Pac-12 focus is on UCLA, and third-year coach Jim Mora is just fine with that
The expectations for UCLA are high heading into the college football season. The Bruins were picked to win the Pac-12 South Division, they have a quarterback who is a front-and-center Heisman Trophy candidate and return Myles Jack, a Pac-12 freshman of the year on offense and defense.
Seattle Times college football reporter
UCLA at a glance
Last year: 10-3 (6-3, T2 in Pac-12 South).
Coach: Jim Mora (19-8, 3rd year at UCLA).
Leading lights: QB Brett Hundley, Fl Devin Fuller, LB Myles Jack, LB Eric Kendricks, S Anthony Jefferson.
Key stat: Bruins converted 49 percent of third downs in 2013, close second in Pac-12 behind Stanford.
The schedule: It’s daunting, with road games at Arizona State and Washington, plus, in a six-day stretch of late November, home dates with USC and Stanford.
On balance, it was a simple decision free of implication or consequence: Jim Mora consented to allow Pac-12 Networks to document his football team’s 2014 season in the series “The Drive.”
Maybe it was more than that, something that reflects Mora’s comfort with his third-year UCLA program.
This is a Bruins season carrying great promise, perhaps so much that UCLA lands in the first college football playoff.
Would Mora, the former Seahawks head coach, jeopardize that with a move that might carry more risk than reward?
“I don’t see kids being distracted by people coming around,” Mora scoffed recently. “I think we’re mature enough to handle so-called distractions.”
The Bruins look to be a team to cause a lot of people to “come around,” especially in the entertainment capital of the nation. Quarterback Brett Hundley is a front-and-center Heisman Trophy candidate, and UCLA was the media choice to win the Pac-12 South division, not backyard rival USC.
Mora is a hands-on coach, and he seems satisfied with the culture of a program that he began shaping in a rugged, tough image when he was named to the position 32 months ago.
Case in point: Last year the Bruins rocked USC by three touchdowns and pummeled Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl, 42-12, as Hundley ran for 161 yards.
Mora is hardly bragging, saying, “Our success right now is still very limited. We haven’t won the Pac-12 championship. We’re 0-3 against Stanford. I don’t want our players to feel they’re extra-special. (But) I think we’re on the right track.”
Hundley is a near-certain NFL first-round draft pick, and he spent time in the off-season huddling with some quarterbacks who have been there, like Philip Rivers, Donovan McNabb, Jeff Garcia and Tim Tebow.
“All of them had something,” says Hundley. “I learned a lot from each.”
Mora cautions not to be tempted by stereotype, saying, “People have a tendency to see an African-American quarterback at times and say he’s a runner. I don’t want that to happen to Brett. It shouldn’t. The guy’s a passer, man, but he can run.
“When the NFL comes and evaluates him, they will absolutely fall in love with him.”
Hundley figures to be the subject of more media scrutiny than any Bruin since Troy Aikman, who once went No. 1 in the NFL draft. That was a quarter-century ago.
“Brett’s an incredibly mature young man, a very gracious and genuine kid,” says Mora. “He deserves this, and I think he’ll handle it well.”
Much of the optimism around the Bruins centers on how they went 10-3 a year ago, playing an astonishing 18 true freshmen. Injuries meant the offensive line started three true freshmen for a long stretch, and a serious ankle problem sidelined running back Jordon James, who returns.
The freshman who commanded national notice, though, was Myles Jack of Bellevue High. He ducked over to the other side from his linebacker role to carry the ball, and in an unprecedented vote, became both the Pac-12’s offensive and defensive freshman of the year.
“If you asked guys on the team who the hardest workers are,” Mora says, “they’d say Brett and Myles.”
Indicative of Mora’s hard edge, though, is last week when he tossed Jack out of practice for taunting a teammate after a dustup.
Hundley has an imposing cast of receivers, but it might be on defense where the Bruins’ chops as a national force will be tested. There, they lost 22 sacks among the departed trio of Anthony Barr, Keenan Graham and Cassius Marsh (to the Seahawks), and Barr was responsible for 20 tackles for loss.
Defensive coordinator Lou Spanos left for the Tennessee Titans, and Mora hired from within, appointing a longtime ex-49ers player, Jeff Ulbrich. Eric Kendricks is a proven linebacker and the Bruins get back defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa from a 2013 injury, but the best part of their defense appears to be a secondary that’s deep and talented.
Meanwhile, there’s a different challenge across town, where Steve Sarkisian took over for Lane Kiffin at USC.
“It’s given them a shot of energy that I wish they didn’t get,” Mora says.
If the Bruins match the hype, their season arc won’t be outlined until late in November, when, in a six-day stretch, they meet USC and Stanford.
That would be must-see viewing for “The Drive.”
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or email@example.com
About Bud Withers
Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-12.
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