No. 41 UCLA
UCLA's four-win 2016 season made a lot of predictors look foolish. They made big gains defensively under coordinator Tom Bradley but the offense struggled to score — before and after the loss of quarterback Josh Rosen.
Coming off one of the most disappointing seasons in program history, Jim Mora and the Bruins have big-time talent at every position. It's simply a matter of putting the pieces together.
2016 Record: 4-8 (2-7, Pac-12)
UCLA failed to win five games in a season for just the fourth time in 35 years. While six of their losses came by 10 points or fewer — including four one-possession games — they were embarrassed by USC and Cal and managed a combined 23 points in losses to Colorado and Stanford.
The Bruins beat just one bowl-eligible team (BYU).
Head Coach: Jim Mora (6th year, 41-24 overall)
Just two offseasons ago, Jim Mora was UCLA's coaching savior. He not only was coming off the program's first 10-win season since 2005, he had two in a row, something just two other Bruins' coaches have done.
After flying out of the gate with 29 wins in his first three years, Mora has 12 the last two, putting him squarely on the hot seat and in need of a big bounceback season.
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Josh Rosen, RB Soso Jamabo, RB Nate Starks, WR Darren Andrews, WR Jordan Lasley, WR Eldrige Massington, S Scott Quessenberry
“To the UCLA defensive line,” former defensive end Takkarist McKinley tweeted before April's spring game. “DO NOT TOUCH ROSEN. We all seen how our season went without him lol"
McKinley is right; they went 1-6 in their final seven games without him. He's also very wrong.
Much of UCLA's offensive woes were blamed on the absence of Rosen, who was lost for the season in Week 6. While they struggled with career backup Mike Fafaul at the helm, the Bruins were hardly an offensive juggernaut with Rosen.
They scored a combined 87 points against Arizona and UNLV — teams that won a combined eight games and ranked among the worst defenses in the nation — but averaged 18 against BYU, Stanford and Texas A&M.
“It sucked — it wasn’t as much what was happening around the conference as much as it was just like seeing all the guys out on the field grinding and knowing you’re not out there with them,” Rosen said of being sidelined.
Speaking of sucking, UCLA's run game was non-existent in 2016. It literally did not exist. No player had more than 325 yards; their three top runners averaged 3.7 yards per carry; and they ranked 127th nationally with 84 yards per game.
“I'm extremely disappointed. I've never in my career been around a run game as awful as this,” Mora said in later October. “That has to be the first thing we address and it's staggeringly poor. Unfortunately, I can't give you an answer right now."
They couldn't fix it late in the season and it's been a major point of emphasis this offseason, with Mora and every other offensive coach repeatedly stressing the need to get consistent production from junior running backs Soso Jamabo and Nate Starks and an offensive line that returns three senior starters. Now-senior center Scott Quessenberry said last year he wants the line to be "old school" physical. We'll see if that happens this year.
Rosen does get back three upperclassmen receivers, including Jordan Lasley, who averaged 15.1 yards per catch as a sophomore in 2016.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DT Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, LB Kenny Young, CB Nate Meadors, S Jaleel Wadood, S Adarius Pickett
UCLA ranks 110th nationally and 11th in the Pac-12 with barely 50 percent of their 2016 tackles returning, according to Phil Steele. Though it can be a misleading stat skewed by top-heavy production, it's accurate for the Bruins. Tom Bradley's defense was gashed by losses at all three levels. He does return one stud senior at each level, who are also the only three seniors expected to start.
"[Eric Kendricks] had a certain way, but I'm not the next Eric Kendricks," middle linebacker Kenny Young said in 2015. "I am the first Kenny Young and I want to leave my legacy. That's going to be my approach the next couple years."
And that approach is working; he has 159 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and two interceptions the last two years. He's not necessarily a flashy playmaker but is reliable with quick instincts.
Safety Jaleel Wadood is a two-year starter with multiple all-conference selections. Don't let the Los Angeles native's pedestrian numbers (69 tackles per season, two career interceptions and nine career passes defended) fool you; he's the type of player offensive coordinators have to scheme around.
Also back in the secondary is junior corner Nate Meadors, who had six passes defended in nine games last year, and Adarius Pickett, a junior safety not afraid to throw his body around.
Notable Player Losses
OT Conor McDermott, TE Nate Iese, DT Eddie Vanderdoes, DE Takkarist McKinley, LB Jayon Brown, S Fabian Moreau
UCLA lost their four terrific defensive players, namely tackling machine Jayon Brown and first-round draft pick Takkarist McKinley. McKinley was a beast, registering 18 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, six passes defended and three forced fumbles. Third-round picks Eddie Vanderdoes and Fabian Moreau also leave big holes.
Offensively tight end Nate Iese is gone after transforming into a major weapon as a senior. A former linebacker, the 6-foot-3, 250-pounder had 25 catches for 400 yards (16 yards per catch) and four touchdowns. He and tackle Conor McDermott — a sixth-round pick of the Patriots — are the biggest offensive losses.
Notable Player Additions
DT Greg Rogers, DE Jaelan Phillips, CB Darnay Holmes
Three true freshmen will have big impacts immediately, led by defensive end Jaelan Phillips. The top-ranked player in the 2017 class, he is already hearing comparisons to Takkarist McKinley.
“I don’t think I’m really trying to step into his role necessarily,” Phillips said in April. “I’m just going to play to the best of my ability and do what I can do, fit into the scheme, fit into what we’re doing as a defense.”
Defensive tackle Greg Rogers will be a key reserve, and Darnay Holmes is one of eight — seriously, EIGHT — true and redshirt freshmen who could see time in the secondary. Holmes, a five-star prospect from nearby Calabasas, Calif., was the nation's third-ranked cornerback and 23rd overall player.
UCLA and Texas A&M will complete the second half of a home-and-home series with a Sept. 3 meeting in Pasadena. The Aggies won last year's meeting, 31-24, in overtime.
They have an extremely difficult non-conference road game at Memphis in Week 3, immediately followed by a trip to Stanford in Week 4. Their Pac-12 home schedule is friendly but in addition to Stanford, they visit Washington, Utah and USC, all in the season's final five weeks.
|Saturday, Sept. 3||vs. Texas A&M|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||vs. Hawai'i|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||at Memphis|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||at Stanford|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||vs. Colorado|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||at Arizona|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||vs. Oregon|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||at Washington|
|Friday, Nov. 3||at Utah|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||vs. Arizona State|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||at USC|
|Friday, Nov. 24||vs. Cal|