The coach was shocked. This school won double-figure games last year.
"Winning record?" the coach responded. "Our goals have gone past ‘winning record.'"
The above exchange, as reported recently in the L.A. Times, concerned Steve Spurrier, "The Old Ball Coach," and his South Carolina team. But it set me to thinking… Wouldn't it be nice if a similar exchange might be taking place before the 2013 season, only this one featuring Jim Mora and the Bruins?
I understand there's been overwhelming skepticism and the spread of Battered Bruin Syndrome throughout the fan base, Mora or no Mora (Chris Peterson or no Chris Peterson). Coming off the most maddening season in recent Bruin history… still stuck in this confounded loser's briar patch stretching back over the last twelve years and three coaching regimes, you risk being called something like a cockeyed optimist to entertain the notion of double-figure wins this season. Yet, deny it if you will, in calmer, more reflective moments, the possibility has occurred to you. But then you don't want to set yourself up for another monumental letdown. You like Mora and you don't want to saddle his program with "unrealistic" expectations. And you understand the new Pac-12, with coaching upgrades all over the place, could lead to an increase in toss-up games, producing an even greater danger of getting upset on the road. Now any sane person would concede the odds against beating SC and Oregon (unless, of course, the NCAA drops a post-season ban on the Ducks over the Willie Lyles deal) would be pretty long. But Nebraska, Stanford, Utah? Not exactly automatic losses, no?
This may well be pie-in-the-sky stuff, and is contingent on several things, i.e., Brett Hundley, with some early season experience, throwing an increasingly more accurate ball and not throwing a lot of rookie picks; the offensive line not sustaining any more crippling losses; the defensive front fulfilling what looks to be legit, un-Bruin-like expectations; and the secondary learning to cover, turn, and find the ball without aid of loose hands (a common practice the last few years). Hopefully officials will continue to lighten up a little on all the usual "chicken fighting" between receivers and defensive backs. With Mora's emphasis on press coverage, it would be a shame to blow a game on an outbreak of interference calls. (And I'll believe Aaron Hester has kicked his PI habit when I see it on Saturdays.)
Of course the number one topic around here is coaching: whether Mora and this seemingly golden staff will be looking as fresh and promising in mid-October as they look today; the "Won't Be Fooled Again Syndrome." That this staff is far superior to the last three overmatched staffs is a given. The adults are finally in charge. No more finger pointers; no more overwhelmed, no-profile rookies; No more airy, passion bucket carriers floating in clouds of "relentless optimism." Even so, patience and goodwill could be in short supply the first time the Bruins underperform as a team. We've become a squirrely bunch, here, always sniffing out disaster when merely bad luck or inevitable human error pops up. But then this staff looks like a thick-skinned lot, not likely to panic at the first sign of adversity.
Of course this team doesn't have to reach double figure wins to gain our respect, but the presence of a relatively sweet schedule, an under-rated defense, and very likely under-rated skill position personnel makes 10 wins, in my opinion, likelier than 5 or 6.
Today, on the national scene, UCLA isn't even a "dark horse." East of the Rockies, they might as well be invisible, mere disrespected also-rans, not even to be found among "Others Receiving Votes." Baylor (sans RG3), Cincinnati, Missouri, NC State, Louisiana Tech, South Florida, Central Florida, Northern Illinois, even Houston, without their sixth-year quarterback, got at least one vote. The Bruins must be down there, somewhere, probably lost in the 50s. At best, UCLA's an afterthought: Poor Joe Bruin - is that him, and is he wearing a dress! - lost in the gigantic shadow cast by that murderous-looking Trojan.
Nobody out there is much interested in UCLA's recent recruiting fortunes…or even in Jim Mora. Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez are getting more national play than Mora. Rick Neuheisel was on some sports-talk show the other day pimping his new gig on the Pac-12 Network, and he mentioned nearly everybody in the conference but UCLA. Mora's name didn't come up once.
Last season, with that 50-0 stomping, followed by the Oregon stomping, the "6-8 bowl team" with no discernible quarterbacking and a paper-doll defense seems to have sealed the deal. The perception abroad is that UCLA is a nowhere program. Sort of like… what the hell happened to them… didn't they used to be somebody. But what an opportunity!
The irony here is that Terry Donahue used to love "lying in the weeds," and so did some of his successors. Now, Mora has inherited UCLA's place beneath the weeds, but stand-up, alpha male that he is, has no use for this "weeds" game. That's for "the other guys," the ones that came before. He's as little interested in history and media angles as he is in Doug Gottlieb's opinion of Michael Vick. (Funniest sports interview I've ever heard. Imagine Gottlieb dumbfounded, speechless.)
