The future of UCLA football hinges on Josh Rosen

Adam Davis/Icon Sportswire

UCLA football head coach Jim Mora promised a spring game that actually resembles a game — something of a novelty during these 15-practice sessions the NCAA allows programs.

Part of playing a real game means quarterbacks taking meaningful reps. At UCLA, it marks the first opportunity for the Bruins faithful to watch the much-celebrated Josh Rosen in action since Oct. 8, when he sustained a shoulder injury in a loss at Arizona State. That late-night affair in the desert fundamentally altered UCLA’s outlook, both for 2016 and the program’s immediate future.

NFL-bound defensive end Takkarist McKinley — a shining star in the otherwise bleak 2016 season — offered his advice to Bruins defender regarding Rosen, ahead of Saturday’s spring game at Drake Stadium.

How UCLA’s season went was on a downward spiral. Beginning with the final possessions at Arizona State, the Bruins lacked an offensive identity, which provided the key catalyst in their losing 6-of-7. The skid doomed UCLA to its first sub-.500 record since 2011, and kept the Bruins out of a bowl game for the first time since 2010.

Both marked dubious firsts in the head-coaching tenure of Jim Mora. Considering that such finishes led to Rick Neuheisel’s ouster, opening the UCLA job for Mora, the Bruins head coach faces understandable pressure to bounce back in 2017.

Takk McKinley’s tweet states the obvious: UCLA’s pursuit of a turnaround hinges on the performance of “Chosen” Rosen, the former 5-star recruit knighted as the hero of Westwood before ever taking a collegiate snap. But recovering from a 4-8 finish isn’t so simple as reinserting Rosen into the lineup.

The decline of 2016 didn’t come about so abruptly as Josh Rosen going to the sidelines. The first signs of trouble surfaced in 2015 with the ballyhooed quarterback behind center.

UCLA dropped three of its final four games that season, plummeting out of the Top 25 and conceding control of the Pac-12 South along the way. Rosen — an erstwhile Heisman Trophy candidate — struggled down the stretch. He passed for just two touchdowns total in the final three regular-season games, and failed to complete at least 60 percent of his attempts in the same stretch. Rosen managed three scores in the bowl-game loss to 5-7 Nebraska — but he also threw two interceptions.

Before being picked off twice in a blowout loss at USC — a loss that doomed UCLA to watching the 2015 Pac-12 Championship Game at home — Rosen went five straight games and a UCLA record 245 attempts without an interception. He’d thrown three before that stretch in back-to-back losses against Arizona State and Stanford.

Any of Rosen’s 2015 struggles, including his late-season stagnation, could be attributed to his being a freshman. College players become stars earlier than ever before, but true freshmen still face a much more substantial learning curve than their redshirted counterparts.

In between those stretches in early October and down the stretch, Rosen looked capable of elevating UCLA football to new heights. He has uncanny field vision, a quality that cannot be taught. Rosen also zips passes into tight windows with incredible velocity.

At his best, there are few better than Josh Rosen. That should spawn optimism at UCLA — but it needs to be cautious optimism.

The Heisman adulation that surfaced after his 351-yard, three-touchdown debut against Virginia was a premature reaction from media, eager to be first on the bandwagon. In a way, it mirrors the entirety of the Mora era at UCLA.

In just five years with the program, Mora boasts a mark of success never before reached with three straight seasons of at least nine wins. In 2013 and 2014, the Bruins scored consecutive 10-win campaigns. By most measures, that’s a wildly successful period.

Outside the Rose Bowl locker room, however, the bar was set at championship.

Mora routinely bristled at the word “expectations” throughout the 2014 season, stating that the team’s goals differed from those of TV pundits. Rosen seemed much less defensive against the e-word last summer, however, openly discussing a national title during the Bruins’ first preseason practice.

While a national championship might have been too pie-in-the-sky for UCLA, even in better years than 2016, there’s no denying at 4-8 finish falls well short of anyone’s expectations. Rosen’s absence contributed, sure, but a variety of factors went into the finish.

The rushing attack was virtually nonexistent, as UCLA finished No. 127-of-128 in FBS on the run. The Bruins finished on the negative side of the season-long turnover margin, and finished among the bottom-fourth of all teams nationally in penalty yardage. UCLA also went 1-5 in games decided by single digits.

Any number of those elements could turn around with Josh Rosen back behind center. They aren’t guaranteed too, either. Some of that will be determined by how the Bruins jell with Jedd Fisch’s vision. Fisch is the third offensive coordinator at UCLA in as many years, a tenure spanning Rosen’s time in Westwood.

Nevertheless, Josh Rosen is the face of UCLA’s pursuit of redemption. Step 1 is keeping him in the lineup — and that starts with the spring game on Saturday.

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