Blue Ribbon Preview: UCLA
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And, now, it's Jim Mora's turn. He'll take his place in the uninspiring lineup of Bob Toledo, Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel atop the UCLA football program, hoping he will be the one capable of returning the Bruins to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 14 years and the one who actually wins one for the first time since the 1984 Classic.
Mora will try to establish the Bruins atop the city of L.A., wresting regional supremacy away from USC. And he'll try to carve out a place in the upper reaches of the Pac-12 -- and, no, last year's South Division title doesn't count, not when you go 5-4 to get it.
And he'll try to do it all without the benefit of a single game of head-coaching experience on the collegiate level. In fact, Mora has never even been a full-time college assistant; his sole experience as a staffer at that level came when he was a graduate assistant at Washington in 1984.
But Mora isn't somebody the Bruins picked off the street. He has ample NFL experience, including two stints (Atlanta 2004-06, Seattle 2009) as a head coach.
After one spring with the team, a few things were pretty clear to Mora. First, the Bruins have some talent and some answers. Second, the journey to the top will be long and filled with hurdles.
"We're getting there, but we're not close to where we need to be," Mora said. "The team responded favorably, but it needs to build consistency and get to the point where it's not always the coaches pulling it out of them. It has to be innate. We'll get there."
Though Mora has NFL experience, he was just 34-36 during his four seasons and reached the playoffs just once. Perhaps that's why he's coaching in college now. He's a West Coast guy, and he has a West Coast staff, so the Bruins should be able to get in with some top prospects throughout the Pacific time zone. The question is whether they can close the deal. To do that, they must create some excitement quickly, especially because the Pac-12 has new coaches at four schools (including UCLA), and three of them (Arizona's Rich Rodriguez, Washington State's Mike Leach and Arizona State's Todd Graham) will at least put some points on the board this year with their spread offenses, creating at least the illusion of excitement.
Mora inherits a team that should be able to play some defense. And, if he can settle on a quarterback capable of running the team and get the line in, well, line, the offense should percolate a bit.
"I like this football team," he said. "I like its willingness to work and its willingness to conform to what we want to do here. We're not satisfied, though. We've got a ton of work to do. We're not even close."
The Bruins are going to abandon the Pistol formation that characterized their last two seasons under Neuheisel and go to more of a spread hybrid that makes use of multiple-wideout sets but can also pound the ball on the ground some. UCLA is switching to a 3-4 defense, and Mora is cheered by the fact that he has some athletes on the outside capable of playing in space while still getting to the passer.
The key, as it has been with all UCLA teams during the last 10-plus years, is whether Mora can attract the kind of talent necessary to challenge the Pac-12's best, particularly Oregon. Neuheisel was unable to take advantage of two years of Trojan probation and make inroads into the L.A. market. If he couldn't do it while 'SC was down, it's going to be harder for Mora now that the Trojans have been sprung from NCAA jail and can get back to the business of winning double-digit games every year.
Mora is counting on his NFL experience to help choose and convince top talent to come to Westwood and then the knowledge of how the best of the best do it to turn the players into winners. It's a tall order, and for the third straight time, UCLA has gone with an unconventional hire. It's time to see if Mora can get the job done, where others couldn't.
Head Coach: Jim Mora (Washington '84)
Record at school: First year
Career record: First year
• Noel Mazzone (New Mexico '80) Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks
• Lou Spanos (Tulsa '94) Defensive Coordinator
• Adrian Klemm (Hawaii/Excelsior '08) Running Game Coordinator/Offensive Line
• Demetrice Martin (Michigan State-Excelsior '06) Passing Game Coordinator/Defensive Backs
• Steve Broussard (Washington State '90) Running Backs
• Angus Mcclure (Sacramento State '95) Defensive Line/Recruiting Coordinator
• Marques Tuiasosopo (Washington '01) Y Receivers
• Jeff Ulbrich (Hawaii '00) Linebackers/Special Teams Coordinator
• Eric Yarber (Idaho '95) Wide Receivers
There sure are a lot of them on the roster, six in fact. And nobody at the top of the list was able to distinguish himself during spring drills, so Mora has declared the job wide open and given himself until August 16 to name the starter. He insists he isn't playing games; instead, he wants the candidates to work hard over the summer and then compete like crazy once summer practice begins.
