Hunter Hewitt of the San Francisco Chronicle helps us break down Saturday's match-up with No. 11…
Q&A: What's Bruin?
David Woods: The biggest change for Hundley from last year to this has been his pocket presence. Last year, he took over 50 sacks, and many of them were self-inflicted, where he simply stayed in the pocket too long trying to make something happen with the throw instead of tucking and running. This year, he's running more when the pocket breaks down, and he's been helped, certainly, by an improved offensive line. Really, though, I'm not sure he's shown drastic improvement yet this season. We've seen it in practice, where Hundley has been a much better decision maker and has been more accurate on deep balls, but we've yet to see him put together a really "wow" game, and many of the flaws in his game are still present (specifically, the inability to throw deep with consistency). Based off practice, though, that should come with time.
BT: There isn't much to say about Anthony Barr that hasn't already been said, with 0.75 forced fumbles per game (2nd in the nation), 2.0 TFLs/game (6th in the nation), and at least 0.5 TFL in each of his 18 career games on defense. How much does the pressure he provides help the Bruins secondary?
DW: Barr's been impressive for many reasons this year, but probably the most interesting note is that through the first two games of the season, Barr was essentially asked to not rush the passer in order to create a pocket to keep running quarterbacks Cody Fajardo and Taylor Martinez from having easy lanes into the second level. Yet, he's still putting up crazy numbers in terms of sacks and tackles for loss. Obviously, he has a huge impact on everything UCLA does defensively, and it certainly helps the young secondary when he can put pressure on the quarterback. At least three of Travis Wilson's interceptions on Thursday against Utah were either directly or indirectly due to pressure from either Barr or Myles Jack. Barr also impacts how offensive lines can scheme. On Keenan Graham's sack last week, it was Barr eating up two blockers that allowed Graham a free shot at Wilson.
BT: Will the uncertain status of Ellis McCarthy (questionable – concussion) affect any of the pressure that Barr and the rest of the line can get?
DW: You can likely take McCarthy out of the questionable column and move him to out, since he didn't fully practice this week. McCarthy has been good but not invaluable this year, so I don't think it'll take too much away from UCLA's front. In fact, there may be some improvement, with super-frosh Eddie Vanderdoes likely getting the starting nod in his place.
BT: Last season, UCLA averaged 34.4 points per game on offense, but this year, that's jumped up to 48.0. How much of that is due to Hundley's maturity, and how much of that is due to other factors on offense? What are those other factors?
DW: I'd put the increased points production almost entirely at the feet of the offensive line, which has gone from mediocre a year ago to almost good this year. It'll sound crazy, but Alex Redmond, the true freshman right guard, has given the line a huge boost with his play this year. So far, it's not an overstatement to say he may be having the best start for a true freshman offensive lineman at UCLA since Jonathan Ogden in the mid-1990's. Generally, though, the offensive line as a whole has been much more consistent in pass-blocking and run-blocking, which has allowed Hundley more time to throw and allowed the inexperienced running backs margin for error on their runs. The line will be tested, though, now that starting left tackle Torian White will likely miss the rest of the season with a broken ankle and ligament tear in his leg. Simon Goines, who went from left to right before Utah, will move back to left now, and true freshman Caleb Benenoch will start at right tackle, next to Redmond, giving UCLA an all-true freshman right side of the line.
BT: How has the death of Nick Pasquale galvanized the Bruins? Would it be fair to say that they're even more locked-in now than ever?
DW: It certainly had an effect on their ability to come back against Nebraska, and I'd say it has provided a focusing force for the team when, in previous years, attention might have wandered after the big win over the Cornhuskers. Pasquale is still very much a presence at practice, with the team flying a No. 36 flag above Spaulding Field, and his family out to practice every now and then. You'll see players wearing No. 36 t-shirts after practice as well. Whenever there's a tragedy like that, you don't know how a team is going to respond, and so far, it seems like the players and coaches have dealt with it in a very positive way.
BT: With Myles Jack and Barr getting the bulk of the ink on defense, it's easy to miss Eric Kendricks – the younger brother of former Cal and current Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks. Eric has 21 straight starts – the longest on the team – and his 150 stops in 2012 were the most by a Bruin since 1978. What has he brought to the UCLA defense, and how important is he to their level of confidence?
DW: Kendricks, since his redshirt freshman year, has been a tackle machine for UCLA, with his ability to pursue sideline to sideline making him a dynamic player at inside linebacker. What sets him apart, and inspires such a level of confidence in him, is his ability to set the defense and make calls from the Mike linebacker spot. He provides a coach-on-the-field aspect to the defense that linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich considers invaluable. This year, Kendricks has been hampered a bit by an ankle injury suffered in the offseason, but it hasn't seemed to diminish his ability to move laterally.
BT: How does the loss of tackle Torian White affect the UCLA offensive line?
DW: White was probably UCLA's best tackle, and the move to left tackle was evidence of that. Goines, who will move to left tackle from right, is a less mobile player and has had trouble moving laterally at times with a variety of knee ailments. Caleb Benenoch, who will take over at right tackle for Goines, is certainly a talented true freshman, but he's still learning how to pick up blitzes. Probably the biggest issue for UCLA is that two true freshmen, Benenoch and Redmond, will line up on one side of the line and defenses are almost sure to attack them with blitzes and overloads. They'll need to grow up quickly if the offensive line is to keep playing as well as it has this year.
BT: Who steps up behind leading rusher Jordan James if he can't go this weekend?
DW: Jim Mora said Thursday that Paul Perkins will get the nod on Saturday as the starting running back, and, really, it's not much of a downgrade, if any. Perkins is much more of a one cut and go type running back than James, which probably fits this offense better, with the gigantic holes the interior of the offensive line has been able to open up. If Perkins has a big game, you could see a situation where the two split carries much more evenly going forward. One player to watch is Damien Thigpen, who's returning from an ACL injury suffered last year against USC. There's talk he could play this weekend for the first time since the injury, and if he's at full healthy, he may be UCLA's fastest, most dynamic runner out of the backfield.
BT: Last, but not least, the Bruins tallied SIX picks against young Utah quarterback Travis Wilson. Now, Wilson is a true sophomore, and Cal of course is starting a true freshman back of center. What exactly does UCLA's secondary do to be so opportunistic and frustrate young passers so much?
DW: Until UCLA repeats it, the six picks are probably an outlier. That said, UCLA's entire team, not just the secondary, prides itself on being opportunistic. One interception went to Myles Jack, but he also tipped another at the line of scrimmage that fell into the waiting arms of Anthony Jefferson. Jordan Zumwalt tipped another when he dropped into coverage, which fell into the arms of Randall Goforth, and Eric Kendricks also got a pick. So four of those interceptions either went to linebackers or were assisted by linebackers (which, again, shows how good this UCLA linebacker corps is). The big question coming into the year was how UCLA's entirely new secondary would fit into the defense, and so far, it seems that the defensive staff is doing a good job of compensating for their inexperience by giving them a good amount of zone coverage and linebacker help. This weekend, though, will be a real test for the secondary, and it'll be very interesting to see how it plays out.
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