Football season is close. I walked out the door the other day in Chicago and it was 66 degrees, with the sun shining from an angle just south of its high, northern-summer perch, and a cool breeze blowing up the streets. It felt like autumn and the old autumn feelings were there, brought back to life by an invisible, intangible quality in the air and light.
For UCLA football the turn to fall has become fun again, with back-to-back 10 win seasons, two straight blowout bowl victories, the return to national relevance and three consecutive beatings on the other LA school to keep the City Championship, and the Victory Bell, painted blue.
Despite Puff Daddy trying to brain the strength and conditioning coach with a kettle bell, and Snoop Dogg's son quitting the team before his first fall camp started, there's scuttlebutt UCLA plans to push through and attempt to play again this year, anyway. And to play good football, you must run offense, and that's what this piece is here to preview.
To have 10 of 11 starters back, and by Phil Steele's formula the most experienced offensive line in America with 131 combined starts, but missing a quarterback, feels like a spot for the Devil and Dr. Faust to draw up papers that can only be signed in blood. The 2015 season starts there for UCLA, with 5-star high-school hero Josh Rosen, and the Endless Summer underdog Jerry Neuheisel, competing for the position.
Neuheisel is playing Brian Piccolo to Rosen's Gale Sayers, to use an ultra-timely reference that everyone immediately falls back on in this situation. But as an analogy it works, because Sayers was a beautiful thoroughbred football player while Piccolo was just another racehorse in the stable. Those two pushed each other, if Brian's Song can be considered the stone truth, and Piccolo didn't waste any opportunities on the field.
It might be Neuheisel's fate, as in certain it ways his daddy's before him, to enter a game, play great football, or good enough football to help his team win, and be relegated back to the bench when the starter returned. But dammit that's an important role. If Neuheisel, now an experienced, capable player in his third season, can run the offense competently, Rosen, the rookie, has to be better than him to play. And he has to stay better, both in practice and on Saturdays, standing center stage, to keep the spot. It can be considered a nearly ideal situation, from a competitive perspective, to bring up a young star quarterback, because Rosen can't assume his talent alone will put him on the field.
There's real reason to think Rosen can win the position and do good things with this otherwise strong team in his first go around. He chose UCLA, first of all, in large part because his high school offense ran nearly the same spread, uptempo concepts, which makes the transition simpler, and more immediate.
Bryan Fischer at NFL.com got a response from Rosen on the subject.
People who say I don't fit in UCLA's offense I don't understand. They definitely didn't do a background check on the Mazzone's being at Arizona State with a 6-foot-8 Brock Osweiller. The spread offense is very, very adjustable and it's basically a pro-style from the gun, so I run all the same plays but maybe formatted differently.
Jim Mora gave Sports Illustrated another good reason why Rosen could be ready to go.
Well, first of all he came in early. He enrolled in winter, so—winter, spring, summer—by preseason camp he's completed three quarters of school. He was able to compete in our winter conditioning program, he was able to participate in spring practice. There's a certain comfort level that he's gained from being able to do that, and then there's a certain level of confidence that his teammates have in him because they've been able to get to know him and watch him perform and compete.
But with a freshman quarterback you can count on a brutal game, probably a loss, and look at it like a miracle, last-second pardon from the governor if it doesn't happen. True freshmen can be great for stretches, but there always seems to be a breakdown somewhere. UCLA followers have to be prepared for this to happen, and the coaches are preparing against it.
When you look for examples of freshmen quarterbacks taking a team to a national championship, there's only one, Jamelle Hollieway from the 1985 Oklahoma Sooners. Hollieway got the job in the fourth game after Troy Aikman broke his ankle, which was the force behind Aikman's eventual transfer to UCLA. Maybe there's some mysticism in that far-off connection . . . .
It's clear Mora wants Rosen under center now. The central casting, movie-script berating he served the 18-year-old at practice was exactly how a coach sounds when he's attempting to thicken the skin and impart a sense of urgency to his future quarterback. Coaches have different personalties and use whatever parts of it they can to prepare their players for the intensity of a game. Mora's tirade was an unmistakable example.
"The anointed one!" Mora yelled, per multiple news outlets covering camp. "You're not at Bellflower St. John Bosco! That's why you haven't been named the starter."
"You can't hit an open receiver downfield with no defense!" was another helpful observation.
"Go back to Bosco and beat some more bad teams!" was his advice.
