On the first day of fall camp last August, UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen confidently declared the Bruins had the pieces necessary to compete for a national championship. The talented sophomore suffered a shoulder injury early into the campaign, however, and offensive changes made in the offseason never quite worked.
The Bruins sputtered to a 4-8 final record, easily the worst mark of head coach Jim Mora's tenure at UCLA. After a dip to a previous low of eight wins in 2015, the pressure's on UCLA to reverse course in '17.
This season could be the last for Rosen, a former 5-star recruit touted as the best quarterback prospect in the country a few years ago. Rosen's shown sustained flashes of greatness to validate the prep praise, and entered 2016 as a potential Heisman Trophy contender. His play upon returning from the shoulder injury is likely the key to whether the Bruins can be a factor in the Pac-12 South this fall.
5 Storylines to Watch During UCLA's Spring Practice
1. Rosen's Rebound
The shoulder injury quarterback Josh Rosen sustained early in the season provided the catalyst to a 1-6 finish. Yet, while his absence was indeed central to the Bruins' second-half struggles, he played well below expectations over the course of the season's first month. He threw three interceptions Week 1 at Texas A&M, and had five picks by the time his campaign ended; half of his 10 touchdown passes came against Arizona and Arizona State, ranked No. 117 and No. 128 against the pass nationally; and his completion percentage languished below 60.
Some of Rosen's underwhelming play was a byproduct of bigger-picture issues with the Bruins' offense as a whole. An improvement in Rosen's game serves to elevate the entire UCLA offense — and in turn, pull the program out of the slide it endured in 2016.
2. The Running Game
On the topic of bigger problems with the UCLA offense, nothing was more notable than the run game. The Bruins barely surpassed 1,000 yards on the season as a team, with no single player garnering more than 85 carries. None of the three ball carriers (Soso Jamabo, Bolu Olorunfunmi and Nate Starks) averaged even four yards oper carry, and the trio combined for eight rushing touchdowns. As a result, UCLA ranked behind every team in the FBS, save Texas State.
The move from a spread-influenced offense to a traditional pro set, featuring multiple-man backfields with a lead blocker and tighter offensive line formations proved ineffective. Spring brings with it a shakeup that could benefit a run game in desperate need.
3. Another Offensive Coordinator Change
Mora tapped former USC assistant Kennedy Polamalu to revamp the UCLA offense in 2016, after four seasons with Noel Mazzone. Mazzone's offenses played fast and put up some big numbers, but also struggled through ineffective blocking. Rosen's arrival coincided with a philosophical change.
The Bruins never quite got everyone on the same page, as the Polamalu-coached unit finished tied for 91st in the FBS in total offense (379.8 ypg) and tied for 95th in scoring (24.9 ppg). Those results produced another change as Jedd Fisch is now in charge of the offense. Fisch is a well-traveled NFL assistant, who most recently transitioned from coaching Sundays to Saturdays. He spent the past two seasons on Jim Harbaugh's Michigan staff working with quarterbacks and wide receivers, but he said upon his introduction at UCLA in January that he's focused on the running attack.
4. A New-Look Front Seven
Few programs can match the quality of players coming out of the front seven that UCLA has had. Eric Kendricks, Myles Jack, Anthony Barr, Owa Odighizuwa, Cassius Marsh, Kenny Clark; it's a long list. The Bruins have managed to replace the outgoing talent, and must do so again with Jayon Brown, Eddie Vanderdoes, Deon Hollins, Eli Ankou and Takkarist McKinley on their way to the NFL Draft.
Some familiar faces are in action during spring ball. Kenny Young broke into the lineup as a freshman in 2014, but really began producing numbers last season. He finished with five sacks and 8.5 tackles for a loss. Defensive lineman Jacob Tuioti-Mariner also showed potential to emerge as the Bruins' next great pass-rushing threat. Sophomores Boss Tagaloa and Rick Wade have the opportunity to step into more prominent roles, as well. Look for former 5-star recruit Keisean Lucier-South to make major strides beginning with spring practices.
5. Getting Back on Track
UCLA won at least nine games in each of Mora's first three seasons as head coach, but the last two seasons have put the Bruins on a downard trend. The last time UCLA finished 4-8 was in 2010, and then-head coach Rick Neuheisel entered the next season squarely on the hot seat. He was dismissed at year's end.
Mora will be under pressure to get results in 2017. Whereas the conversation around UCLA centered on Pac-12 and national title talk in previous years — to which Mora downplayed the possibility of distraction — the coming campaign will be about ignoring criticism. Spring is UCLA's first time on the field since closing a disappointing season, which means the first steps toward erasing those memories.
Pre-Spring Outlook for UCLA in the Pac-12
After sitting squarely in the divisional title hunt from Mora's debut season through 2015, last season relegated UCLA to the Pac-12 South's bottom half. Heading into 2017, USC appears to be the cream of the crop in the division, with the other five programs jockeying for position after the Trojans.
UCLA benefits from uncertainty prevelant throughout the program. With its third offensive coordinator in three years and mass turnover on defense, however, the Bruins have serious work to do to get back into that nine-win range.