Yes, UCLA went 3-9 last year. Yes, they started 0-5. They couldn’t move the ball against anybody for two months.
This is a much different UCLA team than we saw last season.
Heck, the UCLA team of November 2018 was radically different than the one the Bearcats played in September 2018. The Bruins competed against and even beat teams that would have blown them out at the beginning of the season.
UCLA will be a legitimate contender for the Pac 12 South title this year. I hope this preview will make it clear that Cincinnati fans ought to be worried about this game.
UCLA returns 18 starters in 2019.
Say what you will about Chip Kelly’s recent track record but I have no doubt that a camp full of guys that have been acculturated to Chip’s system are going to be a formidable opponent.
The Bruins’ offense is led by sophomore quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who persevered in the face of continuous pressure. “DTR” has a strong arm, demonstrated noteworthy field awareness, and proved to be fleet of foot during his freshman year. If you caught the UCLA-USC highlights from last season, he looked like a Marcus Mariotta in the making.
DTR will have plenty of weapons around him. Senior running back Joshua Kelley is a physical runner, who plowed his way to more than 1,200 yards last season. Kelley has been banged up of late but looks to be ready for the opener. If Kelley can’t go, sophomore tailback Martell Irby is small but speedy and agile, a dangerous perimeter weapon in Chip Kelley’s offense.
UCLA is a little bit thinner in the wideout department. Wide receiver Theo Howard may not be a burner but he is one of college football’s steadiest wideouts. In 2018, he caught 51 passes and did not drop a one. Other than Howard, UCLA has a crop of young receivers and tight ends who will be competing for touches this season. In the matchup between Cincinnati’s secondary and UCLA’s receivers, give the Bearcats a decided advantage.
The Bruins’ offensive line struggled through much of 2018 but looks to be improved in 2019, thanks in part to the veteran leadership of its interior line, most notably senior center Boss Tagaloa.
UCLA’s defense was among the worst in the PAC-12 last season, generating virtually no pass rush (just 15 sacks), which put a young secondary in some difficult situations in almost every game.
The Bruins look to have improved considerably on defense. UCLA returns 9 defensive starters, including senior linebackers Keisean Lucier-South and Krys Barnes, both of whom patrol from sideline to sideline with authority. UCLA’s secondary is led by cornerback Darnay Holmes, who is a classic coverman, and safety Quentin Lake, who plays more like another linebacker.
UCLA is less experienced on the defensive front, which provides Cincinnati’s veteran, road-grading offensive line with the opportunity to assert its will in the trenches.
UCLA’s special teams look to be a strength as well. Veteran kicker JJ Molson is an all-PAC-12 candidate and graduate transfer Wade Lees will solidify the punter’s position for the Bruins.
I expect the 2019 version of Cincinnati-UCLA to be another hard-fought, relatively low-scoring battle. I’m hoping for the best but clear-eyed in my assessment of the Bruins’ many strengths on both sides of the ball. Bearcats fans should regard a win over UCLA as a big win, just as they did last year.
Listen to the debut episode of Down the Drive Podcast, previewing the 2019 season and UCLA game