Late on Saturday night, after UCLA had lost the Foster Farms Bowl to Nebraska, freshman quarterback Josh Rosen stared straight ahead during the postgame news conference and picked at his fingers.
Rosen had just finished a remarkable season. He threw for 3,670 yards with 23 passing touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Yet UCLA slid to 8-5, its worst record in Coach Jim Mora’s tenure. So where does that leave the Bruins next season?
In the week before the bowl game, Mora declared, “I’m excited about our team in the future.”
Fairly or not, Rosen will enter his sophomore season with Heisman Trophy hype.
Rosen’s season was, in many ways, unprecedented for a true freshmen passer. John Elway and Peyton Manning did not come close to Rosen’s numbers. California’s Jared Goff, currently a junior, had very similar stats, but in a pass-happy system.
Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor and Baylor’s Robert Griffin III were arguably more productive overall, but both relied heavily on their running ability. In the early 1990s, Danny Wuerffel, at Florida, came close, but threw fewer touchdowns than Rosen, with fewer yards and a lower completion percentage.
“Josh has been, I think, incredibly consistent for a true freshman,” Mora said.
By the bowl game, Mora had entrusted him with much of the play-calling.
Rosen may already be a championship-caliber quarterback. For UCLA, the question becomes: does it have enough talent and coaching around him to win one?
UCLA will surround Rosen with ample talent at the skill positions. UCLA doesn’t have an easy replacement for Jordan Payton, but Mossi Johnson will return from injury at slot receiver. If running back Paul Perkins leaves early for the NFL, Soso Jamabo and Nate Starks would be strong replacements.
The biggest concern for the Bruins, heading into the off-season, is how they will protect Rosen. The departures of guard Alex Redmond and center Fred Ulu-Perry opened cracks in the offensive line in Saturday’s bowl game, when the Bruins had just six healthy linemen. They rushed for just 67 yards.
With Ulu-Perry gone, Mora plans to play Scott Quessenberry at center. Quessenberry, injured this season, has started 19 games, mostly at guard. If tackles Caleb Benenoch and Conor McDermott return for their senior seasons, the unit will bring plenty of experience.
This season, that lack of depth forced UCLA to be creative. Benenoch, for instance, shuttled between tackle and guard. At times, he said, the shuffling frustrated him.
“I’d be lying to you if I said it didn’t,” Benenoch said.
On the defensive side, the potential loss of lineman Kenny Clark, to the NFL, and linebacker Aaron Wallace, to graduation, will be partially offset by the addition of lineman Eddie Vanderdoes, who will return from injury.
Once Vanderdoes and linebacker Myles Jack were injured this season, “our run defense pretty much sucked,” defensive end Takkarist McKinley said. “That’s keeping it real.”
But Clark and Wallace are the only likely departures among defensive starters. And if UCLA can solve its run-game issues, its defense has a chance to be among the best in the conference.
The secondary, already the best in the Pac-12 in yards per pass attempt, will return all starters. And Mora said he expects injured cornerback Fabian Moreau to be granted a medical redshirt and return for a fifth season.
In the coming days, UCLA must decide whether a more significant shake-up is in order. Mora said he would evaluate the coaching and strength and conditioning staffs. Several coaches will receive retention bonuses on Jan. 1, so any change probably would come swiftly.
Mora’s staff has benefited from relative stability, but UCLA has regressed in the Pac-12 South standings over the last four seasons. Yet UCLA’s five-loss record obscured one fact: The Bruins were one win away from the Pac-12 championship game.
This time, they could not beat USC.
“Next year I guarantee that’s not going to happen,” McKinley said. “I want the national championship, man. That’s where I really want to go to.”