Last week, I rambled about just how chaotic UCLA’s schedule and season will be. What was the biggest harbinger of said chaos?
For the third straight season, UCLA has an entirely new offense, and it’s anyone’s guess as to how it will go.
Last year, rubes like me bought the hype surrounding Kennedy Polamalu’s scheme. A power running game! Josh Rosen running the show! Fullbacks! UCLA wanted to be Stanford south and pound you into sand!
Or you could have realized that trying to run power and block man-to-man with smaller linemen meant that the run game would cease to exist. Couple that with poor scheme installation and poor self-evaluation of the talent on hand, and it was a disastrous combo that was promptly scrapped when Rosen was lost for the season after 4 Arizona State defensive linemen landed on his throwing shoulder.
So out went Polamalu (and every offensive coach not named Rip Scherer) and in came a whole new staff, led by Michigan passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch. Fisch brought with him a reputation of turning unheralded quarterbacks into NFL prospects (Stephen Morris, Jake Rudock, on track to do so with Wilton Speight), but he struggled mightily with Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars.
What can he do with one of college football’s most talented quarterbacks at his disposal, and can he lead an offensive revival that could save Jim Mora’s job?
Let’s take a look at how his offense might answer that question.
The one big difference
Aesthetically speaking, I don’t expect UCLA’s 2017 offense to look too much different from the 2016 version.
Stop right there for a second. If you’re already drinking in a preemptive panic, hang on.
Let me explain.
If there is one thing I expect to be markedly better for UCLA’s offense in 2017, it will be the overall installation of an offensive scheme.
Here’s what I mean.
Last year, even amid the disaster that was UCLA’s offense, you could pick out some good things if you had tweezers. There were multiple times in a game (especially before Rosen went out and the scheme was scrapped) where I thought, “that’s a really well-designed play.” A pretty route combo here, a nifty roll out there, there were component parts that were nice looks on their own.
It was clear that Polamalu was able to draw from a wealth of experience in his coaching career to draw up some pretty individual plays. But overall, it felt like UCLA lacked an overarching theory on what it wanted to be on offense. Those component plays may have been nicely designed, but what was their purpose? What were they building towards? It was a question that wasn’t answered last season.
It looked disjointed, and UCLA’s professed goal of running the ball more from under center failed spectacularly, they scrapped the plan for a pared down Air Raid offense in which Mike Fafaul threw more way more often than he should have done.
I expect that to change completely under Jedd Fisch.
While 2017’s offense may look like the early 2016 version, I think it will be a lot better executed and implemented overall.
In poring over Michigan’s 2016 game film, as well as watching UCLA practice so far in fall camp, I saw two potential building blocks that will make up the foundation of UCLA’s offense come next month.
- A prevalent outside running game
No matter the formation or personnel, Michigan absolutely loved to run outside the tackles last year. What’s more, it didn’t matter who ran it. In just 2 drives against Colorado last season, 4 different Michigan ballcarriers had outside runs:
-offset I formation, run outside right by the running back
-empty backfield, quick handoff to wide receiver on a jet sweep in motion
-offset I formation, fullback dive (!) outside left behind the tackle
-single back formation, traditional reverse to receiver after fake handoff
From what I’ve noticed so far in fall camp, this made sense behind the drills new offensive line coach Hank Fraley put the linemen through and new running backs coach Deshaun Foster dialed up. Fraley spent plenty of time on the basics of proper lateral footwork and moving in space with his linemen.
Ideally, it’ll look something like this:
Textbook outside zone from NC State C & LG. Aiming points key. Cannot have target be the defender. Must be where they will end up & FINISH. pic.twitter.com/31DKOzLtC2— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) July 20, 2017
Foster, meanwhile, stressed to the backs to press holes at the tackles and outside and getting them to cut once and go. In an outside run like the clip above, the back would press up on the tackle until the last second to make his cut either inside or out (the back above goes back inside at the very end of the clip).
This is what Kennedy Polamalu used to call “lighting a match on the lineman’s a**,” meaning the back gave himself ample time to decide where to go while not showing his hand early. When done properly, it looks like this (at the 2:30 mark):
No matter the look, the goal was the same: run the ball to the edge. I expect Fisch to get UCLA to stretch defenses laterally, especially on outside zone runs by Bolu Olurunfunmi and company. And with receivers like Theo Howard and athletes like Darnay Holmes, I expect Fisch to get creative too.
- Quick decisions in the passing game
Michigan’s receivers ran a lot of short and intermediate routes with hard cuts. On film, quarterback Wilton Speight rarely held the ball for more than 7 steps; usually, it was 3 steps and throw, only needing more steps or broken plays. Common routes included flats to the edge by backs and tight ends and quick crosses and slants by outside receivers.
UCLA has a bevy of talented tight ends, including Austin Roberts, Caleb Wilson, Jordan Wilson and two newcomers in Moses Robinson-Carr and Jimmy Jaggers. The best of the bunch, Michigan transfer Devin Asiasi, isn’t even eligible yet, otherwise this would be an elite group. The Bruins tight ends will have a field day on play action roll outs on the types of routes that made Jake Butt so effective in space for Michigan.
Meanwhile, receivers coach Jimmie Dougherty has a lot of talent to work with, even if the corps had an disappointing 2016 overall. Jordan Lasley emerged as a big target last season, and Darren Andrews had fine chemistry with Rosen before Rosen went down. Alex Van Dyke and Theo Howard (and many others) also figure to improve, and both are shifty for their sizes. With a more coherent offensive framework, I would be shocked if UCLA’s receivers played as poorly as they did in stretches of 2016.
It’s clear that Fisch took a lot of time properly evaluating what he has to work with and what could work for them. It comes down to the players performing, but unlike last season, there are already signs of the scheme being implemented well.
Maybe I’m just an eternally optimistic rube, but consider this a cautious buy into the Big Fisch Theory offense, one that runs outside and passes quickly and decisively. Don’t tell me you can’t picture Theo Howard charging hard on a jet sweep or Caleb Wilson catching key passes in the flat on third down.
It can be done. UCLA always has the talent on hand.
But what UCLA desperately needs to have a chance at a successful season is a coherent offensive theoretical framework. Unlike last year, Jedd Fisch’s offense looks far likelier to answer the question, “What does a UCLA offense look like?”
The answer is complicated - UCLA will do a lot from both under center and shotgun- but we can expect a lot of outside runs and Josh Rosen getting the ball out of his hand post haste.
Ideally, the results should be demonstrably better than last year. A top 50 offense by S&P+ would be a significant jump from last year’s offense that finished 82nd (and 3rd to last in the running game).
But is it a big enough jump to get UCLA back to winning ways and save Jim Mora’s job?