Weekly Q&A: Arizona answers


With the way the Bruins secondary has performed (Denzel Fisher and Nate Meadors, in particular), why hasn’t Brandon Burton seen the field more?

If Brandon Burton didn’t get moved to linebacker, he still wouldn’t be in line to replace Denzel Fisher or Nate Meadors because Burton was a safety and Fisher and Meadors are both playing corner. UCLA is deep at safety with Jaleel Wadood, Adarius Pickett, Will Lockett, Octavius Spencer and Mossi Johnson. Johnson especially has emerged in recent weeks and coaches are starting to give him more defensive reps based on the toughness and tackling ability he showed on special teams.

UCLA is a lot thinner at linebacker than at defensive back, so that’s why Burton wouldn’t move back at this time. It’s possible that Burton may still need time to adjust to the position change he made during the spring or he may be dealing with a minor injury that’s keeping him from the field.

Fisher was the target of three defensive holding penalties against Colorado when he came in to replace Darnay Holmes, who was ejected for targeting. That’s a problem. But he was replaced by Colin Samuel, who immediately got a pass breakup on his first drive. Depending on how he followed up that game in practice the past two weeks, Samuel could be in line for a few more snaps on game day, I think.

Meadors has been the recipient of several pass interference flags, but he seems to be a sure tackler and Pro Football Focus had him ranked among the best Pac-12 cornerbacks after the Colorado game. So while he hasn’t been perfect, he’s probably not as bad as you’re thinking.

What mistakes did Colorado make that enabled the Arizona backup quarterback Khalil Tate to run for 327 yards? How does UCLA avoid the same fate?

During the spring (back when most people, myself included, thought the defense was going to be good) Tom Bradley spoke a lot about the need to play a “team defense” without play-makers like Takkarist McKinley and Jayon Brown. The Bruins need to embody that this weekend.

Running quarterbacks require the utmost discipline on defense, which has been a sore spot for the Bruins this season. I can’t comment specifically about what Colorado did because I didn’t watch that game, but UCLA’s defensive line has to be fundamentally sound to contain the quarterback and the linebackers have to keep eyes on him at all times.

Brown was very successful as a “spy” on mobile quarterbacks last year. UCLA may try a similar thing with one of its linebackers to try to limit Khalil Tate or Brandon Dawkins.

Steven Montez burned the Bruins for 108 rushing yards two weeks ago. Tate and Dawkins are even more dangerous than Montez. So this looks like a bad matchup for the Bruins.

Do you think targeting impacted defensive performance? Not just from missing good players, but also from not being able to get in game reps for our starters.

I think the biggest losses of the targeting calls weren’t just that they happened, but who they happened to. Three of the four calls have been against starters: Josh Woods, Adarius Pickett, Darnay Holmes. The depth on defense hasn’t grown up as quickly as the Bruins were hoping, so the chasm between starters and backups is very noticeable. Losing Pickett especially was a problem because he makes plays on special teams and defense and provides important energy to his teammates.

The loss of significant play-makers is the biggest effect from the targeting calls, but I could also see the lack of continuity being a problem. If the player is ejected in the first quarter like Pickett and Holmes were, the defense has to adjust on the fly. Suddenly players are in positions they haven’t practiced or the coaching staff becomes limited in the calls they can make. I don’t think decreased reps for the starters is a problem, but it’s more that losing players requires the defense to take reps with odd personnel groupings.

What’s the outlook on Jaelan Phillips in the coming weeks?

Jim Mora didn’t mention Jaelan Phillips’ status specifically this week when talking about injuries, which might actually be a good thing. Mora said simply: “It’d be great to get Jaelan back.” The ambiguity of the statement is a positive, I think, because the closer Phillips would get to playing, the more guarded Mora would be about his status as a way to keep opponents in the dark.

