Pac-12 preview: UCLA

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

WESTWOOD, Calif. -- The change from coach Rick Neuheisel to Jim Mora at UCLA has propelled Bruins fans into thinking their team is the toast of Los Angeles, not USC and coach Lane Kiffin. With a majority of Neuheisel's players last year, Mora coached the Bruins to helter-skelter, yet fruitful, 9-5 season.
The Bruins won another Pac-12 South title and almost beat Stanford on the road in the conference title game. But they also were inexplicably were routed by a bad California team and disappeared against Baylor in the Holiday Bowl.
UCLA fans are cautiously optimistic about Mora coaching the Bruins to a better season in his second year.
Mora has a marquee quarterback in sophomore Brett Hundley, a dual-threat talent who completed 67 percent of his passes and rushed for 6.1 yards per carry last season. Hundley is an academic junior after redshirting as a freshman in 2011 under Neuheisel, who regrets that move because it likely cost him his job at UCLA.
This makes Hundley an NFL draft-eligible prospect. Knowing that he can be playing at the next level this time next year, Hundley is taking control of the UCLA offense in all phases, including his decision-making.
The Bruins had far too many sacks last year (52) because Hundley showed a tendency to hold on to the ball too long instead of throwing the ball away or making quicker reads. Despite the sacks, Hundley showed poise and consistency passing for 3,745 yards and 29 touchdowns with only 11 interceptions.
Hundley is looking to wide receiver Devin Lucien as a key target. Lucien had only 10 catches in eight games and did not score a touchdown last season, but the 6-0, 180-pound sophomore receiver is considered a big-play threat.
He averaged 18.8 yards in those 10 receptions last season, can gain yards after the catch and he has a knack for making a spectacular reception.
"It seems every day he goes up and makes an exciting, unbelievable, acrobatic catch," Mora told the Los Angeles Times.
Johnathan Franklin, the Bruins' top running back last season, is off to the NFL. The Bruins, however, return four starters on the offensive line to protect Hundley and help generate a productive running game.
Franklin's replacement will likely be Jordan James or Damien Thigpen. They have combined for a 686 career yards rushing on 156 attempts in their brief careers.
Defensively, UCLA's front loses Datone Jones, who has exhausted his eligibility, and starting defensive end Owa Odighizuwa and nose tackle Brandon Tuliaupupu to injuries.
The Bruins are not void of talent, however, with linebackers Anthony Barr (a Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year candidate who is a converted tight eend) and Jordan Zumwalt leading a potentially stout defense.
The team expects freshman cornerback Priest Willis, from Tempe, Ariz., to be a factor after choosing UCLA over ASU, LSU, Nebraska, Virginia and Florida State. He recently was cleared academically to play at UCLA and he figures to get plenty of playing time with the secondary in transition.
Willis committed to the Bruins after highly-touted safety Tahaan Goodman said no thanks to USC and Oklahoma and pledged to UCLA.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: The Bruins will play only three games by the end of September, and that includes a game in August -- Aug. 31 to be exact -- against Nevada in the Rose Bowl. The only two games in September are at Nebraska on Sept. 14 and at home the following week against a New Mexico State team that finished 1-11 in 2012. By the time the Bruins begin their Pac-12 season at Utah on Oct. 3, they will have enjoyed two bye weeks. The significant drawback is UCLA does not have one break during a difficult Pac-12 schedule that includes road games against Stanford, Oregon, Arizona and USC.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: The protection of UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley and the running room provided to the running backs are essential elements from the offensive line. Four starters return from last season, led by all-conference pick Xavier Su'a-Filo, a junior guard. Sophomore tackle Torian White has a promising future. Also, center Jake Brendel, right guard Ben Wysocki and right tackle Simon Goines are only sophomores but they have graded well in camp to this point for Hundley and the running game. UCLA can only get better after allowing the second-most sacks (52) in the nation last season with Hundley taking the brunt of all of them.
AREAS OF CONCERN: UCLA's defense has significant losses up front with Datone Jones gone to the NFL and defensive end Owa Odighizuwa and nose tackle Brandon Tuliaupupu out with injuries. The Bruins also have a young defensive backfield that has raw and unproven talent. UCLA returns only one defensive back with experience -- sophomore Randall Goforth, the projected starter at free safety. Dietrich Riley, a junior strong safety, was forced to retire from the sport because of injuries.

--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.

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