It has been 243 days since Nick Patti led a game-winning field goal drive with only 34 seconds left to play in the 2022 Sun Bowl for Pitt to triumph over UCLA, 37-35. For 243 days, Bruin players, coaches, and fans have had to chew on a blown 14-point second-half lead that denied UCLA an opportunity for a school record-tying 10th victory. For 243 days, a feeling of euphoria, growth, and momentum heading into the off-season was denied, only to be replaced with countless hallow what-ifs. But who’s counting?
Come Saturday night, those excruciating memories can officially be exorcised as the optimism, freshness, and rejuvenation of a new season is upon us. While Coastal Carolina might lack the name recognition of recent notable UCLA non-conference opponents like LSU, Texas A&M, and even Cincinnati, this is a woefully underrated team that demands the Bruins’ full attention and upset alert antennas. Here are five things to watch as the 2023 season officially commences.
UCLA Bruins Game Preview: On Upset Alert Hosting Coastal Carolina?
The quarterback is always the headline so it’s the natural place to begin. Earlier in the week, Chip Kelly somewhat surprisingly declared Ethan Garbers the starter with Dante Moore and Collin Schlee also expected to get time on Saturday. But it’s not necessarily about the order of play, but rather the situation of play each is granted with. Keep an eye on how many snaps each player gets, under what down, distance, and scoreboard circumstances, along with how much of the playbook is at his disposal. That will reveal much more of Kelly’s masked psyche on his future signal caller than any GoPro placement made to this point.
Furthermore, lost in “quarterback gate” is an equally compelling and critical position battle…running back. Most national outlets have made it seem to be a foregone conclusion that Carson Steele will be this year’s bell cow. After all, Steele had 1,556 yards and 14 touchdowns at Ball State last year and commences 2023 as the leading returning rusher in all of college football.
However, anybody who watched spring practice leading into fall camp noticed a few things clearly: a.) Steele struggled to set the edge with his runs given the upgraded speed of Power Five football, b.) TJ Harden had the smoothest footwork of any back with either hand along with absolute fluidity as a receiver out of the backfield, and c.) Colson Yankoff lost over 20 pounds, shredded his body fat, and looked equally powerful with an unexpected burst. The lion’s share of carries is absolutely up for grabs.
Feast or Famine Defense
Coastal Carolina returns 3-time reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year, Grayson McCall. His 8,086 career passing yards, 78 career passing touchdowns and 28-5 career record are gaudy. But it’s strength on strength, as the Bruins will look to disrupt McCall’s poise and rhythm with a ferocious pass rush led by Laiatu Latu’s 10.5 sacks in 2022 with reinforcements coming from the Murphy twins and Carl Jones.
It’s the quintessential game of feast or famine…get to McCall before he dissects the secondary. If the Bruins can’t get to McCall before releasing to his intended spots, the UCLA secondary still seeking leadership and role clarity from the likes of Devin Kirkwood, Jordan Davies, and Kamari Ramsey, will have their hands full.
Coastal returns leading receiver Sam Pinckney and his 71 receptions for 996 yards last year along with reigning Sun Belt Freshman of the Year, Jared Brown, and his explosive 16.1 yards per catch and 6 touchdowns off of 49 receptions and 789 yards.
Depth Up Front
If anybody saw UCLA’s offensive line play from the first game of the 2022 season versus Bowling Green to the aforementioned Sun Bowl against Pitt, it was a tale of two units courtesy of Tim Drevno. One of the most underrated plot lines in all the PAC-12 last year was the rags-to-riches transformation of this Bruins position group. Given this year’s unit was continuously bullied and beaten by their defensive line brethren all throughout Spring and Fall ball, means a sequel must be written in 2023.
The Bruins have a credible starting offensive line unit led by veteran center Duke Clemens and Purdue transfer Spencer Holstege. Beyond those two anchors, Garrett DiGiorgio, Colorado transfer Jake Wiley, and Old Dominion transfer Khadere Kounta seem more serviceable than spectacular. Yet, in venturing past that starting unit, depth is a serious concern for this group – in terms of size, talent, and experience. How this unit holds up, particularly in the second half will be a notable watch item.
Backs Against the Wall
If McCall is struggling to get into a flow early, one way Coastal Carolina will counter is by getting returning running backs CJ Beasley and Reese White, and their combined 1,250+ yards and 10 rushing touchdowns from last year, touches early and often.
It will be significant to watch the likes of Jay Toia, Gary Smith III and Keanu Williams clog running lanes up the middle, while linebacker athletes such as JonJon Vaughns and Oluwafemi Oladejo contain the outside stretch. The latter will also serve as pivotal initial defenders in the check-down passing attack. Keeping the Coastal Carolina offense one-dimensional for most of the game will be a major linchpin in generating scoreboard separation for the Bruins.
The Hidden Yards
Outside of incredible zone run schemes, a staple of Chip Kelly’s offenses has been putting athletes in the right position to periodically outperform the standard potential of a play. Orchestrating how five yards can evolve into 10 or 20 yards and morph into 35 has made Kelly one of the most decorated offensive football minds of the 21st century. In years past, UCLA has relied on the likes of Dorian Thompson-Robinson, Zach Charbonnet, and Kazmeir Allen to turn the mundane into the magnificent, the routine into the rambunctious.
Who will be that game-breaker and hidden yards generator in 2023? Three names to attach your eyeballs to:
J. Michael Sturdivant, who absolutely detonated on Spring Practice as the clear WR1 on this team by several standard deviations is arguably the Bruins’ greatest pure wide receiver prospect since JJ Stokes.
Jadyn Marshall, the redshirt freshman from St. Mary’s High School in Stockton, CA is also on the UCLA track team. Marshall could be a dynamite kick and punt returner to fill the void left by Allen.
Keegan Jones, a familiar face from last year, is no longer in the running back rotation. Jones could make a sizable, unique, and immediate impact at the slot or in a hybrid athlete role the way the Urban Meyer-led Florida teams used Percy Harvin or how USC used freshman phenom Zachariah Branch last week.
All in all, get your popcorn ready Bruin fans, the season is no more than 48 hours away, but again, who’s counting.