Finally, the season is upon us. Ranked in preseason polls for the first time since 2007, No. 21 UCLA will host Nevada at the Rose Bowl Saturday night. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Pac-12 Networks and AM 1150 (moved from AM 750 due to the Dodgers game).
Here’s how the two teams match up.
UCLA offense vs. Nevada defense
Nevada’s defense was bad enough last year (97th in the country) that defensive coordinator Mike Bradeson was demoted to safeties coach. Replacing him is former USC linebackers coach Scottie Hazelton, who has installed a Tampa 2 defense — a scheme that relies on its four-man front to create pressure, and its linebackers and cornerbacks to tackle soundly.
UCLA head coach Jim Mora is well-versed in the scheme; in 1995, he worked as the New Orleans Saints’ defensive backs coach under coordinator Monte Kiffin — the defense’s founder. It also helps that the Bruins win fairly easily in terms of sheer talent.
Quarterback Brett Hundley shouldn’t have a hard time picking on the Wolf Pack’s corners, who combined for three starts last season. Jordon James and Steve Manfro are slated to receive the bulk of the carries, and could build confidence early against the “bend-don’t-break” defense. Nevada also lost all its starting linebackers, and will rely on sophomore Jordan Dobrich to anchor the crucial middle linebacker spot. A former walk-on, Dobrich became the defensive MVP in spring camp, and credited Hazelton for making the Tampa 2 scheme easy to digest. He has promise, but only made nine tackles as a redshirt freshman.
The Wolf Pack’s defensive line does have some experience. Junior defensive end Brock Hekking is a preseason pick for All-Mountain West first team. He could hit double-digit sacks after notching 8.5 in 2012. Senior Jack Reynoso is a third-year starter at tackle, and also sports an impressive beard. They’ll offer an early test of UCLA’s offensive line which, while improved, still only has two proven anchors in left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo and center Jake Brendel.
Edge: UCLA, with some room
Nevada offense vs. UCLA defense
The Wolf Pack’s eighth-ranked offense suffered similar losses as UCLA. Tight end Zach Sudfeld, a 6-foot-7 target responsible for eight touchdowns, is gone. So is star running back Stefphon Jefferson, whose 1,883 rushing yards (second in the country) made up over 28 percent of Nevada’s total offense. The coaching change also makes it hard to predict just exactly what the Wolf Pack will look like on Saturday. First-year head coach Brian Polian said he will keep the pistol offense intact, but expect some additions such as run-and-shoot concepts.
Stability does come in quarterback Cody Fajardo, named to watch lists for the Maxwell Award (best player), O’Brien Award (top quarterback) and Hornung Award (most versatile). Polian also enlisted Fajardo’s help in retaining offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich. All three starting receivers also return.
Fajardo knows he can target UCLA’s inexperienced secondary, but the front seven won’t make it easy for him. The Bruins have arguably the deepest group of linebackers in the Pac-12, and are making it a priority to contain Fajardo. The defensive line has a high ceiling too: Cassius Marsh is an all-conference defensive end, and true freshmen Kenny Clark, Eddie Vanderdoes and Kylie Fitts should all contribute immediately.
What could sink the Wolf Pack is an offensive line that returns only two reliable starters. Nevada needs its ground game working to run the pistol well, and tailback Don Jackson hasn’t proven himself at the FBS level. The 5-foot-10, 210-pound sophomore averaged 8.7 yards per carry at Iowa Western CC, totaling 574 yards in a committee.
Ka’imi Fairbairn looks primed for a good sophomore season. The kicker was very accurate inside of 35 yards as a freshman, but struggled from outside until improving late in 2012. Judging from a relatively small sample size during spring and fall camp, that trend has continued. Freshman punter Sean Covington is capable of booming 60-yarders, but will shank a few here and there.
Polian and special teams coordinator Lester Erb both contributed to a book on the topic, but Nevada has some question marks here. The team is breaking in true freshman kicker Brent Zuzo, who beat out junior Colin Ditsworth for both field goal and kickoff duties. Neither, however, was consistent even inside 35 yards during competition. Zuzo does have the big leg for kickoffs.
Senior Chase Tenpenny averaged 43.3 yards per punt in 2012, the fourth-best single-season mark in program history. He was a first-team All-American at Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College before that.
Edge: UCLA, slightly
Prediction: UCLA’s front seven does enough to fluster Fajardo and keep pressure of its young secondary. Jordon James rushes for 65 yards and a touchdown. Bruins win, 35-14, in the first of nine regular-season victories.