"We don't have a guy who is the clear-cut, this-is-the-guy, indisputable, everybody-can-see-it, no-debate, can't-second-guess starter," said Mora, who loves to speak in series. "I didn't feel that during the spring."
Once might imagine the leader is senior Kevin Prince (6-2, 230), who threw for 1,828 yards and 12 touchdowns last year. Prince was intercepted eight times and completed just 56.2 percent of his throws, so the job can't be considered automatically his.
"He's a leader," Mora said. "The guys rally around him, and he has experience."
Prince has been an on-again, off-again starter throughout his three years in Westwood, with injury and inconsistency his biggest problems. He had a solid spring game, but he wasn't able to create distance between himself and the others.
His main competition should be senior Richard Brehaut (6-2, 225), who competed 55.4 percent of his 121 throws last year for 948 yards, six TDs and just one interception. He started four games last year, while Prince was the man in 10, including the last eight.
"He has moxie and a little bit of athletic arrogance," Mora said of Brehaut. "He throws a good deep ball."
Redshirt freshman Brett Hundley (6-4, 225) was 12 of 20 for 185 yards in the spring game and has great size. "I was encouraged by the way Hundley played in the spring game," Mora said. "He made some clutch throws and had improved accuracy."
Mora had plenty of good things to say about freshman Jerry Neuheisel (6-2, 190), who stuck to the commitment he made in 2011 and showed up for spring practice, even though his father wasn't around anymore. He doesn't have prototypical size or a giant arm, but he can play the position.
"He's unflappable," Mora said. "He takes advantage of every opportunity and has a future at this level. He's like his dad. He's smart, accurate and throws the ball in there. He makes good decisions. I like him a lot. You can win games with Neuheisel."
True freshman T.J. Millweard (6-4, 230), from All Saints High School in Fort Worth, Texas, was rated by ESPN as the fifth-best QB in the country. He graduated early so he could take part in spring drills.
"It's all about being consistent at that position," Mora said. "You have to have a guy pulling the trigger who makes good decisions and puts us in the position to win. He doesn't have to win it for us, but he has to put us in the position to win."
Last year, senior Johnathan Franklin (5-10, 205) was voted honorable mention All-Pac-12 after gaining 976 yards and scoring five times. He averaged a robust 5.9 yards per carry and posted three 100-yard games. His challenge now is to be more consistent and to turn some of his strong runs into game breakers.
"He's going to be something," Mora said. "What's important is that he trusts his instincts now. We have some different blocking patterns and a little bit different holes that might be difficult to see. He had a tiny bit of hesitancy, but once he's comfortable, he's going to do some good things. He's explosive and tough, and he catches the ball."
There isn't a whole lot of depth behind Franklin, now that Derrick Coleman (765 yards, 11 TDs) is gone. Junior Malcolm Jones (6-0, 227) rushed for 103 yards last year and has some promise to go with his good size. Expect redshirt freshman Steven Manfro (5-11, 195) to get the ball, too. The "White Mamba" showed well last year as a redshirt and displayed fine speed during spring drills. "He's a guy we're looking to get a lot of touches," Mora said.
True freshman Fabian Morneau (6-0, 185), a Floridian who showed he could run and catch as a prep senior, will get a look.
The X-factor is senior Dalton Hilliard (6-0, 205), who was a running back in high school -- like his father, who was a star at LSU -- but has played safety at UCLA. He spent time with the offense this spring but eventually moved back to the other side. He could see some action carrying the ball.
"If there is a reason to get him some snaps on offense, and he can manage it through practice and meetings, he'll do it," Mora said of Hilliard pulling double duty.
The fullback spot won't get a lot of work, but converted linebacker David Allen (6-2, 224), a senior, will be first in line. "He does a good job there," Mora said. "He's a better player than we thought he'd be at that position."
