Yogi Roth: UCLA football is as ‘gifted’ as any team in the Pac-12

UCLA began practicing again on its Westwood campus on Monday, Aug. 24. (Scott Tarley/Staff)

The Pac-12 Networks crew arrived at UCLA on Tuesday — their latest stop on their preseason tour around the conference — and analyst Yogi Roth took some time to share a few of his thoughts on the Bruins.

How does UCLA compare to the other teams you’ve seen across the conference?

“Deepest team in the Pac-12 conference, I think, all across the board. You hear 18 starters? It’s really more like 20, 21 starters. Not even including special teams. I would’ve picked them to win the Pac-12 if we had an answer at the position that matters the most. And they’ll figure that out. … But they are gifted, man. I mean, when I saw last year on ‘The Drive,’ seeing the build and the youth — the year before that they played 12 true freshmen, I think. (Note: UCLA actually played 18 true freshmen in 2013.) This year, maybe two, maybe three guys are gonna play? You just have crazy depth. …

“This is my 15th year in major college football. I’ve never seen players work for a head coach like they work for Jim. I’ve never seen the admiration that they have. I think he’s got something really brewing here. And if they can get consistent play at the quarterback position — and I think those two guys should do it — they’re as gifted as anybody.”

What do you think of the quarterback competition between Jerry Neuheisel and Josh Rosen?

“In San Bernardino last week, I saw Jerry have full command of the offense. I talked to him this summer, he said this offseason was the best of his life. And you have that when you have your opportunity. I remember as a player, we all went through that. When you get your chance to be the guy, it’s just different. It just is. He led all the workouts. He’s clearly the leader of this team. Whether that means he starts or not, I don’t know. But I saw a guy that was in total command of the offense. A guy that is saying, ‘I know you’re playing well, Josh, but I’m still here.’ He hasn’t given up the job.

“You look at Josh, and I’ve said this a bunch of times, I think he’s the most gifted quarterback in this conference, top to bottom. I know what that means. He may not be ready to play yet. But if you ask the quarterback gods to build somebody, they’d build Josh Rosen. I don’t know what Troy Aikman looked like at his age, but I just imagine it very similarly. I’ve known Josh a long time. His functional football intelligence is on par with Jerry’s. Jerry grew up with a coach. Josh is a savant, mentally. But he’s a first-time starter as a freshman, from the jump. I would expect both of them to play, because I think both probably earned it.”

Does it affect the offense not to have a starting quarterback named yet this close to the start of the season?

“I don’t think so. I think one of the biggest misnomers in college football is the fact that we talk about players as leaders. Coaches are leaders. Players echo that, and they represent that, and and they champion that, and they stand for that. … Ultimately, you take on the personality of your staff. Offensively, you look at Noel (Mazzone), you look at Taylor (Mazzone), obviously Jim having a big influence, and up and down the board on that side of the ball — I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. Especially where they’re veteran. They’re veteran up front. They’re veteran at the back. They’re veteran at wide receiver. These guys just want to win. I don’t think it matters, especially in this offense.”

Do you see UCLA has having one of the more friendly schedules in the Pac-12?

“Well, yeah. The fun part is, we’re going to find out how mature this team is in the first three weeks. You look at the first three games, it’s Virginia, UNLV and BYU. They should win all three games. And all three games are —- they’re not some of the other nonconference opponents that some teams play. I think it’s a really good test for this team from the jump, to have a really good focus about them. I think this is going to be a mature team. And their schedule, among any schedule in the Pac-12, for a contender for a championship — you couldn’t ask for a better situation than UCLA. I can’t wait until the last two weeks. I think this team is primed after what’s happened the last couple of years. I think this year they make that turn. I think they finish strong. …

“If they can stay healthy, they’re mentally built to make a really good run. You don’t just need average quarterback play in this conference. Teams last year in Pac-12 games averaged 37.8 points per game. You got to score. And this offense is built to score. There are so many quick-strike offenses in this conference. You don’t want to get down quickly. You got to be able to put points up on the board. They’ll do it. But that’s why you don’t pick them from the jump, because you haven’t seen it yet.”

Can a team contend for the playoffs while starting a true freshman at quarterback?

“From game one? It’s hard, just when you look historically at college football. Look since 2000. The true freshmen who have started at quarterback, a lot of them didn’t start at game one. Terrelle Pryor, Matt LoVecchio. You go back all the way when I was playing (at Pitt, 2001-03), or a couple of years ago. You go back to the 70s, to (Jamelle) Holieway at Oklahoma. … I just believe they’re going to play both guys early on, you know, and see what happens. And I think Jerry is mature enough to handle that. I think they both earned the right to play, and kind of see what happens from there.

“Everybody knows, probably including Jerry, that Josh has a unique skill set. Jerry’s been around the game forever. He’s been in the same meeting rooms. But this game is about anticipatory skills. This game is about seeing things before they happen. It’s like the point guard. It’s not the assist. It’s the pass before the assist. And when I see Jerry, those are just the nuances that are so natural to him, sliding away from pressure, knowing somebody’s going to come over, knowing where his check-down is. Josh is mastering those situations as well. He’s coming. And it’ll be fun to see what the differentiator between the two is.”

UCLA hasn’t beaten Stanford since 2008, and is 0-4 against the Cardinal under Jim Mora?

“When that happens — you could say the same thing about USC against UCLA — there’s a mental element to that always. I think last year, the players have said it, they were immature in that game, regarding they knew what would happen if they won. And Stanford’s record hadn’t been what it’s been in the past. And they’re really good. That’s my pick in the North. … I can’t wait for that game. That’s going to be a real tell-tale sign.”

Do you see any ‘trap games’ on UCLA’s schedule?

“Probably Arizona. They’ll be up for it, but Arizona, again, they won the Pac-12 South championship a year ago. Nobody talks about it. What, they were picked to finish fourth? If you want another team that takes on the personality of their coach big-time, it’s them. That place, if it’s a night game, look out. That was the Myles Jack coming out party a couple years ago. These are two teams that are going to compete. Two teams that love to run the football, similar backgrounds at least from an offensive philosophical approach. They want to be downhill and they’ll take their shots. You could make an argument for every weekend in the Pac-12 about what’s not getting hyped. But it’s the Pac-12 opener for them too, right? Arizona, defending South champs, first time at home, it’s going to be a big deal in Tucson. And you bring in UCLA, they’ve played well against each other. Two fiery head coaches. To me, mark it.”