Then, to the assembled media, he fired again "Tell your readers that is why he has not been named the starter."
In the world of football, that is nothing to a player. It's part of a unique relationship that develops between a coach and his guys, something that's understood as levels of heat, with the mentally strong player knowing the coach was only saying pick up the intensity and concentration before he actually gets angry. Mora felt compelled to explain that after the "we're concerned" crowd tried to get momentum.
"Yeah, I told the team after practice, I'm an asshole," Mora said, according to the LA Times. "Sorry for my language, but that's my job to make sure they get the most out of what god gave them and protect all they've worked for and all they're working toward, and so, I'm not going to let anyone go through the motions at any time, and it starts with me."
JT Barrett, a freshman last year, was phenomenal at Ohio State, but his first start against Virginia Tech was the Buckeyes only loss—a bad one—and then he was hurt before the College Football Playoff, opening the door for Cardale Jones to quarterback the squad to a national title. But if Rosen can play like Barrett, without piling up rushing yards, which he doesn't need, the Bruins will have something great going.
Mora sees it that way, too, according to Yahoo Sports.
I think the thing that gives me some measure of comfort is knowing that we've got a pretty veteran group around that player, whomever it may be. We've got an experienced offensive line. We return the Pac-12's leading rusher in Paul Perkins. ... We've got an experienced and pretty talented receiving corps, though maybe not with the marquee name. So it's very unlike Brett's situation three years ago, where Brett had to step in and do a lot.
There is a scenario where Neuheisel is named the starter to open the season with the competition for who keeps the job continued indefinitely. If Neuheisel is effective and the team is winning, he'll keep it, but if he falters and Rosen is sharp in a take-over situation, Rosen will be given the chance to carry the torch. But this game, in my opinion, is a dangerous one, because you run the risk of splitting loyalties and dividing a locker room between a veteran player and an anointed high school Golden Boy.
And about that ground game, it's looking like a potential blitzkrieg, something that will cover ground quickly and leave the earth scorched in its wake. Paul Perkins, who gained more than six yards a carry last year, finished second best in school history with 1,575 yards. As a team the Bruins averaged 210 per game on 43 carries and nearly five yards per attempt, second in the Pac-12 only to national runner up and conference champion, Oregon, at 234.
"Paul Perkins, in my opinion, is the best running back in the country," UCLA right tackle Caleb Benenoch told Jack Wang of the LA Daily News. "He does everything perfectly. There's no gray area with him. It's black and white. He just goes, every play."
Perkins is a boss player who can do anything from plow through a defender to make him hug air as he spins away and sprints upfield. His goals this season are simple.
"I just want to be the best running back in the nation and win the national championship," he told the Times.
Two new backs, including a surprise contender, and one returning player, are up to compliment Perkins. There's freshman Soso Jamabo, a five-star running back out of Texas—and he of the Varsity Blues, drunken prom night ride. His size, at 6-foot 3-inches and 210 pounds, and pedigree, high school football in Texas (self explanatory), make him an exciting player to think about. Though reports out of practice state he's being coached up on pass protections, a skill and mindset a running back in today's game cannot be put on the field without.
But the surprise candidate is fellow freshman Bolu Olorunfunmi, who at 5-feet 10 and 215 pounds is bowling people over.
"He gives us a different running style," coach Mora told the Times. "He's thick and doesn't take long strides. He's quicker than I thought he would be."
But Bolu has had fumbling problems, if Chris Foster's reporting out of Camp Bernardino is to be trusted. Again, from the LA Times.
He has had only one glitch: Occasionally, he mishandles the ball. Olorunfunmi put a brilliant move on defensive back DeChaun Holiday on Thursday, only to have Holiday reach back and strip the ball.
Said Mora: It doesn't matter how good a move you make or how hard you hit the hole, if you don't come out of the pile and hand the ball to the official, it's not a good play.
Returning to the running back competition is sophomore Nate Starks, highly ranked out of high school, who picked up 139 yards during his freshman season. Starks and the two freshmen, along with the mercurial Steven Manfro and Craig Lee, make it a deep backfield.
The pass catchers constitute another strong position group, with seven of the Bruin's eight top targets from last year coming back. There might not be one established star, but there are different bodies with different skill sets and guys who can make big plays with the ball. It's also a group dominated up top by talented senior experience, but kept competitive and hungry by young players vying to establish their name on the team, and in the league.