Do we know something the rest of the country doesn't? Yeah, I think so. You know, all that BRO talk about the Bruins having the third best talent in the conference after SC and Oregon. Let's briefly consider a few names:
Brett Hundley: If his numbers don't greatly improve on those of Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut, it will be a disappointment. Neither of Hundley's predecessors has ever demonstrated they're Pac-12 quarterbacks. Of course, both were handicapped by the Neuheisel and Norm Chow offenses. Prince was only a threat on the ground, and even that was limited to the "read option." And Brehaut, though a better passer, couldn't consistently move the team through the air, though to be fair he had fewer opportunities to prove himself. And he was unsuited to run the "Pistol." Even if Prince's arm was thoroughly healthy, it's still a relief to know Brehaut will start the season as Hundley's backup. Hundley's primary edge, what makes him special, and the reason Bruins fans are so eager to see him play, is the running threat he presents and his instinct for feeling pressure and moving away from it. He's extremely hard to sack, but he will need to keep looking downfield for receivers before committing to the run (and exposing himself to injury). He has nice size and some shake when he turns upfield, and if things go well for him in the early season, defensive coordinators may have to temper their rush somewhat in fear of him breaking contain. He also never gets down on himself, never seems to lose confidence. In this respect, he reminds me of a young Rodney Peete, only bigger and a better passer at a comparable stage of development. In addition to his respectable prep passing numbers, Hundley rushed for a total of 2,000 yards his last two years.
Johnathan Franklin: He's being tapped for All Conference honors and has a fair shot at breaking Gaston Green's all-time UCLA career rushing record. Yet two other guys, Jordon James, who's barely played, and Steven Manfro, who hasn't played at all, seem to me more talented, which isn't to take anything away from Franklin (other than his penchant for dropping the ball). Both have better "vision" and more shake than "Jetski," and both are better catching swing passes and beating defenders, one on one. All three have compact builds and finish their runs well.
Jordon James: see Franklin
Steven Manfro: see Franklin
Joseph Fauria: Well-coordinated, 6'8" pass receivers with excellent hands and some leaping ability are hard to find. Like so many Bruins, his talents have been largely wasted up ‘til now. His stork-like legs do seem to make him prone to injury, so good luck to him this year. He's an NFL prospect.
Malcolm Jones: Starting to show the talent we've been waiting on, and he's more than just a straight ahead runner. He's always had power and is now demonstrating cut-back ability. Looks to be a valuable short-yardage runner, particularly near the goal line.
Jerry Johnson: Where's he been? Injured, for sure. Dog House? Ask Tracy or David. Call him a rich man's Nelson Rosario. Big with some speed, he has exceptional hands to go up and over smaller defenders. Like Manfro, he shows you something every time he sees the field.
Devin Lucien: Size, speed, confidence, youth. Huge potential.
Xavier Su'a-Filo: One of two dependable O-line talents (the other being Jeff Baca, who gets honorable mention here. Oh, and Kevin McReynolds gets an honorably intriguing mention based on size, strength and potential value). Su'a-Filo ought to be able to convert his freshman honors into something more substantial before he leaves for the NFL.
Erick Kendricks: Just what the doctor ordered in terms of size and speed after having split time with undersized Sean Westgate, who often looked like he was surfing backwards on an offensive wave.
Anthony Barr: Didn't take him long to become a starter at outside linebacker once he wised up to the fact he wasn't going to see much pt as a running back (not with all the talented ball carriers on this roster). Big, quick and with intriguing potential. We'll see.
Sheldon Price: Good cover skills. Some call him a lock-down corner so who am I to argue? Now that he's filled out and listed at 180, no more excuses as a tackler (did show improvement in that regard last year).
Owamagbe Odighizuwa (I love typing his name.) See Datone Jones.
Cassius Marsh: Should thrive in the new 3-4 coming off the end. The way Mora raves about him, he seems at least a legit all-conference candidate.
Brandon Willis: With the move to defensive end, he may have found his ideal position.
Jordan Zumwalt: Like Marsh, seems as if his time has come. Another All Conference candidate?
Ellis McCarthy: We all know McCarthy, or at least think we do… before he's barely suited up. A tall, athletic, 330-pound, 5-star talent. If he turns out as good as Brian Price I'll be satisfied. May only need to stay healthy to become a future millionaire.
So let's see: That makes 19 possible impact players. They probably all won't hit, but there is an impressive amount of talent, just short in the O line. We'll have to wait and see about depth at linebacker and defensive back, which will depend on inexperienced but talented young players. And, of course, the Bruins aren't the only conference team with depth worries.
It goes without saying that in order to reach that exalted double-figure plateau, the Bruins will need some breaks along the way, some key turnovers, some newfound poise, which always originates from the top, and a continuation of all the culture change we've noticed since Mora moved in. For younger BROs, this might be as close as they've felt to "The Turning." Above all, Jim Mora needs to be the man he looks like he is. That would be the surest bet of all.