Johnson not treating bowl as personal showcase

The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl may be a one-game showcase for interim head coach Mike Johnson, but he doesn’t look at it that way.

The former UCLA offensive coordinator is not expected to be retained by Jim L. Mora even though the two worked together with the Atlanta Falcons. Johnson was up for the head coaching position at his alma mater, Akron, but the job went to Terry Bowden.

“I’m not going to do anything drastic to make me look good,” Johnson said. “I’m not putting myself in front of the team at all. I’ll go in, coach the team, do my best and give us the best chance to win.”

The bowl game is not just a showcase for Johnson, though, but the players.

For a 6-7 team – one that has a chance to become the first 6-8 team in history – and one with a new incoming head coach, this is either Game 14 of the 2011 season or Game 1A of the 2012 campaign.

“The guys who are coming back, they’re looking at this going forward; the seniors are trying to go out on a positive note,” Johnson said. “If you have tremendous pride you’re going to go out and try hard and end your career on a positive note.”

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Bell, Crissman take similar rocky roads

Darius Bell cannot point to any one specific patch of the City College of San Francisco turf, but he can certainly recall the last time he played in the stadium.

“The only thing I really remember about this field is our last game; we played (American River) and I started the game 0-for-3,” Bell said. “(Oregon head coach) Chip Kelly was in the stands, and I was pretty nervous because that was the school I thought I would go to, and I ended up completing my next 23 passes with five touchdowns. That’s my last performance for this school, and it’s a memory I keep with me.”

It’s been an eventful – and much anticipated – week for Bell.

First, his older brother, former UCLA running back Kahlil, had his first career 100-yard game on Christmas Day for the Chicago Bears against the Green Bay Packers. Then the Bruins headed up north to prepare for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, with practices at Bell’s former college. But Bell had to shake both distractions off to compete with junior Nick Crissman for the backup quarterback duties behind Kevin Prince, with Richard Brehaut suspended for the game for a violation of team rules.

“I’ve been looking forward to this for a while,” Bell said. “This is a place that has done so much for me, and so much for other kids across the country. Kids come from everywhere to play here to get another chance. Sometimes all kids need is a second chance.”

Bell, who practiced as a wide receiver for much of the year on scout team, was lightly recruited out of San Francisco’s Riordan High and even after a standout season for CCSF in 2009, his only offer aside from UCLA was from San Jose State. But Rick Neuheisel saw Bell as a potential fit for the Pistol offense and came calling.

“I’ve never looked at myself as a JC guy; I just looked at this place as a stepping stone,” Bell said. “I know at least 10 guys from this junior college alone who are in the NFL. The Jeremiah Massolis, the Aaron Rodgers, and look, Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFL right now.”

It has been a winding road for Crissman, as well, one also filled with potholes.

The No. 9 quarterback prospect in the class of 2008 according to – for comparison, three-year starter Kevin Prince was the No. 40 quarterback recruit in the same class – has battled myriad right shoulder injuries since his freshman season, missing both the 2008 and 2010 seasons.

“It’s been a really long, tough road,” Crissman said. “Any chance I can get to get out there and play football again is awesome for me. At the expense of another teammate, you never want that, but it’s the nature of the game. I’ve learned to never give up.”

Johnson said on Tuesday that he was unsatisfied with the team’s conditioning after their return to practice from a lengthy layoff, and that he wanted to do additional running on Wednesday, but the Bruins did not do much extra.

“I think we’re going to be in OK shape,” Johnson said. “The way we’ve been practicing will get us in the conditioning and shape we need to be in. We want them fresh on Saturday.”

Bumps and Bruises
UCLA junior cornerback Andrew Abbott suffered a right ankle sprain during Wednesday’s practice, but Johnson expects him to be ready for the bowl.

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Quick chat with Marcus Rios

Jim L. Mora’s first commitment came from 4-star cornerback Marcus Rios on December 18th, just a week after Mora was hired. Rios, a one-time Boise State commit, was a near lock to UCLA following his official visit in September and the Mora hire just solidified his decision even more.

Rios stands at 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds, so he will need to put on weight to compete at a Pac-12 level, but he is still one of the top-five corners on the west coast and is ranked as the No. 19 and 20 corner in the nation by Scout and Rivals.

He said he is planning to enter UCLA as an early entry student in March in time for spring practice.

Here is a quick chat that Inside UCLA Campus Correspondent Jacob Ruffman had with Rios, about his commitment.

Ruffman: You committed to Boise State in March, what was the decision to end the process so early?
Rios: “I was really comfortable with the people and the program at Boise. I actually trained with one of the cornerbacks there and it made it a little bit easier because I knew their technique and I knew what their DB coaches were asking for. I had already been down there about five or six times already and I was really familiar with them.”

