Nebraska won't have to wait long to get its first big road test of the season this year, as the Huskers will travel to Los Angeles to take on UCLA in their second game on Sept. 8.
In their first spring under new head coach Jim Mora, the Bruins are hoping to take their program to the next level and be legitimate contenders in the Pac-12 Conference. However, UCLA has plenty of question marks to address before the season kicks off.
Over the next few weeks HuskerOnline.com will go in-depth on NU's 12 opponents coming out of the spring and what their strengths and weaknesses are heading into the 2012 season. Today, we caught up with Jon Gold of the Los Angeles Daily News to get his thoughts and perceptive on the Bruins coming out of spring ball.
It was pretty obvious the race for the starting quarterback job was by far the biggest storyline of the spring for UCLA. It also sounds like the team didn't get many answers at the position, either. How would you describe where the quarterback spot is at this point?
"I think 'race' is the appropriate word. For the first time, it really is a quarterback competition. In the past, it's sort of just been given to one guy and then even he falters, the No. 2 never really thought he had a chance at it. So here you've got Kevin Prince, Richard Brehaut and Brett Hundley as the main combatants, and they're all pretty close. I would say Brett Hundley and Richard Brehaut took a step forward, while Prince took a little step back in the spring. But I think one of the big things is Prince's leadership, and it's going to take either one of those other guys to assume that leadership position in order for the coaches to feel really comfortable."
I saw that the team has set Aug. 16 as the date it wants to decide on a starter. Is the quarterback competition expected to go all the way up to that point?
"Basically they had planned on naming a starter in spring camp assuming that one guy would kind of take the lead. I think they sort of thought Hundely was going to. He didn't. He was good, but he wasn't great. Brehaut was good, but he wasn't great. Prince was OK, but he wasn't good. So you have three pretty close QBs. I think they want to see what happens with Brehaut's full dedication to football since he's giving up baseball, and I think they want to see what he can do."
It sounds like injuries were a pretty big issue across the team throughout the spring. I saw they even scaled back the spring game because of the lack of depth at some positions. Where are the Bruins health-wise coming out of the spring?
"Well at one point they had 27 players with injuries, which is a huge number. That obviously includes walk-ons and guys like that, but you know in terms of the season-ending variety - you know, those long ones that really scare you - they only have a handful, and really only two who would figure into the two-deep. Isaiah Bowens, a backup middle linebacker, and Dietrich Riley, who probably would've been a backup safety, neither of those guys are in. Ultimately I think they're pretty healthy, I just don't think they're that deep. I don't think the talent's that good in the second and third units. The starting lineup is pretty good. It's pretty solid 1-22, but 23-44 is not good, so that's the issue."
There looks to be quite a bit of inexperience on the offensive line. Do they have any better idea of who the five guys up front are going to be this season?
"The problem is I don't even know if they feel that comfortable with three of the five, much less five of the five. They're pretty thin up front. I think one of the biggest issues is at offensive tackle. I think that's probably the biggest issue on the entire team. They return Xavier Su'a-Filo from his (Mormon) mission, and he's a certifiable starter (at left tackle) and all-conference type if he's healthy and as productive as he was his freshman year. He was really good his freshman year, and was their biggest offensive line recruit in I want to say 13 years or so since Jonathan Ogden. So his return is big. (Right guard) Jeff Baca, he's good and versatile. Greg Capella, who's a center/guard, he's pretty good, but really none of the guys stand out as future early-round picks. Maybe Su'a-Filo, but the problem is they don't have anyone else as of right now. They're bringing in a couple true freshmen, Carl Hulick and Simon Goines, and they're expecting those guys, as true freshmen, to contribute. They could do more than just contribute; they could factor into the starting lineup pretty soon."
With all those question marks in mind, what would you say are UCLA's biggest strengths coming out of spring ball?
"I think their passing game right now with whoever is the quarterback should be pretty good. I think Noel Mazzone's offense is just a great offense. I mean, it's run well, and it's a smart scheme for a college group. So I think they'll have success with that. Their running back corps is pretty good. Johnathan Franklin was just short of two straight 1,000-yard seasons, and Malcolm Jones is the former Gatorade National Player of the Year. So they're running game is pretty good. Defensively, you've got to like their two senior cornerbacks, Sheldon Price and Andrew Abbott. They've pretty much been around the block and are two-year starters. If they're not both all-conference I'd be surprised. I think that's about it. I think it's going to be a good team, but not a great team. I think if Mora gets them playing to their ability, they'll be OK. They haven't played anywhere near their ability in a long, long time."
What are your early impressions of Jim Mora after his first spring at UCLA?
"Well you know, my impressions of him, it's a difficult question, because I've come to realize - and maybe I'm putting too much stock into this, but I think it really does matter - at this point in the game, it's not even so much who your head coach is as it is your entire staff. UCLA's last staff was brutal. I mean, it was under-paid, under-talented, under-skilled and under-motivational, and the team lacked discipline, it lacked focus, all those kinds of things that you need a coaching staff to instill. This new staff, (the athletic department) opened up their pocketbooks. They're paying the staff more than they ever have, and have a dedicated strength and conditioning coach. So what I think Jim Mora is, is I think he more represents kind of UCLA reaching the 21st Century finally. They've been pretty stuck in their ways in their hiring patterns. He's the first hire outside of UCLA's bloodline, so to speak, in like 50 years. What he's done is they're spending money, they're upgrading all of their facilities, and really just turning it into a real program for the first time in a very long time, which is impressive."
You mentioned earlier that you expected UCLA to be a good but not great team. What are realistic expectations right now for this team this season?