Sunday, September 15

UCLA football looking to improve on last year’s performance

(Daily Bruin staff)

(Daily Bruin staff)

Quarterbacks: A-

If there’s any one reason for UCLA fans to be optimistic heading into 2017, it’s the quarterback spot. In junior Josh Rosen, the Bruins have one of the most talented passers in the nation. When healthy during his first two years, Rosen has shown flashes of brilliance. Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, for one, called Rosen the top quarterback in the country and many draft analysts have described him as the nation’s best pure passer. The question is whether the outspoken signal-caller, who’s thrown 16 interceptions in 19 career games and missed the second half of last season with a shoulder injury, can put together a full season of top-notch play. He said his shoulder is back to 100 percent and, for what it’s worth, looked solid throughout fall camp. He’ll need to be even better for the Bruins to reach their goals this fall. Should Rosen get hurt again, it will be up to unproven-but-athletic redshirt freshman Devon Modster to run the offense.

Running backs: C+

Though the blame can’t fall squarely on the shoulders of the running backs, the fact is UCLA’s rushing offense was the second-worst in the nation last fall. It should be better this season, if only because there’s no room to get any worse. The Bruins return their top five rushers from last year, with junior Bolu Olorunfunmi looking like the odds-on starter at this point. Olorunfunmi’s 3.94 yards-per-carry last season was certainly nothing special, but it was the best of the Bruins’ top three ball-carriers. He’s a decently powerful back who should be capable of carrying the load if the offensive line can generate some push in front of him. Fellow junior Soso Jamabo, a former five-star recruit, might be the most exciting of the Bruin backs, but he’s been mediocre throughout his college career and hobbled throughout fall camp. Senior Nate Starks will also continue to be in the mix for carries, as will sophomores Brandon Stephens and Jalen Starks. Stephens showed some creativity and big-play ability last season, while Jalen Starks is a 265-pounder who can be tough to bring down.

Receivers: C

The only clearly reliable target is redshirt senior slot receiver Darren Andrews, who hauled in 97 passes over the past two years and racked up over 700 yards last season. However, redshirt sophomore tight end Caleb Wilson looks ready to be another consistent producer and redshirt junior wideout Jordan Lasley looked electric at times in 2016 – averaging 73 yards per game over the final seven contests. Lasley has seemingly fallen out of favor with the coaching staff this fall, but it wouldn’t be too surprising if he forced his way onto the field and turned in a big season. If Lasley remains relegated to the second unit as he was in fall camp, the starting slots on the outside would likely go to redshirt junior walk-on Christian Pabico and sophomore Theo Howard. Pabico has zero catches in his college career, but became one of the premier stories of fall camp by showcasing reliable hands, while Howard is a former four-star recruit who caught 12 passes in limited action last year.

Offensive line: C+

This unit struggled last season, but at the very least, it should be more experienced this fall, with 57 combined career starts to their names. Redshirt senior center Scott Quessenberry anchors the unit after earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors last season. Redshirt junior Kolton Miller, who will be thrust into the spotlight this fall by moving from right tackle to left tackle, is another promising piece. After impressing in 2015, the 6-foot-8, 310-pounder took a step back last year after breaking his ankle in the fifth game of the season. Miller, at his best, can be a strong starting tackle. Senior left guard Najee Toran and redshirt sophomore right tackle Andre James made 10 and seven starts last season, respectively, with mixed results. Both looked improved in fall camp, though, and could prove to be solid starters. The surprise member of the starting unit is redshirt freshman right guard Michael Alves, who moved into the first-team in the final week of fall camp. He’s drawn rave reviews from coaches and teammates, but it’s always wise to be skeptical of a first-time starter. With redshirt senior Kenny Lacy out for the season, graduate transfer Sunny Odogwu looks like the first guy off the bench.

