Philadelphia, PA – 2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: In just two seasons, Jim Mora has lifted UCLA to the heights former head coach Rick Neuheisel never could.
The Bruins finished 10-3 a year ago, following a 9-5 campaign in 2011, the first with Mora at the helm. To put that in perspective, the Bruins won 10 games combined during Neuheisel's final two seasons.
The 2013 campaign started off extremely well for UCLA, which sprinted out to a 5-0 record, highlighted by a 41-21 victory at Nebraska. However, the Bruins stumbled the next two weeks as they were outscored 66-24 combined on the road by Stanford and Oregon. There was plenty of time to recover from those setbacks, and the Bruins did just that, winning five of their final six games, including a 42-12 thrashing of Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl.
The quick rise of the program has pushed expectations for the 2014 squad into the stratosphere. The toughest part of Mora's job this year may be keeping his team from being distracted by those expectations.
"If you look too far down the line or listen to what's going on outside you make a mistake and you have your ability to be successful," Mora said. "I know that sounds cliche and it's boring and nobody wants to hear it, but it's the truth. I mean, it really is the truth."
OFFENSE: It all comes down to one player for UCLA -- Brett Hundley. The junior signal caller already has NFL scouts salivating with his ability to make precise passes, run an offense and make plays on the ground. Last year, Hundley threw for 3,071 yards and 24 touchdowns on 66.8 percent passing. He was also intercepted only nine times, although he had two against both Stanford and Oregon. On top of his prodigious passing numbers, he was also the team's leading rusher, compiling 748 yards and 11 scores on 160 carries. If you're looking for a Heisman candidate not named Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota, Hundley is the guy.
With Hundley at the steering wheel, the Bruins should have one of the best offenses in the country. Last season they ranked 20th in the country in scoring (36.9 ppg), while posting 448.5 yards per game.
Hundley's surrounding cast is not as star-studded, but it has plenty of talent and proven commodities. At receiver, Jordan Payton and Devin Fuller are not the deep threat that Shaquelle Evans was, but each is reliable. Fuller had 471 yards and 4 scores on 43 catches last season, while Payton contributed 440 yards on 38 grabs. Devin Lucien (19 receptions, 3392 yards, 2 TDs) should also have an expanded role.
Running back Jordon James (534 yards, 5 TDs) missed five games due to injury last season, but was a strong performer when healthy, ripping off 100-yard games in the first three weeks. Paul Perkins (573 yards, 6 TDs) is another solid option and the incredibly gifted Myles Jack (267 yards, 7 TDs) could see some action, although he will be more important as a linebacker for the defense.
Up front, the Bruins don't have much work to do. The only spot that is not occupied by a returning starter is left guard, where senior Malcolm Bunche has the best chance of playing. The rest of the line is filled with familiar faces with tackles Simon Goines and Caleb Benenoch, guard Alex REmond and center Jake Brendel all set to protect Hundley once again.
DEFENSE: Don't be fooled into thinking the offense is the only phase of the game in which UCLA will dominate. There is just as much returning talent for the defense, and the hope is it can improve from last season when the Bruins let up 387.1 yards per game, while holding teams to 23.2 points per outing.
The area of greatest strength is at linebacker, which is fitting considering new defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich coached that position the previous two seasons.
Jack is an athletic freak, who was stellar on defense before being asked to try his hand at running back. Despite playing on both sides, Jack still finished fifth on the team in tackles (75), including 7 for loss. He also showed great ability in coverage, collecting a pair of interceptions and a team-high 11 pass breakups. Eric Kendricks (106 tackles, 2.0 sacks) led the team in stops. The duo makes for an easy transition from the loss of Anthony Barr (10 sacks). Highly-touted freshman Zach Whitley makes the unit that much stronger.
The secondary is led by a trio of big-time playmakers. Cornerback Ishmael Adams (61 tackles, 4 INTS) and Anthony Jefferson (89 tackles, 2 INTs) as well as Randal Goforth (78 tackles, 3 INTS) can wrap up ball-carriers easily and have great instincts.
Anchoring the line is defensive end Eddie Vanderdoes, who only had half a sack last season. He will need to show better aggression and an ability to get to the quarterback. Defensive tackle Kenny Clark is a solid force in the middle.
SPECIAL TEAMS: While the job of place kicker is set with Ka'imi Fairbairn back, the Bruins will need to install a new punter after Sean Covington left the team at the end of July. Despite returning as the starter, Fairbairn needs to be more consistent. He only connected on 14-of-21 field goal attempts in 2013.
In the return game, Adams has the speed and ability to be a difference maker.
OUTLOOK: While prospects are sky-high for the program, Mora knows there is still a lot of work to do.
"Our success right now, in my opinion, is still very limited. We haven't won the Pac-12 Championship. We're 0-3 against Stanford," Mora said. "I don't want our players to feel like we're extra special and we've accomplished the goals we've set out to accomplish or that we're on the right track."
Mora is certainly right about his squad's struggles against the top tier of the Pac-12. Last year, the Bruins were tripped up by conference champion Stanford, runner-up Arizona State and always powerful Oregon. They face the Ducks and Cardinal, as well as an improved USC squad, at home. However, they must avoid a slow start, considering they play three of their first four on the road, including trips to Texas and Arizona State.
Hundley, Jack and Adams are all exciting players, who will be in the running for all-conference and possibly All-America honors. However, individual trophies are not what the Bruins have their sights on. If they hope to crash the College Football Playoff, they have to prove they can beat everybody in the conference.