If you can’t beat ‘em, join 'em. Or at least copy 'em.
After dropping eight games in seven years to Stanford, UCLA decided it had enough getting manhandled, so the Bruins decided to make the switch to a pro-style offense. Smart move? Probably. It certainly doesn't hurt when you have the Rosen one under center.
Former running backs coach and newly-minted offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu hopes to reinvigorate the Bruins' offense with a more traditional (or Cardinal-esque) approach -- fullbacks, "two-man backfields" and "snaps under center."
Last season, UCLA ran a pretty typical spread, with quarterback Josh Rosen taking snaps almost exclusively from the 'gun. Typical plays included bubble screens and read options, more out of Oregon's book than Stanford's.
At 6-foot-4, Rosen is your typical top-flight quarterback of ten years ago -- strong pocket presence, sound decision-making, a rocket arm, and good touch on all of his passes. Not speedy, not super shifty, but mobile enough.
Now, they'll start throwing more downfield to take advantage of Rosen's skill-set. Spread offenses tend to be simpler and can sometimes be used to hide quarterbacks, who, well, can't throw the ball. It's not that hard to hit a receiver in the flat when there's no one within ten yards of him.
Nothing really needs to be watered down for Rosen -- he can handle it all. So instead of trying to fit a star-shaped peg into a triangular hole, this season UCLA will try to forge a hole perfectly for Rosen.
As Ian Boyd over at SBNation.com wrote, UCLA is using this system to become more physical, with Rosen's guidance.
"The UCLA coaching staff has two goals with its changes. The first is to embrace an offensive approach that will set up Rosen to attack opponents with the vertical passing game via play-action. The second is to give Rosen more control at the line of scrimmage to move pieces around, probe defenses and get after the weaknesses he finds.
Technically, both of those could be accomplished with some spread systems, but the nature of the spread is such that it's often more about identifying where players will be in space and then just distributing the ball there. In a pro-style scheme, there's more opportunity to really dictate things to the defense. Bringing numbers toward the line to bowl over opponents is a bigger part of the formula, and Rosen can find chances to do that.
In 2015, the Bruins often struggled to get receivers open downfield, so they relied on back-shoulder fades and comeback routes. But with a two-back running game drawing in defenders and their eyeballs, receivers might be able to get behind DBs more frequently. And Rosen might have more chances to land kill shots."
That all seems nice in theory, but simply bringing "numbers to the line" will only work if UCLA has all the other pieces to succeed outside of reason -- an offensive line and running backs. Dominant receivers would be a plus, but with someone of Rosen's caliber calling the shots, it's hard to see even a below average receiving corps limiting UCLA's attack.
So the real question isn't whether Rosen will succeed in this system (Try to give me someone you'd rather have than Rosen), but whether UCLA has the tools to make the running game a real threat. Without it, no one will buy Rosen's play fakes, no matter how compelling.
Paul Perkins, the Pac-12's fourth-leading rusher from a season ago has headed to the NFL, leaving a void for a group of backs to fill. Soso Jamabo (66), Nate Starks (50), and Bolu Olorunfnmi (34) received a significant amount of carries last season behind Perkins, and are all expected to compete for time this season.
Now, Perkin's departure certainly seems daunting at first glance, but UCLA has a talented, somewhat experienced stable of backs to replace him.
Jamabo stood out the most on the game tape that I watched, but all three are capable, with their own distinct styles. Jamabo might struggle running between the tackles a bit, but from the film I saw, that can mostly be chalked up to patience -- something usually learned over time. You can't teach skill, and Jamabo certainly has been gifted with plenty of that.
At a skinny 6-foot-3, he looks more like a receiver than a running back, but that only helps him make plays in space with his effortless speed. The fourth-best running back in his recruiting class forges great separation in space, giving him a dark horse shot at breaking out as the next surprise running back in the Pac-12.
Starks and Olorunfnmi both are bigger backs, and could figure to fill in backup and short-yardage roles if Jamabo separates himself from the pack. If not, the Bruins would still have two very serviceable, if not very good potential options with that duo.
At five-foot-eleven and 220 pounds, Olorunfmni fits the bruiser description a little better than Starks (5'11", 205). If UCLA opts to use backs in a more situational way, he could end up stealing a bunch of short touchdowns from Jamabo. Good for winning games, not so much for Heisman trophies, as Christian McCaffrey learned last year.
Starks could play that role as well, but probably figures as more of a hybrid back. A four-star recruit, Starks has some sneaky explosiveness that could earn him a fair amount of carries this season.
UCLA has an embarrassment of riches at running back, so it's not really a matter of if someone will step up and fill Perkins' role -- it's just a matter of who. Undoubtedly, the Bruins have the skill players in the backfield to make their running game a threat -- but do they have the offensive line to pave the way?
Starters Kolton Miller and Connor McDermott are back, but the other three spots have to be filled. According to the Los Angeles Daily News, formerly touted recruits Najee Toran (three-star), Scott Quessenberry (three-star), and Poasi Moala (four-star) figure to round out those holes.
However, pure talent alone doesn't make an offensive line. Chemistry takes time to build -- something UCLA won't have much time to do, playing two top twenty-five teams in the first four weeks (Texas A&M and Stanford).
For a line that was middling last year (68th overall, per Football Outsiders' data), replacing three starters could be devastating. The talent might be there, but even if the group coalesces quickly, still expect regression from a Bruins' front that wasn't all that great to begin with.
That could ultimately spell the end of the Bruins' national championship hopes and the expected big steps forward for Rosen in the new system. Wiithout a daunting offensive line, or even a mildly frightening one, defenses could give up a little bit in the run game and key in on Rosen. Play action wouldn't be as effective -- there would be no need to crash to stop an average running game -- and with defensives playing to stop the pass, neither would the tweaked vertical passing game.
As they say, it all starts with the offensive line. Likewise, UCLA's high hopes for this season could very easily start -- and stop -- with the big boys up front.