Football Fast Forward: UCLA
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By Dexter Fishmore, SB Nation Los Angeles
This September, thousands of freshmen will arrive in Westwood, California to begin their UCLA educations. Most of them were not yet born the last time the Bruins' football program won a conference title. Mired in mediocrity for the better part of two decades, the world of UCLA football is badly in need of new energy and ideas, and to that end the university elected to replace Rick Neuheisel with new head coach Jim Mora, Jr., who brings with him a staff of well-regarded assistants and hope that the Bruins' Rose Bowl drought will end, if not this year, then sometime in the near future.
After a Thursday night opener on the road against Rice, the Bruins will make their home debut on Sept. 8 against a nationally ranked Nebraska team. By the time the Houston Cougars visit Pasadena on Sept. 15, Bruin fans will have had a good early look at how the Mora regime is taking shape. Neuheisel left behind plenty of talent, so Mora will be expected to hit the ground running. A 2-1 start, at least seven wins overall and a respectable bowl bid are reasonable goals for the season ahead. Here are a few storylines to keep an eye on as the Mora era gets underway.
Who will emerge from a crowded field of quarterbacks?
Mora and new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone have yet to name a starting QB. Their options range from known-quantity veterans (Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut) to super-recruit freshmen both true (Devin Fuller) and redshirt (Brett Hundley). Prince has the most experience and Brehaut looked best in spring practices, while Fuller and Hundley offer tantalizing upside. It'll be a mild surprise if Hundley doesn't get the nod. He's been seen as the future of the program ever since he committed to UCLA out of Chandler, Ariz., and his rare athleticism can turbo-charge Mazzone's spread attack.
Can XSF pick up where he left off?
The Bruins haven't had a truly elite offensive lineman since Jonathan Ogden. Incredibly, no NFL team has even drafted a Bruin O-lineman since 1999. This season could, at long last, see the emergence of a new star in the front five. Xavier Su'a-Filo, who started 13 games and earned freshman All-American honors in 2009, has returned from a two-year Mormon mission to anchor the left-tackle position. The man known as XSF has everything you want in a blind-side mauler: size, power, footwork and polished technique. He has the potential to be dominant, and if he reaches it the UCLA running and passing games could pack a sting they rarely showed last year.
Will the defensive line show signs of life?
In 2011 the Bruins gave up 30 or more points in half their games. The main problem was a defensive line that woefully underperformed. They too often failed to control opponents' running attacks, and in 14 games they accumulated just 14 sacks, ranking 112th nationally. New defensive coordinator Lou Spanos has to find ways to generate more pressure. The good news is, he has the raw material to make that happen. The D-line depth chart is stocked with guys who were four- and five-star recruits, including transfer Brandon Willis and freshman Ellis McCarthy. Mora and Spanos are installing a new 3-4 alignment that will no doubt entail an adjustment period, but if they can get the blue-chippers up front to play to their abilities, the days of surrendering 50 points to the likes of USC and Oregon could be in the past.
Two words UCLA fans will hear a great deal this year are toughness and culture. Mora's job is to change the latter by instilling the former. So far he's said and done all the right things, but Bruin fans have been here before and seen once-promising regimes come up short. Unlike past coaches, however, Mora arrives in Westwood with ample talent in place. That makes his rebuilding job easier, but it also means more pressure to start fast against a challenging set of non-conference opponents.
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