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Spaulding Report: UCLA Football's Unsung Heroes

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Jim Mora talked today about a couple of the season's unsung heroes, discussing Nate Iese in pass protection and Ka'imi Fairbairn in kickoff coverage and field position. A host of other players have moved to defense and switched positions to keep this Bruins team going.

Ka'imi Fairbairn and the Bruin kickoff coverage team is one of the top units in the country.
Ka'imi Fairbairn and the Bruin kickoff coverage team is one of the top units in the country.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Other than the welcome announcement of a new commit, it was a quiet news day for football as the Bruins continued preparations for Pac-12 Game #2 this weekend against Arizona State.

Head Coach Jim Mora spoke briefly with the media after practice today, saying the team is "focused in" and looking forward to the game with ASU, noting that the Bruins always have really physical tough competitive games with the Sun Devils.

Unlike Tuesday, he fortunately did not point out that the home team has not won this matchup since he and ASU head coach Todd Graham assumed their jobs over three years ago and say that home field doesn't matter. While I get the sentiment, we should want our particular home field to matter very very much, and our administration should be doing everything possible to make it matter very very much.

Mora had a few comments, praising the maturity of his team and their ability to overcome some adversity this year (just "some" coach?). Understandably considering all that's happened already this year, he says the team is relatively "unaffected at this point by what happens around them...I guess I just appreciate their attitude."

The coach also had praise for Nate Iese. Besides the obvious physical attributes and his versatility in both the run and the pass, he specifically called out his contributions as a blocker and said he is "critical" in pass protection which has been an overlooked part of his game. The Bruins line blocking scheme often requires Iese to block defensive ends and he's pitching a shutout this year in pass protection ("line wins games" includes running backs, too). Mora called him "a really good football player" which football players understand is a very high compliment.

Mora was asked about Ka'imi Fairbairn's contributions in kick coverage, and though Mora joked that the kickoff team might prefer that Kai'imi not kick so many touchbacks, naming Roosevelt Davis as one of many who'd probably like to hit people more often, the Bruins kickoff coverage squad has been fantastic.

Ka'imi Fairbairn has quietly become a very effective kickoff specialist. The UCLA senior has landed 23 of 26 of his kicks into the end zone this year — way up from 62.5 percent in 2014, and 50 percent the year before.

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UCLA is one of the stingiest teams in the FBS when it comes to kickoff returns, helped in part by Fairbairn's efficiency in forcing opponents to start drives on their own 25-yard line. The Bruins currently rank No. 3 in the FBS, allowing 12.83 yards per return, and was also top-20 in 2013.

Actually, we noted Ka'imi's prowess on kickoffs long ago.

One aspect of Ka'imi's performance which is often overlooked is kickoffs but he has been outstanding in that aspect. In 2014, Fairbairn had a average kickoff distance of 64.3 yards which was top in the country, and a touchback rate of 62.5% which was 10th in the nation. The Bruins have been very good on kickoff coverage over the last 2 years, and Fairbairn deserves a lot of the credit for that.

I wrote that in July. But enough of the self-back patting. Bruinette mentioned it this week's Roundtable already, too.

Bruinette88: I think it's appropriate to use the "extra point" to praise Ka'imi Fairbairn for his terrific performances so far this season. Fairbairn has a 79.3% touchback percentage this season, and his kickoffs have been the key to UCLA's kickoff coverage unit ranking third nationally. Fairbairn also deserves recognition for his consistency on field goals and PATs. At his current pace, he will leave UCLA as the Bruins' all-time scoring leader. We should appreciate what we have in Fairbairn while he's still at UCLA.

We're here for you, media folks. ;-)

Punting may or may not be winning, but a great kickoff team gives the opponents a long long way to go and makes the defense that much better. His accuracy with field goals inside 40 has been excellent, so all Ka'imi needs to complete his game is some better results from distance. Maybe then Bruin fans will recognize that he has become a very good kicker.