Phillips got injured against Memphis, missed the next two games and had the bye week. We know it’s not a break because he was walking around the field against Colorado during warm-ups. It didn’t look like he was wearing a boot or too much protective gear on it, either. So without knowing the severity of the ankle injury, I would think that if he doesn’t come back this week, he could definitely be back next week.

Without a running game, we are toast against quality opponents. Will we see some progress in our running game this week?

I don’t know what is going to happen this weekend. The Arizona defense is coming off a bad game against the run. Colorado rushed for 300 yards last week, including 281 from Phillip Lindsay. That could suggest a blue print for rushing success. But when asked if that may help the Bruins game plan this week, Jedd Fisch said he didn’t want to “fall into a trap of trying to be another team.”

The Bruins aren’t a rushing team. They aren’t going to try to be one. UCLA is most focused on efficiency in the running game, especially on first down. If they run the ball on first down, they want at least 4 yards to keep the offense on schedule. If they do that, they will be more comfortable calling more running plays later. The running game doesn’t have to survive on its own. All it has to do is exist enough to complement Josh Rosen and the passing game. (And the defense has to keep teams from scoring so the Bruins can still have a chance to run the ball.)

Does Josh Rosen have the authority to change plays at the line? How much trust do they have in him to audible on the fly?

Josh Rosen can make adjustments at the line of scrimmage based on the defense. He doesn’t do it often, but if he wants to, he’s allowed to. I think Jedd Fisch trusts Rosen and Rosen trusts Fisch. They work together closely on the game-plan every week.

Is Nate Starks eligible for a medical redshirt this year?

Jim Mora did not know for sure Monday, but I think Nate Starks should still be eligible for a medical redshirt if he wants one. He was injured against Memphis, which was UCLA’s third game of the year. The rule states that if an athlete “has not participated in more than three contests or dates of competition (whichever is applicable to that sport) or 30 percent (whichever number is greater)” of games, they will be eligible. A similar case would be Fabian Moreau, who injured his foot in the third game of the year in 2015 against BYU and received an extra year.

Will the Pac-12 abandon the four mandatory California games after next season? The original rotation schedule only goes through the 2018 season.

I don’t think it’s likely that would happen because maintaining the annual games between the California teams was one of the main sticking points when the conference expanded. The Bay Area teams have played the L.A. teams every year since 1946. The Pac-12 has done plenty to slowly erode tradition with the late kickoffs, but getting rid of the games between the California schools would be an extremely unpopular idea for the sake of tradition.

Your thoughts on if Bruins will go bowling this year?

They have to get three more wins out of their remaining schedule and I think they can. The Colorado win was a huge help for them in this endeavor. UCLA has road games against Arizona (this week), Washington, Utah and USC with Oregon, Arizona State and California at home. Arizona, Oregon, Arizona State and Cal are all winnable games, I think. This weekend’s road game in Tucson with Arizona’s running quarterback looks like the trickiest of the “winnable” bunch.

There seems to be a lack of speed at the running back position. Who appears to be the quickest running back in the rotation?

In a race, I would probably take Soso Jamabo. He doesn’t look fast when he’s running, but he has long strides which allow him to move quickly. The problem is that football isn’t a race so Jamabo isn’t able to show any speed if he’s can’t reach the second level by missing or bouncing off tackles first.

The offensive line appears to be more effective than the dismal performance of last year. Do you attribute this to the offensive line coaching change or is it more that Kolton Miller is now healthy and Michael Alves is better than the linemen who played last year?

Hank Fraley deserves a lot of credit. He’s probably my coaching staff MVP so far this year. He took many of the same pieces from last year and improved them. The offensive line has given up only nine sacks this year, including just three in the past three games.

Kolton Miller did not have a strong start to the year. It may have just been some rust. He had a better game against Colorado, I thought. For his first year playing, Michael Alves has been really good with Andre James on the right side. That’s where the majority of the big runs go. I think Fraley’s ability to look at his personnel during training camp and recognize that Alves deserved a starting spot was important. UCLA had a set starting group before then, but Fraley trusted what he saw on film and made a good change.