Good morning. Good practice. Locked in.
That's how today's post practice interview began. After yesterday morning's fairly intense post practice session, Coach Mora looked a lot more relaxed today as the Bruins wrapped up their final full practice before kicking off the 2014 season. Maybe it was the jovial welcome from our friend Chris Foster to start things off, but the coach was a lot more talkative during his final interview, noting right off the bat that they had a good practice and it was an improvement on yesterday. The team worked on situational play this morning like red zone, third downs, and others. The Bruins will have a light walk through tomorrow before traveling to Virginia, where they will have a "pretty up tempo practice" and visit the stadium on Friday morning. And then there's a game the morning after that.
Most of Mora's comments today had to do with his team's focus as they head in to their 2014 opener amid high expectations.
I really feel like they are focused and excited to play a game. They have been banging on each other now since, through spring, through the summer in San Bernardino and the last couple weeks here, and it's time to play somebody else. So I think that's got them focused in.
The head coach admitted that you can never really tell if the team is ready like you expect.
You have your suspicions, but you just never know until you go out there and it's under live conditions for the first time and there's a scoreboard on and it counts in the win loss column. You just don't know. But I suspect that we'll go out there and perform well.
It's certainly true that we don't know until the game is played, but I think that last sentence suggests where Mora really is on his team's preparation.
Our guys have done an amazing job in my opinion right now of focusing on what matters and that's coming out every day and having a really good practice. This is as focused a football team as I've been around. And that, to me, is encouraging.
Yesterday, Coach Mora "declined" to offer any sort of depth chart, so one unit that will be even more interesting to follow is the running backs. I still think Jordon James will get the start as the number one guy, as he has had a great camp by all accounts, but the unit is deep with Paul Perkins, Steven Manfro, and Craig Lee, and Adarius Pickett remains the big wild card of the group. It sounds like we can expect to see all of those guys and others on Saturday.
If you look around football in general...everybody plays multiple backs. You can't expect one running back to take eighty snaps…I don't think we're any different from any team in college or professional football. You have to have multiple backs that can play for you and win for you.
I haven't given it [the RB rotation] a lot of thought. It's something that's kind of organic as the game goes on. You see who's doing what, who's having a good day and who may be struggling…There's no set in stone formula. It's gotta be fluid.
One of the running backs that we haven't heard a lot about through preseason camp is freshman Nate Starks, and there was a lot of assumption that he would redshirt, especially considering the depth at the RB position. But it sounds like he's caught the coaching staff's eye recently.
He's really impressed me. It started, the first time we worked on Virginia, last Wednesday or Thursday, all of the sudden it was like, "Who are you? Where have you been?" And you've seen it out here in practice when he's done the service team stuff or we've worked with the offense a little bit, he looks explosive. He looks more confident. I think that his ankle's healthy now. He's gained some weight back. He's gotten over the hump a little bit from training camp. He seems to be really playing well.
There are a lot of running backs ahead of Starks, so he's one I didn't expect we'd see this year. But the coaches do love those true freshmen, so you just never know.
Mora was asked if any other scout teamers stood out to him and he was emphatic with his reply.
Yeah. Giovanni Gentosi, playing center. Battles his tail off every play. I mean battles and battles and battles. And he's in there going against Kenny Clark and Ellis McCarthy, and he's about 250 and they're a lot heavier than him. You love the spirit of that kid. He does everything you ask. He never complains, No one's ever heard his name until probably right now when I said it. Guys like that, those are the fiber of your team and you love them.
Sounds a bit like Nick Pasquale?
Mora was asked about what he expected from the Virginia team, but he turned it around again to his team.
I think that they'll be very motivated. The first game out of the chute, everybody will be very excited…I don't really worry about the other team and their psyche. It's more about us and how we're feeling and our focus and so I feel good about where we're at, but we gotta go out and perform on Saturday.
Mora talked about his defensive pash rush and that while he's "always felt good about it", he is still interested to see where production will come from now that Anthony Barr and Cassius Marsh are getting paid in the NFL. One of the guys we expect to fill those shoes is senior Owamagbe Odighizuwa.
Owa's not real demonstrative. He doesn't necessarily show his feelings, but I have to believe that he's excited…it's been over a year. It was a tough year for him last year but I think he grew from it. Just for him to get out there and play again will be exciting for him . I'm excited to watch him play. He's a good football player. He's a captain on this team. He's very well respected and I'm sure he'll have a heck of a game.
I think I speak for all Bruin fans when I say we're all excited to watch Owa's return.
And speaking of Owa, the RS senior is one of 12 players in the program that were recruited to U.C.L.A. by previous coach Rick Neuheisel. Five of the six captains on this team were recruited by Neuheisel. Our Heisman candidate QB was brought in by Neu. Our friend Chris Foster at the LAT wrote a nice article yesterday on how Neuheisel's recruits are playing a key role in a team that some have pegged for a National Title.
Odighizuwa anchors the defensive line. Eric Kendricks patrols at linebacker. Safety Anthony Jefferson roams the secondary. On offense, Jordon James is looking to bounce back from an injury that sidelined him after a productive start to last season. Center Jake Brendel guides the offensive line. And quarterback Brett Hundley is widely considered a Heisman Trophy candidate.
All Neuheisel recruits. Indeed, five of UCLA's six team captains were brought in under his regime, including linebacker Ryan Hofmeister, the special teams' leader.
"The cupboard certainly wasn't bare," Coach Jim Mora said. "Rick did a hell of a job recruiting these kids."
Despite being in the broadcasting booth and not on the sidelines, Neuheisel rightfully feels a lot of pride about the team's standing on the eve of the 2014 season.
"I take their accomplishments as a huge compliment. I love my alma mater and was disappointed things didn't turn out as I hoped. It doesn't take away from the fact I bleed blue and gold."
The first question was understandably about center Jake Brendel's health and who might be playing center if he's not ready to play yet. Klemm didn't offer any new info other than to mention that they've had 18 different guys practicing snaps during preseason camp as part of getting everyone ready to play.
He's [Brendel] doing pretty good, as good as expected for what he has. So he's just working hard trying to get better every single day.
Everybody's ready to go. That's why you come to camp. They're working hard, getting after it every single day. One of the things that we've done since day one, since every guy steps on campus, is we put them in multiple positions so they can learn at an accelerated rate. So it doesn't matter who it is or who's in or out, you better be ready to go when that opportunity comes.
Brendel is one of the best centers in the country and his experience and knowledge of the offense and play calls would be great advantage for the Bruins, but in the absence of anyone saying that he's ready to play, I'm concerned we won't see him on Saturday. I'm just guessing here, but if Brendel can't go, I'd expect to see Alex Redmond move to center and Scott Quessenberry fill in at left guard where he played much of last year. It sounds like true freshman NaJee Toran will get the start at the right guard spot. Klemm spoke about both Q and NaJee at length and praised their development so far through their early college careers.
Stay tuned to BN for further updates. U.C.L.A. football begins in less than 72 hours.