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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

A Retrospective

The Year in Review: U.C.L.A. (6-8, 5-4)

Urban Meyer aced his hires, as most expected, and Kevin Sumlin brought no slouches to Texas A&M, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Paul Chryst brought the band with him to Pittsburgh, which should help the Panthers land the degree of consistency they craved after Todd Graham’s one-and-done year with the program. Rich Rodriguez brought some quality names with him to Arizona; it’s not surprising that his offensive staff is loaded, but reeling in Jeff Casteel was his biggest hiring coup. If you’re looking for the best new staff in college football, however, the conversation begins and ends in Westwood.

It’s the first two weeks of any a coach’s tenure, and it’s the most important two weeks of his tenure. It’s absolutely vital. It trumps every single endeavor from that point forward, because every move he makes from those weeks on — every decision he makes — is directly impacted by the hires he makes over the first two weeks, give or take.

Jim Mora hit it out of the park. His new staff, hired in the weeks after he was named as Rick Neuheisel’s successor on Dec. 10, is so good that it overwrites the most looming concern surrounding his arrival: Mora, after decades in the N.F.L., knew nothing about the college game.

Mora knew enough to hire the right man at nearly every spot on his new staff, and that’s all that counts — for now, at least. And while he’ll encounter a learning curve over the next few weeks as U.C.L.A. begins spring ball, and again in August, as the Bruins begin preparing for the regular season, Mora brought on the sort of staff that will help him bridge the gap between N.F.L. lifer and F.B.S. neophyte.

His offensive coordinator, Noel Mazzone, will update U.C.L.A.’s offense for the new-look Pac-12, where offense rules the day, while having a tremendous impact on the program’s perennially underachieving quarterbacks. Mazzone piloted a top 25 offense at Arizona State last fall, helping turn Brock Osweiller into a potential high N.F.L. draft pick.

In Mazzone, Mora gets the best of all worlds: he’s one of the most experienced play-callers in college football; he’s one of the most touted quarterback tutors in college football; and he’s very up to date on all that the Pac-12 as a conference attempts to do defensively.

In defensive coordinator Lou Spanos, Mora brought in one of the most knowledgeable 3-4 technicians in football. After 15 seasons on the staff with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Spanos spent the last two years with the Washington Redskins, helping that franchise implement its 3-4 look. He’ll do the same at U.C.L.A., with Mora — don’t forget about his defensive pedigree — lending his voice and assistance when needed.

Two more assistants come off the N.F.L. ranks. Linebackers coach and special teams coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, a former linebacker himself, spent the last two years as a special teams assistant with the Seattle Seahawks. Wide receivers coach Eric Yarber arrives from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he spent the last two seasons in the same capacity.

New running backs Steve Broussard has spent the last five seasons in the Pac-12, with the last two under Mazzone at Arizona State. His calling card is that experience and familiarity with the league and the Bruins’ new coordinator. Those inroads Broussard has in Los Angeles and the surrounding area will come in handy.

In Adrian Klemm, Mora might have hired the best recruiter in the country. If not the best, Klemm, U.C.L.A.’s offensive line coach, is certainly in the top short list. On Twitter, Klemm greeted every new commitment with the same refrain: “8 CLAP!!!!!” He eight-clapped 12 times from Dec. 26 to Jan. 31 — 96 claps, by my count.

Mora took cornerbacks coach Demetrice Martin away from Washington, which was a three-pronged blow: Martin was no longer at Washington; Martin was at U.C.L.A.; and those players considering the Huskies because of Martin were now considering the Bruins.

Then there are the two holdovers. Marques Tuiasosopo, the former Washington quarterback, was moved up from his post as an intern in the U.C.L.A. football offices — he was also an assistant in the Bruins’ bowl game — to be Mora’s tight ends coach. Angus McClure was retained, though given new duties: he’ll continue to be the recruiting coordinator, but will swap special teams duties for work with the defensive line.

The individual pieces are impressive. Bringing in Klemm paid enormous dividends; it’ll continue to pay off for U.C.L.A. for years to come. Mazzone is one of the best coordinators in college football. Few know the 3-4 better than Spanos. Martin was stolen from a rival. McClure’s knowledge of the program will be useful to Mora and the new staff members.

But it’s as a whole that Mora’s debut staff stands out. There’s overall experience, experience in the Pac-12, experience with the program, an N.F.L. feel and one of the best collection of recruiters in the country. Mora aced this step — and it’s the most vital step any coach will undertake on his new job.

