UCLA head coach Jim Mora promised Bruins' spring practice, which opens this week, would be "physical" and "demanding," per ESPN.com on Monday. An approach reliant on toughness is no surprise from Mora, but combining it with veteran savvy is central to the Bruins' championship pursuit in 2014.
Instilling toughness was one of the cornerstones Mora and his staff emphasized upon their arrival at UCLA. It is also the necessary foundation for the Bruins' most anticipated season in years.
Mora began the process of developing UCLA's collective toughness in 2012 by moving its preseason camp from campus in Westwood, Calif., to San Bernardino, Calif. Mora told Chris Foster of the Los Angeles Times in December 2013 that the team will return there this August.
Preferring a style that's a bit more Junction Boys than Hollywood, Mora transformed UCLA into one of the most aggressive teams in the Pac-12. The Bruins ranked top 10 nationally in both sacks and tackles for loss in 2012. Their output dipped somewhat in 2013, but they remained one of the more aggressive defenses in the conference.
In 2014, they build the defense around a talented front seven that includes linebackers Eric Kendricks and Myles Jack, as well as linemen Eddie Vanderdoes and recently returned from injury Owamagbe Odighizuwa.
Those are just a few of the veteran corps returning in 2014 that has national championship buzz swirling around the program. UCLA returns the most starters in the Pac-12 per PhilSteele.com, including quarterback Brett Hundley.
All that experience means familiarity with Mora's style, but the Bruins also need it to translate to more consistent, headier play.
"We're in the infancy stages of where we want to be," Mora said between the Bruins' trips to Stanford and Oregon last fall, via UCLABruins.com.
Those two October 2013 dates account for three of the Bruins' losses. The third came against South-division champion Arizona State.
Not coincidentally, all three finished ahead of the Bruins in the Pac-12 standings. All three also featured more veteran leadership than the Bruins.
Mora expounded on the challenges of playing a youthful lineup, particularly on the offensive line, where three true freshmen started.
They have [made] their mistakes. They have their space-outs and mental errors...You're going to see that from young guys. But what's important is...they come out here and work hard every day. We're confident if they keep playing they're going to get better.
The offensive line's maturation is a crucial building block in the effort to cut down on flags. According to NFL.com's Dan Greenspan, the first day of spring practice was a positive step.
Mora pleased with first day of spring, especially with improved continuity and comfort on OL. #UCLA— Dan Greenspan (@DanGreenspan) April 1, 2014
Aggression was no issue; mistakes were. At times, too much aggression compounded those mistakes. The Bruins lost offensive tackle Caleb Benenoch in the first quarter of their rivalry showdown with USC in November 2013.
It was just one incident, but indicative of a larger, overall issue Mora and his staff must iron out in this offseason. UCLA was the most-penalized team in the Pac-12 each of the last two seasons and drew the most flags in the nation in 2012.
Penalties cost UCLA in its late-season showdown with Arizona State, which was a de facto divisional championship. Though flagged only six times—2.1 below their per-game average—a pair of holding penalties on the Bruins' final possession doomed their rally effort.
The veteran Sun Devils had successfully combined tenacity as the nation's sixth-most prolific sacking defense but also discipline. They ranked atop the Pac-12 in penalty yards. That combination proved to be a contributing difference between winning a championship and not.
There's little doubt UCLA will play a brand of hard-nosed football in Mora's third year, and if the Bruins can strike the right balance of physicality and discipline, it could make 2014 a season to remember.
Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com.