Dante Moore is the unquestioned darling of UCLA football in 2023. The reigning PAC-12 Freshman of the Week has dazzled Bruin fans with his buffet of arm angles, underrated toughness, and intoxicating poise in leading the Bruins to a 2-0 start while racking up 433 passing yards and five touchdowns on 24 completions in just 39 attempts. He’s already somewhere between Troy Aikman and Josh Rosen as the best pure passer in Bruin history.
But this Bruin bunch is more than just Moore. Here are five UCLA Bruin storylines stealthily flying under the radar courtesy of UCLA’s quarterback prodigy.
Latu Calling His Shot
Channeling the spirit of Babe Ruth in the 1920s, Laiatu Latu boldly proclaimed at PAC-12 Media Day to setting his goal of 15 sacks for the 2023 season. Latu’s expectation was to build upon last year’s 10.5 sacks success on the way to PAC-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors this campaign. So far, two weeks into 2023: mission accomplished.
Latu’s four sacks lead the nation and are accompanied by a spectacularly devastating six tackles for loss as the linchpin for the nastiest Bruin defensive front in a decade. In just 15 months, he’s transformed from a two-year medical retiree into a consensus early first-round pick by most credible mock draft sources. Latu’s story and spirit deserve to be shared religiously as the epitome of Bruin values.
From Bears To Bruins
Much was made last Spring about UCLA needing to pay a “Cal Tax” given their exit to the B1G. Chancellors, Athletic Directors, Regents, and even the Governor got involved in this explosively contentious debate. While the rhetoric seemingly is reigniting with Cal now moving to the ACC at a steep discount, one thing seems to be certain: the Bruins are getting their money’s worth in transfers.
Two former Golden Bears are arguably the two greatest pure athletes on this year’s team. J. Michael Sturdivant showcased breathtaking skill all spring as the unanimous WR1. Two games in, his seven receptions for 159 yards and one touchdown lead the team, highlighted by his electrifying 62-yard touchdown grab versus Coastal Carolina in crunch time.
Oluwafemi Oladejo meanwhile is a genetic mutation somewhere at the intersection of DK Metcalf and LeBron James. Beyond his glaring physical gifts, Oladejo’s 10 tackles terrorized San Diego State, wreaking utter havoc on the Aztecs offensive flow. Oladejo is primed to grab the torch from Darius Muasau as the defense’s primary anchor next year – that is if the NFL doesn’t come calling first.
Aging Like Fine Wine
In his sixth year, Alex Johnson is finally putting all the puzzle pieces of his immense talent together. Coming in with just three passes defensed in his career, Johnson’s two interceptions and one pass defensed against San Diego State stabilized the second half for the Bruins and allowed UCLA to consistently break the Aztecs momentum. With deceptive closing speed, soft hands, and terrific instincts, Johnson is primed to play a leading role in the Bruins seemingly wide-open secondary searching for identity.
Fellow roommate and sixth-year super Bruin Josiah Norwood caught just his second career touchdown pass in spectacular 81-yard fashion. In fact, Norwood was clocked at 21.9 miles per hour on his breakaway to the end zone – the second-fastest time of any player across the country on Saturday. Given Moore’s youth, who he goes to early in the season will most likely be who he goes to often throughout it. Thus, Norwood is primed to be a primary vertical offensive weapon alongside JMS and Kyle Ford.
Both Johnson and Norwood are showing it’s never too late to make a great impression.
Over Chip Kelly’s first five years as UCLA coach, the Bruins defense has never finished higher than 69th in total defense, 88th in passing defense, or 73rd in scoring defense. In fact, a majority of the time, the Bruins have unfortunately hovered in the triple-digit rankings range. Given Kelly’s offensive brilliance, simply having an average defensive unit statistically hovering in the mid-50s would suffice consistently being in the 9-10 win range.
Enter D-Anton Lynn, whose energy, passion, and relatability with players was evident from spring. It’s only two games, but Lynn’s fresh infusion of ideas and culture has resulted in the Bruins now ranking 49th in total defense, 19th in scoring defense allowing a minuscule 11.5 points per game, and a whopping 10th in rushing defense giving up a meager 59.5 yards per game. If the Bruins keep this up to complement their dynamic offense, a 10-win season could be the baseline expectation for this group.
The Kelly Renaissance
Lost amidst his coyness with the media, mysterious personality, and holistic student focus is that Chip Kelly is putting together one of the greatest stretches of Bruin football success over the past 35 years. With a win on Saturday against NC Central, the Bruins will have won 20 of their past 28 games, since beginning the 2021 season.
That stretch has only been bested twice since Troy Aikman’s graduation in 1988. The most decorated being Bob Toledo’s iconic 20 wins in 24 games over the 1997-1998 seasons that resulted in a Cotton Bowl victory followed by a Rose Bowl appearance. Next is Jim Mora’s 20 wins in 26 games from 2013-2014 which resulted in Sun and Alamo Bowl triumphs across back-to-back seasons.
That’s it, that’s the list.
What Kelly is lacking is a signature bowl win, but that shouldn’t overshadow the reality of architecting the third-greatest run in Bruin football history since the rise of cable television. And Kelly’s run seems to be the most strategically sustainable of all.
It’s obvious that these 2023 Bruins are so much more than just Moore.