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CFN Preview 2013 - UCLA Bruins

UCLA made impressive strides for first-year head coach Jim Mora. Absolutely no one in Westwood is about to rest on his laurels.

The Bruins were a vastly different team in 2012 than the ones that had been dragged into the abyss by the incapable trio of Rick Neuheisel, Karl Dorrell and Bob Toledo on the sidelines. UCLA practiced differently, displayed more confidence and posted far better results on Saturdays. The Bruins won at least nine games for the first time since 2005 and took the Pac-12 South, sans the asterisk this time. Oh, and the divide with rival USC has evaporated, thanks to a 38-28 win last Nov. 17 and another banner effort on Signing Day. But everyone on campus realizes that the turnaround has only just begun.

UCLA finished last year with three consecutive losses, providing a tangible reminder of the work that still needs to be done. It played very well against Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game, but was thoroughly outclassed in the Holiday Bowl by a Baylor team that was visibly bigger, stronger and faster. That 49-26 loss in San Diego provided the program with a checklist of what needs to be done in 2013 and beyond.

The Bruins have attacked the offseason the only way Mora knows how. Theyve worked diligently on the practice field, in the film room and in the classroom to become a better team in all phases. Anything less is grounds for a demotion by this staff. The team will begin the new season with promiseand holes that must be filled.

The offense has an emerging star at quarterback, Brett Hundley, and an exciting set of young receivers, yet it also must replace prolific RB Johnathan Franklin and shore up a middling line. The D is going to dominate from the front seven with DE Cassius Marsh and linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, but the secondary is as green as the Rose Bowl sod.

UCLA went in an unconventional route last year when it hired a longtime NFL coach to lead it to higher ground. So far, the decision has clicked beyond even the most optimistic expectations. The Bruins are stronger than at any point in the last decade, carrying a head of steam and a wave of blue-chip recruits into the 2013 season. Theres still a long way to go, but with Mora in charge, theres a quiet confidence, unfamiliar on this campus, that UCLA is going to get where its going.

What to watch for on offense: The competition at running back. Without Johnathan Franklin spearheading the ground game in 2012, Brett Hundley doesnt deliver his auspicious debut behind center. Now that Franklin is a Green Bay Packer, the Bruins must find a replacement from a bunch of contenders that cant possibly replace their predecessor on their own. Jordon James and Damien Thigpen may be closest to the top of the depth chart. But Malcolm Jones is coming off a surprisingly good offseason, and Paul Perkins and Steven Manfro have shown flashes of potential.

What to watch for on defense: The maturation of the defensive backs. The Bruins were going to be rebuilding in the secondary, and that was before star S Tevin McDonald was booted prior to spring. Now, this looks like a rudderless unit, with no lockdown performer in sight. CB Anthony Jefferson has looked good now that hes finally healthy, and the return from injury of S Dietrich Riley has been inspirational. But the defensive backfield will be open for competition this summer. The best thing this group has going for it is a pass rush thatll limit the time opposing quarterbacks have to find open receivers.

The team will be far better if it protects the pocket. This is now Brett Hundleys team, and he needs to be protected accordingly. Last season, Bruins quarterbacks were sacked 52 times, yet they still accounted for 38 touchdowns. Imagine what this offense might do if Hundley is given the time he needs to set his feet and check down his receivers. Hell be the catalyst for all of UCLAs offensive success in 2013, but his production will be stunted if hes constantly ducking for cover.

The Schedule: Is this when UCLA take a huge leap forward under Jim Mora, or is it going to be inconsistent again as it tries to navigate its way up through a rough Pac-12 schedule? Starting out against Nevada isnt going to be a breather, but theres a week off to figure out what needs working on before a huge date at Nebraska. Win that, and 5-0 is a must with New Mexico State up next before an off week to prepare for easy games against Utah and Cal forget about last year; beating the Bears shouldnt be a problem.

As if having to play Stanford and Oregon from the North wasnt bad enough, the games are back-to-back and on the road. Fortunately, three of the next four games are at home and the trip to Arizona is the only remaining game outside of Los Angeles. Colorado, Washington and Arizona State are all winnable home games to crank up the record, but the South title should come down to the showdown at USC.

Best offensive player: Sophomore QB Brett Hundley. At this time last year, Hundley wasnt even assured of winning the starting job over veterans Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut. Today, hes one of the top young passers in America, an emerging star with a bright NFL future. As a rookie, Hundley quickly digested Noel Mazzones offensive system, and began to slowly add his name to the school record books. The terrific all-around athlete completed 318-of-478 passes for 3,740 yards, 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, while also rushing for 355 yards and nine scores. Best of all, hes just getting started with his evolution.

Best defensive player: Senior LB Anthony Barr. Barrs story was one of the strangest and most improbable of the entire 2012 season. He began it as a converted fullback, a journeyman whod never approached his vast high school potential. He ended it as a target of NFL teams and one of the most feared pass-rushing linebackers this side of Athens. Shifting to defense was a stroke of genius for the 6-4, 245-pound guided missile. Barr was an unstoppable blend of closing speed and explosiveness, racking up 83 tackles, 21.5 stops for loss, 13.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and five pass breakups.

Key players to a successful season: Sophomore offensive tackles Simon Goines and Torian White. Its been well-documented that the Bruins did a horrid job in pass protection in 2012, and must improve in 2013. Now, the interior of the line should be fine with LG Xavier Sua-Filo and C Jake Brendel. But the edges are vulnerable. Although Goines and White brim with potential and physical attributes, theyve also had injury issues, and need to clean up their fundamentals when the quarterback drops back to throw.

The season will be a success if ... UCLA represents the South in the Pac-12 title game for a third straight year. Lofty, maybe, but why not? The division is up for grabs, especially since USC remains unsettled, still lacks depth and will be breaking in a replacement for Matt Barkley at quarterback. The Bruins will face a wicked schedule that includes back-to-back road trips to Stanford and Oregon, and a telltale November slate. Despite all of the personnel changes, the program believes itll be even better in its second year with the same coaching staff.

Key game: Nov. 30 at USC. Oh, for so many reasons, this is the game of the year in Los Angeles. Its an intense rivalry with 82 unique chapters in the annals, and one that many of the West Coasts best recruits will be watching very closely. It might also determine who faces the North Division champ a week later for a trip to the 2014 Rose Bowl. The Bruins rolled last year, TKO-ing Matt Barkley in the process, which will add a little more fuel to the Coliseum crowd.

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