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A year ago, UCLA was confidently preaching about competing for the national championship, let alone the Pac-12 title.
But the Bruins crashed and burned on the way to a disappointing 4-8 record and were surprisingly left home for the holidays with no bowl game.
Why did the Bruins fail to reach eight wins for a fifth straight season? Two reasons stand out like a sore thumb – quarterback Josh Rosen’s shoulder injury limited him to six games and UCLA’s utter and dismal inability to run the football.
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Colorado will find out first-hand if UCLA is able to bounce back from the nightmarish 2016 season when the two teams clash Sept. 30 at the Rose Bowl.
The Buffaloes represent the third tough test for the Bruins in the first half of the 2017 schedule as UCLA hosts Texas A&M Sept. 3 in the season opener and travels to Stanford on Sept. 23 for the Pac-12 opener.
As last year demonstrated, keeping Rosen, a highly-touted 5-star prospect quickly dubbed ‘The Rosen One’ by Bruin supporters immediately upon his commitment, healthy is vitally important. Without Rosen, UCLA was 1-5 over the second half of last season and was outscored 76-24 in the final two games against crosstown rival USC and California.
The junior quarterback threw for 1,915 yards and 10 touchdowns with five interceptions before being shut down midway through the 2016 campaign. Through two seasons, Rosen has displayed flashes of the skills that made him Rivals.com’s No. 1 overall prospect for the 2015 recruiting cycle, but health and consistency are concerns.
Interestingly, UCLA is just 12-13 with an appearance in the Foster Farms Bowl in 2015 to show for Rosen’s two years as B.M.O.C., which is light years less than what Bruins fans expected (or demanded) when Rosen signed with UCLA in February 2015 amidst much fanfare.
“He is 100 percent and he is working very, very hard to be the best player he can be” is all UCLA head coach Jim Mora would say about Rosen last month during the Pac-12 coaches spring teleconference.
Will this be Rosen’s final season as a college quarterback? Most analysts think so.
Not surprisingly, Rosen’s health has dominated the offseason headlines in Westwood, along with coach Jim Mora’s job security and four new offensive coaches.
Nonetheless, having Rosen on the field and not on the sidelines in street clothes is simply half the equation. The Bruins must find a way to generate an adequate rushing attack after finishing a distant last in the Pac-12 in rushing offense, averaging a meager 84.2 yards per game on the ground.
How poor was UCLA’s rushing attack last season? Even Washington State, which employs the passing-heavy Air Raid offensive scheme, averaged 120.0 rushing yards per game. Amazingly, the Bruins amassed 36 yards fewer rushing yards per game than the 13th place team.
The Bruins barely surpassed 1,000 rushing yards on the season as a TEAM and no single player had more than 85 carries, surely indicative of a disturbing lack of a go-to running back.
The top three running backs from a year ago (Soso Jamabo, Bolu Olorunfunmi and Nate Starks) all return and will run behind an offensive line that performed well below expectations in 2016.
“We’re cautiously optimistic (about the running game),” Mora said. “We have a nice scheme, it’s well coached and our players have embraced it. Now it’s just a matter of continuing to improve and mastering the fundamentals and understanding the concepts.
“(The offensive line) made progress in the spring. It was nice to keep five guys consistently in there with the first unit. But we do have position flexibility and we shifted some guys around. Overall, they are moving in the right direction.”
Once last season ended, Mora ushered most of the offensive coaching staff out the door, including offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu, whose pro style attack proved ineffective.
Well-traveled NFL assistant Jedd Fisch is now guiding the Bruins offense after spending the past two seasons on the Michigan staff working with quarterbacks and wide receivers.
The UCLA defense will also feature a new look after finishing fifth in the Pac-12 in total defense (382.0 ypg) and losing four defensive stalwarts at all three levels in the 2017 NFL Draft, three in the first 88 picks – DE Takkarist McKinley (1st round), CB Fabian Moreau (3rd rd) and DT Eddie Vanderdoes (3rd rd).
Add LB Jayon Brown (5th rd) into the NFL Draft mix and the Bruins will undergo major changes in the defensive front seven. Senior linebacker Kenny Young had five sacks and 8.5 tackles for a loss in 2016, while versatile DL Jacob Tuioti-Mariner is expected to emerge as UCLA’s next productive pass-rushing threat.
Mora is looking for Young to lead the Bruins defense in2 017.
“Kenny is a special player,” Mora said. “He can run, he commands respect from his teammates, he understands how to play the inside (linebacker) position and he’s a good tackler. Our team really respects and responds to him. He has really improved as far as understanding the concepts we’re running defensively and being able to diagnosis what the opponent is doing offensively. His coverage skills have really improved.”
The key question for UCLA entering Mora’s sixth season at the helm is whether the Bruins will be able to reverse the downward trend over the past three seasons as they have dropped from 10 wins in 2014 to eight in 2015 to four in 2016.
If not, UCLA could have a new coach in 2018.
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UCLA 2017 FOOTBALL SCHEDULE:
Sept. 3 TEXAS A&M, 5:30 p.m. (FOX)(Sun.)
Sept. 9 HAWAII, 3 p.m. (Pac-12 Networks)
Sept. 16 at Memphis, 10 a.m. (ABC/ESPN2)
Sept. 23 at Stanford*
Sept. 30 COLORADO*
Oct. 7 Bye
Oct. 14 at Arizona*
Oct. 21 OREGON*
Oct. 28 at Washington*
Nov. 3 at Utah*, 7:30 p.m. (Fri.)(FS1)
Nov. 11 ARIZONA STATE*
Nov. 18 at USC*
Nov. 24 CALIFORNIA*, 8:30 p.m. (Fri.)(FS1)
(All Times Mountain)
* Pac-12 Conference Game
ICYMI ---> Meet Colorado's 2018 commitments https://t.co/H4iOZLOaFP
— CUSportsNation (@CUSportsNation) June 21, 2017