Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
2012 SEASON IN REVIEW: It didn't take long for Jim Mora to show why UCLA signed the former NFL head coach to a five-year contract last offseason. In just his first year at the helm, Mora led the Bruins to their best season since 2005 and into the national rankings for the first time since 2008.
Everything got started in the end of August when Brett Hundley erupted onto the scene and led the Bruins to three straight wins to open the year against Rice, Nebraska and Houston. The Bruins then stumbled with losses in two of three games, including a 43-17 setback at California. With the season teetering on the brink of mediocrity yet again the Bruins kicked it into gear, winning five straight games, including a 38-28 win over cross-town rival USC. UCLA rose to No. 15 in the AP Poll during the streak and also wrapped up the Pac-12 South title.
The season didn't end well though as the Bruins lost their last three games, including two losses to Stanford, including one in the Pac-12 championship game, and a 49-26 disappointment in the Holiday Bowl against Baylor.
Still a 9-5 finish was much better than the team had ever fared in the four years under Rich Neuheisel. Mora now has to keep that upward trend going.
OFFENSE: Hundley didn't really look like a freshman last season. The multi- talented signal caller can beat defenses both with his arm and legs as he showed time and time again last year. Hundley completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 3,740 yards and 29 touchdowns, while being picked off 11 times. He added 355 yards and nine touchdowns rushing the ball. Like Mora, Hundley needs to keep things moving up.
That will certainly be tougher without Johnathan Franklin. The star running back was arguably more important than Hundley last season, as he broke the single-season rushing record for UCLA with 1,734 yards as well as 13 touchdowns for good measure. Franklin also ranked third on the team with 33 receptions. He will certainly be missed.
There is a list of players to replace Franklin, including redshirt freshman Paul Perkins, Jordan James, who rushed for 215 yards in 2012, and true freshmen Malcolm Jones and Craig Lee.
Though he may not have broken any records, tight end Joseph Fauria was one of the best tight ends in the country (43 rec, 637 yards) and he was certainly a security blanket for Hundley, especially in the red zone as he caught 12 touchdown passes.
That means that Shaquelle Evans, who led the team in receptions (60) and yards (877) will be leaned on even more. Especially with a rather green group of receivers around him. The unit includes Jordan Payton (19 rec, 202 yards, TD) and Devin Fuller (20 rec, 145 yards, 2 TDs), who need to step up quickly.
Four starters will be back on the offensive line, led by left guard Xavier Su'a-Filo, who has the talent to be an all-conference selection. Despite the experience returning, there is a ton of improvement that needs to be made after Hundley was sacked 52 times last year.
DEFENSE: On the defensive side of the ball UCLA was a middle of the road team in the Pac-12 last season. The team ranked eighth in scoring (27.6 ppg) and total defense (4415.9 ypg). If the Bruins hope to begin getting into the rarified air that Oregon and Stanford have resided in recently, those numbers will have to get better.
Having one of the best linebackers in the country should certainly help. Anthony Barr was an absolute monster at outside linebacker last season. The 6-foot-4, 248-pound senior racked up 21.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks in 2012. His ability to get to the edge and create havoc in the backfield is second to none. Barr believes he can be even better.
"Going around offensive linemen is something I felt comfortable doing, and back pedaling and dropping into a zone coverage is something I wasn't as comfortable with," Barr said. "I worked a lot this past spring on affecting the quarterback in the passing game when I'm not rushing the passer."
Barr will have plenty of help from his fellow linebackers as Eric Kendricks (149 tackles) was third in the nation in tackles and Jordan Zumwalt serves as a reliable defender.
Losing Datone Jones up front in the 3-4 scheme will hurt the defense. However there are experienced and hungry players that will return to make up for his loss in production. Cassius Marsh had seven sacks last season and Seal'i Epenesa has starting experience.
Where there might be some growing pains is in the secondary where there are no returning starters and a number of freshmen that will be called upon. Ishmael Adams and Tahaan Goodman are among those rookies but they each have a ton of potential as do freshman cornerbacks Priest Willis and Johnny Johnson.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A freshman, Sean Covington, will also be taking over the starting punting job for the Bruins. Meanwhile Ka-Imi Fairbairm will be the starting place kicker one again after he connected on 16-of-22 kicks last season and also split the uprights on 56-of-59 extra point attempts.
Fuller and Evans are the top returning punt returners. It remains to be seen if Mora will keep Evans off the field in those situations to protect him for the offense.
OUTLOOK: It stands to reason that back-to-back Pac-12 South titles should have UCLA being mentioned in the upper echelon of the conference. That is right where Mora wants his team to be, but there is still a feeling that they are behind Oregon and Stanford. In 2013 the Bruins will have plenty of opportunity to prove otherwise.
The ride begins with three non-conference games, the most critical a road test against Nebraska on Sept 14. After the non-conference portion of the campaign, the Bruins play all nine league games without a bye. Making it even more difficult, the Bruins play three of their first four conference tilts on the road including a brutal two-week stretch at Stanford and at Oregon. In November the Bruins will start against Colorado then travel to play Arizona. After that there are two home games, including a matchup with Washington, Mora's alma mater. It all wraps up on Nov. 30 in the battle of Los Angeles with USC at the Rose Bowl.
Just a look at that schedule would certainly send shivers up the spines of most teams in the country with so few breaks and so many road blocks.
"That's the main area of emphasis for us this off-season," Mora said. "When maybe we're beat up a little bit or maybe we're in a hostile environment... it doesn't affect us, it doesn't matter to us, we block it out and focus on playing our best and winning that game."
Losing such important pieces on offense like Franklin and Fauria will put even more pressure on Hundley. However, the sophomore is such a versatile player that he should be able to hold up to it. Barr and the rest of the front seven will also pressure quarterbacks better than most units in the country, which should give the young secondary a chance to grow up. If it all comes together the Bruins may play 10-straight games without a bye to end the season. That 10th being the Pac-12 championship game.