How would you assess the morale of the team? Kenny Young seemed to indicate at the Arizona postgame press conference that some of his teammates are not fully committed.
This is a critical week for the team. With a 3-3 record and two very hard road games coming up (at Washington then at Utah on a short week), this Oregon game could be a tipping point. If the Bruins win, it’ll keep them barely above water. If they lose, it could be the beginning of a three-game losing streak that will completely cap-size the season. Like the year’s hopes, I believe the team’s morale might be on unsteady ground.
I’m neither in meetings nor on the field for practice, but something that struck me this week was hearing Jim Mora say of his defense, “We have to move away from being fragile and move into being confident.” Perhaps the team follows that same mentality. I think the team goes into each game with confidence then once one bad thing happens, its morale is shattered. An example Mora referenced would be the 45-yard touchdown run by Khalil Tate on the fourth play of the game that erased two weeks of good practices. Developing that mental fortitude is a hard, but necessary task that the Bruins seem to be struggling with, especially on defense.
Confidence typically comes through a snowball effect, but the Bruins have nothing to start their snowball with as the defense is getting sliced up every game and the offense is turning the ball over. I think getting off to a fast start against Oregon will be important so the players have something tangible to believe in again.
Along those lines, I think what Kenny Young could have been referring to when he said “I don’t think they (his teammates) came with the full commitment tonight” after the Arizona game was not that they had given up, but more that they had been broken down throughout the game and weren’t able to bounce back well. Perhaps it wasn’t that his teammates weren’t committed, but that they were not able to keep their commitment level high the entire game.
Are there any players on defense who have exceeded expectations or been pleasant surprises? Perhaps Chigozie Nnoruka?
Chigozie Nnoruka has put together a good season so far for his Division I debut. He was recruited as an end, but moved inside and has still shown an ability to pressure the quarterback. His main problem is finishing the quarterback, but he’s off to a good start.
This is probably an unpopular view with some, but according to Pro Football Focus, Nate Meadors has been one of the best cornerbacks in the country. PFF ranks Meadors fourth among draft-eligible corners after Week 7, writing that in Meadors’ 175 coverage snaps, he’s allowed only seven receptions on 21 targets for 65 yards and no touchdowns. Meadors however does struggle with penalties and hasn’t grabbed an interception since his freshman year. He needs to improve on those areas. Another concerning trend would be that he’s left the past two games early due to minor injuries. The Bruins need him to be healthy more often.
It appears the passive bend but don’t break defensive schemes aren’t working. Are the players voicing any discontent for the passive schemes? I have heard recruits praise some more aggressive schemes (Utah). Does having such a passive scheme hurt in recruiting?
UCLA players would never publicly voice discontent for their coaches’ game-planning. For example, I asked a player whether he wanted to play more man-to-man after its success against Texas A&M, and he said he wanted to play anything the coaches called and it was his job to execute whatever call comes in to the best of his ability. Players play and coaches coach, and the UCLA players understand that distinction. Nothing good would come to them if they overstepped that line by publicly saying they didn’t like a coach’s scheme.
The scheme didn’t hurt recruiting last year when UCLA pulled in two five-star defensive players and one of the best defensive backs classes in the country. It’s anyone’s guess what recruits may or may not want in their future schools. I try to stay out of the minds of 17-year-old boys.
Last year’s defense was much more successful (obviously) than this year’s version. Is this purely attributable to the loss of starters to the NFL and graduation? If so, how does that square with Tom Bradley’s suggestion (if I recall correctly — TN note: I believe it was actually Kenny Young who suggested this at Pac-12 Media Days) that he would be able to implement additional packages into this year’s defense as a result of players’ experience with Bradley’s system and concepts?
It’s a combination of a ton of things. Some of the losses are huge. Eli Ankou and Eddie Vanderdoes left big (figuratively and literally) holes in the rushing defense. In retrospect, Jayon Brown turned out to be an extremely critical piece for the linebackers as his versatility against the run and in coverage erased a lot of his teammates’ mistakes. Takk McKinley’s incredible play-making ability is sorely missed and his passion definitely inspired his teammates.
The second part of it is the gap between what some of the younger players were expected to do and what they’re actually doing. For example, linebackers coach Scott White didn’t hesitate even for a moment this spring when he was asked how he would replace Brown.
“With a guy like Josh Woods,” White said immediately. “Josh is incredible.”
Indeed, Woods looks incredible. He’s 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds with athleticism that I was excited to see on the field more often. But he’s averaging only 4.8 tackles per game. Brown had nearly 10 tackles a game. White said last week that while Woods has done well, “you like him to be able to make more plays, more flashy plays.” Then you have to remind yourself that while Woods is a junior, he played only one game as a freshman, got hurt and couldn’t receive a redshirt year because it occurred in the second half of the season. He’s only 19 years old and won’t turn 20 until January. No matter how good you want someone to be when they’re young, time yields to no one, and for some guys, it takes more time. That goes for Woods, Lokeni Toailoa, Mique Juarez and some of the other young defensive players.
