Last year’s season-opening 31-24 loss to Texas A&M was a rude awakening for Josh Rosen.
The then-sophomore quarterback threw three interceptions and was sacked five times and hurried another 23 as the Aggies’ pair of elite defensive ends, Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall, created pressure play after play.
Rosen will get another crack at the A&M defense Sunday, this time with Garrett and Hall gone to the professional ranks.
That doesn’t mean the task will be easy, though. Sunday’s opener will be Rosen’s first game since suffering a shoulder injury Oct. 8 in 2016, and though the Aggies will miss Garrett and Hall, pressure-happy defensive coordinator John Chavis arrives in Pasadena with a decent helping of talent to challenge the Bruins’ unproven offensive line.
“You obviously know who’s graduated and who’s still there,” Rosen said of the A&M defense. “But they’ve got a lot of really good guys coming back.”
That list includes defensive tackles Kingsley Keke and Zaycoven Henderson, linebacker Otaro Alaka and safety Armani Watts.
Keke and Henderson combined for 17 tackles for loss last year as the starting tackles, while Alaka contributed 74 tackles and 9 tackles for loss from the middle linebacker spot. Watts, a potential first-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, has 241 tackles over the past three seasons and stood out in last season’s opener with seven tackles and a sack against the Bruins.
“Defensively, they’re aggressive – we know the scheme,” said UCLA coach Jim Mora. “They lost a couple of really good players, but they just reloaded with some very good players as well.”
To start their season off with a win, the Bruins will likely need an improved performance from their offensive line, which struggled mightily in last season’s opener. In addition to the five sacks and 23 hurries, the line also had trouble clearing holes for the UCLA backs, who ran for an average of just 3.1 yards per carry.
“They’re a good pass rush team, so we’re anticipating they’ll be pinning their ears back and coming at us on the edge,” Mora said. “So we just have to do a good job of protection, and we have to be able to run the ball, so they just can’t pin their ears back and come after us on obvious passing situations.”
UCLA’s running game, which finished last season as the second-worst in the nation, is one of the biggest question marks heading into 2017 for new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch’s unit.
If the Bruins can force the Aggies to at least respect the threat of the ground game, it would help limit Chavis’ ability to heavily blitz Rosen. With Garrett and Hall gone, that could provide the talented passer the time to shred the A&M defense.
Who’s throwing to Kirk?
On the other side of the ball, Texas A&M is more of a mystery. Former UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone is still running the show, but A&M still has not announced a starter at quarterback, with three passers competing for time in Nick Starkel, Kellen Mond and Jake Hubenak.
The uncertainty made preparations more difficult for the Bruins, who spent time this week readying to face any of the three Aggie passers.
“It makes it a little bit harder, because you don’t know the skill set that’s coming in,” said defensive coordinator Tom Bradley. “If you see the same quarterback a lot, you can tell if he’s a runner or he’s a thrower, or he’s both. Not really sure what the plan will be.”
Whoever does line up under center for A&M will likely lean heavily on wideout Christian Kirk, a preseason All-American who has 163 catches for 1,937 yards and 17 touchdowns over the past two seasons.
“The guy’s a legitimate Heisman (Memorial) Trophy candidate in my mind,” Mora said. “He’s got speed, quickness, he’s elusive.
Kirk, who also has five return touchdowns in his career, is the 14th-ranked prospect for the 2018 NFL Draft, according to ESPN’s Todd McShay.
“You just never know what you’re going to get,” Mora said. “They use him as a returner. Obviously, they put him in the slot. Sometimes they put him out away from trips on the single side. They’ll use him in the backfield at times … and you have to account for him. If you don’t account for him, you make a terrible mistake.”