Thank you to Jack Wang at Inside UCLA for the video today

If there's one thing that can bring college students together, it's food, and that applies to the football team, too. Our friend Chris Foster at the LA Times added some football notes on Wednesday afternoon, and at the top of his list was some behind the scenes team building disguised as Wednesday dinners at Caleb Benenoch's apartment.

UCLA linemen and running backs gather at junior tackle Caleb Benenoch's place each Wednesday. It's a break from the rigors of school and the intensity of Coach Jim Mora's program.

The group orders food, plays some video games and, Benenoch said, "we just hang out."

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The dinners, Perkins said, "give us a greater relationship and a greater bond with the guys who are blocking for us. And vice versa; they need to have a relationship with us.""It was just something the offensive linemen decided to do," Benenoch said. "We wanted to hang out somewhere other than in school and meeting rooms. It's a stressful job we have."

Dinner consists of pizza or barbecue. "Anything the linemen want," sophomore running back Nate Starks said.

Joked center Jake Brendel: "We get a pizza and the running backs get a slice."

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"We wanted to get away from the school atmosphere and the burdens of playing football at a big-time football program," Benenoch said. "We just want to get away and have fun with each other."

Foster has been seen around San Bernardino and other Bruin practice sites wearing a shirt saying "Will Write For Food". Hopefully his article got him some of that pizza.

Foster also talked about Randall Goforth's move from safety to corner last week, a move which looks like it will stick. It's a bit hard to judge the revamped secondary's performance because Arizona's passing game was so terrible last Saturday, but the spot is a familiar one to Goforth.

"I was a cornerback before I was a safety, back in my Long Beach Poly [High] days," said Goforth, a junior. "It's kind of going back to my roots."

Goforth remains one of the vital players on a defense that has lost three veteran starters — Moreau, tackle Eddie Vanderdoes (knee) and linebacker Myles Jack (knee). He helps the defense get lined up correctly on each play.

His move to cornerback will not affect that, but there are subtle differences to his new post.

"You just see the field differently," Goforth said. "I'm just guarding my side now."

The coverage techniques are basically the same, but, he said, "You have different reads in the middle of the field compared to being on the island."

Goforth's move created a need for safeties. Receivers Mossi Johnson and Jordan Lasley were shifted to defense last week. Johnson saw some time at safety in the Arizona game.

"Mossi is a natural athlete," Goforth said. "We can put him at safety, cornerback, running back, receiver. Safety is big for us right now. We need him back there."

With Goforth moving from safety, Tahaan Goodman and receivers Mossi Johnson and Jordan Lasley all quietly stepped up and helped fill in the void at safety.  That group will face a much tougher test against Arizona State QB Mike Bercovici this weekend. Bercovici entered the game last year after starter Taylor Kelly left with an injury, and promptly did what backup QBs seem to do often against U.C.L.A. - looked awesome. Berco threw for 488 yards against the Bruin defense in about 3 quarters of work. The Bruins will need to tighten that up significantly this time around.

One player the Bruins might not have available to help out this weekend is linebacker Jayon Brown. Brown was another guy who had been playing well in a backup role after he saw a lot of playing time two weeks ago against BYU and more last week after the loss of Myles Jack, but then had to leave that game with what looked like  a low back injury.

Brown, who replaced Jack in the starting lineup, suffered a back injury during the Arizona game. He was at practice Wednesday but was not in pads.

"Jayon is a big part of our game plan because he does a lot of different things for us," defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said. "The skills that he brings allow him to do a little linebacker and play a little strong safety. He enables us to have more moving parts on our defense."

Foster updated today that Brown is still questionable for Saturday, and that fullback and special teams stud Taylor Legace has moved to linebacker for now.  Meanwhile, on the offensive line, backup Poasi Moala suffered a broken hand this week but may be able to play this week if needed.

Let's hope Jayon and Poasi get fully healthy soon and that the injury bug leaves the Bruins alone for a good long while.

GO BRUINS!