SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (AP) The UCLA Bruins are sweating it out in the middle of an Inland Empire summer again this month, doing their first two weeks of preseason work on the far end of the L.A. metroplex from tranquil Westwood.
After the way last season went for the Bruins, it’s tough to blame coach Jim Mora for sticking to the same plan.
UCLA burst back onto the national scene with an impressive debut under Mora, the longtime NFL coach who has adapted seamlessly to the college game. The Bruins won nine of their first 11 – claiming the Pac-12 South title, trouncing USC and earning a No. 15 national ranking – before losing their final three games.
Many key contributors are back, including quarterback Brett Hundley and imposing linebacker Anthony Barr. Mora supplemented his roster with a standout recruiting class, and the Bruins are the popular pick to win their third straight Pac-12 South title despite a daunting schedule and a defensive secondary with no returning starters.
But Mora won’t be satisfied with a repeat of last season. He wants his team to grow, to dominate – and to contend for a national title. He’s happy with the early returns from San Bernardino, where his players are rounding into shape for their opener against Nevada at the Rose Bowl on Aug. 31.
“In all my years of coaching college football, this is the best-looking team I’ve had,” Mora said with a grin. “This team just looks different. It’s bigger. It’s more physically imposing. If we can keep developing this way, we can eventually meet our goals.”
Five things to watch for as UCLA attempts to establish Pac-12 South dominance:
1. WHO RUNS THE BALL?: Johnathan Franklin, UCLA’s career rushing leader, has headed to the NFL after a standout senior season. The speedy tailback known as Jetski has no clear successor with the Bruins, who have tried every available option in training camp. Jordon James, an occasional starter in his first two years in Westwood, tops Mora’s depth chart at the position, but Malcolm Jones, Steven Manfro, Paul Perkins and injured Damien Thigpen should all get a chance to carry the ball at some point.
2. PENALTY-FREE PLAY: UCLA’s strong season last fall was even more impressive considering the Bruins led the FBS in penalties, taking 130 yellow flags for a jaw-dropping 1,281 yards. Even factoring in the Pac-12′s intrusive officiating, which put half of the conference among the nation’s 17 most-penalized teams, that’s unacceptable to Mora. Clean play is among the coaching staff’s biggest priorities in training camp, and the Bruins are getting the message.
3. BARR THE DOOR: Anthony Barr moved from offense to defense last season, and the switch was spectacular. He won all-conference honors and was a second-team All-American with 13 1/2 sacks and 21 1/2 tackles for loss. The 6-foot-4 Barr is aware offenses will know his whereabouts on every play as he returns to UCLA for an encore, but he’s confident he can be an effective leader for the Bruins’ defense. His teammates will simply be watching to see what spectacular play he makes next.
4. PATCHY DEFENSE: UCLA must replace six starters on defense, including its entire secondary after steady S Tevin McDonald was dismissed. The Bruins also lost DL Owamagbe Odighizuwa to offseason surgery, but touted freshman Eddie Vanderdoes could fill that hole on the left side. Mora, a veteran defensive coach, is confident his young players will grow into new roles, but given UCLA’s impressive defensive line and Barr’s looming presence, opponents might throw early and often against the Bruins.
5. BRETT’S NEXT STEP: Hundley was even better than expected in his freshman year, setting single-season records for total offense, yards passing and completions. With no clear starting tailback, offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone could rely on Hundley’s smarts and running ability even more, but the rapidly maturing signal-caller seems capable of handling the work. He’s also establishing himself as a leader: “We’ve got to make sure what people thought of us last year doesn’t go to our heads,” he said.
Pac-12 South Division: First.