Wednesday, April 2, 2014
UCLA enters spring with few holes
By Ted Miller
One of the ways a football team transitions from a group of wishful maybes to a sense of near-ontological certainty is when its collection of spring practice questions becomes mostly an array of appealing potential options.
So we have UCLA as it transitions from an underachieving program (1999-2011) to a good one (2012-2013) to one that has the makings of a national contender in 2014.
With few questions to answer this spring, Jim Mora has the makings of a special 2014 season with UCLA.
While the Bruins have questions on their depth chart, there isn't any particular area of vexing concern. The five positions where starters need to be replaced seem likely to be filled by promising athletes with playing experience. If those more veteran players don't rise to the fore during spring practices, that mostly speaks to the program's strong recruiting under Jim Mora.
Further, it's reasonable to project that those 20 or so freshmen and sophomores who saw significant playing time last year will physically and mentally mature into their primes.
There simply aren't any worrisome voids on this team.
All-Pac-12 offensive guard Xavier Su'a-Filo off to the NFL, offensive tackle Torian White dismissed from the team and offensive tackle Simon Goines still recovering from a broken leg? No worries. Four linemen with starting experience are practicing, and that doesn't yet include Miami transfer Malcolm Bunche, a likely starter.
Promising sophomore Isaac Savaiinaea is the leading candidate to replace Jordan Zumwalt at inside linebacker, so if he's beaten out by true freshman and early enrollee Zach Whitley, that only means Whitley is really good.
What's the pecking order at running back? The Bruins rushed for nearly 200 yards per game a year ago with injuries and uncertainty at the position, so here's a strong hunch that between Jordan James, Paul Perkins, Steven Manfro and Craig Lee, there will be quality production at the position.
There are, of course, important questions.
Is defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa fully healthy? He told reporters Tuesday that he is. So then is the former A-list recruit ready to break through as a senior?
What does LB/RB Myles Jack do for an encore after one of the best true freshman seasons in recent memory?
And speaking of what's next, is it reasonable to project Hundley taking a strong step forward as a third-year starter? Of course, that's why the program has already launched a Heisman Trophy campaign.
A lot of variables beyond personnel go into a special season -- a Rose Bowl-, College Football Playoff-type season. A team needs a great offseason. It needs positive chemistry and leadership. It needs to avoid injuries. It needs to stay hungry. It needs laser-like focus every week.
Returning starters do not guarantee anything. National champion Florida State only had 11 of them last year.
But on paper, UCLA appears to be the most likely candidate to break the five-year Stanford-Oregon Pac-12 hegemony atop the Pac-12. The Bruins might even be a team that catches the notice of the CFP selection committee in December.