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UCLA football has high expectations

Posted: July 24, 2014 10:27 p.m.
Updated: July 24, 2014 10:27 p.m.

UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks and the UCLA Bruins finished second in the Pac-12 South last season. They were picked to win the South this year in a media preseason poll released at the Pac-12 NCAA media days.

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By Jon Stein

Signal Staff Writer

jstein@signalscv.com

On Twitter: @sportsbystein

HOLLYWOOD — With expectations as high as they've been in Westwood in over a decade, the Bruins know they will have to not only handle the high level of talent spread around the PAc-12 this season if they want to win a title, but also the distractions that come with being a preseason favorite.

The expectations are sky high for a Bruins team that finished second in the Pac-12 South last season, but returns a plethora of talent and one of the country’s top quarterbacks.

Picked to win the Pac-12 South in the annual media poll released Wednesday at Pac-12 Media Day, the Bruins are loaded with talent that could see them enter the national championship picture in the inaugural season of the College Football Playoff.

But walk into the Bruins’ locker room and you’ll see a simple message: “Turn Out the Noise.”

“We ignore the smoke,” said UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks. “I feel like you can’t get caught up too much into that, otherwise you lose track of what your goals are and the little things.”

For the Bruins, the goal is simple: win the Pac-12.

The Bruins have played in two of the last three Pac-12 championship games, but lost both, and are winless against Stanford under head coach Jim Mora, something the Bruins were reminded about often at Media Day on Thursday.

“When you’re having some success, and our success right now in my opinion is still very limited,” Mora said. “We haven’t won the Pac-12 championship. We’re 0-3 against Stanford. I don’t want our players to feel like we’re extra special and we’ve accomplished the goals we’ve set out to accomplish, or that we’re on the right track.”

In 2011, the Bruins lost to Oregon in the title game, but only advanced out of the South because the division’s champion, USC, was ineligible to play.

In 2012, UCLA limped in, losing to Stanford in the final game of the season and losing again to the Cardinal in the conference title game the next week.

This year feels different.

Despite all the attention USC and its new head coach Steve Sarkisian received during his Media Day appearance Wednesday, there was arguably a higher demand for Mora and his players.

The expectations in Westwood are as high as they’ve been in over a decade — and the team knows it.

Every aspect of the season will be captured by the camera’s of the Pac-12 Network’s show “The Drive,” which will air 15 30-minute episodes capturing UCLA from training camp through the final game.

They’ll do their best to escape the media firestorm on August 4, when they head out to Cal State University San Bernadino for their annual fall camp.

“The reason we go is not because of the heat, but because it gives us a chance to get into an environment where there are fewer distractions.” Mora said. “Where we’re isolated and we can focus on each other and get to know each other better.”

One player no one needs to get to know better is quarterback Brett Hundley — himself dealing with high expectations and national headlines.

Hundley threw for 3,071 yards and 24 touchdowns last season, and led a deep Pac-12 quarterback crop with a .672 completion percentage.

With Hundley under center, the Bruins aren’t going to be content with another second-place finish.

“I guess you can say what we’ve done previously has got us to this point, but like I keep saying, all the top ten rankings, all the preseason Heisman stuff, it means nothing if we don’t handle week one, and if we don’t handle week two, and if we don’t handle week three,” Hundley said. “My motto and this team’s motto is to enjoy the process to get to where we want to go, which is the national championship.”

In that quest, Hundley will be surrounded with a strong defense, and improved offensive weapons.

Sophomore linebacker Myles Jack made national headlines last season as an offensive threat, scoring seven rushing touchdowns, and is expected to see more of this dual role in 2014 — along with some other trickery.

“We’re always going to have something up our sleeves,” Hundley said. “Everybody, everybody just sit tight and get your popcorn ready. I don’t want to give away any secrets right now. We’ll have fun this season. There will always be trick plays every game, and Myles Jack will make appearances here and there —w we’re going to have some fun this season.”

His Heisman resume should be bolstered by a talented group of wide receivers this season, including Eldridge Massington, Thomas Duarte, Jordan Payton, Devin Lucien and Jordan James.

“It’s almost surreal how effective our offense will be because of all the weapons we have surrounding this whole offense,” Hundley said. “It’s going to be fun and I think a lot of people will start to take notice of how good our wide receivers are.”

The Bruins will feature a strong running back corp, as well, with Paul Perkins, Jordan James and Valencia High graduate Steven Manfro.

Jeff Ulbrich takes over as defensive coordinator, and will need to find replacements for Cassius Marsh, Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt, all of whom were selected in May’s NFL draft.

“(Ulbrich’s) got great energy and our players respond well to him,” Mora said. “ I think we’ve got some depth on defense. We’re losing some really good players. … And we’ve got to replace those guys. But we’ve got our entire staff basically back. We have a pretty good group of linebackers, though as I said, it will be tough to replace those guys. But our defensive line, one of the main concerns for me defensively, would be how to replace Cassius and Anthony’s productivity rushing the passer, because they were productive. … Someone is going to have to step up and do it.”

Whoever fills that role is sure to be met with the same high expectations the rest of the Bruins are dealing with.

And if they can keep their heads level, they’ve got a good shot at not only winning the Pac-12 South for the second time in three seasons, but with the Pac-12 champion expected to be a shoo-in for a playoff spot, possibly earning a shot at a national title.

“We’ve done something at UCLA,” Hundley said. “We’ve helped build something. But it is wont mean anything if we don’t finish what we started.”

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