Takkarist McKinley. Josh Rosen. Paul Perkins. Jerry Neuheisel. Brett Hundley.
If you were to poll UCLA fans about their most beloved players, I would guess those names would be among the most common answers from each of Jim Mora’s years in Westwood, and for various reasons.
Takk McKinley was a beacon of light in a dim season who ate linemen’s souls. Josh Rosen was the prodigious talent who would carry on Brett Hundley’s legacy as UCLA’s next great quarterback. From being just another back in the rotation, Paul Perkins ran through every defense, and Jerry Neuheisel saved the day against Texas in Dallas. Brett Hundley led a renaissance of UCLA football and brought it back from obscurity.
Each year, someone emerges as a new fan favorite. Whether they are hyped to the heavens (Rosen) or emerge from relative obscurity (Perkins), someone donning powderkeg blue and gold will leave an inedible mark on this season no matter how successful or not it was.
I offer a few candidates for such a distinction in 2017 for various reasons.
The Breakout: Theo Howard, WR
I have more investment in Theo Howard’s UCLA career than the average fan.
For one, he’s a Westlake High School product, and as someone who grew up nearby, watching Marmonte League players succeed is always cool. But above all, Theo oozes talent and is one of the most talented receiver recruits of the Jim Mora era. And in my un-expert opinion, he was sorely miscast last season.
The learning curve from high school to college is steep. I get it. But among the offense’s many issues, it felt like UCLA’s most talented receiver sat idly on the sideline as other receivers got more targets and more chances to drop passes.
The glimpses were there. We saw them. When he did this to Arizona, we saw what could be and what talent wasn’t being used enough.
All signals out of fall camp suggest Theo will be a starting receiver against Texas A&M in two weeks. That’s great news. UCLA has no better option to take the top off a defense.
Theo’s going to catch a deep touchdown this year. And when he does, he’ll have been freed to run into your hearts as your new favorite receiver.
The Next Big Thing: Jaelan Phillips, DE
There are two obvious candidates here.
Darnay Holmes is the other obvious candidate for Next Big Thing. A five-star local cornerback who was a) ranked number one at his position and b) plucked out of USC’s clutches will always be easy to love in Westwood. He’s also otherworldly talented and already slated to start across from Nate Meadors in two weeks. Plus, he will probably be a star kick returner and moonlight as a wide receiver in due time.
He also gave us this precious GIF, courtesy of his little cousin.
But I’ll go with the other five-star recruit from Southern California who was ranked number one at his position and was destined to be a Bruin all along. Jaelan Phillips looks to carry the tradition of stellar Bruin pass rushers like McKinley and Barr before him.
He’s probably already the team’s best edge rusher. He’s built like Myles Garrett, tall and lean but still strong. He also doubled as his high school team’s punt returner last season.
It’s unfair to think he’ll fully replace Takk’s production. He’s a freshman; there will be some growing pains, and Takk was a man possessed last season.
But the floor is already high for Phillips, and after this year, the ceiling will be too. Odds are good that we’ll be watching UCLA’s next great defensive lineman for this season and two more after.
And if you can’t call someone who sacks quarterbacks for fun your favorite, we can’t be friends.
The Unsung Hero: Kenny Young, LB
It’s been a long road for Kenny Young.
He’s played behind or alongside truly great linebackers like Eric Kendricks, Myles Jack and Jayon Brown. He’s always had flashes, but there’s been debate as to how truly Kenny Young has been as a Bruin.
Now it’s his time to shine and silence the doubters for good. As a senior leader, Young will have to shoulder a heavy burden taking over for Jayon Brown. He can certainly do it - he’s a little faster (and undersized) than Brown, and now that he’s moved to the weakside, he can play fast in pursuit like he does best.
Young quietly was a terror last season, registering 5 sacks. If he can take the final step in becoming a well-rounded linebacker, UCLA fans will look on his career with fond memories as the next great Bruin linebacker who will have a long career on Sundays.
The Walk-on Wonder: Christian Pabico, WR
There are two ways to feel about Christian Pabico that make him a controversial nomination.
If you’re a glass-half-full person (like me), you think it’s awesome that Pabico, a former standout at high school powerhouse Long Beach Poly has worked his way up to starter in Jedd Fisch’s system by doing everything right and not dropping a thing. After UCLA receivers dropped everything in sight last season, a sure pair of hands is water in the desert, and Pabico’s effort is to be applauded and commended.
If you see the glass as half-empty, you see Pabico’s rise over more highly recruited and established talent as worrisome. How can it be that a walk-on can leap frog 5 or 6 presumably better receivers than him? What does it say about UCLA’s skill position talent as a whole?
The answer will soon be revealed. We shall see what becomes of Pabico in 12 days’ time, but for now, he’s done the prerequisite work now to earn a chance to become your favorite in 2017.
The Star in Waiting: Adarius Pickett, S
Adarius Pickett is one of the most underrated defensive backs in the Pac-12. Understandably so when he played alongside NFL prospects like Jaleel Wadood and Fabian Moreau and senior leaders like Randall Goforth.
But Pickett arguably has the best ceiling of all four. A converted running back, he is one of the most athletic players on the team; he was UCLA’s most dangerous kick returner and had three interceptions off the bench in 2016.
But Pickett also lays the wood. A little bigger than Wadood (5’11, 195 to Wadood’s 5’9, 180), he is a tracer bullet closing in on receivers, and once he wraps up, he always makes the tackle.
Check out the plays against Utah at 49 seconds and Cal at 3 minutes. His reactions and his strength to shed and make the tackle are textbook.
Watch Adarius Pickett closely in 2017, because if you’re not careful, you’ll miss him flying around the secondary. Or you can wait to hear for the heavy hit he’ll lay, too.
This is a make-or-break season for Jim Mora and UCLA. But no matter what happens, one of these five players will become one of your favorites and leave happy lasting memories for seasons to come.