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UCLA Football Season Preview: New Coach, New Quarterback, New Direction?

UCLA opens its season on the road against Rice on Thursday at 4:30 p.m. PDT, on CBS Sports Network.

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Over the past decade, UCLA Bruins football has distinguished itself as the most underachieving program in America. Despite advantages in geography and brand recognition that a hundred schools would envy, a combination of bad luck, bad coaching and a culture of complacency within the athletic department has kept the Bruins wedged into the Pac-10's (now the Pac-12's) middle tier. UCLA hasn't won the conference or come close to doing so since 1998, and patience among Bruin fans is running low. That USC is back in national-title contention isn't helping our collective mood. The NCAA penalties dropped on the Trojans a couple years ago were supposed to have allowed UCLA to "close the gap," in the now-ironic words of Rick Neuheisel. Instead USC breezed through its time in detention with scarcely a four-star recruit lost to Westwood and now looks poised for a depressingly awesome season.

In four years under Neuheisel the Bruins went 21-29. They never beat USC and their only bowl win was over Temple in the 2009 EagleBank Bowl. Neuheisel recruited successfully, ran a clean program and represented the school well off the field, but the lack of progress on it made his firing after last season inevitable. The school's first choice to replace him was Chris Petersen of Boise State, but when Petersen decided to stay put UCLA reached for a surprise candidate in Jim Mora, Jr. The 50-year-old Mora coached the Atlanta Falcons for three seasons and the Seattle Seahawks for one but has no prior experience coaching the college game. Was he a good pick? No one knows. Hiring from the NFL ranks worked brilliantly for USC when they stumbled upon Pete Carroll, but Bill Callahan, Al Groh and Dave Wannstedt offer sobering counterexamples.

Mora's task isn't one of "rebuilding," exactly. Neuheisel bequeathed to him a roster full of both talent and experience. Often when a new coach takes over, there's an understanding that the program will take a small and temporary step backwards as legacy players burn off eligibility and the new guy brings "his players" in off the recruiting trail. That's not the case here. Fans expect Mora's first Bruins team to be better than Neuheisel's last, and rightly so.

Mora's style is one of orderly, no-nonsense professionalism. He doesn't appear to be a volatile screamer in the Bo Pelini/Brian Kelly mold, but he's clearly more hard-driving than any UCLA coach in recent memory. Gone are such fripperies as the "Over the Wall" tradition whereby players went truant from summer practice. Instead the team got dragged to San Bernardino for a two-week camp in an environment resembling the inside of a convection oven. His efforts to change the culture of UCLA football are admirable and necessary. The program needs him to succeed where many before him have failed.

What to Expect From the Offense
The new offensive coordinator is Noel Mazzone, who spent the last two seasons calling plays at Arizona State. Mazzone's system relies heavily on a one-back, shotgun formation. The emphasis is on quickness and efficiency: the Bruins will go no-huddle more than we've ever seen them, and the passing game will feature fast three- and five-step drops. Mazzone's playbook is designed to stretch the defense horizontally, pull defenders out of the box and get skill players in one-on-one situations in space. He likes motioning the running back out wide and he really likes the bubble screen. It worked fairly nicely at ASU. In two years in Tempe Mazzone put together national top-30 offenses, and last season the Sun Devils lit up USC's defense pretty well in a 43-22 win. He seems like a promising hire.

The young man in charge of making the scheme work is redshirt freshman Brett Hundley. Over the summer Hundley beat out incumbents Richard Brehaut and Kevin Prince for the starting quarterback job. He's got size (6'3", 223 pounds), he can run and he can make tacklers miss. At times in practice Hundley has struggled throwing the ball, especially since Mora named him the starter a couple weeks ago, and fans should expect him to make his share of freshman mistakes. But he has a much higher ceiling than either Brehaut or Prince, and he could well turn out to be a four-year starter and the most dynamic Bruins QB since Cade McNown. Brehaut and Prince have handled their demotions well, and if Hundley falters or gets hurt, either can provide a steady hand in relief.