Last year's top receiver, Nelson Rosario, who pulled in 64 balls and averaged a whopping 18.1 yards per catch, is gone. But the Bruins have many candidates to fill out their spread sets, beginning with 6-7, 258-pound senior Joseph Fauria (39 catches, six TDs), who will play the hybrid Y spot, a cross between tight end and slot man.
Fauria and converted quarterback Darrius Bell (6-0, 230), a junior, should fit in that position well. "He's a natural receiver," Mora said. "He can go up and catch the ball. He has good quickness and can block."
Outside, junior Shaq Evans (6-1, 205), who started six games last year and caught 19 passes for a big 16.3 average, has potential to make some big plays. Expect senior Jerry Johnson (6-4, 218) to make an impact, too. Johnson has had some off-field problems over the last year or so, but Mora reports the big target looked good during the spring.
"He worked hard and has not been a distraction in any way, shape or form," Mora said. "We need him to bring some consistency."
Expect junior Ricky Marvray (6-0, 190), who caught 10 passes last year, and redshirt freshman Devin Lucien (6-1, 192) to catch some balls. Lucien has good speed. Marvray was hurt during spring drills but underwent surgery and is expected to be ready to go in the summer.
Look for sophomore Jordon James (5-11, 200), to make some plays this year. "We want to get the ball in his hands," Mora said.
Among the newcomers, a couple of former California prep stars, Jordan Payton (6-2, 205) and Kenny Walker (6-0, 175), are the most likely to contribute. Payton is particularly impressive.
This is not a strong suit of the Bruins. There is little depth, not a lot of experience, and even after the spring, Mora and his staff weren't sure where everybody would play. The one guarantee is that senior Jeff Baca (6-4, 305) will be out there. He started 11 games at tackle last year but has moved inside to right guard.
"I'm a big fan of Jeff Baca," Mora said. "He can play all the positions. He's a very good player."
Expect sophomore Xavier Su'a-Filo (6-4, 310) to handle the left tackle spot. He started 13 games there in 2009 before taking his two-year Mormon mission.
"He's going to be a fine player," Mora said. "He was a little rusty, and his strength was down, but he'll be fine."
The other tackle spot belongs to redshirt freshman Torian White (6-6, 295), who has the "body type we're looking for in that position," Mora said.
Sophomore Wade Yandall (6-4, 315) started three games at guard last year and emerged as the first-team left guard during the spring. He will get a fight from Santa Monica College transfer Alexandru Ceachir (6-5, 305), who came to this country from Moldova after learning the game two years ago. He's as raw as they come but tougher than a two-dollar steak.
"He's learning technique, how to play with good pad level, how to move his feet, where to put his hands and how to work with the guy next to him," Mora said.
Junior Greg Capella (6-4, 310), who started 13 games at guard last year, will handle the pivot, unless redshirt freshman Jake Brendel (6-5, 295) takes the spot and pushes Capella over. Carl Hulick (6-2, 296), a true freshman, will get a long look come August.
The Bruins have shifted to a 3-4, which means there has been some movement around the front line. One person who isn't going anywhere is senior end Datone Jones (6-5, 280), who started every game last year and made 6.5 tackles behind the line. But while Jones brings experience and production, he will be locked in a battle this summer with junior Owamagbe Odighizuwa (6-5, 278), who had a good spring after making three tackles behind the line last year as a reserve. If Odighizuwa doesn't unseat Jones, he might take over for junior Cassius Marsh (6-4, 295), who started eight times and had a pair of sacks.
"I wasn't exactly sure what I would get out of him," Mora said. "But he's an outstanding football player. He has outstanding leverage, good hands, plays well with his hands, has matured and turned into a leader. He plays with an edge but backs off at the right time."
Junior Iuta Tepa (6-2, 268), who made 4.5 stops for loss last season, and sophomore Tre Hale (6-2, 308), a special teams contributor last year, round out what could be a fairly productive end rotation.
Sophomore Brandon Willis (6-3, 275) began the spring at the end spot, but by the time the practices ended he was the main man at the nose tackle position. "He can play at this level," Mora said. "He makes plays, and nose tackle will be a strong position on our team."
