UCLA football begins today. Spring practice, that is.
The Pac-12 South champions will start their first official practice of 2013 on Tuesday with high expectations and a new sense of urgency.
UCLA will be gunning to play in the Rose Bowl not just six Saturdays this fall—it wants to play a seventh game in early December and an eighth on January 1, 2014.
Head coach Jim Mora has probably stewed over some of the Bruins' losses from last year and will be focused on how to fix what wrong in those games. The biggest issue for the Bruins was a lack of killer instinct—they had their moments, but they weren't consistent.
Lapses of killer instinct can get a team in trouble—in at least one of UCLA's losses, that's exactly what happened. In UCLA's 43-17 loss to Cal, the Bruins allowed the Bears to score 27 points in the second half. The Bruins also allowed Washington State to score 30 points in the second half of their game, albeit they came away with a 44-36 win.
So there's work to be done—mainly not allowing other teams to score points in bunches and cause UCLA to deviate from its game plan. Fortunately for UCLA, it has a ton of talent returning in most of its units and that should spell another nine-plus win season.
The strengths of the team are what used to be weaknesses—the offensive line, quarterback and defense.
Brett Hundley had a great first year: 3,740 passing yards, 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Now that he's gotten his feet wet, we should expect to see an even better season from him. Hundley will continue to improve if UCLA can find a replacement for running back Johnathan Franklin—a solid running game opens up the passing game.
Jordan James, Malcolm Jones, Steven Manfro (recovering from shoulder surgery) and Damien Thigpen (recovering from knee injury) will all compete to pick up where UCLA's all-time career leading rusher left off last season. Jones saw insignificant time last year while Manfro was used sparingly in the backfield—both as a rusher and receiver—and on special teams but had some problems holding on to the ball. Paul Perkins is coming off a redshirt year and he will see a lot of reps in practice as well.
The O-line was a huge strength last season despite giving up way too many sacks. The Bruins return four starters this spring, but with all the big uglies on the roster, we may see some roster changes. The pass protection has got to get better or UCLA could revert back to the days of having its starting quarterback hobbled on the sideline.
Another big concern could be at punter. Jeff Locke was a huge weapon last year, but as the L.A. Times' Chris Foster notes, "Mora is banking on incoming freshman Sean Covington taking over. Until Covington arrives this summer, the best punter in camp will be the Jugs Football Machine."
The defensive line and secondary have some holes to fill as well—Tevin McDonald returns as the secondary's lone starter.
More than anything else, Mora should be looking for more physicality. When Mora held his first practice as Bruin head coach last spring, he worked them harder than they had ever worked before. He banned the players' annual ritual of practice ditch day, one that his predecessor Rick Neuheisel had allowed. Mora made them run from drill to drill and made them all do the same exercises and warm ups at the same time.
Under Neuheisel, I observed the players not having very structured warm ups—some guys were doing their own thing while others were stretching. The structure looked discombobulated and unorganized. And not very intense.
Mora is a fairly intense guy. Okay, he's real intense. There's no time to have fun, no time for any jumping-over-the-wall-and-skipping-practice.
Mora will be expecting even more focus in spring practice—unlike previous years where the players probably didn't believe in themselves nor their teammates, this year they know they can beat elite teams.
Like USC. And Nebraska.
They're not there yet, but they're close.
UCLA was beating Stanford 24-17 heading into the fourth quarter of the Pac-12 Championship game. The Bruins would give up 10 points in the fourth quarter and lose 27-24.
The Bruins also got outmuscled by Baylor in the Holiday Bowl. Mora remembers that. The team remembers that.
A 9-5 season isn't bad, but losing the last three games of the season isn't something to celebrate. UCLA needs to show that it will no longer settle for a nine-win season. Settling isn't in Mora's nature and frankly, it's probably not in the blue-chippers' nature either—they came to Westwood to win.
UCLA was one quarter away from going to the Rose Bowl game on January 1—it's been 14 years since the Bruins played in the Rose Bowl.
Mora will be looking for fire, intensity and physicality throughout spring practice because this year's schedule is not nearly as soft as last year's. This season the Bruins not only drew Stanford and Cal from the North, but Oregon and Washington as well—last year, UCLA avoided both the Ducks and the Huskies.
Mora will be looking for players who no longer are willing to watch other Pac-12 teams play in their home stadium on January 1.