Talent, size, speed and experience: All are necessary ingredients for a winning season, and all are components UCLA has in 2014.
Coming off the program's first 10-win season in eight years, anticipation has never been higher at UCLA than it is in preparation for the coming campaign. Third-year head coach Jim Mora has his deepest roster yet, and that has commanded plenty of attention.
Numerous preseason rankings, including Phil Steele's projections, have the Bruins tabbed for the top 10. Analyst Tim Brando takes it a step further, ranking UCLA No. 1:
Certainly the ceiling is high for the 2014 Bruins, but UCLA also has its areas of concern to address before kicking off on Aug. 30 at Virginia.
All preseason buzz surrounding the UCLA Bruins starts with quarterback Brett Hundley. The redshirt junior has all the tools to be one of the top, if not the top, playmakers in college football in the coming season.
In his third year running UCLA's offense and fourth season in the program altogether, Hundley has an opportunity to take a considerable step forward.
He's demonstrated the ability to be both an effective passer and explosive rusher, though his statistical output as a passer dipped last year as his contributions to the running game took on added importance.
|Brett Hundley Career Stats|
|Year||Pass Comp./Att. (Pct.)||Pass Yards||Pass TD/INT||Rush Att.||Rush Yards||Rush TD|
Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone will want Hundley to strike the right balance between pass and run, particularly with the Bruins showcasing one of the deepest wide receiving units in the Pac-12.
Despite losing stalwart Shaquelle Evans, the Bruins might actually be better at receiver than a season ago.
Eldridge Massington told me in April that UCLA has "[the] best receivers and best receivers coach [Eric Yarber]" in the Pac-12.
That confidence comes from UCLA returning a corps loaded with both proven commodities ready to take the next step and talented youngsters ready to break out.
Devin Fuller and Jordan Payton are the unit's two leaders, coming off a season of 43 and 38 receptions, respectively.
Devin Lucien caught just 19 passes a season ago, but maximized his opportunities with a team-high 17.84 yards per grab among active pass-catchers.
The Bruins receivers also have the luxury of squaring off with an outstanding secondary in practice. Fabian Moreau and Ishmael Adams are two of the Pac-12's premier defensive backs, and former 4-star recruit Priest Willis is taking on added responsibility.
The void All-American running back Johnathan Franklin left in UCLA's backfield after the 2012 season remains a primary concern for the Bruins into 2014. Jordon James effectively carried the mantle for Franklin through the first month of last season, but he suffered an ankle injury midway through the campaign that left Mazzone scrambling for a solution.
Ultimately, Myles Jack became the most effective running back by season's end. Talented as Jack may be, it's a decided negative for any offense when its top rusher is a linebacker pulling double duty.
|Returning UCLA Running Backs in 2013|
|Player||Games Played||Rush Att.||Yards||YPC||Rush TD|
UCLA tested a variety of backs in spring workouts. Paul Perkins has potential, and James returns from injury. Craig Lee should also work into the rotation.
But UCLA's problem is not so much lack of numbers. Rather, the Bruins need a clear No. 1 to emerge from the pack.
Of course, establishing a consistent running attack was a challenge with UCLA often fielding a patchwork offensive line. All-conference selection Xavier Su'a-Filo was a rock, but he's gone for the NFL.
Alex Redmond earned Freshman All-American recognition for his work up front, but fellow first-year starters Caleb Benenoch and Scott Quessenberry faced more growing pains when injuries necessitated their place in the lineup.
Offensive line play could and probably will be a strength with all three of last year's freshmen back, a year more experienced and better acclimated to the college game. UCLA also returns Simon Goines from injury, and the addition of Miami transfer Malcolm Bunche adds needed depth.
Still, the Bruins front five needs to prove it on the field coming off a season in which UCLA ranked No. 109 nationally with 36 sacks allowed.
Linebackers Myles Jack and Eric Kendricks are well established as top-tier defensive playmakers. Both have earned preseason All-American recognition from outlets, including AthlonSports.com.
But Mora praised the unknown members of the linebackers corps on the May 1 Pac-12 teleconference call, per Pac-12.com. He had high praise in particular for 4-star 2014 recruits Kenny Young and Zach Whitley, both of whom could contribute immediately. Whitley was an early enrollee who practiced during spring workouts.
Mora proved willing to play true freshmen in 2013—he suited up 18 of them—and nowhere was a first-year player's impact more noticeable than at linebacker with Jack. Whitley or Young could prove vital to replacing NFL-bound stars Jordan Zumwalt and Anthony Barr.
In the deep receiving corps, Thomas Duarte could be the X-factor. The big-bodied sophomore gives UCLA a physical presence Mazzone could use in a fashion similar to Joseph Fauria on the Bruins' 2012 Pac-12 South Division championship team.
Duarte caught three touchdown passes in 2013, but expect that number to climb significantly as he established himself as more of a red-zone threat after a year of growth.
“I’m a whole different player now,” Duarte told Jack Wang of the Los Angeles Daily News. “I’m bigger, faster, stronger. My knowledge of the game is better.”