UCLA football: Five questions the Bruins face entering preseason camp

A hooray is needed to go with this last hurrah.
It’s been 25 years — a quarter of a century! — since UCLA last won the Pac-12 football title and there won’t be any more opportunities once the Bruins join the Big Ten in 2024.
A breakthrough in this farewell season could revive the sort of memories that are fading faster than a sunset over the Rose Bowl. It would also accelerate the Bruins’ sluggish high school recruiting while boosting name, image and likeness contributions that will be critical to success against new moneyed rivals Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, not to mention deep-pocketed USC.
It won’t be easy. UCLA is breaking in a new starting quarterback and there are sure to be hiccups. The offensive line must replace three starters. The defense has a new coordinator, but does it have a new nasty streak?
Chip Kelly says he won’t be blinded by stars in picking UCLA’s next quarterback
UCLA has a quarterback battle on its hands between five-star recruit Dante Moore and redshirt junior Ethan Garbers. What does Chip Kelly have to say?
A lot is going to have to go right after so much has gone wrong for a generation. Here are five questions facing the Bruins heading into the start of preseason camp Wednesday:
Who will emerge as the starting quarterback?
UCLA quarterback Dante Moore throws the ball during spring practice.
Will UCLA quarterback Dante Moore take over the Bruins’ starting job as a freshman? (Jesus Ramirez / UCLA Athletics)
There are five contestants, but let’s face it — this is a two-man battle between Dante Moore and Ethan Garbers.
The Bruins’ highest-rated quarterback recruit since AltaVista was a viable search engine, Moore brings massive upside as well as an excitement factor. He will put butts in seats. But can the true freshman win games?
Moore showed a quick release in spring practices but must continue to narrow the gap between himself and Garbers, the redshirt junior who has a stronger command of the offense. Garbers showed promise in two seasons as Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s backup, even if he couldn’t complete comebacks against Oregon in 2021 and Pittsburgh in 2022.
Coach Chip Kelly has said he won’t make Moore the starter just to appease the five-star prospect and keep him from transferring. If he continues to wow, Moore might win the job on his own merits.
Can the retooled offensive line protect the new quarterback?
Center Duke Clemens squats and touches the football while talking with Dorian Thompson-Robinson during the Sun Bowl
One area where the Bruins have remained steady under Kelly is the offensive line.
That will need to hold true again for UCLA to have a successful 2023 after the departures of starting left tackle Raiqwon O’Neal and starting guards Jon Gaines II and Atonio Mafi.
Kelly waded deep into the transfer portal for replacements, finding Spencer Holstege from Purdue, Jake Wiley from Colorado and Khadere Kounta from Old Dominion. All could find spots as starters alongside returning center Duke Clemens and right tackle Garrett DiGiorgio.
UCLA linebacker Laiatu Latu (15) gets doubled-teamed by Arizona State wide receiver Shawn Charles.
Doctors couldn’t stop UCLA’s Laiatu Latu, and now offensive linemen might not either
UCLA edge rusher Laiatu Latu led the Bruins last season in tackles for loss and sacks last season, and still feels he has lots to prove for this upcoming season.
The question is if the presumptive starters can stay healthy enough to ward off concerns about a lack of depth. No one else on the roster has started a game for the Bruins.
That means veteran reserves Siale Taupaki, Bruno Fina and Jaylan Jeffers, as well as a host of far less experienced players, might soon find out whether they’re ready for more significant roles.
How far can D’Anton Lynn elevate the defense?
UCLA defensive coordinator D'Anton Lynn watches spring practice
UCLA’s D’Anton Lynn is 33 and among the younger defensive coordinators in the country. (Sam Lazarus / UCLA Athletics)
At 33, Lynn is among the younger defensive coordinators in college football. He’s also fairly seasoned as a coach, having spent nine years in the NFL after rising from intern with the New York Jets to safeties coach with the Baltimore Ravens.
“It’s a unique combination,” Kelly said of his new hire, who is the son of former Chargers coach Anthony Lynn.
Kelly’s fate could be closely tied to Lynn’s success given that sorry defenses have been the biggest reason UCLA has gone 27-29 over the last five seasons as opposed to recapturing a semblance of the success Kelly enjoyed at Oregon.
Under D’Anton Lynn, UCLA’s defense is ‘trying to promote a different standard’
New UCLA defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn has been routinely praised by Bruin defenders this spring as he’s attempted to integrate new concepts.
The early word on Lynn is “aggressive,” defensive players saying in the spring that their new boss wants them to do everything fast and furious. The biggest areas for improvement are at middle linebacker and in the secondary, where the Bruins have been burned season after season.
Lynn’s contract that pays him $1.02 million annually calls for him to get a $25,000 bonus if the Bruins can muster a top-50 defense and another $25,000 if they can crack the top 25. He’ll be worth exponentially more if UCLA gets to either place considering their best defense in Kelly’s first five seasons: No. 69 in 2020.
Is J. Michael Sturdivant UCLA’s next great receiver?
Receiver J. Michael Sturdivant waits for the ball to reach him during a 2023 UCLA spring football practice.
Receiver J. Michael Sturdivant waits for the ball to reach him during a 2023 UCLA spring football practice. (A player look at the football thrown toward him while UCLA teammates watch from the sideline)
Longtime fans longing for the next J.J. Stokes may have found their man in the California transfer who combines speed, size and sure hands.
The 6-foot-3 receiver who badly beat the Bruins on a 46-yard touchdown catch last November was a highlight machine in spring practice, thrilling the handful of fans who watched from the top deck of an adjacent parking garage.
Sturdivant could combine with USC transfer Kyle Ford and returners Kam Brown, Titus Mokiao-Atimalala and Logan Loya to give the new starting quarterback plenty of enticing options. Redshirt freshmen Braden Pegan and Jadyn Marshall are two younger players to watch.
Might the nonconference schedule be deceptively tough?
Coastal Carolina wide receiver Jaivon Heiligh, left, is congratulated by quarterback Grayson McCall after scoring
Don’t be fooled by the lack of a Power Five foe.
Coastal Carolina might be the best team you’ve never heard of. Based in Conway, S.C., the Chanticleers have quickly emerged as a Group of Five power since joining the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2017, going 31-7 with three bowl appearances over the last three seasons.
They also feature redshirt senior quarterback Grayson McCall, a three-time Sun Belt Conference player of the year who’s eager to join the list of gritty underdogs who have beaten UCLA at the Rose Bowl.
Colorado logo on flag in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday.
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San Diego State is coming off a 7-6 season but stirs painful reminders given that the Aztecs beat the Bruins in their last meeting, in 2019 at the Rose Bowl. This time the teams will be playing at Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego, where the Aztecs will try to log their first home victory over UCLA to go with their recent road breakthrough.

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