We recently participated in a preseason Q&A with the guys from the superb SB Nation UCLA site, Bruins Nation, and we asked the guys over there if they would mind answering the same questions from their perspective. The September 29th game against the Bruins in Boulder is going to be a crucial game for the Buffaloes so dive in and learn a bit more about Jim Mora's new team.
What were the core questions that you had hoped would be answered by Spring Practice? Were conclusions reached?
There were 2 major questions: How would the new coaching staff approach things, and who will be the starting QB? The first one was answered, the second was not. Coach Mora and his staff definitely approached things with a much more serious and no nonsense attitude than we saw with either Karl Dorrell or Rick Neuheisel, and Bruins fans agree this was something that the program sorely needed. Mora had no qualms calling out players who weren't putting in the effort he expected, and many of the players themselves were vocally supportive of his approach, too. Of course, there are many ways a coach can manage a team, and the results on Saturdays are the true indicator whether a particular style works. But after the easy going approach we saw previously, the new found accountability was a welcome change. As for QB's, Mora had said he wanted to see one of the QB's establish himself as a starter during spring drills. But spring came and went and we still have no clear starter. The job is likely down to returning part-time starter Rich Brehaut and our highly touted redshirt freshman Brett Hundley, though last year's other part time starter Kevin Prince is officially still in the mix. Mora said at Pac-12 Media Day that all of the QB's elevated their level of play, so no one guy emerged ahead of the others, and that he hopes to choose a starter a couple weeks into fall camp. Maybe that was just coach speak, but this remains the foremost issue in the minds of Bruin fans at this time. My guess is that it will be Hundley on opening day.
Any major style changes coming our way in the fall? New offense or defense installed?
Both. Last year's move to the Pistol offense was a gamble designed to improve the running game, which it did but at the total expense of the passing game. It proved to be a failure overall and the coaching staff went down with it. This season, Mora hired Noel Mazzone to be his offensive coordinator. Mazzone was OC at ASU last season, so we should expect an ASU style offense, with a lot of lateral passes designed to get the ball into the hands of the backs and receivers in space. There will be less emphasis on a power running game and downfield passing.
On the defensive side, things have changed completely as well. Last year's defense didn't have a name, but the words awful, god-awful, and f*#%ing awful would have all been appropriate. The Bruins were 11th in rush D and 11th in pass D, which is ok if you like consistency, but didn't offer much else that was positive. Mora, who is a defensive coach himself, brought in Lou Spanos as his defensive coordinator. Spanos was most recently with the Washington Redskins, and then with the Pittsburgh Steelers for 14 years before that. Spanos is changing the defense to a 3-4 scheme and with more press coverage on the outside. Whereas last year's defense was more passive than Ghandi, we are hoping the new defense will be more of the fundamentally sound and hard-nosed defense we equate with the Steelers.
What players emerged on offense? On defense?
One of the best things Mora has done is open up every position to every player, regardless of seniority. Neuheisel's staff definitely favored senior players over younger and often more talented underclassmen, so we have seen a lot of the younger players on the roster excel given their new opportunity. Some of the real breakout players in spring came at the WR position, particularly Shaq Evans and Jerry Rice, Jr. Yes, that Jerry Rice. Senior Jerry Johnson also made huge strides. The biggest revelation was redshirt freshman running back Stephen Manfro, a guy who got offers from U.C.L.A. and Wyoming and no one else, and then spent spring practice looking very much like Barry Sanders. Bruin fans can't wait to see this guy on the field in the fall.
On the defensive side, there weren't really players standing out as much as there were a lot of guys playing like we had expected last season. DT Datone Jones and Cassius Marsh will lead the defensive line which looks to be our best and deepest unit. LB Erik Kendricks continued to make the big strides we saw from him in the last half of the 2011 season. Tevin McDonald looked really good in his role as the new starting safety. Our much maligned cornerbacks Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price, who spent 2011 lined up 10 yards off the ball and backpedalling at the snap looked good being allowed to play press coverage and be more aggressive.
What are your biggest worries coming out of spring ball for the fall?
My biggest concern for years, this year being no exception, is the offensive line. No other unit on our team has had worse luck with injuries, transfers, eligibility, and bad karma than this crew. Our latest example: one of our better and more experienced returning starters on the line had to take a medical retirement this summer due to recurrent concussions. As is typical with our line, we have a couple of really good players, a couple solid guys, and a ton of question marks. Left tackle Xavier Su'a-Filo started every game as a freshman, and then left for his 2 year LDS mission. He is back this year and could be one of the top 2-3 linemen in the conference. Sr Jeff Baca filled that spot last year and will play guard this season and should be excellent there. After that, our center Greg Capella is moving over from guard and our other guard Chris Ward is coming off an ACL tear at the end of last season. Beyond those 4, there is little experience and depth. The right tackle is a battle between a couple of redshirt freshmen who show promise but are completely untested. Mora's staff brought in some good prospects this year, but they won't be helping much this fall. Getting solid OL recruits needs to be an ongoing focus of this program going forward. As for this season, if our starting 5 stay healthy and develop, it could be a very good line and really make the offense go. On the other hand, the wrong injury to the wrong guy, or the failure of any of them get up to game speed quickly could spell doom. We'll watch and hold our breath. Again.
