UCLA returns the most experienced starting lineup in the Pac-12, and one of the most veteran rosters in the nation with eight defensive starters back and all but one offensive starter returning.
And yet, coming off the Bruins’ second consecutive 10-win season, they’re generating significantly less buzz than last offseason. If you doubt how much credit — or blame — a quarterback gets, consider UCLA’s sole offensive position that needs replacing is behind center.
It’s just one position, but head coach Jim Mora said last week he plans to take his time naming a starter from the ongoing competition of Jerry Neuheisel, Asiantii Woulard and Josh Rosen. Just how much time?
“They all had very productive spring practices, made improvements, and the competition is still wide open,” Mora said. “Until the day one distinguishes [himself], it will be open.
“The sooner, the better,” he added. “But it’s not something we’re going to push. We want it to happen the way it’s supposed to happen. Heck, we might go three games in and not know who our starter is.”
One cannot fault Mora for wanting to be diligent with his decision.
The coming season is the first Mora faces without Brett Hundley since Mora’s arrival in 2012. From Hundley’s first collegiate snap, which resulted in a 72-yard touchdown rush against Rice, the quarterback and coach were synonymous with the most prosperous, three-year stretch in program history.
Never before had UCLA won nine-plus game in three consecutive seasons. And yet, the lack of a conference title lingers over the Bruins. Last season amid the chatter of national championship contention, Mora was steadfast in his opinion that UCLA’s primary goal was winning the Pac-12 championship.
To that end, it’s not that outlandish to think Mora could use the three nonconference games against Virginia, UNLV and BYU as workouts for conference play.
But then, UCLA’s crosstown rival, USC, went into the 2013 season without a clear-cut starting quarterback. The Trojans went 3-2 in that stretch with offensively anemic performances against Hawaii and Washington State, which contributed to the midseason ouster of Lane Kiffin.
Certainly Mora doesn’t face as dire a situation, but correctly picking Hundley’s successor will have a sizable impact on the program’s immediate future.
Neuheisel and Woulard have extensive practice experience, and Neuheisel led the Bruins to a win over Texas last year. Rosen is a true freshman, having participated in his first 15 collegiate practices just this spring.
But as one of the nation’s most highly touted prospects and drawing comparisons to Andrew Luck, Rosen has the highest ceiling of the three. Giving him extensive reps now as the starter will make for a much more polished field general in 2016 — but is that at the expensive of the veteran-laden roster UCLA has now?
After all, even Andrew Luck redshirted.
No matter which quarterback Mora and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone tab to take over, the proven commodities throughout the Bruins lineup should ease the transition.
UCLA returns the Pac-12’s 2014 leading rusher, Paul Perkins, a breakout star who — like Mora’s proposed quarterback situation — did not establish himself as the starter until just before conference play.
Mora said last season that the plan at running back was to ride “the hot hand,” which became Perkins to the tune of 1,575 yards and nine touchdowns. Perkins firmly entrenched himself as the Bruins’ No. 1, but UCLA could see rushing opportunities spread among more ball-carriers — especially without Hundley’s dual-threat playmaking.
“We have some very good alternatives, as well,” Mora said. “Nate Starks…is a really good player. We’re going to get Steven Manfro back from a knee injury. We’ve got Craig Lee going into his third year, and he’s hitting his stride.”
Mora also mentioned the incoming freshmen, including 5-star prospect Soso Jamabo.
The Bruins corps of wide receivers is also one of the more diverse and deep in the conference, building around senior leader Jordan Payton, with big target Thomas Duarte, deep-ball threat Eldridge Massington and versatile Devin Fuller all playing significant roles.
Just as experienced but less of a surefire strength is the offensive line. UCLA’s protection issues were well-documented throughout Hundley’s tenure. They weren’t the sole contributor to the Bruins ranking at or near the bottom in the Pac-12 for sacks allowed each of the last three year, but line play was ultimately inconsistent.
At season’s end, center Jake Brendel talked about the importance of the Bruins toughening up in the offseason for opponents like Stanford.
The line’s collective progress could dictate the success or failure of whichever quarterback Mora selects.