|Jim Mora Jr. might be the answer when it comes to rebuilding UCLA's program and getting more out of his players. (Getty)|
In preparation for the 2013 NFL Draft, NFLDraftScout.com will profile the top draft-eligible prospects from FBS-level programs. This summer series will run until the start of the college football season.
NFL Draft picks the past five years: Nine
2012 NFL Draft picks: None
The annual "Battle for LA" showdown between USC and UCLA used to be one of the more entertaining and relevant rivalries in all of college football. Can former NFL head coach Jim Mora, Jr.help build back up a Bruins' program that twice in the past five years has made zero impact in the NFL draft? He'll have the benefit of an experienced roster that could result in a big turnaround this season.
While there were zero Bruins selected in the 2012 NFL draft (just like in 2009), UCLA should reap some of the benefits of their most talented players returning with an improvement in both the win column and on the number of players selected by pro teams come April.
The headlining prospect is senior tight end Joseph Fauria, but he's far from the only Bruin with legitimate NFL chances. Mora, Jr.'s NFL experience (head coach for the Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons) should help bring back some of the bite to a Bruins' defense, that frankly, has been a bit toothless in recent years. UCLA will be making the switch from a 4-3 alignment on defense to a 3-4 front. This transition could result in several defenders enjoying breakout seasons in 2012 and thereby boosting their individual draft stocks come April, 2013.
Top-five prospects for the 2013 NFL Draft
1. TE Joseph Fauria (6-7, 252)
The nephew of former NFL tight end Christian Fauria (who played most notably with the Seahawks, New England Patriots), Joseph was a highly regarded prep prospect who originally signed with Notre Dame. Fauria (pronounced Fore-EE-AA) saw action in three games as a true freshman but recorded no catches and elected to transfer to UCLA to play under Rick Neuheisel just as his uncle had when he played his collegiate ball at Colorado. After sitting out the 2009 season due to the NCAA's transfer policy, Fauria struggled to make an impact for the Bruins in 2010 catching just three passes for a total of 21 yards. Two of his catches did go for scores, however, leading to high hopes that Fauria would breakout in 2011. The big, athletic pass-catcher did exactly that a season ago. Despite inconsistency at the quarterback position, Fauria emerged as a standout for the Bruins, hauling in 39 passes for 481 yards and six scores. While new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone has traditionally featured receivers more than tight ends as part of his high-octane passing attack, Fauria offers a combination of size and athleticism that is rare and worthy of exploiting. He remains raw as a blocker, often electing to cut defenders rather than take them on with physicality one might expect given his size. Fauria's value lies in his ability as a mismatch in the passing game. While not a speed threat in the Jimmy Graham mold, Fauria shows impressive flexibility and agility as a route-runner, soft hands to make tough catches and the combination of strength, fluidity and leaping ability (see Stanford, 2011) to be a "Bruin" after the catch. With just nine career starts entering the 2012 season, Fauria remains rough around the edges and far from a first round lock but the physical upside is such that he's currently ranked as NFLDraftScout.com's top senior tight end in the country.
2. DL Datone Jones (6-4, 275)
Jones, who started all 14 games at while splitting time between defensive tackle and defensive end last season for the Bruins, will slide outside and remain there this year as the team transitions to a 3-4 scheme. As he demonstrated last season in racking up 41 tackles and leading UCLA in both tackles for loss (6.5) and sacks (three), he has the combination of bulk, strength and athleticism to handle this role. Jones' numbers, frankly, were disappointing as he's flashed the skill-set to be one of the Pac-12's more dangerous defensive linemen. Jones caught the imagination of UCLA coaches early in his career, appearing in 10 games (and starting two) as a true freshman (15 tackles). He enjoyed the best statistical season of his career to date as a sophomore, registering 30 tackles, including 11 tackles for loss and four sacks while opponents focused their attention on the disruptive Brian Price and Ayers. Rather than have his career take off in 2010 as hoped by the UCLA faithful, Jones was lost for the entire season after breaking his right foot in fall camp. As a five-technique defensive end, Jones' numbers aren't expected to rise significantly in 2012. However, this doesn't mean that scouts won't be impressed, necessarily. With so many NFL clubs incorporating hybrid fronts, a versatile and battle-tested defender with Jones' size and athleticism could earn a surprisingly high grade.
