Jim Mora came to UCLA with a shortage of college coaching experience, but no lack of tough talk. The former Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks head coach immediately spoke of discipline upon his arrival in Westwood, and emphasized it in the summer by emulating Bear Bryant's famed Junction Boys preseason camp approach.
The Bruins left the comfort of campus for workouts in the triple digit heat of San Bernardino, an endeavor More predicted at last month's Pacific 12 Conference Media Day would be a bonding experience for his team. The verdict is out on how much it brings UCLA together, but it certainly tested the players' collective meddle -- injuries and exhaustion mounted throughout camp.
Mora's explicitly spoke of changing the culture within UCLA football, which implicitly means matching cross-town rival USC atop the Pac-12. It's chatter we have all heard before. Remember this? I wouldn't blame Rick Neuheisel if he left a few flaming bags of dog droppings on the doorstep of the booster who paid for that ad.
Forget competing with USC; UCLA has struggled competing with Arizona. Last season's Bruin trip to Tucson ended the Wildcats' losing streak of 10 straight against Bowl Subdivision opponents, in emphatic fashion. UA's last win over an FBS foe prior to the Oct. 20 debacle? Oct. 30, 2010 at UCLA. The Wildcats' win in 2011 was their fifth straight over the Bruins.
The '12 Bruins are talented. Then again, talent has rarely been the issue holding UCLA back. Recruiting classes into Westwood have routinely ranked at the top of the conference, whether the head coach was More, Neuheisel or Karl Dorrell. But signing class ratings have not translated into equivocal finishes. Members of the 2008 and 2009 signing classes -- both of which Rivals.com ranked second in the Pac -- are now seniors and redshirt seniors, charged with leading the program's turnaround.
Chief among the upperclassmen is running back Jonathan Franklin. Last season he rushed for nearly 1000 yards, sharing carries with departed Derrick Coleman. Franklin's duties were also split with quarterbacks Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut, both of whom were rushers in the Pistol offense Neuheisel adopted from Nevada head coach Chris Ault.
Franklin will be the focal point of the rushing game this season, with NFL tenured offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone bringing a philosophy more predicated on a passing quarterback. Mazzone filled the same position last season at Arizona State, implementing a system that allowed Brock Osweiler to become one of the most prolific passers in the conference. An aerial assault that ranked No. 10 in the nation put defenses back on their heels, which allowed Sun Devil running back Cameron Marshall to rush for a program record tying 18 touchdowns. Franklin is capable of similarly flourishing in Mazzone's system.
While ASU passed an astounding 527 times, suggesting Mazzone wants a throw-first quarterback, the Week 1 starter was recruited to run the Pistol. Brett Hundley earned Mora's vote of confidence earlier this month, beating out the more experienced Prince and Brehaut. He has yet to take a college snap, though he did redshirt last season. Hundley was a standout recruit at Chandler (Ariz.) High School, renowned for his dual threat abilities.
Mazzone has a pro pedigree, but that don't expect Hundley to take too many snaps from directly under center. Osweiler was given leeway to run last year, and did so with surprising competency. With a more typical rushing quarterback in his system, don't be surprised to see Mazzone give Hundley the green light.
Bruin defenses were stocked with NFL caliber players in recent years, but failed to deliver on their potential. In 2011, UCLA surrendered nearly 32 points per game. Lou Spanos is the new defensive coordinator and brings -- wait for it -- an NFL background. He learned from the professional ranks' best, spending more than a decade as a quality control and linebackers coach with the Steelers before moving to Washington. He spent three seasons as the Redskins' linebackers coach.
His side lost a standout in Pat Larimore, who retired from the sport in the offseason. That leaves Jordan Zumwalt and Eric Kendricks as two of the building blocks at linebacker, and Tevin McDonald and Andrew Abbott manning the secondary. Defensive end Datone Jones has company on the line in five star freshman Ellis McCarthy, a mountain of a young man teammate Aaron Hester compared to Ndamokong Suh. Arizona fans know what that entails.
The UCLA defense should be much improved, but is it enough to move the Bruins closer to USC -- which means closer to a more legitimate Pac-12 South championship? The time for Mora to back up the tough talk is immediately.