Thursday, June 27, 2013
Evans believes UCLA has turned the corner
By Ted Miller
UCLA receiver Shaquelle Evans and a couple of teammates enjoyed watching his fellow Bruins win the NCAA baseball national title over Mississippi State this week.
"It's always good seeing your school do something great," he said. "We watched them dominate. They basically made Mississippi State submit. That's how we teach football -- to make our opponents submit."
The Pac-12 blog will submit that life is pretty darn good these days in sunny Westwood. Not only did the school win its 109th national title -- first in baseball -- it also is cuddling up every night with the Victory Bell after beating arch-rival USC 38-28 last fall, ending a five-game losing streak in the series.
After running past USC last season, Shaq Evans and the Bruins are looking to maintain their momentum.
The Bruins, who went on to win the Pac-12's South Division, are again relevant in football. Toss in a pair of strong recruiting classes under second-year coach Jim Mora, not to mention an epically disappointing season across town at Heritage Hall, and it's not difficult to see why there's plenty of optimism around the program.
That starts with the win over USC, particularly when you consider where the programs stood at the end of 2011. USC beat the Bruins 50-0 and finished 10-2. Just about everyone projected the Trojans as 2012 national title contenders. Meanwhile, the Bruins were mocked for playing in a bowl game with a losing record and a fired coach. The hiring of Mora was not immediately embraced by a skeptical fan base who were dreaming of Kevin Sumlin.
Beating the Trojans -- the telling image being linebacker Anthony Barr's monstrous fourth-quarter sack of Matt Barkley -- transformed an enduring dynamic, with the Trojans strutting and the Bruins simmering with jealousy.
"It means the world," Evans said. "After 50-0, man, I didn't know if I wanted to be here any more. But after beating them, it was a great feeling. We knew if we beat them, the floodgates open for this program. You could tell with recruiting, people leaving them to come to us. It changes our program around. And it's going to keep going forward."
Still, the Bruins have flashed potential before, only to stumble back into an inconsistent pattern.
Former coach Rick Neuheisel notched a 27-24 upset over Tennessee in 2008, his first game as the Bruins coach. They lost their next game 59-zip at BYU. A 3-0 start in 2009 yielded to a five-game losing streak. The Bruins posted a physically dominant blowout win at Texas in 2010 but lost two weeks later 35-7 to a California team that would finish 5-7, the first of three consecutive losses.
Up and down. Up and down. Which always ends up, at season's end, feeling mostly down because it invites, "What could have been?" navel gazing.
Evans, a fifth-year senior, is well-aware of this. Even last year, there were some bafflingly disappointing performances -- a 43-17 loss at Cal and the faceplant against Baylor in the Holiday Bowl.
"The buzz around campus is good but we are not satisfied with what we did last year," he said. "9-5 is obviously an upgrade from 6-8, but we felt like we should have gone 12-2. This year, we're trying to go 14-0."
Evans will be a key piece if the Bruins are going to approach such high aspirations. He quietly posted a strong season last year, catching 60 passes for 877 yards with a stout 14.6 yards per catch. But in a conference laden with so much talent at receiver, that only ranked 11th (62.6 yards per game).
Further, Evans knows exactly where he fell short statistically, "Touchdowns!" he said before the question was finished.
Evans caught just three, in large part because tight end Joseph Fauria was the go-to guy in the red zone.
"I understood last year that if you've got a guy who is 6-foot-8 and you're in the red zone, he's going to be your primary target," Evans said.
Evans knows this is the year -- his final year before the NFL draft -- in which he needs to show his stuff. And with the departure of Fauria and running back Johnathan Franklin, as well as the expected maturation of quarterback Brett Hundley, Evans should be in position to become a 1,000-yard receiver.
And that likely would include more opportunities to peacock in the end zone (within the parameters of NCAA no-fun rules, of course).
For both Hundley and Evans, that's about refining their respective games. Evans mentions blocking and route running for himself, and accuracy, decision-making and command of the offense for Hundley.
After all, it's an obsessive focus and daily attention to details that will prevent the program from being inconsistent.
"I really believe we are past that," Evans said.
The test of that will be who ends up atop the South Division at season's end. And who owns the Victory Bell.