LOS ANGELES (AP) — The football monopoly really is over in Los Angeles, and UCLA doesn’t need any advertisements to declare it this time.
The Bruins opened spring practice Tuesday as a trendy pick to win the Pac-12 and reach the inaugural four-team College Football Playoff. UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley is already being touted as a Heisman Trophy candidate by the school.
Those are the kinds of lofty goals frequently associated with crosstown rival Southern California in the years since UCLA last won a conference championship and reached the Rose Bowl during the 1998 season.
Six years after UCLA opened coach Rick Neuheisel’s tenure by claiming USC’s “football monopoly” was finished, coach Jim Mora believes his team is ready to deliver on those predictions.
“We feel like we’ve taken another step up,” Mora said.
Everything starts with Hundley, who announced in January he would return to school for his redshirt junior season and then likely enter the 2015 NFL draft. Hundley has spent the last three months working on developing his overall understanding of the game, including sessions with San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and former Florida Gators superstar-turned-NFL lightning rod Tim Tebow.
“It’s only one practice, but he looked fantastic today,” Mora said of Hundley. “Spending time with NFL guys has really helped him. Just the mindset, the dedication, the commitment that it takes to be great is very clear to him now.”
That has filtered down to Hundley spending more time in the film room and working on his timing with his receivers to make up for the graduation of Shaq Evan, who had 47 receptions for 709 yards and nine touchdowns.
“You can focus on footwork and all that stuff, but a big part of being a quarterback is really getting into knowing a defense, knowing our offense and knowing why we are doing what we are doing, and understanding the deeper thoughts behind the game,” said Hundley, who threw for 3,071 yards and 24 touchdowns last season.
With four starters returning from an offensive line that coalesced late to help deliver impressive wins over the Trojans and over Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl to close out last season, Hundley should be able to do just that instead of running for his life. UCLA ranked 105th out of 123 in the Football Bowl Subdivision in sacks allowed, but Hundley still had 748 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns to lead the team in both categories.
Mora said Hundley would spend more time working with offensive line coach Adrian Klemm to better understand the blocking assignments up front, and with the defensive staff to sharpen his recognition of blitzes and coverage concepts.
The more immediate focus for the third-year head coach is finding a way to replace the 20 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and five forced fumbles delivered by All-American outside linebacker Anthony Barr in his senior season.
Myles Jack, who was a two-way sensation playing both linebacker and running back as a freshman last season, said improving his pass-rush skills has been a main focus.
Jack doesn’t expect to spend any time on offense this spring, even after rushing for seven touchdowns in a four-game span.
“We never really practiced it last year,” Jack said. “It was really a game-time thing that we would actually run it live and in color, so you probably won’t see me running the ball unless I get an interception or a fumble recovery.”
With 75 tackles, including seven tackles for loss, along with 11 pass breakups and two interceptions, Jack swept Pac-12 freshman of the year honors on offense and defense.
Jack is aiming for 100 tackles and 10 touchdowns in his sophomore campaign, but would be just fine with a repeat performance.
“If I get 70 tackles and seven touchdowns, I mean, I can live with that,” Jack said.
But a repeat of last season’s 10-3 record will not cut it for Hundley, but not because of any outside pressure.
“There are a lot of expectations, but our expectations are probably higher than most individuals have on us from the outside looking in,” Hundley said.
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