Sep 6, 2014; Pasadena, CA, USA; UCLA Bruins players huddle before the game the game against the Memphis Tigers at the Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
It seems premature to be addressing this topic with at least nine games of the 2014 season still left to play, but given the future quarterback depth chart that Go Joe Bruin’s fearless leader published last week, I wanted to weigh in with my arm-chair take on projecting UCLA’s QB situation from 2015 into the foreseeable future.
UCLA football fans are well aware that the future of the quarterback position is in good hands after Brett Hundley‘s departure after the 2014 season, with high-ceiling prospects like Josh Rosen and Asiantii Woulard in the fold. But even 11 months out, a burning question rages within the fan base about who is the more likely between those two to be handed the keys to the offense as Hundley’s successor in 2015.
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Mike’s article last week was prompted by the huge news that Josh Rosen had signed a grant-in-aid agreement with UCLA and would be enrolling at UCLA in the Winter 2015 quarter in order to throw himself into college life as quickly as possible and give himself the best chance to start at quarterback in 2015 as a true freshman. Rosen, as most UCLA fans know by now, is the consensus #1 quarterback recruit in the nation. Recruiting experts, scouts, and coaches unanimously rave about Rosen’s skills and mental makeup (with the exception of Trent Dilfer, but those of you who follow me on Twitter already know my not-so-kind feelings about Lord Dilfer). He is, without question, the highest-rated QB prospect that UCLA has ever signed.
But words like “prospect” and “recruit” imply that Rosen is an unknown quantity who will need seasoning before he’s ready to take the reigns of UCLA’s offense. However, for a few reasons, I think that Rosen is good enough to hit the ground running at UCLA and that, despite Woulard’s advantages in experience at the collegiate level and athleticism, Rosen will be the man to whom Jake Brendel snaps the football when UCLA’s offense hits the Rose Bowl field for the first time against Virginia on September 5, 2015.
Barring injury or unforeseen circumstances, I firmly believe that Rosen will be the unquestioned leader of UCLA’s offense for at least the 2015, 2016, and 2017 seasons and that, with absolute respect and deference to Brett Hundley and the quality of his play at UCLA, Rosen will be the man to elevate UCLA’s offense to a level we haven’t yet seen it reach.
***WARNING: this article is about 3000 words and gets into some nitty-gritty stuff, so carve out a solid block of time and strap yourself into your chair for the next few minutes to enjoy!***
Rosen’s skills align perfectly with what offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone wants from his quarterback
If the descriptions of Rosen like “consensus #1 quarterback recruit in the country” and “what I’d imagine Troy Aikman looked like in high school” aren’t enough to whet fans’ appetites, the Bruin faithful only needs to watch the first two minutes of Rosen’s junior season highlight reel to begin salivating about what awaits us when Rosen dons the true blue and gold:
Simply put, Rosen is a dream quarterback prospect who has every tool a quarterback needs. He looked college-ready as a high school junior and, by all accounts, has matured into an even more effective leader and student of the game as a high school senior.
In Noel Mazzone‘s offense, arm strength, accuracy, and quick thinking are the most vital skills for a quarterback to possess. In particular, arm strength is crucial in order for the numerous receivers running out patterns to the sidelines as part of Mazzone’s scheme to become viable targets, which stretches a defense further by keeping them honest and creates space in the middle of the field. The importance of arm strength is a key reason why a smart and accurate QB like Jerry Neuheisel, whose arm strength is his glaring weakness, cannot be considered a real contender to start long-term for UCLA.
Keeping that in mind, one of Rosen’s biggest claims to the job might be his unquestioned rocket arm, and, especially, his skill in accurately delivering intermediate and deep throws. We know Mazzone loves to go deep very early in games to loosen up defenses. Well, Rosen just happens to be, according to one college offensive coordinator, possibly the best deep ball thrower as a high school quarterback ever.
In addition, for all quarterbacks, accuracy at all levels of the field is absolutely vital to an offense’s effectiveness. It’s pretty simple: a throw that hits a receiver in stride will allow him to continue at full speed down the field to pick up huge chunks of yardage; a throw that forces a receiver adjust to make the catch will slow the receiver down and likely limit the effectiveness of the play, if not completely endanger the play by allowing a defender to make a play on the ball instead.
How accurate is Josh Rosen already? If the testimonials and the previous film haven’t yet convinced you that his placement of his throws is outstanding, then consider the raw numbers: in an offensive system that emphasizes attacking defenses downfield with intermediate and long-range passes, Rosen completed 68.6% of his passes during the 2013 season for St. John Bosco High School (Bellflower, CA).
The verdict? I think we can safely say that Josh Rosen is good at throwing a football where it’s supposed to be thrown.
As we all know, Hundley started his UCLA career in quite a memorable manner; it’s very easy to imagine Rosen starting his own UCLA career with a similar flourish, by hitting a bomb on his first drive to a streaking Devin Lucien or Eldridge Massington for a touchdown that signifies the start of a special three years at UCLA.
