UCLA Bruins offensive lineman Torian White (77), Credit: Andrew Fielding-USA TODAY Sports
It’s about that time again when the hype of college football season manifests itself in countless publications releasing preseason rankings, All-Conference teams and All-American selections. It’s easy to get crossed by all the different picks, but there’s one man who has set the industry standard in that field—the legendary Phil Steele.
For the past 18 years, Steele has published his annual preseason magazine, which features Top 25 rankings, team previews, stat breakdowns, projected depth charts and more. When it comes to college football prognosticating, nobody is stronger than Steele. And for that reason, UCLA fans should be happy with his opinion of the 2013 Bruins.
Steele named 12 UCLA players to his preseason All-Pac-12 team, two of whom were also tabbed as All-Americans. The dozen Bruins chosen was tied for the third most in the conference, trailing only USC (16) and Stanford (14). It’s a far cry from where UCLA has been in past seasons, and is a testament to the successful recruiting and personnel development under head coach Jim Mora.
- LB Anthony Barr—1st Team All-American (1st Team All-Pac-12)
- OG Xavier Su’a-Filo—3rd Team All-American (1st Team All-Pac-12)
- QB Brett Hundley—2nd Team All-Pac-12
- WR Shaq Evans—2nd Team All-Pac-12
- LB Eric Kendricks—2nd Team All-Pac-12
- KR Damien Thigpen—2nd Team All-Pac-12
- PR Steven Manfro—2nd Team All-Pac-12
- DL Cassius Marsh—3rd Team All-Pac-12
- WR Devin Fuller— 4th Team All-Pac-12
- OT Torian White—4th Team All-Pac-12
- C Jake Brendel—4th Team All-Pac-12
- K Ka’imi Fairbairn—4th Team All-Pac-12
All of the expected names are on there, as Barr, Su’a-Filo and Hundley are definitely the most anticipated UCLA returners in 2013. Seeing Barr as a 1st Team All-American at linebacker is incredibly satisfying, especially since his athleticism seemed to be wasting away in the offensive backfield for his first two seasons. After leading the Bruins in sacks and forced fumbles last year, Barr looks primed for a monster senior season, which will forge his way into the NFL.
Su’a-Filo was a team captain as a sophomore, and should be the veteran anchor on the UCLA O-line again this year. The Bruins took way too many sacks in 2012, and their performance against Baylor in the Holiday Bowl was absolutely atrocious. Along with a young crew around him, Su’a-Filo will have to find a way to protect Hundley and his 2nd Team skills from the pass rush.
The inclusion of Evans and Kendricks on the conference 2nd Team beside Hundley was a nice surprise, and they’ve both set themselves up for solid campaigns this fall. As a senior, Evans will be leaned on to lead a receiving corps composed almost entirely of underclassmen. He already led the team in receiving in 2012, so expect another big year of pass-catching for the 6’1″ speedster from Inglewood.
For Kendricks, his redshirt junior season presents the last chance he’ll have to play with the UCLA defense as he knows it. At the end of the year, Barr, Marsh, Seali’i Epenesa, Owamagbe Odighizuwa, Jordan Zumwalt, Keenan Graham and Stan McKay will all graduate, leaving Kendricks to pick up the pieces. Whether or not he would return for his senior season is unknown, but you can bet his focus is on stepping up and winning now. Kendricks led the conference with 149 total tackles in 2012, 30 more than second place Jake Fischer of Arizona. The inside ‘backer from Fresno also made his mark by defending on special teams and recovering loose balls for TDs—and who could forget his 4th quarter interception of Matt Barkley in November.
I recommend watching the whole clip, but Kendricks’ pick is right at the beginning.
The last two 2nd Team choices were somewhat interesting, with Thigpen as kick returner and Manfro as punt returner. Thigpen is rehabbing from a torn ACL he suffered against ‘SC, and his timeline for recovery is uncertain. He was very impressive before the injury, but there’s no telling if he can get back to that level now. Manfro dealt with butter fingers throughout the season, and was eventually relieved of punt returning duties after too many dropped balls. However, he is sneaky elusive, so I suspect he will get another chance to showcase his skill set—if he can secure the catch.
Marsh’s placement on the 3rd Team seems borderline snubbish, as the senior defensive end has been electric at times for the Bruins. But these are only preseason picks, so he has plenty of time to move up (or down) the All-Pac-12 board. What definitely falls in the snub category is the complete absence of Zumwalt, who had 70 tackles (7 TFL, 2 sacks), two forced fumbles, one recovery and a blocked kick last season. Zumwalt was a statistical magnet, and yet he was passed up for even 4th Team consideration as a senior.
The Bruins that did make the 4th Team were all sophomores, as Fuller, White, Brendel and Fairbairn rounded out Steele’s UCLA selections. They are all deserving of praise after solid freshmen seasons, especially Fuller who began his transformation from high school quarterback into college wideout last year. Brendel has been a stud at center for the Bruins, and really softened the blow of losing Kai Maiava two years ago.
White, who is pictured above, has been shifted between tackle spots during his time in Westwood, but is expected to lock one down by the time Nevada comes to town. Fairbairn showed improvement throughout his true freshman season, and will look to expand his range and consistency in 2013. Despite his heart-wrenching miss in the Pac-12 Championship Game, Fairbairn took care of business in his fair share of pressure situations, most notably the game-winner at ASU as time expired.
If Phil Steele knows what he’s talking about—and most think he does—then it appears UCLA has the pieces necessary to compete in the top tier of the Pac-12. Whether or not that comes to fruition, especially in light of the Bruins’ harrowing schedule, depends on the performance of the key players discussed above. The UCLA defensive front could be among the best in the country, and the offense will be in good hands with Hundley at the helm. But that’s all just speculation meant to get the gears spinning for next season. Right now, UCLA looks like its packing a lot of horsepower.