Fresno State Non-Conference Preview: UCLA Bruins
What will Chip Kelly’s first Bruins team look like when Fresno State makes its trip to the Rose Bowl?
Can the Bruins finally make good as Pac-12 contenders?
When you think of UCLA football, it’s hard not to think about disappointment. After back-to-back 10-win seasons in 2013 and 2014, the Bruins finished with a losing record in Jim Mora’s last two years and eventually gave him the axe. If that sounds familiar, well…
- Rick Neuheisel never cracked .500 in four seasons,
- Karl Dorrell won ten games in 2005 and then fell back to .500 in the following two seasons, and
- Bob Toledo won ten games in 1997 and 1998, but never cracked eight wins in his last four years at the helm.
So the Bruins have been rolling this stone uphill for a couple decades now. Fortunately, one the greatest college football minds of the 21st century has returned to the FBS ranks, but it’s difficult to say how quickly UCLA will regroup after significant losses on both sides of the ball. They aren’t without talent, though, so here’s a first look at those who should make an impact.
Location: Westwood, CA
Mascot: Joe Bruin
Conference: Pac-12, South division
2016 Record: 6-7 (4-5 Pac-12)
Head Coach: Chip Kelly (46-7 overall). In his four years at Oregon, Kelly was unquestionably one of the best coaches in college football, but it remains to be seen whether that’s still case the case after four years as an NFL head coach were decidedly mixed. He did bring in a whopping ten four-star recruits in his first class, however, including prized quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, so the early returns are promising.
TE Caleb Wilson
The Bulldogs don’t often face dynamic tight ends in the Mountain West, so Wilson presents a unique challenge. Pro Football Focus recently rated him as the number one tight end in the nation, even though he started just five games in 2017 because of injury, but it’s easy to see why: Wilson caught 38 passes for 490 yards, with an astounding 79.2% catch rate, and a touchdown in that time. Granted, he won’t be working with Josh Rosen anymore, but he’ll be a focal point of whoever ends up leading the passing attack.
QBs Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Wilton Speight
Neither of these guys were in for UCLA’s spring game, but they’re both of interest for very different reasons. Speight transferred from Michigan after suffering a spinal injury and missing the majority of 2017, but his performance in the three full games he played didn’t inspire too much confidence
Thompson-Robinson, on the other hand, represents the potential for an exciting future after racking up 45 total touchdowns and 3,700 yards of total offense at high school powerhouse Bishop Gorman last fall. Both will compete with incumbent Devon Modster, but whoever ends up as the starter may lead to very different looks for the Bulldogs defense.
NG Chigozie Nnoruka
Injuries hit the Bruins defensive line hard in 2017, but Nnoruka survived and stands to be one of this year’s key contributors after starting ten games and collected 6.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. In defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro’s new defense, he’ll play at the point of attack, so shutting down the 6’1″, 295-pound Nnoruka will help the Bulldogs’ steady running game get on track.
LB Jaelen Phillips
The sophomore was one of UCLA’s five-star recruits in their 2017 class and, though he played in just seven games and made four starts for the Bruins, he gave fans a lot to get excited about. After making seven tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks, he’ll make a move from defensive end to outside linebacker in the new 3-4 and might be the biggest pass-rushing threat that Marcus McMaryion and company will deal with all season.
CB Darnay Holmes
Holmes is the other five-star recruit from UCLA’s 2017 class and, like Phillips, established himself as a cornerstone of a young defense. He made eleven starts and led the Bruins with three interceptions, and he also averaged a solid 21.6 yards per return on kickoffs, as well. As deep as Fresno State’s receiving corps is, Holmes will be a test for whomever he faces from play to play.
Whoever ends up replacing Josh Rosen at quarterback will be hard-pressed to duplicate his passing numbers from last year (62.6% completion rate, 8.3 yards per attempt, 146.97 QB rating). Having a solid running back duo behind them, Bolu Olorunfunmi and Soso Jamabo, helps, as does having Wilson and receiver Theo Howard at their disposal.
The offensive line will see some reshuffling, too, which is good news for a reloading Fresno State front seven. Andre James will move to left tackle after spending last year at right tackle, and either Texas Tech transfer Justin Murphy or sophomore Jake Burton will man James’s old spot. Boss Tagaloa switched to center from defensive tackle this offseason, as well, but questions abound for a unit that ranked tenth in the Pac-12 in tackles for loss allowed and sixth in sacks allowed even while boasting two NFL draft picks.
The biggest question facing this Bruins defense is how well they fix the problem of opponents running at will against them. Only San Jose State faced more rushing attempts than UCLA in 2017, and just three teams allowed more than the Bruins’ 5.76 YPCA. If healthy, though, there’s a lot of very intriguing talent. Nnoruka figures to hold down the middle, but ends Rick Wade and Osa Odighizuwa combined for 10.5 tackles for loss and two sacks last fall. Last year’s linebackers were woeful at creating positive plays, ranking 128th nationally in Havoc Rate, but having three starters back in Phillips, Krys Barnes and Josh Woods helps.
If the secondary plays up to its potential, McMaryion could have a difficult time throwing the ball. Holmes will patrol one side of the field and senior Nate Meadors broke up nine passes last fall. Adarius Pickett will head into his third year as a starter opposite either senior Will Lockett or sophomore Quentin Lake. The Bruins finished sixth in opponents’ completion rate and seventh in opponents’ quarterback rating.
This game is likely to be the Bulldogs’ toughest September test, as many of the Bruins’ biggest questions align with Fresno State’s own. Even so, the defense should be athletic enough to slow Chip Kelly’s offense, especially with a new quarterback under center, and the offense should be able to move the ball consistently. It’ll be a fight, for sure, but Jeff Tedford’s team should come out of Pasadena with a close win. Fresno State 28, UCLA 24