Editor’s note: This is the ninth of 10 previews of Pac-12 football teams outside the state. Today: UCLA. Sunday: USC.
Bruins face potential pitfalls despite favorite role in Pac-12 South
UCLA still trying to make a name for itself even as the media pick the Bruins to win a third consecutive South Division title.
Seattle Times college football reporter
About the Bruins
Last year: 6-3 (1st in Pac-12 South), 9-5 overall.
Coach: Jim Mora (2nd year, 9-5).
Leading lights: QB Brett Hundley, OG Xavier Su’a-Filo, SB Devin Fuller, LB Eric Kendricks, LB Anthony Barr.
Key stat: Bruins’ 2012 penalty total of 130 was by far most in the Pac-12.
The schedule: Lots of challenges - a Sept. 14 date at Nebraska and five Pac-12 road games, including a killer 1-2 of Stanford and Oregon Oct. 19 and 26.
LOS ANGELES – The transcription service used by the Pac-12 at its media-day festivities first relayed the name of the UCLA football coach as “Jim Morandini.”
Adding insult to injury, it then prefaced each of his answers during a 20-minute session with the title of “Coach Graham.”
You’d think Jim Mora would have earned more respect after what was a laudable debut in 2012 as Bruins coach. His team took the Pac-12 South, scissored USC’s long domination of that city rivalry, and won nine games for the first time in seven years.
Mora, the former Seahawks coach, infused toughness and work ethic into a program that needed it, but seemingly without a lot of the growing pains that often accompany a transition. A finishing three-game losing streak, including a blowout loss to Baylor in the Holiday Bowl, was a blotch, but nine wins is nine wins.
“It was back to football,” linebacker Jordan Zumwalt told me recently on campus. “It wasn’t college (fun). I’m not here to party, I’m not here to have a million girlfriends. I mean, that’s part of it. (But) I didn’t come here to be in a frat, I didn’t come here to go to bars all the time, I came here to play football and get a degree. We’re a lot more focused on football.”
The Bruins are the media pick to win the South for the third straight year, but the schedule includes all sorts of pitfalls, and the sense of a lot of skeptics (me included) is that matching last year’s win total looks like a reach.
“They don’t know what we’ve been doing these last eight months,” retorted receiver Shaq Evans to that notion. “We’re not going to go into any stadium intimidated, because we know we’ve put in the work. We’re a team that’s comfortable being uncomfortable.”
As usual, it’s not as though the Bruins don’t have players, lots of them. Their biggest apparent void is inexperience in the secondary.
“We’ve got a good group of defensive linemen, and a really good group of linebackers,” said Mora, who hopes the front can ease the heat on the back line. “We can rush the passer. We’ve got to be able to get there and affect the quarterback.”
Returning is linebacker Anthony Barr, who led the Pac-12 in sacks last year with 13.5 and had 21.5 tackles for loss. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone told the L.A. Times recently, “Every defense has a guy who can ruin the game. He’s that guy.”
Barr has missed practice this week with what is thought to be a concussion, but Mora has been hazy about his status.
Alongside Barr is Eric Kendricks, runaway Pac-12 leader in tackles last season with 149.
The quarterback is ascendant Brett Hundley. All he did was run for a 72-yard touchdown on his first college play against Rice, proceeding to throw for 29 touchdowns against 11 interceptions.
Says Evans, “I see him having an All-American, Davey O’Brien-award-winning season, no doubt.”
If something should happen to Hundley, the backup is Jerry Neuheisel — the son of the coach who was fired at the school in 2011, Rick Neuheisel.
Gone is the career-leading rusher, Johnathan Franklin, leaving what Mora calls a “cluster” of five candidates “who can play at this level.” Leader among them appears to be fourth-year junior Jordon James, who has modest numbers to date.
At least a couple of freshmen bear watching. One is Myles Jack, 6-foot-1, 225-pound linebacker from Bellevue High whom Mora has talked of getting some snaps at running back. True story: Jack has even returned kickoffs in practice.
“He can run, he’s powerful,” Mora said. “But we know we can’t overwork him.”
Mora is also expecting big stuff from Eddie Vanderdoes, the defensive tackle who bailed from a Notre Dame letter of intent, got cleared by the NCAA and will play despite a bothersome back limiting his practice.
“I’d like to see him get 30 snaps (in the opener against Nevada),” Mora said. “The guy’s going to be a great player.”
Zumwalt, asked about the bounce created by the breakthrough against USC, steered credit toward Coach What’s-His-Name.
“We’re back on the map, man,” Zumwalt said, adding of Mora, “That’s a testament once again in his ability to change our team. It’s like, we’re back, we’re done being second-class. We’re done sitting behind you. It’s time for us to take our reign.”