Losing Devin Lucien to transfer hurt, maybe viscerally more than physically. It was hard to understand, from the outside, why he wasn't more often in games with the ball in his hands. He had speed and incredible quickness; he loved fighting to make a play. He was tough, too, and that might have been his undoing, as his attitude mixed with a certain hardness made a combustible personality. I don't know what it was, but it's too bad for UCLA it didn't work out. Fortunately for the Bruins, the stable here is deep.
Freshman four-star tight-end Chris Clark (Y-WR in Noel Mazzone's offense), might unseat junior Thomas Duarte for the starting spot. Duarte was a monster high school player who has been a little slower to develop, but still come through in spots for the Bruins. Last year Duarte, who is big and strong with soft hands, was second on the team with 540 yards on 28 receptions, good for 19 yards a catch and four touchdowns. Clark, who signed on to play with Rosen, looks like the next UCLA professional tight-end at 6-feet 6-inches and 250 pounds. He's been slowed in training camp by mononucleosis, which might set back his progress early in the season. It's yet to be seen.
One of the most electric athletes in the Pac-12 is senior Devin Fuller, who returns off a 59 catch, 447 yard season that resulted in only a single touchdown. If Fuller, a converted quarterback, continues to improve at the tasks that make a wide receiver viable, he could be a beast for the Bruins. It would not be a surprise to see him challenge for the team lead in big plays or touchdowns, and it would be disappointing if he wasn't consistently a difference maker for this group.
Fuller, alongside fellow senior Jordan Payton, who led the Bruins in yards (954), catches (67), and touchdowns (7), will anchor UCLA's receiving core. The younger route runners include sophomore Eldridge Massington (25 catches, 367 yards, 3 touchdowns as a freshman) and sophomore Mossi Johnson (23 catches, 232 yards, 1 touchdown). Backing them up are junior Kenneth Walker and redshirt freshman Jordan Lasley.
And there's more good news for the pass catchers and fans of the deep game, as offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone made clear to the Times.
"I'm always looking for ways to throw the ball down the field," said Mazzone.
The last piece, the blockers, is the most important. The Bruins quietly have been one of the more banged up and inexperienced teams in America the last three seasons at offensive line. Two years ago, starting left tackle Simon Goines fractured a fibula and played only four games. That team used three true freshman starters in its most crucial games.
Goines then missed all of last season with another leg injury and starting guard Alex Redmond missed five starts, forcing a scramble to fit players into positions they had a reasonable shot at handling. Starting center and second team All-Pac 12 performer Jake Brendel hurt his knee early in the season and was not up to full speed until the midway point.
The injuries, the inexperience, and Brett Hundley being indecisive made life difficult for the Bruins early on. Hundley was sacked 25 times over the first six games and 41 times on the season, making the offense look ugly and at times grinding it to a halt. That was fourth most sacks allowed by any big conference team and 114th overall at 3.15 per game. But as the line settled in and the offense got its rhythm, the sacks dropped markedly late in the year, dropping to only 16 in the last seven games.
Last year the offense was very balanced run to pass. On the season the Bruins threw for 3,358 yards and scored 24 touchdowns. They rushed for 2,724 and scored 26 touchdowns. It was a high efficiency passing attack, with Hundley completing nearly 70-percent of his throws, and a crusher rushing game that ate up nearly five yards an attempt.
The physical, downhill, uptempo running game should be back if the offensive line stays healthy. Already three starters, Brendel, a senior, Redmond, a junior, and left tackle Conor McDermott, also a junior, have missed practices because of injuries, though none apparently have been serious. Goines, now a junior, has been kept of camp completely due to an undisclosed medical condition. The rest of the starting line looks like sophomore Kenny Lacy at left guard and junior Caleb Benenoch at right tackle.
That is a wonderful blend of experience on the line, with a senior anchoring it at center, a sophomore and junior at each guard position, and two experienced juniors posted on the flanks. It's a group that should be synchronized, sharp and rough at the point of attack, which is everything an offensive line ought to be.
If Rosen wins the job and can establish a level of comfort with the route trees, completing passes downfield consistently, this UCLA offense should be a difficult unit to blockade. If Neuheisel gets the nod it will be a little bit different offense due to a lesser arm, but perhaps more exciting in other ways with the wily Neuheisel blood running scattershot all over the field.