UCLA opens against Nevada at the Rose Bowl on Saturday night. The Bruins hope their season ends there too — perhaps in the Rose Bowl game. Staff writer Chris Foster examines the story lines:
Under the gun
The Bruins will see some version of the pistol offense, a scheme that flopped in Westwood for two seasons.
Nevada averaged 514.9 yards per game last season, ranking the Wolf Pack eighth nationally. Quarterback Cody Fajardo threw for 2,786 yards and gained another 1,121 rushing. Three of his top four receivers — Brandon Wimberly, Richy Turner and Aaron Bradley — are back.
UCLA counters with a rebuilt secondary. The group has a total of five starts among them, all by sophomore safety Randall Goforth.
But the pistol needs legs. Nevada lost running back Stefphon Jefferson, the nation's second leading rusher with 1,883 yards. Into that void steps Don Jackson, who signed with Washington State out of high school but didn't qualify academically. He played at Iowa Western Community College in 2012 and averaged 8.7 yards per carry.
The Bruins' defensive front should help out an inexperienced secondary.
Anthony Barr is the focal point of a talented and experienced linebacker corps that also returns Eric Kendricks and Jordan Zumwalt. Aaron Wallace is the newbie, starting on the left side, and freshman Myles Jack impressed coaches during training camp.
The Bruins are so deep on the defensive line that fans will see some "mixing-and-matching," Coach Jim Mora said. Freshman Kenny Clark has played himself into a role at nose tackle, meaning Ellis McCarthy could shift over to play some defensive end. Cassius Marsh is at right end. On the other side, freshman Eddie Vanderdoes is a star in the making.
Just like Bieber?
UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley has reached pop-star status with Bruins fans.
He had a breakout season as a redshirt freshman last year, and Mora and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone say he is now a much better decision-maker, knowing when to pass, when to ditch the ball and when to run. He has even been spotted sliding properly at the end of runs during practice — he sprained an ankle on an ill-advised slide against Nebraska last season.
Nevada lost four of its top five tacklers from last season, including three starting linebackers. Turnover might not be a bad thing. Nevada ranked 95th in total defense, 99th in scoring defense and 110th in rushing defense out of 120 teams in 2012.
Hundley needs a running back, or running backs, to replace Johnathan Franklin, whose abilities kept defenses honest. Jordon James and Steven Manfro get the first crack.
Aren't you special
UCLA has had quality special teams over the years. This season, key jobs are in the hands of newcomers.
Freshman Sean Covington handles the punting, and probably kickoffs. Sophomore Christopher Longo takes over as long snapper.
Even the experienced players aren't all that experienced. Kicker Kai'imi Fairbairn is only a sophomore. He ends most practices by attempting a 52-yard field goal from the left hash, the same kick that fell short and wide in a 27-24 loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game.
UCLA is in the process of building quality depth, and as many as 11 first-year freshmen are expected to play against Nevada.
The Bruins seem in better health than they have been in recent seasons. Only one player ticketed for significant playing time has an injury issue. Freshman cornerback Priest Willis left practice this week with an undisclosed injury, but he is expected to play.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times