Banking on new to regain the old
Bruins hope changes spark a turnaround after finishing with a 4-8 record last season.
The new $75-million Wasserman Football Center at UCLA comes with a lounge — for high school recruits. Current players can get their hair cut in a barbershop or drip their way from a hot pool to a cold pool to a custom pool designed to assist with therapy and fitness. They may feel like a lengthy soak after a few hours practicing in redesigned uniforms awash in what’s being called powderkeg blue.
As striking as it may be, the new look of UCLA football has not obscured one simple truth.
“I mean, the new buildings and jerseys don’t mean anything if we don’t go out there and win games,” receiver Darren Andrews said this week as the team prepared for the start of training camp Wednesday evening on its two new artificialturf fields.
The Bruins will need resolve worthy of the spiffy digs.
Coach Jim Mora contemplated changes in every aspect of the program after a 4-8 season that was by far the worst of his first five
years in Westwood. He mulled the food players ate, their practice recovery methods and even the way they dressed, making adjustments wherever he felt they might be beneficial.
Players held 25 practices without coaches present to accelerate their familiarity with a new offense and establish accountability. “Getting 1% better each day” became such a well-worn mantra that you expected someone to trot out a T-shirt bearing the slogan.
No one will know for sure whether the changes have been worthwhile until UCLA’s season opener against Texas A&M on Sept. 3 at the Rose Bowl. But quarterback Josh Rosen said he liked the way things were trending.
“There’s a different energy in the locker room,” said Rosen, who is coming off an injury-shortened season in which he played in only six games. “I think everyone’s really excited to attack the year.”
Their early efforts will come on campus instead of in sweltering San Bernardino, where they had held a portion of training camp in each of Mora’s first five seasons. The Bruins are staying local in part to utilize their new football center and the 1-year-old Luskin Center, an upscale hotel abutting their practice fields where they will reside.
Players celebrated the change in training camp locale.
“I wanted to shake coach Mora’s hand and take him out on a date for doing that,” linebacker Kenny Young said with a wide smile, “because man, San Bernardino is not something you enjoy.”
After initially saying practices would be closed because of space constraints on the new fields, UCLA announced that the public could watch the first two weeks of training camp from the top level of Parking Lot 8.
Two days before the Bruins held the official opening of the Wasserman Center on Tuesday, their recruiting lounge was already paying dividends. High school receiver C.J. Parks, linebacker Matthew Tago and defensive back Olaijah Griffin all announced their commitments to UCLA on Twitter in the hours after an event for recruits at the new facility. Defensive end Abdul-Malik McClain tweeted Monday that he had committed to the Bruins.
Training camp should come with everything short of a quarterback quandary. The Bruins are trying to master the scheme of new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, whose play calling is expected to be more dynamic than that of predecessor Kennedy Polamalu.
“You can use whatever words you want,” Rosen said when someone suggested the “dynamic” adjective. “Football is football. It’s an offense. … I think [Fisch] has a really good idea of what we’re good at and how to take advantage of those strengths, and I think he can tailor the offense to take advantage of what we’re really good at.”
There will be positional battles at punter (Stefan Flintoft versus Austin Kent), guard (Andre James, Kenny Lacy and Najee Toran are vying for two starting jobs) and running back (looking for a primary option among Bolu Olorunfunmi, Soso Jamabo, Nate Starks, Jalen Starks and Brandon Stephens), among other spots.
Mora said the defense could diversify its attack because of its familiarity with third-year defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, whose wisdom is unquestioned among his players.
“Coach Bradley’s like Yoda, man,” Young said. “He just knows it all.”
When it comes to the trajectory of a program that had soared under Mora before last season’s 1,000-foot drop, the Bruins hold one truth to be self-evident.
“This past year was not UCLA football,” Young said. “It was not our standard. And the guys recognize that. Right now, it’s about creating something special.”
UCLA JUNIOR quarterback Josh Rosen, whose 2016 season was limited to six games because of an injury, says “there’s a different energy in the locker room.”