Backing him up is senior Donovan Carter (6-2, 313), who made 36 stops in 2011 as a defensive tackle, including 3.5 for loss, and junior Seali'i Epenesa (6-2, 323). Don't be surprised if true freshman Ellis McCarthy (6-5, 326) makes an immediate impact. ESPN rated him as a four-star recruit and the 43rd-best player in the country last year. McCarthy played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and has the heft to clog things up in the middle.
No matter who plays, it is imperative the Bruins mount more of a pass rush than they did last year, when they registered a meager 14 sacks, a big reason opposing QBs completed 63.3 percent of their passes.
The Bruins have some strong players here, so the move to a 3-4 shouldn't cause too much trouble. The returns of junior OLB Jordan Zumwalt (6-4 235) and inside men Patrick Larimore (6-3, 253), senior, and sophomore Eric Kendricks (6-2, 230) help a lot.
Larimore led UCLA with 81 tackles last year and is a bulwark on the interior. Expect him to work next to Kendricks, giving the Bruins a solid pair of inside linebackers. "With Patrick and Eric, we have two very, very good inside linebackers," Mora said. If they stay healthy, and they play all 14 games and every snap, we're going to be fine at that position. It's tough to do that, because there is so much contact there.
"We need to have depth at that position, and right now, we don't have that much depth. The guys are working hard and doing good things, but there would be a bit of a drop-off from those two."
He's right. Sophomore Jared Koster (6-1, 208) is light for the inside, and sophomore Ryan Hofmeister (6-2, 220), is a converted outside man who hasn't played since 2010 at Riverside City College. Mora had hoped junior Isaiah Bowens (6-2, 235), was going to provide some help, but he tore a knee ligament during spring drills and is out for the year. Perhaps true freshman Aaron Porter (6-2, 230), considered a four-star recruit by ESPN after forcing five fumbles as a senior MLB, can contribute quickly.
Outside, Mora feels good about Zumwalt, who made 60 tackles last year, including six behind the line. He will be asked to help in the running game, but his true mission is to get to the quarterback.
"He is a very versatile player," Mora said. "I've seen him play some outside linebacker and some inside linebacker. He's good in space, plays the run well and is a good pass rusher. He has great experience and plays with emotion. He has great length, too. He's 6-4 with long arms."
Junior Keenan Graham (6-3, 252), who played defensive end in 2011, could grab a starting spot on the outside, too. He made 20 tackles last year and looked comfortable during the spring.
"He is a natural pass rusher," Mora said. "He has very good hands in the pass rush. What he lacks now is experience dropping into pass coverage. But I like his work ethic. He's moving toward being a complete player at the position. I know he can make plays off the edge, but he has to be a better dropper."
Senior Damien Holmes (6-4, 260), who started 14 games and made six tackles for loss last year, will be outside as well -- at least at the start. If Graham can become a more complete player, Holmes may slide inside to provide more depth.
"I'm very comfortable with both guys," Mora said. "It's important that we develop over the summer and the fall how they play at the finish of the route, the top of the route."
Mora wants the UCLA corners to be more effective when the ball reaches the receiver, the better to prevent a completion -- or better yet -- intercept the pass. UCLA picked off only 14 throws last year, and that number has to improve. Hester made 57 tackles and intercepted one pass in 2011, while Price forced two fumbles. "They are big, rangy, long-armed, fast, physical, experienced corners," Mora said. "That's nice to have."
Depth will come from junior Brandon Sermons (6-0, 185), who played 12 games last year, while sophomore Anthony Jefferson (6-1, 190) will also figure in the rotation. Expect freshmen Ishmael Adams (5-10, 190) and Randall Goforth (6-0, 180) to compete when they arrive this summer. Mora is already impressed with freshman Marcus Rios (6-0, 185), who arrived on campus in time for spring practice.
"He's a guy who's supposed to be in high school, and at first he looked a little out of place, but every week he looked a little better," Mora said.