Rosen has the makeup to take the quarterback job as a true freshman
As if UCLA fans weren’t excited enough that the football program’s quarterback of the future happens to be the physical prototype for a quarterback (Rosen stands at 6’4″, weighs a chiseled 206 pounds, possesses a cannon arm, and has the athleticism to be a threat to run out of a zone-read), Rosen might also be the smartest football player on the planet from an IQ perspective. The son of a Penn-educated spinal surgeon father and a Princeton-educated journalist mother, Rosen carries a 4.3 GPA, took 4 AP classes as a junior, and will enroll at UCLA needing only three years of academic credit to graduate before, if he hasn’t foregone his final season of eligibility to enter the NFL draft, he begins his MBA at the Anderson School of Business.
Rosen doesn’t just exhibit that intelligence in the classroom; indeed, in the film room, Rosen is an X’s and O’s junkie who easily processes complex schemes and transfers that understanding to the field, where Bosco’s success is well-documented. As someone of such exceptional intelligence, Rosen (unsurprisingly) says that he models his game after Peyton Manning. He also says he takes the most pride in his ability to beat teams with his mind by analyzing them and out-smarting them by exploiting the weaknesses he’s spotted on film and in reading the defenses presented to him during games. He showed the Long Beach Press-Telegram just how deep his knowledge of his high school’s offensive scheme is in a series of film room videos:
In case it didn’t already seem like Rosen was already the winner of the genetic lottery on multiple fronts, let’s throw in the fact that at one point, Rosen was considered a tennis prodigy before he took up football full-time.
Rosen’s time as a tennis player helped him develop a crucial skill for a quarterback: the ability to live in the moment. As Rosen told Bryan Fischer of NFL.com, “You play maybe four times as many points in a [tennis] match than you do plays in football, so you have to have a short-term memory.”
There’s one elephant in the room when it comes to Rosen’s makeup and maturity: Rosen has a widespread reputation for being a very confident, borderline cocky kid. This would be normally be a concern and raise issues of how well he would fit in with his teammates in the locker room, but Rosen’s form of confidence is different. He’s an easy-going person who gets along well socially.
Rosen is simply a person whose level of intelligence and self-belief is incredibly high because he’s never known anything other than high achievement. As a result, he acts like he expects greatness because, to this point in his life, he’s been really good at everything he does: he excels in the classroom, on the football field, in the film room, on the tennis court, and in the other avenues of his life.
To neutrals and detractors (re: USC fans trying to drag Rosen down in general or specifically in comparison to Ricky Town), that might seem like spin, but as far as we can tell, that’s truly the most accurate way to describe Rosen’s demeanor: he’s The Natural, he knows that he is, he embraces that he is, and he expects to be so well into the future.
That rubs some the wrong way, but for a quarterback, the mental side of the game is 75% of the battle (or that’s at least what no less an authority than Drew Brees told ESPN’s Bill Simmons on a podcast that I can’t find a link to). If the leader of the team exudes an unwavering and legitimate expectation of excellence, that attitude will rub off on the squad and create a team that similarly expects excellence.
Clearly, Rosen, justifiably, has a supreme amount of faith in himself and his abilities. When you combine Rosen’s confidence with his undoubted intelligence, he has the mental makeup that is needed for a quarterback to take over the most important position on the field as a true freshman. Sure, he will face inevitable hurdles in his transition to the college game and college life in general. But he has a balanced enough perspective to not be too frustrated by setbacks and he possesses the mental acuity to treat moments of adversity as learning experiences from which he can glean important lessons and grow.
Noel Mazzone has a problem: he’s a dreamer
During the first two games of the season, I had many complaints about UCLA’s offense (to which my Twitter followers would once again readily attest). Prominent among my complaints was a fundamental criticism of Noel Mazzone’s play-calling: Mazzone often calls plays to fit the players he wishes he had, not the ones he had.
In essence, Mazzone tries to run the offense he ideally wishes he could and, in the process, inserts square pegs into round holes. Mazzone’s dream offense includes long drops by the quarterback, which in turn means the offensive line having to hold blocks for 5-7 seconds; long-developing routes by the receivers; and patience on the part of the quarterback (who must be comfortable and poised in the pocket without dropping his eyes) to allow the play to develop in front of him and pick apart the coverage as soon as one of the routes presents itself as a viable option.
The problem with Mazzone’s idealism is that he doesn’t currently have the pieces at UCLA to run this kind of offense. The offensive line continues to be a major weakness of the team and doesn’t keep a clean pocket long enough or often enough to run plays that involve deep drops and scanning the entire field. UCLA’s receivers need plays to be designed for them to get open because they mostly lack the inherent ability to create separation. And finally, Hundley has numerous strengths as a quarterback, but reading coverages and going through his progressions to spot open receivers aren’t among those strengths. He is decidedly average, perhaps even sub par, at both.
Furthermore, Hundley has shown himself to be so inconsistent in properly evaluating zone-read plays and when to keep or handoff that those plays have been almost entirely scrapped from Mazzone’s play-calling, which severely limits the unpredictability and, subsequently, the upside of the running game.
