4 Issues We Would Love UCLA's Jim Mora to Address at Pac-12 Media Days
Months of eager anticipation are about to come to a head for third-year head coach Jim Mora and his UCLA Bruins.
Pac-12 media days mark the unofficial start of UCLA's 2014 season—a season rife with high expectations and unique challenges.
Meeting those lofty expectations—the Los Angeles Times' Chris Foster suggests those include sights on a championship—is contingent on the Bruins addressing the various challenges.
Next Thursday in Hollywood, Los Angeles, on the second day of the Pac-12's annual preseason media event, Mora will discuss how UCLA is tackling the obstacles between the program and milestones that have eluded it for years.
Retooling the Run Game
By the end of last season, UCLA's top ball-carriers were a quarterback and linebacker.
UCLA featured arguably the best running back in the nation during the 2012 season in Johnathan Franklin. Obviously, replacing his 1,734 yards and 13 touchdowns via the rush would not be easy, but offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone faced additional roadblocks throughout 2013.
The Bruins lost Week 1 starting running back Jordon James to an ankle injury early in the season. Upon his return for the final two games, he averaged just 3.4 yards on 16 carries against USC and 1.8 yards on five rushes against Virginia Tech.
With since-departed Malcolm Jones also suffering a late-season injury, then-freshman linebacker Myles Jack became the Bruins' most reliable running back.
Jack told me in April he will continue to carry the ball in 2014, though not at the expense of his production at linebacker.
"Coach Mora is going to make sure my offensive role doesn't take away from my defense," he said.
Establishing a clear-cut No. 1 running back is essential—not only in that it would save Jack for his primary role, but it would also alleviate pressure on quarterback Brett Hundley.
So, who is the leading candidate?
James went for 100-plus yards in his first three games, but must regain his stride. Paul Perkins performed admirably down the stretch, but his ability as a full-time No. 1 option is uncertain. Craig Lee is another option.
Mora can provide some insight into the running game next week.
The Bruins' Jack-of-All-Trades
Jack's breakout performance in the final month of the 2013 regular season was vital to keeping the Bruins' Pac-12 title aspirations alive.
He preserved a road win at Arizona, battered Washington the following week and was the team's primary ball-carrier in a de facto Pac-12 South Championship showdown with Arizona State.
Neither Mora nor Jack have shied from discussing the sensational sophomore's two-way role this offseason, but to what extent do Mora and Mazzone plan to use Jack on offense this season?
That's one of the more intriguing topics heading into Pac-12 media days. While Jack bolstered the offense down the stretch a season ago, he also had quite a bit on his plate, playing special teams in addition to offense and defense.
Immediately following the Bruins' late-season win over Washington, Jack admitted in his ESPN postgame interview to being "exhausted."
Indeed, he shouldered a heavy burden to keep UCLA in the championship hunt.
With an offseason for injured Bruins to heal and Mazzone to adjust the offense, Jack's services are presumably less necessary heading into a new campaign.
Don't expect Mora to show his hand just yet, though.
Introducing a New Defense
Lou Spanos returned to the NFL after two successful seasons coordinating UCLA's defense. Spanos joined the Tennessee Titans as linebackers coach, leaving Jeff Ulbrich as the Bruins' new defensive coordinator.
Ulbrich wasted no time tweaking the Bruins' scheme.
The shift from a 3-4 base formation to a 4-2-5 is designed to more fully accommodate the team's strengths, while also combating the Pac-12's various spread offenses.
The Bruins' acclimation to playing more nickel and dime coverage could be a make-or-break proposition. UCLA certainly has the talent in the secondary to play more defensive backs, and linebacker Deon Hollins told Jack Wang of Inside Socal the system suits his unit.
The ability of UCLA's defensive front to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks will be the true test of the defense's success.
Linebacker Anthony Barr was the Bruins' top pass-rusher in each of the last two seasons, and he's gone for the NFL. So too are linemen Cassius Marsh and Keenan Graham.
That means Eddie Vanderdoes, Kenny Clark and Ellis McCarthy must increase their production to buoy the entire defense.
We may learn Mora's opinion on the topic next week at media days.
The Next Step for QB Brett Hundley
With all due respect to UCLA rival USC, which used the catchphrase just two seasons ago, the 2014 campaign may be one of "unfinished business" for Hundley.
He enters his redshirt junior season with two years of impressive individual statistics to his name and 19 total wins. Still, both Hundley and the Bruins have room for improvement. That was motivation enough for him to put the NFL draft on hold for at least one more year.
Hundley explained as much in his press conference.
"What's about to take place here and how close we are to being great at UCLA is something that I didn't want to leave yet. From what we've built in two years, we have the potential to turn that into something really great," he said.
Hundley, much like his 2014 UCLA team, has all the necessary elements to win at the highest level. The question is whether both quarterback and squad can put those pieces together to fulfill their potential.
As Mora told Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated, Hundley sets the tone for UCLA:
When he goes out on the field, he's the best player out there. So they see the work ethic and they see the results. Now, he's earned the authority to hold people to his standard. That's when leadership really occurs. As much as people want to say the leaders are the vocal guys, the leaders are the demonstrators. The leaders are the ones they can count on, that they can trust.
Both Mora and Hundley will appear at media days. The quarterback's growth into a top-flight leader will surely be among the event's hottest topics.
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com.
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