I'm anticipating a big year from Johnathan Franklin. The senior running back has gone over a thousand yards (and over five yards a carry) in each of the last two seasons and could emerge from a deep field of Pac-12 running backs to snag all-conference honors. Depth at running back, however, isn't the greatest. Malcolm Jones and Jordon James were highly recruited out of high school but have shown little in their careers. (To be fair, neither got much of a shot under Neuheisel.) One name to remember is Steven Manfro. A redshirt freshman from Valencia, Manfro is the classic "gritty overachiever" and has impressed with several long runs in camp. He'll initially get his shot on special teams and could work into offensive game plans as a change-of-pace option.

The Bruins' best player at any position might be tight end Joseph Fauria. An athletic 6'7" with good hands, Fauria is basically unguardable at the college level, but Bruin quarterbacks went whole games without looking his way last season. He has to be a featured component of the passing attack. There's ability elsewhere in the receiving corps but it's unproven. Shaquelle Evans, Jerry Johnson and former QB Darius Bell have been named tentative starters at WR. Not since Freddie Mitchell have the Bruins had a true outside-the-numbers receiving threat. Though nobody in the receiver corps has Mitchell's gamebreaking abilities, in guys like Evans and Devin Lucien there should be more of a vertical element this season.

You have to go back even further to find the last really good UCLA offensive lineman, but that seems about to change with the return of Xavier Su'a-Filo from his two-year Mormon mission. In 2009 XSF started all 13 games at left tackle as a true freshman, and now he's back to anchor that critical spot. He has first-round NFL potential. The rest of the line is a work in progress. Rounding out the starting front five will be Greg Capella (left guard), Jake Brendel (center), Jeff Baca (right guard) and Brett Downey (right tackle). Baca and Capella have starting experience, but aside from XSF these guys have missed a lot of practice time to heat- and concussion-related issues. They'll need time to gel. With Nebraska coming to town on September 8, they won't get much.

What to Expect From the Defense
Improvement! Though admittedly, that's not saying a lot.

In 2011 the Bruins' defense fell somewhere between mediocre and terrible. Closer to terrible, if we're being honest. Against conference opponents they surrendered 30 points and over 400 yards per game. They got blasted apart by every decent offense they faced: Houston (38 points allowed), Texas (49), Stanford (45), USC (50) and Oregon (49). The most damaging weakness was in the front seven and specifically a defensive line that got pushed around all year long. For the season they totaled just 14 sacks, and they weren't much better controlling the ground game. In 10 of 14 contests opponents averaged over four yards a carry. Coordinator Joe Tresey got swept out after only one year on the job.

To replace Tresey, Mora tapped Lou Spanos, who's spent the last few seasons coaching the Washington Redskins linebackers. Like Mora, Spanos has no experience coaching at the college level. He has switched the Bruins' base defensive set from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Success in his system depends on large, physical defensive linemen who can tie up blockers and allow linebackers to flow freely and make stops. He has eight returning starters to work with. (It was nine before LB Patrick Larimore decided to retire a couple weeks back before of concussions.)

Despite underachieving horrendously in 2011, the defensive line has quality and depth. It looks as if 320-plus-pound Seali'I Epenesa will get first crack at starting nose tackle. He's backed up by a pair of sophomores who were four-star recruits: Brandon Willis, who recently transferred in from North Carolina, and Kevin McReynolds. Starting at ends will be Datone Jones and Cassius Marsh. Now a senior, Jones is perennially the subject of preseason hype, and it's time for him to produce when it counts. Marsh was one of the more dependable linemen last year. The Bruins' two most high-upside linemen, sophomore Owamagbe Odighizuwa and true freshmen Ellis McCarthy, will start the season further down on the depth chart but could emerge as key playmakers.

