Weekly Q&A: USC answers

UCLA walk-on Sam Handler tries to prevent the USC marching band from stabbing logo at midfield in 2014. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/SCNG)

Brett Hundley was 3-0 against USC based mainly on his running ability. Is Sam Darnold a bigger threat to UCLA than Ronald Jones? Does UCLA play the beef on defense to counter Jones with more playing time for Lokeni Tailoa and Mossi Johnson over Jaleel Wadood or do we want a faster lineup to defend Sam Darnold? Pick your poison?

UCLA has a lot of difficult decisions to make on defense because it really does seem like a “pick your poison” type of game. But this week, Rick Wade and Tom Bradley said they’re going to gamble on Sam Darnold. The defensive end and the defensive coordinator both said the key in this game (and any game) is to stop the run and force the team into a passing situation. So that’s what the Bruins will try to do.

I think Ronald Jones is probably the bigger threat to the Bruins. It was his 60-yard touchdown run on third-and-1 in the second half that signaled the beginning of the end of UCLA in last year’s game at the Rose Bowl. His opportunities could be huge facing a defense as bad as UCLA’s.

I like the physicality with which Mossi Johnson plays, but if Jaleel Wadood is healthy, I expect them to go back to him. For Wadood’s mistakes, the coaching staff still trusts him. I don’t expect them to put Lokeni Toailoa in on defense much, if at all, because his playing time forces Kenny Young out of the middle linebacker spot. We’ve gone over that already here.

I was under the impression that Jedd Fisch and his family really like it here in L.A. Will he/they stay or go at season’s end?

Jedd Fisch signed a two-year contract with the Bruins, so take that for what it’s worth to start. I think Fisch is definitely a candidate for head coaching positions and his future depends on what types of jobs are out there at the end of the season. If he sticks around, he either gets Josh Rosen for a second year or he gets to mentor Dorian Thompson-Robinson as well as UCLA’s other returning quarterbacks. Either way, he’s not doing too badly for himself.

I’m sure the family does enjoy living in Los Angeles, but coaching families live a unique nomadic experience. I spoke to Caleb Wilson (the son of a coach) about this earlier this season. He went to three different high schools in three years and was OK with moving at the drop of a hat because he understood that he was sacrificing for his dad so his dad could provide for the family. He didn’t want to leave Oklahoma in middle school but he understood that that was his life. I think there’s understanding from everyone, from the coach to the wife to the kids, that they follow the job, they do it together and go enjoy life together wherever it takes them.

Colin Samuel has appeared to perform very well and exhibited good coverage skills against talented receivers in the last few games. Do you feel he is a future starter and impact player at cornerback? Has he been more consistent than Darnay Holmes?

I’ve been really impressed in recent weeks Colin Samuel. He definitely has the look of a big-time defensive back at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, and he started to flash some potential during spring practice. It seems that the coaching staff has been playing Nate Meadors in the slot more recently and he’s continued to play well there, getting his first interception in two years on a tipped pass last week and tackling well. With Meadors working more in the slot, Samuel has been able to play on the outside where he can use his length, run with receivers and press them. The game-time sample size for Samuel is still small compared to Darnay Holmes at this point I think (and Holmes is only on his first year with the program compared to Samuel, who is in his third), but I will say that Samuel has made the very most of every one of his opportunities and the Bruins have a few good options with corner for the end of this year and going into next season.

The Arizona State game was only the second time UCLA gained more yards per rush than their opponent (first was Memphis). Is there any chance UCLA keeps that close against USC?

On offense, the Bruins are coming off their best rushing game of the year in terms of total yards (192) and second-best in terms of average with 5.8. (Stanford was 7.7 yards per rush, but the Bruins only ran the ball 15 times in the blowout so that number is misleading.) But UCLA was also playing the ninth-best rushing defense in the conference in Arizona State (179.6 yards allowed per game). USC is a little better against the run (166.1 yards allowed). Also, UCLA gained 39 and 30 yards on two jet sweeps, handing the ball off to Eldridge Massington and Christian Pabico. The misdirection worked well against Arizona State, but it might be tougher to pull off against the caliber of athlete that USC has on its defense.

