NEW DIGS, NEW ATTITUDE
Bruins begin training camp at new facilities determined to put last season behind them.
UCLA players open training camp at the new $75-million Wasserman Football Center on the Westwood campus. Coach Jim Mora says there is a “culture of accountability” among the players after going 4-8 last season.
The sun set over UCLA’s new football practice fields like an Impressionist painting Wednesday evening, arresting hues of red and blue melding with wispy clouds.
The end of the day marked the dawn of training camp and the start of what the Bruins hope is a rebirth of their winning ways under coach Jim Mora. The gloom of last season’s 4-8 record was gone as an air horn sounded to signal the start of practice, triggering exuberant yells from players as they milled about the two artificial turf fields.
It was the first of three consecutive practices slated to start at 7:15 p.m. to accommodate the class schedules of players enrolled in the summer session. A handful of fans peered over the ledge of an adjacent parking lot as players commenced the usual rites of a first practice in shorts and jersey tops without pads. Players’ family members observed from a patio on the second level of the recently opened Wasserman Football Center.
The offense manned one field and the defense the other. Defensive players completed a walk-through after lining up opposite black trash cans that doubled as offensive linemen. Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley didn’t like what he saw during one drill early in the session. “Run it again! Run it again!” Bradley yelled. “Come on, let’s go!”
Nearby, linebackers coach Scott White instructed players to wrap up a ballcarrier with their right arm and rip the ball out with their left arm. “You’ve got to have a tremendous amount of energy to get the ball!” White barked.
The energy level appeared high across the board. Defensive linemen chased a bouncing ball rolled several yards in front of them, pouncing on the target with their massive bodies. Freshman defensive end Jaelan Phillips sang along to Pearl Jam’s “Even Flow” during a break and later stood alongside fellow defensive end Rick Wade, both players pantomiming a guitarist’s windmill with such fervor that Pete Townshend would have approved.
The Bruins opened camp having already created what Mora described as “a culture of accountability” in the wake of last season’s disappointment. Players held 25 practices without coaches present to master the basics of a new playbook and set the tone for what they expect from one another over the next five months.
“Guys are more serious this time,” linebacker Kenny Young said last week, “and that speaks to our mind-set going forward.”
Mora identified the offensive line as his biggest concern a month before the season opener against Texas A&M on Sept. 3 at the Rose Bowl. The arrival of 6-foot-8, 325-pound right tackle Sunny Odogwu, a graduate transfer from Miami, solves multiple issues because it gives the Bruins another experienced lineman while allowing Andre James and Kenny Lacy to switch back to guard after playing tackle last season and in the spring.
James and Lacy are battling Najee Toran for the two guard spots alongside projected starters Odogwu, left tackle Kolton Miller and center Scott Quessenberry. Developing quality backups will be essential insurance against injuries; Miller missed the final seven games last season with a foot injury, and his replacements struggled to protect quarterback Josh Rosen or open holes for one of the nation’s worst rushing attacks.
Rosen’s absence for half of last season after sustaining a shoulder injury also highlighted the need for a skilled backup quarterback. The Bruins are grooming a young cast of reserves, with redshirt freshmen Devon Modster and Matt Lynch battling true freshman Austin Burton to be anointed the No. 2 quarterback. Modster appeared to hold a slight edge over his counterparts after the end of spring practice.
UCLA’s defense is widely expected to be a strength even with a handful of players having departed for the NFL. The secondary appears to be loaded with playmakers, including safety Adarius Pickett and cornerback Nate Meadors, and Phillips showed in the spring he might be a sack-happy replacement for Takkarist McKinley.
Mora recently said he liked the direction his players were headed as they attempt to rebound from what was easily the worst of his first five years in Westwood.
“Everybody’s really taken ownership for where we went and where we want to get,” Mora said. “The culture’s different, the way they talk to each other’s different, the things we’re emphasizing are a little different and our players have completely embraced it and so that gives you a sense of enthusiasm.”
The objective over the next month is slow and steady improvement, small changes leading to big things.
“Every day, we’re going to come out here and just try to get a little bit better,” Mora said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s our quarterback or the 105th guy on the roster; the goal is to come out here every day and show improvement.”
UCLA OPENED training camp with players stretching out on one of the two artificial turf fields at the new $75-million Wasserman Football Center on campus.
COACH JIM MORA’S office at the Wasserman Center offers a good view of the action below.