Season grade: C- Beyond the ugliness of the season itself, U.C.L.A. will suffer the ignominy of being the answer to the following question: Which B.C.S. conference program was the first to send a sub-.500 team to bowl play? The Bruins were the lucky — or unlucky — recipient of an N.C.A.A. waiver that allowed them to reach bowl action despite dropping the inaugural Pac-12 title game to Oregon; it’s fitting that the Bruins also lost in postseason play, and doubly fitting that the loss came to Illinois, the only other team in the F.B.S. who could match U.C.L.A.’s level of dysfunction. The losses were terrible, the wins only slightly less so, but the endless low point of the season was waiting for Neuheisel’s inevitable dismissal.

High point Three wins over four weeks in October and November. Those three victories actually pushed the Bruins’ Pac-12 mark to 4-2, leaving a glimmer of hope that the team could actually win the South division outright, not take home the trophy due to U.S.C.’s postseason ban.

Low point A 50-0 loss to the Trojans on the second-to-last weekend of the regular season. Embarrassing? Almost unfathomably embarrassing. Even when U.S.C. was its best under Pete Carroll — though some wins were eventually vacated — the Bruins never looked so inept against their in-city rivals.

Offensive M.V.P. U.C.L.A. might have finished 72nd nationally in total offense, but the Bruins did have a 1,000-yard receiver, Nelson Rosario, and had three players rush for at least 425 yards. Rosario gave the offense a taste of the big play, averaging more than 18 yards per reception, and had at least 83 receiving yards in six Pac-12 games: Stanford, Washington State, Arizona State – a season-high 151 yards – Colorado, U.S.C. and Oregon. He was by leaps and bounds the most valuable weapon in a passing game that took a nice step forward from 2010, when U.C.L.A. first implemented the Pistol offense. After throwing for 1,693 yards two years ago, the Bruins threw for 2,776 yards last fall, averaging roughly four more yards per completion.

Defensive M.V.P. The Bruins couldn’t stop the run. Couldn’t get to the quarterback. Were terrible on third down. Were even worse in the red zone. This simply was a terrible defense: 108th in the F.B.S. in sacks, 95th against the run and 105th in the red zone, for example. One thing U.C.L.A. didn’t do terribly, however, was force turnovers in the passing game. The Bruins intercepted 14 passes, tied for 31st nationally, led by cornerback Andrew Abbott’s team-best four picks. Right behind him were weak side linebacker Sean Westgate and free safety Tevin McDonald with three picks apiece; McDonald, an immediate starter as a rookie, has all-conference written all over him.

Stock watch In terms of nuts and bolts, here’s what lies ahead for Mora: a complete alteration of what U.C.L.A. does offensively, followed by – or preceded by, given his background – a complete alteration of what U.C.L.A. does defensively. On the offensive side of the ball, the Bruins will steer far, far away from the Pistol system Neuheisel misguidedly installed prior to the 2010 season. On defense, Mora will begin the often painful process of moving U.C.L.A. towards a 3-4 look; the Bruins will be multiple, but Mora’s history points towards a utilization of the 3-4 as the team’s base set. These won’t be easy tasks. But there’s certainly talent in Westwood, and more on the way after U.C.L.A.’s recruiting haul in February. And is it too much to expect the Bruins to play with a bit more fire than they showed down the stretch last fall? Mora’s debut won’t be measured in wins and losses, but even with the philosophical changes this team should be very much in the mix for a bowl berth by November.

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Comments

  1. Parker says:

    Hi Paul,

    When Kevin Sumlin got the Houston job in late 2007, Mazzone was his first choice as OC. Mazzone was coaching with the NY Jets at the time. Mazzone declined, Sumlin gave Dana Holgorsen a chance to call plays for the first time, and the rest is history.

    Houston and UCLA conclude their 3 game series this September in Los Angeles. The current series is tied 1-1. Both schools hired new staffs, each after losing their respective conference title game.

    Mazzone will be calling the plays for UCLA. Houston’s offensive staff includes receiver (and special teams) coach Jamie Christian, who coached with Mazzone the last 2 years at Arizona State.

    Should be interesting. I’m looking forward to it.

  2. jjncaa says:

    Which program was the first in the F.B.S. to send a sub-.500 team to bowl play?

    The North Texas Mean Green in 2001. They were the Sun Belt Conference Champions, despite having a losing record, and with the conference championship, the UNT had earned the automatic bid for the New Orleans Bowl

  3. Burnt Orange says:

    Before the FBS era, Hayden Fry took a 4-6 SMU team to the Sun Bowl in the early sixties where they lost. A 4-7 bowl team.

  4. jfbennett says:

    Mora, first and foremost, has to step up the recruiting. USC is light years ahead of them, and they’ve got to close the gap if they want to any division titles. That, or find more USC recruiting violations.

    It’s shocking that they played in the last year’s title game with a -8 point differential per game.

  5. Bobak says:

    Didn’t Neuheisel also start out with a supposed Dream Team? People have gone back and made excuses that they really weren’t “his” hires, but how are Mora’s really any different. The ultimate answer will come in the Fall.

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