photo courtesy of UniformCritics.com
by Lisa Horne
UCLA football begins its 2014 season in Charlottesville, Virginia where the Bruins (10-3) take on the Virginia Cavaliers (2-10) on August 30. Head coach Mike London is entering his fifth year at Virginia and holds an 18-31 record. Jim Mora is entering his third year as UCLA's head coach with a 19-8 record. UCLA is favored by more than three touchdowns.
Here are the match-ups by positional units.
UCLA has a legitimate Heisman candidate in Brett Hundley. Last year he threw for 3,071 yards, 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He showed great pocket awareness and escapability as well—Hundley rushed for 748 yards, 11 touchdowns and averaged more than 12 yards a carry. He's a dual threat who can make cheating safeties pay.
Redshirt sophomore Greyson Lambert was named the starting quarterback for the Cavaliers in May. The former 4-star prepster played in seven games last year going 33-of-75 for 340 yards and one touchdown. His offense returns almost intact so there are experienced weapons at Lambert's disposal but he will also be facing one of the better secondaries in the country.
Advantage: UCLA. Hundley's experience coupled with a Rose Bowl berth on the line is more than enough motivation for him to have his first Heisman moment.
UCLA has a bit of a conumdrum on its hands. Do you put Myles Jack at running back—he rushed for 120 yards against Arizona—or linebacker?—he had eight tackles in the same game. Jack was named Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year by Pac-12 coaches.
Jordon James (nursing a leg injury), Steven Manfro and Paul Perkins return to the backfield and Adarius Pickett has been recently added to the mix.
Kevin Parks returns for his senior year at Virginia, fresh off being named to the All-Atlantic Coast Conference second team. Parks rushed for 1,031 yards and 11 touchdowns last year—six games saw him rush for 100-plus yards. Parks isn't alone. Taquan "Smoke" Mizzell and Khalek Shepard are also dangerous. Mizzell could eclipse both of his teammate's numbers if given enough carries.
Advantage: Virginia. UCLA's leading rusher last year was its own quarterback. The second-most productive Bruin was Perkins, who rushed for 573 yards and six touchdowns. Someone needs to step up in a more featured role for the Bruins.
UCLA loses Shaq Evans but gets back Devin Fuller, Devin Lucien and Jordan Payton. The Bruins are loaded at receiver and have a dependable tight end in Thomas Duarte. Hundley's running backs are also a receiving threat—Steven Manfro tallied more receiving yards (113) than rushing yards (107) last year. Up-and-comers like Logan Sweet and Eldridge Massington, a 4-star recruit out of Texas, are also ready to step up into offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's spread offense.
You'll have to scroll all the way down to the No. 27 spot on the ACC's most productive receivers list to find a Cavalier—tight end Jake McGee, with 395 yards, was the team leader. Wide receiver Tim Smith, who was second-best, had 26 catches for 389 yards and one touchdown but he is gone. If Virginia gets into a track meet with UCLA, it's going to be a rout by the Bruins.
Advantage: UCLA. The Bruins' depth is ridiculous and Mazzone's pass-heavy offense should keep the Cavalier defensive backs on their heels.
Tackle Simon Goines had ankle surgery to remove bone spurs, according to Los Angeles Daily News' Jack Wang. His back-up, Conor McDermott, is also recovering from surgery. Center Jake Brendel reportedly left practice on Monday with a "moderate MCL injury," according to Orange County Register's Ryan Kartje.
True freshman Najee Toran believes he will start at right guard on August 30, according to Wang. UCLA has had remarkable success in starting true freshmen in the trenches. Kudos go to offensive line coach Adrian Klemm for turning around what was once a weak spot in the football program.
The Cavaliers return three starters but they are not that experienced. Left tackle Jay Whitmire has 12 starts but he has been sidelined with a reported spinal cyst and is currently unavailable. Center Eric Tetlow played in five games as a true freshman and right tackle Eric Smith started eight games as a true freshman. Starting 'em out young is fine but Virginia's brutal schedule may end up destroying their confidence.
Advantage: UCLA. Klemm earned his paycheck last year when the Bruins started three true freshmen on the line. If the Bruins are forced to start another freshman this year, there's no need to panic.
