Many of the players from UCLA football’s dismal 4-8 run last season will return in 2017.
So will most of the team’s biggest questions.
Coach Jim Mora is still looking to solidify his starting offensive line, junior quarterback Josh Rosen is returning from a shoulder injury that knocked him out for the latter half of last season and the Bruins’ running back brigade is virtually unchanged from the group that finished near dead-last in yards on the ground per game in 2016.
And despite UCLA being unranked in the preseason Associated Press poll for the first time since 2012, there’s just enough change on the offensive end – namely new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch, who succeeded Kennedy Polamalu’s one-year detour/diversion/speed bump, and a handful of fresh-eyed position group coaches – that the players are hungry for a turnaround from Mora’s first losing season in Westwood.
“The offensive line, we worked hard in the offseason. Our whole offense as a whole actually,” said senior offensive lineman Najee Toran. “We had player-run practices, we took hold of the team and said that we can’t have another year like last year.”
The bane of the Bruins’ offensive struggles last year was a running attack that was one of only five in the nation to average less than 100 yards per game. Part of this was due to having to replace three starters on the offensive line while learning Polamalu’s pro-style scheme.
But with Fisch’s offense highlighting tight ends in both the passing and running games, tight end coach Rip Scherer oversees one of the team’s most important position groups for the upcoming year.
“We have the capability in coach Fisch’s offense to utilize multiple tight ends, if we’re good enough to handle the responsibilities,” Scherer said. “It’s a group that obviously each year we’re elevating our ability level there … It’s a group we’re counting on.”
Any potential UCLA success, however, will likely rest on Rosen’s throws connecting with a receiving corps mostly untouched from last year. Then-seniors Nate Iese, Kenneth Walker III and Ishmael Adams all graduated, but leading wideouts redshirt senior Darren Andrews and redshirt junior Jordan Lasley return after combining for nine touchdowns and over 1300 yards last season.
Defensively, the Bruins lost six starters to graduation, including sacks leader Takkarist McKinley and top cornerback Fabian Moreau, but recruited well to replace them. Freshmen defensive end Jaelan Phillips and cornerback Darnay Holmes – five-star recruits who enrolled in winter quarter and participated in spring practice – took most of the first-team reps by the end of fall camp.
Holmes initially played slot corner during spring camp, but moved to outside corner and surpassed redshirt junior Denzel Fisher in the fall. The position switch helped the freshman grasp the defensive scheme, said defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin, and eventually move to the top of the depth chart.
“For Darnay, obviously, nickel is a harder position, because that’s half safety, half linebacker, half corner … when you go out there and specialize at one position it becomes a lot easier,” Martin said earlier in August. “I want to put the best four, five, six DBs on the field at any given time. For that to happen, everybody has to be able to learn how to play every position.”
A look at the season schedule
Aside from back-to-back games at home to begin the season, the Bruins’ schedule gives it a thin margin to attain six wins and qualify for a bowl berth.
ESPN ranks UCLA’s schedule as the ninth hardest in the country, as it includes road games versus No. 4 USC, No. 8 Washington, No. 14 Stanford and Utah – four of the five highest vote-receiving Pac-12 schools in the AP poll.
On the other hand, none of the teams coming to Pasadena are ranked in either the AP or coaches’ preseason polls. UCLA will host its portion of the home-and-home series against Texas A&M to begin the season, followed by Rose Bowl dates against Hawaii, Colorado, Oregon, Arizona State and Cal.
UCLA will open conference play with a chance to break its nine-year losing streak against Stanford. Last year, the Bruins led for most of the game before the Cardinal scored two touchdowns in the last 30 seconds to squeeze out the victory.
The Bruins’ schedule could also set them up for a last-second push to win the Pac-12 South.
In the final month of the regular season, they face Utah and USC, the two teams the media picked to finish above UCLA in the division. The highly anticipated matchup between Rosen and Trojan redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold – both are expected to be top-10 draft picks should they declare for the NFL after this year – will mark the Bruins’ penultimate game of the regular season.