3. ILB Patrick Larimore (6-3, 250)
While Fauria is clearly the Bruins' top NFL prospect, their most consistent player a season ago was Larimore, who led the team with 81 tackles and was recognized as the team's defensive MVP. His statistics (which included two tackles for loss, one sack, one interception and both a forced and recovered fumble) would have been more impressive had he not missed the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against Illinois after undergoing thumb surgery in December. The injury is a bit troubling to scouts because Larimore played in only seven games the previous season as a torn labrum finished his year early in 2010, as well. He was productive in his starts, registering 42 tackles, five tackles for loss and three forced fumbles and thereby earning talk as the linebacker capable of filling the shoes of his former standout teammate Akeem Ayers, who was selected by the Tennessee Titans with the 39th overall pick in 2011. To earn serious NFL consideration, Larimore will thus first have to prove he can remain healthy for a full season. He is a classic college middle linebacker, demonstrating better instincts and open field tackling skills than the dominant athletic traits that will generate buzz among NFL scouts. With the 3-4 scheme being implemented this season, Larimore will get his opportunity to prove he has the physicality and toughness to handle the jump to NFL competition.
4. RB Johnathan Franklin (5-10, 195)
Like the afore-mentioned Larimore, Franklin has made enough plays over his career to pique the interest of NFL scouts but may not necessarily be the highly regarded prospect his statistics would lead one to believe. Franklin enters his senior campaign having started 32 games over the past three seasons and is within reach of the school's all-time rushing title (needs 1,063 in 2012) with 2,669 rushing yards already to his credit. Franklin boasts NFL-caliber speed and the ability to make defenders miss in tight quarters. He attacks the line of scrimmage and can squirt through in a blink, consistently giving the Bruins a big play option from the running game. For this skill he's affectionately been nicknamed "Jetski" by some on the team due to his ability to leave defenders in his wake. The catchy nickname is fun but I have concerns about how well he'll transition to the NFL. Franklin lacks the bulk of an NFL lead back so he'd likely have to make a roster as a third down specialist. The problem is he hasn't demonstrated the reliable hands out of the backfield (25 career catches for just 194 yards and one score) nor is he a stout blocker in pass protection -- two traits normally associated with the speedy change-of-pace options NFL teams are increasingly employing in this era of specialization. Perhaps most alarming is that Franklin has struggled with ball security. He fumbled three times in a five game stretch last year and it has been a sporadic problem going back earlier in his career. A two-time all-conference pick, Franklin is a relatively big name whose hype could cause him to be much higher rated by some. To guarantee being selected in the 2013 draft, however, I believe Franklin will have to enjoy the best season of his career.
5. P Jeff Locke (6-1, 214)
Typically it is not a good sign when one of a team's top prospects is their punter but after watching the Jacksonville Jaguars select another Pac-12 punter (Bryan Anger) in the third round in April, perhaps Bruins' fans should be celebrating their own talented specialist rather than question what else may be missing on this roster. To be clear, I do not anticipate Locke earning a draft selection as high as the former Cal standout Anger was selected. Locke, however, does possess the leg strength and versatility to potentially earn a draftable grade. Possessing a legitimate NFL frame for the position and a booming leg, Locke certainly looks the part. He's consistently been able to flip the field for the Bruins as a punter, ranking among national leaders in net punting throughout his entire career. The leg strength is perhaps even more noticeable on kickoffs, as he has had 55 touchbacks over his career. Because of his leg strength, Locke was sent out to attempt some long-distance field goals for the Bruins this past season and flashed enough success to potentially earn more consideration in this role down the road, nailing kicks from 49 and 51 yards against the Texas Longhorns. Considering his strong, accurate leg and the consistency he's shown over his career (44.58 career punting average ranks second in UCLA history) Locke could wind up as the top-rated punter in the 2013 draft, though as NFLDraftScout.com's rankings show, he'll have plenty of competition.
DL Cassius Marsh (6-3, 290)*
OLB Jordan Zumwalt (6-4, 236)*
OG Jeff Baca (6-4, 305)
CB Aaron Hester (6-1, 206)
CB Sheldon Price (6-1, 180)
QB Kevin Prince (6-2, 223)
For all of NFLDraftScout.com's team by team previews of the top prospects to watch in the 2012 season in preparation for the 2013 NFL draft, click here.