Rick Neuheisel arrived at UCLA in December 2007 promising big things as coach. He was fired in November a few days after his Bruins were administered a big-time beatdown (50-0) by archrival USC.
Neuheisel was 21-30 in four seasons, and though he recruited well (three top-15 classes in his four years), it didn't show up on the field.
Jim Mora was hired as the new coach in December. Mora spent four mostly undistinguished seasons as an NFL head coach: three seasons with Atlanta and one with Seattle. He was 31-33 and his hiring by UCLA wasn't universally praised.
Coincidentally, UCLA archrival USC hired a failed NFL coach in December 2000. Pete Carroll spent four mostly undistinguished seasons as an NFL head coach: three seasons with New England and one with the New York Jets. He was 33-31, and his hiring by USC wasn't universally praised.
Carroll, of course, went on to 83 wins in nine seasons with the Trojans and won at least a share of two national titles.
Truthfully, Mora has more talent to work with at UCLA than Carroll did when he took over at USC. Will Mora make it pay off?
Last season: 6-8 overall, 5-4 in Pac-12 (2nd in Pac-12 South; lost to Oregon in Pac-12 championship game)
Coach: Jim Mora (1st season)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (6) –T Jeff Baca, H-Back Anthony Barr (moving to linebacker), G Greg Capella, TE Joseph Fauria, TB Johnathan Franklin, QB Kevin Prince. Defense (8) –CB Andrew Abbott (moving to S), CB Aaron Hester, E Damien Holmes (moved to LB), E Datone Jones, LB Patrick Larimore, T Cassius Marsh, FS Tevin McDonald, CB Sheldon Price. Special teams (1) –P Jeff Locke.
Fast fact: UCLA has 30 losses in the past four seasons, the worst four-year stretch in school history.
UCLA suffered from mediocre quarterback play under Neuhseisel, and that could continue this season.
Three men will battle it out in fall camp for the starting job: returning starter Kevin Prince, occasional starter Richard Brehaut and redshirt freshman Brett Hundley, a former four-star recruit.
Hundley has the most upside, but he also has the longest way to go to become ready. New coordinator Noel Mazzone has junked the Pistol formation and installed a no-huddle variation of the spread.
Prince, a senior, has made 26 career starts, including 10 last season. He is eighth on the school's career completions list (341) and ninth on the career passing yards list (4,262). Brehaut, also a senior, startedfour times last season and has made 11 starts in his career.
TB Johnathan Franklin ran for 1,127 yards as a sophomore in 2010 and 976 yards last season. He will be asked to catch the ball more often than in the past. Franklin heads a deep group of tailbacks, and Malcolm Jones, Jordon James and Steven Manfro also should get carries.
Senior Joseph Fauria is one of the best tight ends in the nation. He has great size (6 feet 7/258 pounds), good hands and better-than-you-expect speed. Fauria had 39 receptions last season and should be good for at least 50 this fall.
The wide receiver group should be adequate, though none of them are proven. There are high hopes for junior Shaquelle Evans, and true freshman Jordan Payton should get every opportunity to prove his worth.
The line is an issue, as well. A positive is the return of T Xavier Su'a-Fila from a Mormon mission; he is expected to start. T Jeff Baca and G Greg Capella are returning starters, and the Bruins need some young guys to fill the breach as starters and reserves, especially in the interior.
This has the makings of a solid unit. New coordinator Lou Spanos, most recently the Washington Redskins' linebacker coach, has installed a 3-4 scheme, and he looks to have the linemen and linebackers to make it work.
Neuheisel and his staff did a nice job of signing touted defensive linemen. The problem was that, for the most part, those guys didn't live up to billing. Perhaps that changes. The new staff expects good things from Es Cassius Marsh, Datone Jones and Owamagbe Odighizuwa and T Brandon Willis, a former end who has moved inside. Expectations are sky high for true freshman T Ellis McCarthy, the jewel of Mora's first signing class. If he is as good as expected, he will see a ton of time in the middle.
The linebackers are headed by Patrick Larimore (a team-leading 81 tackles last season). The other returnees are former end Damien Holmes and Jordan Zumwalt, but coaches are high on the one new starter, sophomore Eric Kendricks. His brother, Mychal, was a star linebacker at California, and Eric has great instincts and should become a star as an inside 'backer in the 3-4.
Senior CBs Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price are others who may benefit from the change in coaches. Both are experienced (this will be Hester's fourth season as a starter, Price's third) and physical, but neither has been as good as expected. They combined for 104 tackles, two interceptions and 14 pass breakups last season.
The safeties have potential, as well. FS Tevin McDonald was one of the nation's best freshman safeties last season, and had three picks and nine pass breakups. His older brother, T.J., is an All-America free safety at USC, which also is his dad's alma mater (Tim McDonald was a longtime NFL safety). SS Andrew Abbott started seven times as a cornerback/nickelback last season; he is physical and has better-than-average coverage abilities for a strong safety.
Senior P Jeff Locke should be a prime contender for the Ray Guy Award, given to the nation's top punter. He averaged 44.3 yards per attempt last season and has a 44.6-yard average for his career.
But that's it for the good news. The coverage teams were poor last season (the kickoff coverage was horrible), the Bruins will be breaking in a new kicker and there will be new return men.
Three of the first four games are at home, and the one road game is against Conference USA bottom-feeder Rice. The other non-conference games are against Nebraska and Houston.
The Bruins can ease into the Pac-12 schedule because their first two league games are against Oregon State and Colorado; both of those are in September, and it's not a stretch to think the Bruins could open 4-1.
The schedule toughens after that, with the final two games against USC and Stanford. At least Oregon is off the schedule.
There is talent on this team. But as Neuheisel found out, it doesn't matter if a team is talented if the quarterback plays poorly.
The defense has a chance to be one of the top four in the league. But the offense could be one of the worst four unless a competent quarterback emerges. While UCLA has a number of good tailbacks, you wonder if they will have room to run. First, the line is questionable. Second, if the passing attack again resembles a popgun, that questionable line will be blocking against a lot of eight-man fronts.
If everything breaks right, the Bruins could win nine games. What's more likely, though, is a seven-win season. The problem, of course, is that while the Bruins are muddling through the season, USC seems likely to be a factor in the national title race.
The recruiting side
Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 19th nationally
The buzz: The new coaching staff did a phenomenal job closing on many recruits. None was more important than five-star DT Ellis McCarthy, who also had USC and many others knocking down his door. Coach Jim Mora and his staff did a great job leading up to signing day by landing four-star recruits Devin Fuller, Jeremy Castro and Jordan Payton. Mora needs some wins, though, to really get things going. This season likely will be crucial to keep the recruiting steam going. – Adam Gorney, Rivals.com
RB Steven Manfro. Manfro, a redshirt freshman, used to be the afterthought with the funny name sitting on the bench at the Rose Bowl on Saturday afternoons. Now, Manfro's the running back who is poised to electrify fans. The breakout performer of UCLA's spring camp, Manfro has found a niche in Mazzone's offense as a hybrid receiver/running back. He has even earned the nickname "White Mamba" for the way he moves all over the field. – Edward Lee, BruinSportsReport.com
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