Defensive line: B

With defensive end Takkarist McKinley and defensive tackles Eddie Vanderdoes and Eli Ankou gone, this unit has huge holes to fill, but the Bruins have plenty of talent remaining along the line. Seniors Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Matt Dickerson have both been productive in utility-type roles the last two seasons and project to start at defensive end and three-technique defensive tackle, respectively. Tuioti-Mariner has flashed strong pass-rushing ability in the past, notching five sacks over the past two seasons, while Dickerson is a good run defender who made 37 tackles last year. Sophomore Boss Tagaloa, who trimmed down considerably in the offseason, will hold down the nose tackle position. A former four-star recruit who looked good in reserve action last season, Tagaloa projects to be at least a solid starter. The key piece in the group is freshman Jaelan Phillips, who will start at the other end spot opposite Tuioti-Mariner. The No. 3 recruit in the nation per ESPN, Phillips is the type of special talent that should be able to contribute heavily right away. As usual, the Bruins also boast strong depth, with redshirt sophomore end Rick Wade and redshirt freshman tackle Osa Odighizuwa highlighting the reserve unit.

Linebackers: B-

The Bruins will miss Jayon Brown, by far their leading tackler in 2016, but their depth at the linebacker position looks stronger than it did a year ago. Senior Kenny Young moves from the middle linebacker to take over Brown’s weak-side spot, where his speed and athleticism should flourish. Young recorded 90 tackles last fall and, when he plays aggressively, he can be a dominant force. His position change was made possible by the emergence of sophomore Lokeni Toailoa, who impressed coaches enough in fall camp to take over the starting spot in the middle. At 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds, the former four-star recruit is more reminiscent of the traditional thumping Mike linebacker than Young ever was. Rounding out the starting unit is junior Josh Woods on the strong-side. Woods made six starts last season, seeing more time as the year progressed and piling up 17 tackles over the Bruins’ final five games. In redshirt freshman Mique Juarez and sophomore Krys Barnes, UCLA has intriguing young players on the bench, but an injury to Young or Woods would render the linebacking corps very inexperienced.

Defensive backs: B+

The Bruins’ secondary was one of the best in the Pac-12 last season, and the unit figures to once again be a strength for UCLA. Top-notch cornerback Fabian Moreau and reliable safety Randall Goforth are gone, but the Bruins brought in the nation’s top-rated cornerback recruit in freshman Darnay Holmes. The 5-foot-10 Holmes has looked excellent throughout fall camp, turning the spot vacated by Moreau from a weakness to a possible strength. Joining Holmes in the starting secondary are three experienced upperclassmen. Senior safety Jaleel Wadood has made 31 starts in the past three years and notched over 70 tackles in each of the last two seasons, while redshirt junior safety Adarius Pickett emerged as one of the major bright spots of UCLA’s lackluster 2016 campaign. Pro Football Focus listed Pickett, who recorded 42 tackles and three interceptions last fall, as one of the five best safeties in the nation heading into 2017. Junior Nate Meadors, who was a strong starter when healthy last year, will occupy the other cornerback position opposite Holmes. Junior Octavius Spencer isn’t likely to start but should see time at safety in nickel packages, while defensive backs like redshirt sophomore Will Lockett and redshirt junior Denzel Fisher provide some capable depth off the bench.

Special teams: C-

Only nine teams in the nation were worse on special teams than UCLA last year, per Football Outsiders’ special teams metric. The Bruins were bad in just about every aspect, but they’ll hope another year of experience for their specialists will help. Sophomore kicker J.J. Molson was 12-for-20 on field goals last season, losing his job to now-redshirt sophomore Andrew Strauch at one point. Molson should have the job this year, and as a former four-star recruit, could potentially turn the position into a strength for the Bruins. It’s still unclear who be will handling the punting duties for UCLA, with sophomore Austin Kent and redshirt junior Stefan Flintoft competing for the job. In terms of kick returning, the Bruins will use some combination of Holmes and redshirt freshman Damian Alloway to potentially bolster a unit that produced just one return touchdown last season.

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Senior Staff

Matt Cummings is a senior staff writer covering UCLA football and men's basketball. In the past, he has covered baseball, cross country, women's volleyball and men's tennis. He served as an assistant sports editor in 2015-2016. Follow him on Twitter @MattCummingsDB.

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