Why UCLA Bruins could be biggest boom or bust in Pac-12

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UCLA enters its fourth season under Jim Mora with a roster that’s capable of winning the Pac-12 title.

However, there’s a glaring question mark at quarterback, and true freshman Josh Rosen is expected to emerge as the team’s starter. The Bruins are in good shape on defense, and new coordinator Tom Bradley should help this unit take a step forward in 2015. The talent is in place.

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After leading UCLA’s offense for three years and breaking a number of records in the process, quarterback Brett Hundley is now off to the NFL, leaving an otherwise well-established offense with a gaping hole at its most important position. But the Bruins have a pretty good contingency plan. They’ll almost certainly replace Hundley with the nation’s top quarterback recruit, Josh Rosen, who conveniently operated an offense similar to UCLA’s while in high school. Rosen still needs to win the job over backups Jerry Neuheisel and Asiantii Woulard, but while coaches may not admit he’s already a shoe-in for the spot, his talent is light years ahead of the competition.

Rosen may take some time to get acclimated, but he’ll have an experienced offensive line that returns all five starters to protect him and a running back (Paul Perkins) who led the Pac-12 in rushing yards last season to lean on. Building on last year’s breakout, Perkins should be the centerpiece of UCLA’s offense that returns nine of 11 starters. As lead wideout Jordan Payton says, Rosen will get the keys to "a Ferrari." The question is what he does with them.

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Defense looking for new stars

The defense’s leadership, at all three levels, is off to the NFL, and UCLA may have some trouble adjusting early to life without linebacker Eric Kendricks, defensive end Owa Odighizuwa and cornerback Anthony Jefferson. But talent-wise, the Bruins will be as strong as ever on defense.

Linebacker Myles Jack returns for what could be his final season at UCLA, and he’ll shift inside in order to maximize his impact. The Bruins will have two up-and-coming pass-rushing threats to mold this fall, as outside linebacker Deon Hollins and defensive end Takkarist McKinley try to build on their strong finishes to last season. Hollins, who had six sacks in UCLA’s last four games in 2014 to finish with nine on the season, is the unit’s most likely breakout candidate, if he’s able to harness his devastatingly quick first step.

The secondary is the biggest question mark, but tough-yet-undersized sophomore safety Jaleel Wadood looks like a star in the making. If UCLA can establish a pass rush early in the season and leadership emerges, the defense could be a force.

More experience in the kicking game

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Kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn has taken his fair share of criticism in the past few seasons, but after finishing last season on a high note — making 13 of his last 14 field goals — he should be a more consistent option from long range as a senior. Consistency was also a problem for punter Matt Mengel, who was forced into action after little experience with the position. Another year of experience should do him good.

The Bruins have looked very good at times in the return game, but returner Ishmael Adams faded a bit down the stretch in his first full season in the role. With a new special teams coordinator in promoted assistant Scott White, we’ll have to wait and see if UCLA’s kickoff and return units can return to their dominance from 2013.

UCLA’s 2015 outlook

Few teams nationally can say they return 17 of 22 starters from a year ago, and none of those teams had as good of a season in 2014 as UCLA did. And while those absences are sure to loom large — especially in the case of Hundley and Kendricks — experience is finally on the Bruins’ side. The defense should be fine, and if Perkins can build on his impressive sophomore season, then the offense should be able to take some pressure off Rosen.

But ultimately, UCLA’s fate will likely rest on its freshman quarterback’s shoulders, and few teams historically have had wild success with that approach.

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