Several guys have changed positions to help fill the need for linebackers created by the shift to a 3-4 alignment and the loss of Larimore (the Bruins' leading tackler in 2011). Former defensive ends Damian Holmes and Keenan Graham dropped weight to become LB's, and Anthony Barr switched over from offense, where he'd been used as an F-back. Holmes is likely to start at left inside backer and Barr at ROLB. Their inexperience at the position is a concern. Fortunately sophomore Eric Kendricks (brother of onetime Cal Bear Mychael Kendricks, who was Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year last season) and junior Jordan Zumwalt are back. Both are fast, physical and experienced and look like perfect fits for Spanos's scheme.

You had to grade the secondary on a curve last year because it's hard to shut down a passing game when there's zero pressure on the quarterback. Starting corners Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price led beleaguered existences, but both have good size and can cover. In a conference stacked with excellent receivers, they'll be under fire weekly. Touted true freshmen Ishmael Adams and Marcus Rios round out the CB rotation. Both have looked very good in camp. Although there's not as much depth at safety, FS Tevin McDonald played well as a true freshman last year and looks like a potential star. Andrew Abbott and Dalton Hilliard will split playing time at strong safety. Neither is a game changer, but they can hold the fort.

What to Expect From the Special Teams
UCLA hasn't had a dangerous return game since Maurice Jones-Drew was around. Under Neuheisel the emphasis was on ball security - catch it and get down - an approach that constantly left the Bruins in poor field position. Mora seems inclined to put faster, shiftier guys in return roles. Jordon James will get the first crack returning punts, and he and Manfro will return kickoffs.

The punting game is in the capable hands of senior Jeff Locke. He might be the best punter in the country and will certainly kick in the NFL someday. He'll handle kickoffs as well: last season he boomed 20 touchbacks in 65 tries. True freshman Ka'imi Fairbairn will handle field goals. As a high-school senior in Hawaii he connected on a 55-yarder. Locke is the emergency option if neither Fairbairn nor walk-on JC transfer Justin Moreno prove reliable.

The Schedule
The Bruins' out-of-conference slate begins this Thursday night against a weak Rice Owls team but quickly gets much more challenging. As mentioned, Nebraska visits Pasadena on September 8, then a week later Houston comes to town for what looks like a classic trap game. It'll be too easy to overlook the Cougars because they lost star QB Case Keenum to the pros and head coach Kevin Sumlin to Texas A&M. I don't expect Houston to drop off as much as many people think they will. In fact, it would not surprise me if UCLA beat Nebraska and then lost to the Cougs. (Well, it would be surprise me a little, but it's a real possibility.)

In conference the Bruins catch a couple breaks. Five of their nine Pac-12 games are at home, and they don't have to play Oregon out of the North Division. (They miss Washington as well.) The two scariest opponents, Stanford and USC, both have to come to the Rose Bowl, which could be either a blessing or a curse. On the one hand, it makes an upset a little more likely. On the other hand, those teams might be so much better that home field makes no difference at all, in which event two precious home dates are wasted on unwinnable games.

Outlook and Prediction
Look, this isn't the year for UCLA to break into the conference elite. Not with new coaches, new systems on both sides of the ball, a freshman quarterback and an unsettled O-line. The pieces aren't quite in place for a run to the Rose Bowl. Nor is it at all likely that UCLA can break its streak of five straight losses to USC. That's the bad news.

The good news is, the blue-chippers Neuheisel recruited are starting to filter up through the depth chart. Talent-wise this is the best Bruins team in many years. Also, aside from USC, Oregon and Stanford there's no one in the conference clearly better than UCLA and many teams that are clearly worse. In the South Division alone, Arizona, Arizona State and Colorado are all in the early rebuilding phase. The race to finish fourth in the conference looks likely to come down to UCLA and Utah, and the Utes have to come to Pasadena.

I'm predicting an 8-4 season for the Bruins. The losses will be to USC, Stanford, either Nebraska or Houston and then a random underdog along the way. Assuming the USC-Oregon winner plays for the BCS Championship, the loser goes to the Rose and Stanford to the Alamo, the Brus' 8-4 record should be good enough to land them in the Holiday Bowl, which would be their best finish in almost 15 years.

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Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.