The 21st-ranked UCLA Bruins and quarterback Brett Hundley will open their highly anticipated 2013 season as they host the impressive the Nevada Wolf Pack.
The Wolf Pack are regrouping after the retirement of former head coach Chris Ault in the off-season. Taking over for Ault is former Texas A&M special team's coach Brian Polian. This is Polian's first head coaching job and he has some big shoes to fill as Ault got the Wolf Pack to bowls in eight straight seasons and in 2010 into the national rankings for just the second time ever. The Wolf Pack have gone 7-6 in each of the last two seasons.
"I like were we're at right now," Polian said during the last week of fall camp. "Now that we've identified where guys are going to help us now we have just got to get tightened up before the first ball game."
Hundley was a huge surprise last season as were the Bruins overall. UCLA had gone 6-8 in 2011 and hadn't been in the national rankings since 2008. Jim Mora transformed the program quickly as the Bruins went 9-5, got to as high as No. 15 in the polls and had the most wins in a season (9) since 2005. Hundley was a major part of that turn around as he excelled in just his freshman campaign.
There is no familiarity between these programs as this matchup will be the first ever against one another.
Under Ault, Nevada ran one of the more unconventional, yet productive offenses in the country. With a pistol scheme that relied heavily on the run, the Wolf Pack ranked eighth in total offense (514.9 ypg) among all FBS teams.
Ault's offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich is back as is starting quarterback Cody Fajardo, meaning not much should change this season.
Fajardo completed an impressive 67 percent of his pass attempts for 2,786 yards to go with 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions. The junior also made great decisions on designed runs as he picked up 1,121 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground.
Stefphon Jefferson and his 1,883 yards and 24 touchdowns are gone from the rushing attack which puts the pressure on a group of younger running backs to get the job done, including Don Jackson, a sophomore who is listed as the top back on the depth chart.
In terms of returning receiving threats the Wolf Pack are pretty set. Brandon Wimbley (70 receptions, 845 yards, four TDs) and Richy Turner (60 receptions, 752 yards, three TDs) were the top two receivers a year ago and will be back at it this season, as will Aaron Bradley (45 receptions, 467 yards, four TDs). The Wolf Pack did lose tight end Zach Sudfeld, who was a real threat in the red zone with eight touchdown receptions, but Kolby Arendse (13 receptions, 196 yards) projects as a solid replacement.
On defense the Wolf Pack suffered from a lack of ability to control tempo and keep offenses off the field. Nevada let up more than 440 yards per game last season, including more than 200 on the ground, ranking among the bottom 20 teams in the country in that regard.
Brock Hekking gives the Wolf Pack a nice building block at defensive end. Hekking had eight sacks last season, easily the best mark on the team. In fact the rest of the Wolf Pack had just 12 sacks combined. Hekking is also the top returning tackler as he had 75 stops in 2012. Hekking will be joined by a number of returning starters up front, including defensive end Lenny Jones (5.0 sacks).
The rest of the defensive roster is rather green, with safety Charles Garrett (34 tackles) being the only player with real starting experience.
Nevada will have quite the challenge on defense in dealing with UCLA's Hundley. As a redshirt freshman last season, Hundley surprised a lot of people as he climbed to the top of the depth chart and earned the starting job in time for the season opener. It was one of the more savvy moves of Mora's first season, as Hundley completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 3,740 yards and 29 touchdowns, while being picked off 11 times. He added 355 yards and nine touchdowns rushing the ball.
Now Hundley has to prove that he can be the go-to guy on offense with UCLA career rushing leader Johnathan Franklin now playing for the Green Bay Packers. There is a list of players who will attempt to replace Franklin, including redshirt freshman Paul Perkins, Jordan James, who rushed for 215 yards in 2012, and true freshmen Malcolm Jones and Craig Lee.
Hundley also lost one of his favorite targets with the departure of tight end Joseph Fauria (43 receptions, 637 yards, 12 TDs). Big-play threat Shaquelle Evans (60 receptions, 877 yards) will be back though as well as a number of other players in the receiving corps, like Devin Fuller (20 receptions, 145 yards, two TDs).
Despite having a ton of talent on the roster, UCLA was not an overly impressive defensive team last season. The Bruins allowed 415.9 yards and 27.6 points per game, which each ranked eighth in the Pac-12.
Converted running back Anthony Barr was one of the main reasons those numbers weren't worse. Barr lines up at outside linebacker, but can fit in at defensive end as well. The 6-foot-4, 248-pound senior racked up 21.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks in 2012. His ability to get to the edge and create havoc in the backfield has elevated him to one of the more feared defensive players in the country.
Barr is joined at linebacker by top returning tackler Eric Kendricks (149 tackles) and Jordan Zumwalt, who was also a starter last season.
Losing Datone Jones to the NFL Draft leaves a big hole in the front of the 3-4 scheme the Bruins favor and although there is a lot of potential in freshman cornerbacks like Priest Willis, the secondary is extremely young.
Mora has said that he has been encouraged by how many of those younger players have performed during the summer but still wants to see improvement.
"Playing is one thing but playing well enough for us to go out and have a chance to win on Saturday is another thing," Mora said. "That is still to be determined."