On the defensive side, UCLA’s rushing defense is still terrible, but it’s started to improve incrementally during the past three weeks. Washington gained for 5.7 yards per rush, then that number dipped to 5.4 the next week against Utah. Arizona State rushed for 4.8 yards per carry. So that’s trending in the right direction. However, they haven’t faced a back like Ronald Jones who is so physical and so fast.

So UCLA has a difficult task on both ends of the running game, but if it were to be able gain more yards per carry than USC, I think it would be because of wild offensive excellence, not because the UCLA defense improved drastically. The way I could see it happening is in a shoot-out style where teams are trading big runs back and forth.

From Clay Helton’s comments about Josh Rosen’s play against ASU we can infer that USC will bring a lot more pressure (historically effective in rattling him). Jedd Fisch must realize this; thoughts on the Bruins offensive game plan? Can anticipated USC aggressiveness be used against them?

I’m not a coach and if I was one, I’d be making more money somewhere else. So I don’t know what the Bruins are going to do or should do against USC. I think Jedd Fisch did well last week in his game plan against Arizona State by giving Josh Rosen hot routes and ways to get around Arizona State’s pressure. ASU likely brings different pressure than USC (and the Sun Devils are blitzing less this season than in seasons past) but the idea of getting the ball out of Rosen’s hand quickly and getting him to understand when to throw the ball away will likely be big parts of the discussion on offense this week.

One of the reasons against letting Jim Mora go this year is because of the size of his buyout – what’s his buyout next year? Is it reduced enough to actually make a difference if the team underperforms again?

According to USA Today’s coaching salary database, Jim Mora would be due a $12.25 million buyout if he is fired at the end of this year. From what I can understand from his contract, if he would be fired after next year, it would be around $10 million (certainly not a small amount of money).

Do all the players really buy into the rivalry? Some (especially freshmen) are not from the LA area so I suspect they may not be as locked in as others.

I think in general, rivalries are learned. Those were grew up in the area have spent a lifetime learning it. You don’t really have to worry about those guys not being “locked in” for this game. They feel it because it’s not just at a university vs. university level, but it’s a friend vs. friend level. Like many of the players (and running backs coach DeShaun Foster) have pointed out this week, they have been playing with/against some of USC’s players since they were kids.

For those transplants who have heard about it second-hand, they may not feel it as strongly now, but I think they’ll start to develop those feelings as their careers go on and they’ll only grow after they leave the program. I think perhaps it becomes even stronger when you’re away from the actual game and you’re watching as a fan. For the Bruins especially, they have lost two games in a row, so I would think that they’re very invested in this series and reclaiming bragging rights.

How do you predict UCLA finishes the season? Does the team make it to a bowl game?

The most likely outcome to me would be that the Bruins they split these final two games (losing to USC and beating Cal) to grab bowl eligibility on Black Friday.

During Friday conference matchups this season, only once has a road team come out with a win. It was Utah over Arizona on Sept. 22. Utah was home against San Jose State the week before and Khalil Tate had yet to take control in the desert. I t’s always a tough task for a team to travel on a short week. Cal has also lost all of its away conference games so far (it faces Stanford in Palo Alto this weekend).

I think Justin Wilcox has done well in his first year at Cal and I could see the game being close, but I think a win to clinch bowl eligibility is more likely than a loss that would land the Bruins at 5-7 on the year.

You obviously do not report information which is told to you off the record. Are there other matters pertinent to the football program which you consider to be off limits? For example, if you learn that certain sensitive personal issues may impact a player’s on-field performance, do you refrain from reporting on those issues unless you have the player’s consent? Where do you draw the line?

It’s always a case-by-case basis. A lot of people view reporters as vultures who prey on subjects when they’re at their most vulnerable just to get clicks. We’re (for the most part) not like that (I hope). I don’t want to bring unnecessary harm to people, especially in the case of players in college who are not really fully formed adults yet. If players are dealing with an off-the-field issue that’s not by their own doing, like a death in the family, for example, and it may be affecting their on-the-field play, I feel like it’s pretty wrong to chastise them for something that’s not their fault. But if it’s something that they did and it’s public, like, say, an arrest, then you report that, even if the player doesn’t officially “comment.”