Project your season. Contender? Pretender? Middle of the pack?
On paper, we should absolutely be contenders. And that's the problem. For a decade, the football team has looked very good on paper, but has fallen far short of expectations on the field. When we look at 2012, it again all seems to be right there. This is the most talented roster we have had in Westwood in a long time. The schedule works out beautifully. We miss Oregon and Washington, and we get Nebraska, u$c, and Stanford at home. Last year's team stumbled and underachieved to a 6 win season. The new coaching staff looks like it has addressed many of the failures seen with the last 2 coaches. With any sort of improvement, especially on the defensive side of the ball, 9 wins looks totally reasonable. Also, stupid Southern Cal has been humiliating us for too long, and that absolutely has to be turned around.
Any frosh you can't wait to get on campus?
Ellis McCarthy. He was the #4 DT recruit in the country, and the kid looks like an absolute beast in game films. He attended some of the Bruins' spring practices and he was as big in shorts and a T-shirt as many of our DL were in their pads. True to Bruin form, he had to have surgery last week for a minor cartilage tear in his knee so he will miss the first week or so of fall camp. After that though, Bruin fans cannot wait to see this guy on the field. Pac-12 quarterbacks will not be as anxious.
Who will you miss the most from last season? Who will be stepping up to fulfill those shoes?
A couple of big names we will miss are safety Tony Dye and right tackle Mike Harris. Dye's 2011 season was cut short by injury, but he was a good player and a great heart on a that otherwise vanilla and flimsy defense. McDonald looks to be a very good replacement this season. Harris started at right tackle for 4 seasons and was the lone picture of consistency on an O line that was anything but. The Bruins have no current replacement for him. Maybe our biggest loss from 2011 is OL coach Bob Palcic, who worked wonders to even field a serviceable offensive line in Westwood the last couple years. He is replaced by ace recruiter Adrian Klemm, who has 3 Super Bowl rings from his OL days with the Patriots, and who spent his last 4 years as a coach at SMU. No unit needs more of an upgrade for the Bruins to be successful, so we will see if Klemm can lead them to that.
What's the current opinion of Coach Mora with the fanbase? How much leeway does he get in first year in Westwood?
Bruin fans had a(nother) major problem with our AD Dan Guerrero when he hired Mora after last season. Mora was not on U.C.L.A. fans' or anyone else's radar, so it was pretty surprising when the Guerreror hired him so quickly (Mora is Guerrero's 3rd football head coaching hire). But this was more of an indictment on the AD than it is on Mora, who sought out the job specifically and came well prepared. So far, Mora has said and done the right things. He hired respected assistants. He reeled in a great recruiting class. He seems to have established a more accountable culture to the program. He has made some subtle comments that reflect the fans' concerns about substandard facilities. He calls Southern Cal Southern Cal, which really irritates those guys. But again, Bruin fans have been encouraged in the preseason by previous hires too, only to see the scoreboard look the same during the fall. It takes a bit of leap of faith to think that Mora, who hasn't coached in college at any level in 28 years, and who has a lifetime sub .500 head coaching record, is the guy to get this program turned around. Still, given the roster and schedule for 2012, Bruin fans have set the bar quite high for a first year coach in a struggling program. Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez will likely get a lot more slack from their fan bases this year. But to Mora's credit, he has embraced and supported those same expectations. He expects to win now. Bruin fans would like him to do just that.
What are the specific injury concerns coming out of this spring?
The Bruins lost a couple of very promising young players, ILB Isaiah Bowens and DB Librado Boracio, to ACL tears in spring. Their return this fall is really doubtful. On the good side, several players who were limited in spring drills like Capella and Ward, the two linemen I mentioned above, as well as explosive WR Ricky Marvray are all ready to go by now.
Based on what you've seen, who is ready to take a major leap this fall?
TE Joe Fauria. You CU Buff fans will recognize that name. Christian is Joe's uncle. Fauria is on the Mackey watch list, and at 6-7, with great hands, speed, and athleticism, and with absolutely no shortage of confidence, Fauria is a matchup nightmare for any defense. Last year, he was a monster in some games. The only time he was held in check is when the coaching staff apparently forgot he was an eligible receiver. The TE in Mazzone's offense rarely plays a typical down lineman spot, so Fauria will frequently be split wide and matched against a safety or nickel or OLB, and he should dominate that. Remember Shannon Sharpe when the Broncos would go 4 or 5 wide? That's what I'm thinking of.
Who do you want to punch in the face?
Figuratively speaking, of course. First, Matt Barkley. And then our AD.
Who has the best nickname on the team?
Our top running back, Johnathan Franklin, was nicknamed "JetSki" in high school for the rooster tail of grass and dirt he kicks up when he runs. Bruins fans have started calling Stephen Manfro "The White Mamba", in reference to Oregon's D'Anthony Thomas, with the tongue only partly in cheek.
What road trip are the Bruins looking forward to the most this season?
That one's easy...a beautiful campus, the Rocky Mountains in the fall, an opponent we haven't visited in 9 years, and the most awesomest live mascot in the country...it's Boulder by a mile. For me, I'm pretty excited for the short travel, too. Besides, it'll be the only game this year I'm not rooting for you guys.