star quarterback lived up to his billing in a stellar freshman season, setting a program record for consecutive pass attempts without an interception.
Some got carried away, touting him as a Heisman Trophy candidate just one game into his career, but perhaps the overzealous were just a year ahead of schedule.
Rosen's best suited to UCLA's new offensive philosophy and schemes. He'll get the opportunity to make those who previously compared him to Stanford standout Andrew Luck look like soothsayers.
3. Offensive Line Adjustments
Offensive line play vexed UCLA for much of the last few seasons. The 2015 unit was the most veteran group the Bruins have had under Mora, starting with All-Pac-12 center Jake Brendel.
Brendel’s gone. So, too are NFL draft early enrollees Alex Redmond and Caleb Benenoch.
The turnover up front could bring back bad memories of porous pass-blocking in 2013, when UCLA ranked among the nation's worst in sacks allowed.
4. Who Shines on Defense?
Highlighting UCLA’s recent run of success are several defensive superstars. Anthony Barr grew from reserve running back to All-American linebacker in 2012, Eric Kendricks served as the consummate leader, Myles Jack starred on both sides of the ball and Kenny Clark developed into one of college football’s most fearsome forces on the line.
Clark is gone, and a knee injury sustained last September hastened Jack’s departure for the NFL.
Deon Hollins returns and the Bruins need him to return to the form that made him a breakout star late in 2014. His tackles for a loss and sacks dipped from 10 and nine in 2014, to 4.5 and 2.5 in ‘15.
The secondary is filled with veterans, but Jaleel Wadood, the youngest of the returning starters, might be the unit's players most primed for a star turn.
5. Special Teams Questions
UCLA entered the 2014 season on a seven-year special teams touchdown drought. Ishmael Adams snapped that with a kickoff return for a score against Arizona State, but the Bruins are still without a punt return touchdown dating back nearly a decade.
His arrest before the season took Adams off of return duties, and Devin Fuller stepped in. Fuller's eligibility lapsed.
Four-year starting kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn is also gone. Fairbairn grew into arguably the Pac-12's best placekicker by the end of his UCLA career.
Pre-Spring UCLA Outlook in the Pac-12
After a few years of lofty, offseason expectations, the Bruins embark on 2016 facing the most uncertainty seen in Westwood since Mora’s debut campaign. All UCLA did in that season was win the Pac-12 South and come a field goal shy of possibly crashing the Rose Bowl Game.
The Pac-12 South appears to be wide open in the coming season. None of the division's six teams clearly stands out as a front-runner, but Colorado's continued improvement ensures the South has no easy outs, either.
In a tumultuous division, talent can win out. UCLA should be in the mix for the Pac-12 Championship Game again if its youngsters perform up to expectations.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of CFBHuddle.com. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.