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Expectations high for UCLA football in 2013

Posted: July 26, 2013 5:07 p.m.
Updated: July 26, 2013 5:07 p.m.

UCLA head coach Jim Mora talks to the media during Pac-12 Media Day on Friday in Culver City.

 

 

CULVER CITY — My how change can make an impact.

A year ago, uncertainty but hope arrived at UCLA in the form of head coach Jim Mora.

A year later, the Bruins are the No. 1 ranked team in the Pac-12 South Division Preseason Poll — two spots above perennial conference powerhouse USC.

With that ranking, with a year under Mora’s belt, with flashes of brilliance in 2012 and a promising quarterback in Brett Hundley come expectations around Westwood — expectations that the UCLA delegation at Pac-12 Media Day at Sony Pictures Studios embraced on Friday.

“I think expectations are a good thing, and the only thing that matters to us is our expectations,” said Mora, who led the Bruins to a 9-5 record last year and a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game. “There will be outside pressures. People will have their opinions. What matters is what we think, what our focus is, what our mindset is, what our objectives are. I tell you, we have very high expectations for ourselves, but we understand there are a lot of challenges we need to overcome. We are void in the secondary of anybody with any experience; so we have to overcome that. We have a difficult schedule; we have to overcome that. Those are the challenges that competitors like, so we’re excited about it.”

UCLA will go into the 2013 season with question marks in the secondary — where there is little experience returning — and at the running back position after the loss Jonathan Franklin. Mora has hinted at going by a committee, which could include Valencia High graduate and redshirt sophomore Steven Manfro.

But the Bruins have an awful lot of talent returning and had the Pac-12’s best-ranked recruiting class — again two spots above the crosstown Trojans, according to ESPN.com.

UCLA has several players on postseason award watch lists, but it’s two names that pop out in particular — Hundley and senior linebacker Anthony Barr.

Hundley had a monster redshirt freshman year in 2012, setting school records for passing yardage in a season (3,740) and total offense (4,095).

But he is on every opponent’s radar now and Mora has a new set of expectations for the 6-foot-3-inch, 222-pound signal caller out of Chandler, Ariz.

“Brett was impressive and has all the tools to be a great player. He’s not a great player yet,” Mora said. “He has a great stature — he’s big and he’s fast and strong and he’s physical. He can stand in the pocket and see over the line and throw the ball down the field with accuracy and velocity and touch. He can get out of the pocket and throw the ball with accuracy. I think the next step for Brett is stuff that comes with experience and maturity and having played the game is to become a better decision maker.”

Only two of UCLA’s top five pass catchers return from last year — leading receiver Shaq Evans and Manfro.

But the leadership on the offensive line, with four of five starters returning, including Outland Trophy candidate and senior Xavier Su’a-Filo, should allow Hundley some breathing room.

Defensively, the Bruins return three of their top four tacklers, but it’s Barr who’s receiving the bulk of the attention.

The former Loyola High of Los Angeles star switched over from running back to linebacker last season and was second in the country with 13.5 sacks.

Before the team even engages in fall practice, Barr said he feels a difference with this year’s team to last, a major reason being that it was an acclimation process under Mora in his first year.

“This team is much more knowledgeable than last year’s,” Barr said. “I think last year’s team we kind of went out there playing for our coach and playing through our coach. We kind of took on his mindset. This year we hold each other accountable. If we see somebody slacking, we’re going to get on them before the coach gets on them.”

There’s another thing this Bruins team has going for it as well — confidence.

Barr and Su’a-Filo both said Friday that last season’s opening win against Rice told them they could win. But knocking off No. 17 Nebraska in their second game showed them they could be a team that could win the big games.

The Bruins started 4-1 last year and both players admitted a 43-17 loss to a Cal team that struggled mightily last year in their sixth game stung.

However, that confidence remains.

The Sept. 14 matchup this season at Nebraska, a team likely to be in the preseason top 25, could be a telling game again this year.

“I think people should be excited about UCLA football in general,” Mora said. “You’ve got a group of a lot of good young players — Anthony Barr, Xavier Su’a-Filo, Brett Hundley, Shaq Evans, (defensive end) Cassius Marsh, Steven Manfro, (running back) Jordon James — there is a whole group of guys. The future’s bright, and we have a long ways to go, but we have a vision. We can see it. We’ve got a plan for getting there, and we want to get there as soon as we can.”

 

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