The words seemed to slip out naturally – confidently – from Brett Hundley’s mouth on national television.
“Yes, you will see us in the first-ever College Football Playoff,” he said on ESPN’s College Football Live Friday morning, answering one of the hosts’ questions about whether the Bruins would make the newly implemented four-team playoff. A spot in the playoff would bring with it a shot at a national championship.
Choice statements like Hundley’s are rarely associated with UCLA football.
In years past, national title discussions for the Bruins led to a gauntlet of clichés. Under the microscope of their past on-field performances, those words were indeed proven fool’s gold.
This year, perhaps talk like Hundley’s isn’t so much a shot over the moon as it is an ominous line.
On Friday’s edition of College Football Live, the shows’ two experts each predicted UCLA – over teams like Oregon and Stanford, to name a few – to make the playoff.
It all starts with Hundley, the redshirt junior quarterback and legitimate Heisman Trophy contender who has the Bruins planted firmly in the national championship mix.
UCLA’s run at both a national title and the Pac-12 title officially starts on Monday, with the beginning of its fall training camp. The first 16 practices of camp will be hosted on the campus of Cal State University, San Bernardino, and the last seven will be back at UCLA.
Heading into the season, the Bruins still have gaps on the playing field to be filled.
Following the departures of many key front-seven players after last season, finding productive replacements at those positions became a focal concern. The second inside linebacker spot next to redshirt senior Eric Kendricks’ is still up for grabs.
Including these two, here are five things to watch for during this year’s fall training camp:
1. Front seven minus four
UCLA lost four key players from its formidable front seven last season to graduation: linebackers Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt as well as defensive ends Cassius Marsh and Keenan Graham. Together, Barr, Graham and Marsh were the Bruins’ top-three leaders in sacks last season, leaving the Bruins with the need to make up some firepower. The return of redshirt senior defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa should be a boost, but can defensive linemen junior Ellis McCarthy and sophomore Eddie Vanderdoes take their games to the next level? Also, how will junior Kenny Orjioke, who looks to slide into Barr’s departed role, fill the position?
2. Left inside linebacker, wide-open
Following the graduation of Zumwalt, last year’s starter, there has yet to be a clear candidate to fill the void at the left inside linebacker position. At spring practices in April, early enrollee and freshman Zach Whitley shone at times in the role, as did sophomore Deon Hollins. Incoming four-star recruit Kenny Young, highly touted at his position like Whitley, should also be in the fray for the starting nod.
3. O-line or A-line
After much shuffling of the offensive line last season, the Bruins appear to be stacked at the position this time around. Even with the loss of starter Xavier Su’a-Filo to the NFL Draft and the dismissal of former starter Torian White, the Bruins return a wealth of talent, including redshirt junior center Jake Brendel, junior tackle Simon Goines, sophomore tackle Caleb Benenoch and sophomore guard Alex Redmond. Tackle Malcolm Bunche – a redshirt senior transfer from Miami – also joins the team, adding to a position where the Bruins appear to be well into their second unit. With such a talented O-line, UCLA should expect larger running holes to open up, inevitably leading to a stronger running game.
4. Back for more
Another year has come and gone, and yet the situation at the beginning of fall training camp remains the same as last year’s: The Bruins have many solid running backs, but no one stands out. Four backs from last season return – redshirt senior Jordon James, redshirt junior Steven Manfro, redshirt sophomore Paul Perkins and redshirt freshman Craig Lee. James appears penned to start, but it should be interesting to see if any player can break out and become a go-to back. The fine-tuned point of sophomore linebacker Myles Jack in the backfield will likely be answered when game action starts, rather than in camp.
5. Woulard’s game
Hundley is the surefire starter at quarterback, but the job as his backup is anything but. After a spring in which current redshirt freshman Asiantii Woulard struggled and redshirt sophomore Jerry Neuheisel looked strong, the position is up for grabs. If the trend continues and Neuheisel wins the job, what will happen to Woulard, who once appeared to be in line to start after Hundley’s departure to the NFL? Next season, the Bruins bring in ESPN.com’s No. 1 national quarterback prospect, Josh Rosen. If Woulard can’t win the backup quarterback job this season, it doesn’t bode well for his chances to beat out Rosen for the starting position the following season, assuming Hundley leaves for the NFL after this year as he has indicated, or the seasons after. Perhaps Woulard will even transfer in the future if his play at UCLA continues to slide, moving to a school where he’ll be able to play sooner.
Some tweets from UCLA football players on the imminent start of fall training camp:
24 hours until fall camp, football season is here! Here we come San Bernadino!
— Asiantii Woulard (@Asiantii2_) August 2, 2014
— Nate Starks (@Nate_Starks) August 2, 2014
The last night then on to the 5 most important months of my life. Things are about to get real spooky.
— Spooky (@JordanPayton) August 3, 2014
Finally time for just ball. All distractions out the way.
— Cameron Judge (@CameronJudge) August 3, 2014
Excited for fall camp. Much needed grind and get away ahead of us!
— owamagbe (@LPJ_Odighizuwa) August 3, 2014
Compiled by Chris Kalra, Bruin Sports senior staff.