How deep is the talent in the Bruins' secondary? Adarius Pickett, a 4-star corner, moved to running back, ostensibly to see more playing time. This unit returns almost completely intact—Brandon Sermons (38 tackles) is the lone departure.
Last year the Bruins' pass defense was ranked third in the conference. Expect that ranking to go up. In the meantime, we will keep waiting for defensive back Justin Combs, the son of Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, to bust a move.
Last year Virginia's pass defense was ranked 10th in its conference—this year's pass defense may be ranked first. Corner Demetrious Nicholson has 25 starts under his belt. The other corner, Maurice Canady, has 10 starts and was twice named ACC Defensive Back of the Week in 2012. Their two back-ups, Tim Harris and DreQuan Hoskey, have 17 starts combined. Free safety Brandon Phelps started 22 games and strong safety Anthony Harris is named to numerous preseason award watch lists.
Advantage: Virginia. The Cavaliers' secondary is a defensive coordinator's dream. But this deep, talented and experienced group will be severely tested by Hundley's arm and legs.
The Bruins lost Jordan Zumwalt and Lott Trophy winner Anthony Barr to the NFL. UCLA's top tackler, Eric Kendricks, returns along with Myles Jack. Youngsters Kenny Young and Aaron Collins are competing for a starting spot—both are very talented. This group should be very, very good but the loss of Barr is hard to overlook.
The Cavaliers' three starting linebackers from last year—Max Valles, Henry Coley and Daquan Romero— all return. Will they stay motivated? The Cavaliers offense led the conference in time of possession but were ranked 10th in red zone conversions—they couldn't finish their drives. If the offense keeps stalling, the defense's frustration may take its toll.
Advantage: UCLA. This is almost a coin toss but the Myles Jack factor is too big. Climb aboard his bandwagon and enjoy the ride.
Losing defensive end Cassius Marsh to the NFL is a huge loss but UCLA has stockpiled quite a bit of talent in the last two years. Eddie Vanderdoes (7 starts) and Owagmagbe Odighzuwa (8 starts) anchor the three-man front.
Ellis McCarthy, a highly-recruited 5-star tackle, has struggled with consistency and appears to be relegated as a reserve in the 3-4 defense. UCLA's defense is very aggressive: the Bruins' offense coughed up the ball 16 times but its defense made up for that with 26 recovered balls.
Virginia lost two starters but returns two in tackle David Dean and end Eli Harold. The Cavaliers were better than average on sacks (2.33 per game) but against the run, they were a little soft. In turnover margin, Virginia was on the wrong side of the ball—it committed 26 turnovers but only gained 21 fumbles/interceptions. The defensive line needs to be more opportunistic.
Advantage: UCLA. As long as the Bruins don't let down their guard, the line should win the war in the trenches.
UCLA has been a haven for kickers and punters. Placekicker Ka'imi Fairbairn and punter Sean Covington return. Fairbairn was 59-of-60 in PATs but only 14-of-20 in field goal attempts. UCLA's return specialists are excellent: Manfro, Fuller and Ishmael Adams will all break a few for big yardage this year.
Punter Alec Volzenilek replaced injured placekicker Ian Frye last year and went 12-of-15 in field goal attempts. Frye returns as the starting kicker and Volzenilek as starting punter. Kickoff and punt returns could improve.
From the school's official website: "Nearly a decade has passed since a UVa football player returned a punt for a touchdown. The Cavaliers haven't run back a kickoff for a TD in nearly four years."
Homefield advantage can play a crucial role in a football game's outcome but don't count on Scott Stadium to help out the Cavaliers. The stadium holds 61,500 but according to Phil Steele's preseason magazine, last year's capacity was at 75 percent.
Mora received a new six-year contact extension in December. London is on the hot seat. A potential lame duck coach can inspire a team to play over its head. It can also have the opposite effect.
UCLA football wants to turn the page. Its goal is a Rose Bowl game berth. Virginia's goal may be as simple as just getting the ball into the endzone. While one team is reaching for the stars, the other appears to be reaching for a life preserver.
Prediction: UCLA 50 Virginia 17