So because some players have not yet performed the way they were expected to at this time — or it can also be said that coaches have not developed players at the rate they were expected to — any new packages Tom Bradley and the coaching staff may have installed haven’t been able to pan out. The plans don’t work if the pieces don’t. Perhaps the Bruins thought they knew what they were working with, tailored their plans for their preseason expectations and are now forced to revise the blueprint.
Is there any indication that Jim Mora may have lost confidence in Tom Bradley?
I’ve been told that Jim Mora is typically a hands-off head coach when it comes to his coordinators, but he also takes defensive issues very personally, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s taken over a large amount of the defensive play-calling duties or he’s at least involved in much of the discussion on the headsets. Mora does not seem like he would want to embarrass one of his assistant coaches, especially one as experienced as Tom Bradley, so he wouldn’t speak on it publicly. But I’m sure there has been increased communication between Mora and Bradley when it comes to getting the game plan together during the week and then making calls on game day. Head coaches are CEO-types who organize and oversee everything and, when necessary, try to put out fires. UCLA needs all hands on deck to put out its defensive fire.
The direction of the team appears downward. Any chance Jim Mora would resign at the end of the year if it’s clear his voice is no longer resonating?
It depends on who you expect his voice to be resonating with. Despite poor results, I think his voice still resonates with his players. He’s very much a players’ coach. He’s fiercely loyal to his players and they appreciate and reciprocate that. The problem is that it hasn’t turned into wins. It’ll be a lack of results that does him in if he does end up losing his job at the end of the year, not that his players turn on him or stop listening to him. There are always surprises in the coaching industry so there is always a chance that he’ll resign (no one anticipated Gary Andersen’s mutual separation at Oregon State, for example) but it would be a surprise to me if Mora did.
What will it take for UCLA to get Chip Kelly and what other high-quality winning coaches are available?
Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples wrote Thursday that UCLA and Arizona State are two good fits for Chip Kelly if he does get back into coaching. So do with that what you will. However, for Kelly or any other high-profile coach like Les Miles or Mark Helfrich to come to Westwood, UCLA would need to 1) pay the $11 million buyout to Jim Mora and 2) fork over a lot of cash to the new hire. I’ve come to understand that UCLA has a reputation for tight purse strings. It would be an interesting and drastic move to get rid of Mora and replace him with a big, expensive name.
Do you think Jim Mora survives this season if we finish with a losing record again, since it would be back-to-back losing seasons in Year 6? Even though he has an $11 million buyout, do you think Dan Guerrero might be forced to take action under those circumstances?
It depends on how donors feel about the direction of the program. Their money is what will ultimately force Dan Guerrero’s hand. Obviously back-to-back losing seasons does not look good, but some (a lot?) of last season’s struggles could be attributed to Josh Rosen’s injury. The team wasn’t good last year, but if Rosen was healthy, it probably could have had at least a .500 record, if not an outright winning record, with last year’s competent defense. Perhaps some donors could forgive that a little bit.
For the rest of this season, the Bruins have to save face at home, beat Oregon, Arizona State and Cal, and try to be competitive on the road in tough games against Washington, Utah and USC. The USC game will be important to donors. If the Bruins flop and lose their third straight rivalry game under Mora, donors could be clamoring for a change.
Would you please give us your report card on coaching/season so far?
Midterm grade: 1.3 on a 4.0 scale
Areas of improvement:
- Rushing defense — For obvious reasons
- Ball security — Turnovers are killing an otherwise very good offense.
- Takeaways on defense — Perhaps it’s a lot to ask of a defense to force a turnover when they can’t even tackle, but takeaways are galvanizing moments that can inject sudden confidence into a struggling unit.
Head of the class: Offensive line and Josh Rosen — Despite its hiccup against Arizona, the offensive line has done well to protect Josh Rosen and is helping the running game improve each week. Hank Fraley deserves several gold stars. Besides his turnovers, Rosen has typically been the only thing keeping the team in games when the defense has floundered. He plays under immense pressure because all of his mistakes are magnified with a struggling supporting cast.
- Honorable mention: Stefan Flintoft — Flintoft has not made a mistake after the Bruins have struggled with punting for several seasons. UCLA is tied for second in the conference in net punting (41.2 yards per punt).
Bottom of the class: Linebackers — Injuries haven’t helped, but the linebackers have struggled against the run and seem to timidly diagnose plays. While Kenny Young and Josh Woods have made a few flashy plays in every game, you would like more consistency from them as the two most experienced linebackers.
How much pull does Under Armour have within the athletic department? I can’t imagine they sit by and allow their investment to get devalued by Mora & Co.
I can’t imagine Kevin Plank calling Dan Guerrero asking for a coaching change either. I just don’t think that’s how their partnership works.
Oregon can’t throw. UCLA can’t stop the run. Will Royce Freeman have 200 yards or 250 yards?
Easily 200 yards, 250 within reach, depending on the score.
Where’s Mique Juarez?