It’s small wonder UCLA head coach Jim Mora likes to begin preparation for the college football season in relative seclusion. The Bruins have held training camp every year since his arrival on the campus of Cal State San Bernardino, just south of the wilderness of the San Bernardino National Forest.
Going off the grid is a theme Mora touched on at Pac-12 Media Days.
“I would like no one to ever rank us, and I'd like no one to ever cover us, and I'd like to never be on TV and no one talk about us until the end of the year,” he said.
UCLA won’t get that, but the Bruins are slight underdogs in the Pac-12 South heading into the new season. The Bruins checked in third in the media’s poll, behind favorite USC and Arizona State, and despite returning the most veteran lineup in the Pac-12 – a lineup that beat both the Trojans and Sun Devils by multiple scores last season.
The Bruins lost a handful of key players from 2014's 10-win team, such as defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa and Eric Kendricks, who were leaders of the defense and NFL Draft selections. But it’s the departure of quarterback Brett Hundley that has UCLA dwelling in obscurity — at least, in comparison to a year ago.
UCLA’s Five Biggest Fall Camp Storylines
1. Rosen vs. Neuheisel
No doubt about it, the quarterback competition is clearly UCLA’s predominant storyline heading into fall camp. Mora’s worked his hand like an expert poker player, not tipping in any direction on either 5-star freshman Josh Rosen or veteran Jerry Neuheisel.
Both have qualities that could give either one an inside track. Neuheisel is a veteran with years practicing in offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone’s system, and last season had the opportunity to lead the Bruins to a win over Texas.
Rosen is a rare talent who has drawn comparisons to Andrew Luck.
“The thing that gives me some measure of comfort is knowing that we've got a pretty veteran group around that player, whomever it may be,” Mora said.
2. Offensive Line Improvements
It doesn’t matter if UCLA starts Rosen or Neuheisel, either one needs the front five to perform more consistently than it did the first half of last season.
Not all of the 40 sacks UCLA surrendered last season were the fault of the offensive line — Hundley sometimes lingered in the pocket while going through his progressions. Still, the quarterback was left on an island far too often in his college career.
Neither Rosen nor Neuheisel has ever demonstrated the mobility Hundley showed, so opposing defenses bearing down on either could be even more problematic for the Bruins in 2015 than it was last year.
3. Another Year, Another Defensive Coordinator
Tom Bradley is UCLA’s third defensive coordinator in as many seasons. The longtime Penn State assistant took over for Jeff Ulbrich, who left for the NFL after a one-year stint replacing Lou Spanos.
But linebacker Deon Hollins, UCLA’s sack leader last season, sees nothing but a smooth transition to the new leadership.
“One of the big things about coach Bradley is his wisdom,” Hollins said. “He comes from Penn State; he comes from a tradition of great players and great success.”
With nine returning starters, including a talented linebacker corps with Hollins and Myles Jack, the cupboard is well stocked for Bradley in his first year. His insight cultivated at “Linebacker U.” could take the Bruins’ defensive play to a new level.
4. Translating Experience to Wins
One thing UCLA’s veteran roster knows is heartbreak. In 2012, the Bruins came a missed field goal from forcing overtime in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
In 2013, a would-be game-winning drive to seal a third straight appearance in the conference title game stalled against Arizona State.
Last year, UCLA had a simple path to Levi’s Stadium: win and you’re in. The Bruins were routed at home by Stanford.
With the most experienced lineup in the Pac-12, UCLA should have an advantage — assuming its knowledge of falling just short helps it get over the hump this time around.
“I'm interested to see if the level of maturity that I felt through spring ball was in fact what I believed it to be,” Mora said. “I felt like our team reached a level of maturity that we'd been striving for, the level of maturity indicated an element of mental toughness and consistency that we've been looking for.”
5. Ending the Punt Return Drought
Cornerback Ishmael Adams’ kickoff return for a touchdown last September at Arizona State marked the Bruins’ first special teams touchdown in seven years. However, another dubious streak persisted into 2015: UCLA has not had a punt returned for a touchdown since Maurice Jones-Drew in 2005.
Adams had one called back against Virginia in Week 1 last season.
With the streak now at a decade, UCLA just might have to invest a few more reps in fall camp.