By the end of spring, Hilliard had moved back to safety, where he broke up nine passes last year. But the Bruins expect converted senior corner Andrew Abbott (5-11, 200) to handle the strong spot, while sophomore Tevin McDonald (6-0, 202) will be the free safety. Hilliard will play behind Abbott, giving the Bruins some depth, while junior Stan McKay (6-1. 205), who played in 13 games last year and started twice, will back up McDonald. "I think we have a really good secondary," Mora said.
Abbott led the Bruins with four picks last year and made 46 tackles, while McDonald had 56 stops and three interceptions.
The Bruins have some work to do here, in both the return and coverage areas.
First the coverage game. Rivals averaged 24.1 yards per kick return and had 9.1-yard success bringing back punts -- and took one all the way. Expect Mora to employ some NFL tactics to improve that area and make better use of regulars on the coverage units.
Finding some return men is another necessity. Josh Smith averaged 23.1 yards returning kicks last year, but he's gone. Sophomore running back Jordon James had some success taking back kickoffs last year, but that job is wide open, and Manfro may emerge with the job, thanks to his speed and playmaking ability. James and Evans will get a look at punt return, too.
When asked about UCLA's kicking situation in May, Mora said, "Our kicker isn't on campus yet."
That means the job belongs to incoming freshman Ka'imi Fairbairn (6-0, 171), who comes all the way from Punahou High School in Honolulu. Last season, Fairbairn put 95 percent of his kickoffs into the end zone. He also made 13-of-18 field goal tries, with a long of 55 yards. He has a big leg and is expected to be a stalwart at the position for several years.
Senior Jeff Locke (6-1, 210) averaged a whopping 44.3 yards per punt last year, 12th among all punters nationally. Twenty-six of his 49 boots went inside enemy 20-yard lines, and he didn't have any blocked.
Locke is an excellent weapon for the Bruins, especially as they try to improve their shaky defense, and will help the team immensely in the battle for field position.
The Bruins welcome 26 scholarship newcomers and have addressed most of the position groups with the class. Don't be surprised if several true freshmen are playing sizeable roles this season.
There should be immediate help in the defensive backfield, thanks to the arrivals of Rios, who participated in spring drills at cornerback, and Adams, another corner, while Goforth will provide some depth at safety. Porter could make an immediate impact at linebacker, and Mora is excited to see what McCarthy will do at nose tackle.
Because the offensive line needs depth, expect Hulick to get a look right away. Payton will have a chance at immediate playing time at receiver, thanks to his size and speed, while Moreau has the chance to get some carries in relief of Franklin.
Even though the Bruins have a bunch of quarterbacks, Millweard has good credentials for future performance, while Fuller will get a chance to display his run-pass skills this summer.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
There is always optimism when a new coach arrives, and Mora is playing the role of the upbeat new boss quite well. He is comfortable, confident and instituting the kinds of standards and expectations the team needs to win. But no matter how well he and his staff coach, UCLA's future depends on whether the Bruins can attract the type of talent needed to go after the Pac-12's best.
But that's the long-term business. In 2012, UCLA must start by improving a defense that was 96th overall last year. The Bruins have to get tougher, reach the quarterback more effectively and force more turnovers. Otherwise, they'll have to outscore people again, and the offense isn't ready to do that. The shift to a 3-4 gives UCLA more options, but the front seven doesn't have much depth. The secondary is strong but must make more plays.
Until Mora decides on a quarterback, it's hard to tell what the offense will look like. Someone has to become a reliable passer and decision-maker. Prince has what it takes to get the job done, but he always has some sort of problem. We'll see if Brehaut can emerge. Franklin will be a good weapon on the ground, but unless the offensive line grows up quickly, he won't have a lot of room to operate. And the receiving corps lacks proven big-play types.
UCLA will be a better team this year, although it's hard to imagine the Bruins winning more than the six games they managed in 2011. The biggest problem they face is that USC is back in business, meaning they won't be able to take the South Division with just five conference wins. The Bruins have taken a step toward a resurrection, and only time will tell if more strides follow, or if the program is doomed to remain mediocre.
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