Historically, what made UCLA so good is their ability to find these really dynamic runningbacks who could carry their teams for long stretches of games. Freeman McNeil, Gaston Green, Skip Hicks, DeShaun Foster, Maurice Jones-Drew, Chris Markey, and of course Johnathan Franklin all stood out on their respective teams as offensive weapons who could overtake games by themselves. That doesn’t mean that UCLA never had any good wide receivers (though, J.J. Stokes is the only one I can think of right now), but they certainly always had a top-notch running back.
The 2013 edition of the Bruins is a little different. They still have the playmaking running back in junior Jordon James, but now they run the kind of offense that is akin to the complected, athletic, fast offenses that you see down in the SEC. They use everyone, and I mean everyone, at nearly every position. They have a guy who was recruited as one of 2012′s top prep-quarterbacks in the nation set at receiver, their quarterback (a Heisman hopeful) runs as much as he throws (and he does both well), and there isn’t one legitimate tight end on the roster.
When it comes down to it, UCLA is strong at nearly every level. They rank 5th in the nation in points scored, 14th in rushing yards, and 21st in passing yards. The Bruins may not be Oregon good, but they are still scary good. The way I describe it to my friends is, UCLA at absolute worst is a nine-win team, but are more likely to be a double digit win team. That isn’t all due to the offense, but the offense will be be a big decider in a lot of games this season for UCLA (the Stanford game comes to mind).
The offense starts with quarterback Brett Hundley. Hundley is rated as the 9th best prospect for the 2014 NFL Draft, and yet he seems to be an afterthought this year when people talk about the Pac-12 quarterbacks. Marcus Mariota, Kevin Hogan and Keith Price get a little more love (if you ask me) than Hundley. Meanwhile, Hundley takes all of the Los Angeles hype and expectations that have been pumped into him since he signed with UCLA as the best player coming out of the state of Arizona his senior season, and has somehow elevated both his play and the program. He is UCLA’s leading passer (1,059 yards on 78-for-119 passing and nine touchdowns), second leading rusher (242 yards on 52 carries with three touchdowns) and 18th leading receiver (one catch for seven yards and a touchdown). He alone can change the game with his arms, hands or feet. He can make most throws, though he can be a little arrogant when he is on a hot streak, and it can lead to inaccuracies. But, overall, he could be the best quarterback in the conference, and one of the five best in the nation.
The UCLA running attack, like so many other years, featured multiple players. The team, as a whole, has rushed for 1,039 yards on 198 carries and 14 touchdowns. We already mentioned what Hundley does when he runs with the ball, but he isn’t the most dangerous person rushing the ball on the team. Junior Jordon James, who comes in as the next man who uphold the UCLA tradition of phenomenal, game-changing backs who play tailback in Westwood. James has already rushed for 463 yards on 74 carries with five touchdowns. He is a powerful back with strong legs and enough game-speed to get past some of the better secondaries in the Pac-12.
The Bruins also feature Paul Perkins and Malcolm Jones. Perkins, a freshman, adds a little of that dynamic speed that you may not get from James or Hundley all the time. Perkins has rushed for 192 yards on 31 carries with two scores. Jones, a senior, is someone who is sometimes a forgotten man. He isn’t the fastest, surely isn’t the most devastating in terms of elusively, but seems to get the job done when it needs to go down. He has scored three touchdowns this season, and will be an option late in games down near the red zone.
The receiving corps is a lot better than it has been in years, but still not the kind of receiving corps of an Oregon or even a Central Florida (that isn’t a joke, they are really, really good). That doesn’t mean UCLA isn’t getting better. However, the days of the tight end being the most prominent receiver on the team is over (sorry, 2005 Bruins). Now, the best receivers on the team come in the form of a senior receiver who through four games already is having his best season yet, a converted quarterback who has shown he can make the big catch and a sophomore who has yet to really show who he is.
For senior Shaquele Evans, he has always been someone who has had the potential to be a star, but has never quite gotten there. Last season, he was able to nab 877 yards on 60 catches with three scores. However, he has already shown a vast improvement from his 2012 season, as he is the team’s leading receiver with 221 yards on 14 catches and three touchdowns. He is a tall receiver, but sometimes plays short, which is not good. That said, he is still a dynamo when he does have the ball in his hands. He can get away from the crowd in a hurry. He is someone who will be able to expose a depleted secondary like Cal’s fairly easily.
Sophomore Devin Fuller was one of the catches of the 2012 recruiting class (no pun intended). The funny part is, he was supposed to either be a quarterback (which he was ranked as the fourth best quarterback on the board) or a safety. He already has shown off his arm once this season, but he is (for now) the second best receiver on the Bruins roster. He has shown an ability to catch the ball in traffic and extend small plays into big plays. So far this season, he’s caught 167 yards on 16 receptions with one touchdown. He is a mismatch, mainly because he is an athlete that can do just about anything on offense as well as line up anywhere. He is small, a 5’11 195 yard frame, doesn’t make him the easiest guy to keep track of. Think of Steve Smith (the Carolina Panthers/Oregon State godsend).
The other major player on the team, and my personal favorite, is Jordan Payton. Payton is kind of weird in that he can play as big as his 6’1 212 pound frame, but he seems to play best when he is the underneath man. His position as the third receiver fits him well, while still showing us glimpses of what he can be down the line when he is the number one or two guy on the depth chart at receiver. He has 163 yards on nine receptions with one touchdown, which is not bad considering the lack of times Hundley throws to him.
Jim Mora’s offense is a well-oiled machine when it’s on. The problem is: it tends to start off slow. Like, really slow. Through the first four games, they’ve scored just 24 points in the first quarter. They were held to three points in the first quarter of the Nebraska game. They seem to have to make a miraculous comeback in the second quarter and beyond in order to win games. If Cal is to have that momentous upset this season, they will need to jump on UCLA early and often, and that means keeping the Bruins offense in that we-can’t-score-in-the-first-quarter mentality. I don’t know how they can do it, considering all the injuries and all of the poor play this season, but hey, miracles can happen and this weekend may be that. I doubt it, but you never know.
Topics: Brett Hundley, Cal Golden Bears, Cal/UCLA Preview, Chris Markey, DeShaun Foster, Devin Fuller, Freeman McNeil, Gaston Green, J.J. Stokes, Johnathan Franklin, Jordan Payton, Jordon James, Marcus Mariota, Maurice Jones-Drew, Oregon Ducks, Shaquelle Evans, Skip Hicks, UCLA Bruins