UCLA's hot start fueled by fresh faces

September, 11, 2012
9/11/12
7:33
PM PT
Steven ManfroGary A. Vasquez/US PresswireUCLA's Steven Manfro scores on a 49-yard touchdown pass against Nebraska last week.

LOS ANGELES -- The UCLA Bruins are one of the early surprises of the college football season, having risen into the top 25 for the first time since 2008 after a 2-0 start.

What's even more surprising is that the Bruins have done so with five freshmen starting on offense and had another start on defense Saturday during a 36-30 upset victory over Nebraska.

That's right, almost half of the starting offense that is No. 3 in the nation in total offense had not played a college football game before this season. That group includes quarterback Brett Hundley, who has passed for 507 yards and six touchdowns.

Senior running back Johnathan Franklin is getting a lot of attention for his nation-leading 431 yards rushing, and deservedly so, but Franklin is the first to say that an offensive line consisting of freshman Simon Goines and redshirt freshmen Torian White and Jake Brendel deserves an equal amount of the credit.

Slot back Steven Manfro, another redshirt freshman who starts, caught a 49-yard touchdown pass from Hundley on Saturday against Nebraska. Randall Goforth, a true freshman, started at safety against Nebraska and ended up leading the team in tackles.

And those starters don't include receiver Devin Lucien, who has made highlight-worthy catches in each of the first two games and leads the team with 115 yards receiving.

"They responded well," coach Jim Mora said. "They are mature beyond their age. When you get in an environment like [Saturday] where it is intense and you are playing a great opponent and you’re in front of a big crowd and the lights come on, you can get overwhelmed and I didn’t see that from our guys so I was really proud of them."

The offensive line was considered a question mark for the team during training camp and it wasn't until the week before the first game that the coaches settled on a starting five that included three freshmen. Brendel displayed the smarts and toughness to man the center spot while Goines (6-7, 324) and White (6-5, 285) displayed the size and athleticism that led the coaches to take the chance on starting them over more experienced players.

So far, all they have done is impress by helping open holes for Franklin and giving Hundley enough time to complete 42 of 61 (68.9 percent) passes.

"The skill guys can come in and play as freshmen no problem, but it's those big guys you worry about," offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said. "We saw the potential, but they hadn't performed. That was the great unknown, but so far they have shown that they can handle it."

It's a tireless work ethic in the film room and on the practice field that has led to some of the early success and the more success the players have, the more comfortable they are starting to feel.

"Once I was in the starting lineup, I was worried about if I was going to be ready enough to play Rice," White said. "I turned out doing better than I thought I would. Now, I feel like I just have to keep getting better."

And now two games in, White said his class standing no longer feels relevant.

"I don’t think being a freshman matters out there," he said. "I’m just out there to get my job done and do it as best I can."

Goines said he felt the same way. He acknowledged some nerves before the Rice game, but by the time UCLA and Nebraska got to the fourth quarter in a close game in front of 70,000 fans, he said he felt like a seasoned vet.

"It was louder than I ever expected it to be," Goines said. "But I actually got more focused during the fourth quarter than I was the whole game. Don't get me wrong, I still have a lot of things to improve, but feel like I’m growing a lot week to week."

And that is exactly what the coaches were hoping to see when they put so many freshmen on the field.

"You throw them out there and let them roll," Mora said. "We recruited these guys because we think they are good football players and good athletes and great competitors."

Other Notes:

Attitude check: Mora said the team was unaffected by breaking into the top-25 rankings this week and showed up for practice as hungry as it was last week.

"They were the same team today that they were last Tuesday," he said. "Very focused. Hard-working, attention to detail. A lot of good things and some things we’ve got to clean up, but I don’t think that there is any deviation in attitude from what we’ve had."

Redemption song: Manfro beat himself up all last week after dropping a wide-open pass that would have gone for an easy touchdown against Rice, but he made up for it by hauling in a 49-yard touchdown against Nebraska.

"The thought definitely came into my head, 'I better catch this ball,'" Manfro said of his second-quarter catch against Nebraska that gave UCLA a 24-21 lead. "I made sure I focused on it more than I probably should have. It made me feel like the first one was a fluke and that I am capable of catching the ball."

For most of the week, he had doubts. He said the drop against Rice ate at him like nothing ever had; he even tweeted an apology to UCLA fans even though the Bruins won 49-24. He said he was thinking about running after the catch and lost focus.

"I let that get me down too much and I had to make a recovery from that and get some redemption and I think I did that," Manfro said. "It was my first college game so I’m saying it was first-game jitters. Now I’m hoping that will never happen again."

No close shaves: Manfro, fullback David Allen and several other Bruins are sporting mustaches they are calling "winning mustaches." Manfro and Allen started the trend during camp and they say they will not shave their mustaches as long as UCLA keeps winning.

"I'm hoping not to shave it until the end of the season," Manfro said.

Asked who's was the best, Manfro said, "I would say myself."

Later, he acknowledged that it has taken him more than a month to get his mustache as full as it currently is.

"I’m not very gifted with my facial hair," he said. "I started at the beginning of camp."

Peter Yoon

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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