UCLA’s current offense hums when Mazzone gets in a groove calling simple, quick-hitting plays that employ one or two reads, provide a safety valve with the running back’s route (when he’s not blocking), and give Hundley the option to run when none of those clearly present themselves in the opening moments of the play.
The clearest example of this is the 2013 game at USC, which was Mazzone’s crowning glory to date as UCLA’s offensive coordinator and quite possibly the most efficient game Hundley has played against a legitimate opponent. Whether by choice (noticing USC’s severe lack of defensive depth) or by force (as a reaction to UCLA being down to its bare bones on the offensive line after Caleb Benenoch‘s ejection), Mazzone called a game that featured the offense working at a high tempo, with the ball out of Hundley’s hands in 2-4 seconds (when Hundley didn’t run), and taking 8-12 yards at a time against the Trojan defense as the UCLA offense marched up and down the field at will for most of the night.
However, Mazzone doesn’t use that type of scheme often enough and when he reverts to form, we see disastrous offensive performances like the one at Virginia or the first half of last season’s Arizona State game.
Josh Rosen can turn Mazzone’s dreams into reality
Rosen entering the fold changes everything for Mazzone. Simply put, Rosen is better suited for Mazzone’s ideal offense than Hundley (or Woulard).
For his part, Rosen seems to have a clear affinity for Mazzone’s offense and cited it as a reason he committed to UCLA. That makes total sense, given the fact that Rosen’s high school essentially runs the same offense and that his comfort with the scheme will give him a huge boost in his effort to land the top spot on the quarterback depth chart as a true freshman.
Although Rosen’s mere presence doesn’t solve the offensive line or playmaker issues, Rosen might already be ahead of Hundley in terms of inherently understanding the nuances of the quarterback position. As we said and saw previously, Rosen is extremely intelligent and has an advanced understanding of the huge chess match that is the battle between offense and defense. While Hundley can seem indecisive and will hold onto the ball for too long in the pocket while trying to analyze a play on the fly, Rosen is very good at reading defenses pre-snap and having a clear idea of where he’s going to go with the ball depending on what the defense shows him.
Rosen also has some of the best footwork you will see from a high school quarterback, which he attributes to his time playing tennis. A well-respected high school quarterback coach once told me that someone only needs to do one thing to determine whether a quarterback understands the position and is fundamentally sound: watch his feet.
There are two reasons why footwork is crucial to a quarterback’s competence: 1) settled feet provide a consistent base from which a quarterback can deliver stable, solid, and accurate throws; and 2) a quarterback’s progressions are often keyed to the number of steps the quarterback takes. For example, after two steps, a quarterback will be asked to examine option #1; if option #1 is undesirable for any reason, he takes two more steps and then looks to option #2; etc.
Watch Rosen’s highlights from the Edison 7-on-7 tournament this past summer and see how his head moves in sync with his feet:
That clip shows a quarterback who has excellent feet and understands how to use them. As his feet progress, so does his head until he spots the option he wants. And then naturally, because he’s Josh Rosen, he delivers darts all over the field that hit the receivers right where they want the ball.
Rosen showed off his sound footwork in game action last season (first highlight) and, as an added bonus, his ability to run a zone-read to perfection as well (at 0:49):
Rosen’s presence at quarterback will allow UCLA to reincorporate zone-read concepts into the run game, which will allow Mazzone to be so much more creative in his play-calling and provide another option by which UCLA can eat up chunks of yards.
Finally, as we’ve previously mentioned, Rosen has the arm to make some of the tight throws up the field that Mazzone loves but that Hundley struggles with at times:
No matter how you slice it, it’s clear that Rosen is the quarterback for whom Noel Mazzone has been waiting his whole life. Don’t count on Mazzone passing up the opportunity to play a quarterback like Rosen immediately, now that he has him.
Rosen should be the pick to lead the next era of UCLA football
UCLA fans should be giddy that such a remarkable and comprehensive talent like Rosen is going to be leading the Bruin offense for the foreseeable future. The combination of Rosen and Mazzone could yield spectacular results that lead to the kind of success for UCLA football that we all yearn for and crave.
When you combine his elite skillset, the intelligence to rapidly pick up on the nuances of the college game, the confidence to assert himself from the moment he steps on campus, and an offensive scheme designed to feature that aforementioned skillset, Josh Rosen seems like the no-brainer pick to be QB #1 for UCLA going forward.
You’ll notice that throughout the article, we rarely mentioned the name Asiantii Woulard; we consistently compared Rosen to Brett Hundley instead. Why? Because we’ve seen what Noel Mazzone’s offense can be with Hundley at the helm. We wanted to show what it could be once Rosen is fully settled at UCLA.
Furthermore, quite simply, Hundley is a more apt comparison to consider for Rosen, despite Rosen still being a high school senior. Rosen is in another stratosphere in terms of accuracy, arm strength, fundamentals, and schematic comprehension relative to Woulard, who is currently struggling to beat out the admirable but limited Jerry Neuheisel for the back-up spot behind Hundley.
There is no question that Brett “The Savior” Hundley has lived up to the moniker bestowed upon him before he ever set foot on campus; I can’t wait to see what Josh “The Natural” Rosen has in store for us starting next September.