JR: What made you want to look at other schools?
MR: “My dad told me that I should check out all of my options and all of my offers to make sure I was doing the right thing. Then I got to UCLA and I liked it a whole lot better and I just knew it was the place for me.”

JR: How did you handle all of the coaching changes going on at UCLA? Did that effect your decision?
MR: “The process didn’t really change. I was going to there whether Neuheisel was there or not. I wanted to go to UCLA no matter what, it didn’t really have a major effect on me.”

JR: So what are your thoughts on coach Mora?
MR: “I met coach Mora a couple of weeks ago and he seems like a really good coach. He’s coached in the NFL so I know that the program is going to change a lot and it’s going to become a lot stronger than it was in past years.”

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UCLA injury update

From UCLA:

Senior point guard Lazeric Jones and freshman guard Norman Powell both suffered left ankle sprains yesterday in practice. However, both guards returned to practice today and will play in the Pac-12 opener at Stanford on Dec. 29.

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Zumwalt ready to step up

Jordan Zumwalt doesn’t smile all that much any more.

As a freshman, he was all grins and awe shucks, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

When called upon to start at middle linebacker after the season-ending losses of both Patrick Larimore and Steve Sloan, he was greener than a global warming activist and twice as rabid.

He scurried all over the field with his eyes darting to and fro, wider than saucers, the highly touted freshman simply playing, as he calls it, “on hype.”

A year later, he is calmer, more serious and, he believes, more prepared to assume starting middle linebacker duties once more with Larimore all but ruled out with a right thumb injury.

“I’m way more equipped to handle it,” said Zumwalt, who ranks fifth on the team with 50 tackles. “I understand how to handle situations better, rather than just going off emotion. I know the defense well, too – a lot better than last year, that’s for sure – so I have confidence in my play now.”

Clark Lea, UCLA’s linebacker coach, has confidence as well.

With the Bruins linebacker corps decimated by injury and ineligibility – in addition to Larimore, senior outside linebacker Sean Westgate (concussion) and junior middle linebacker Isaiah Bowens (academically ineligible) are out – Lea is expecting Zumwalt to play like he did during a three-game stretch late last season when he had 20 total tackles and two sacks.

“As a competitor, he wants a bigger piece, and that’s something that’s earned through work,” Lea said. “I know he wants to finish strong, and just through his own personal pride and competitive spirit, he’ll come out and play his butt off.”

At middle linebacker, Zumwalt is going to have to do a little more than that.

With the UCLA defense missing several players in its two-deep lineup, Zumwalt will be called upon to be a unifying presence on the field.

“Now going out there, I know what to expect,” Zumwalt said. “It’s not just going in and playing off emotion and hype. Now I go in, I have my cool with me, calm, collected, and I’m relaxed.”

Heck, he might even smile.

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Hoops quick hit

UCLA head coach Ben Howland said today that both senior point guard Lazeric Jones and freshman shooting guard Norman Powell suffered sprained left ankles in Moniday night’s practice and were receiving treatment today.

Howland said that both are in protective boots and are questionable for the team’s Pac-12 opener on Thursday at Stanford.

Former walk-on guard Kenny Jones, who received a scholarship this season, could see some major minutes. The Bruins would be down to just Jerime Anderson and Tyler Lamb in the backcourt if neither Jones nor Powell was available.

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UCLA injury/practice update

* Junior middle linebacker Patrick Larimore is listed as doubtful for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on the team’s injury report, but all indications are that Jordan Zumwalt will start in his place. Clark Lea is preparing as such, as is Zumwalt, and Larimore was out of practice today and not expected back.

* The Bruins’ depth at linebacker is further hurting with Sean Westgate officially out for the game and Isaiah Bowens academically ineligible. Lea said that Todd Golper would slide into the backup role at middle linebacker, and Philip Ruhl will move into to backup Will linebacker.

* With Alberto Cid academically ineligible for the bowl – and Wade Yandall out with a concussion – Brett Downey moved into the starting quick tackle spot with Jeff Baca bumping to guard. Bob Palcic said he was glad Downey – and Connor Bradford, who also got extensive first- and second-team reps – got so much time during the spring and summer.

* Not too much noticeable from the team’s first practice up at City College of San Francisco. Mike Johnson said after practice that the team needed a little extra conditioning before the bowl and would be running more tomorrow. A handful of dropped passes at one point had things looking pretty sloppy, but the offense improved later in practice.

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Ishmael Adams on his commitment to UCLA

Just got off the phone with new UCLA defensive back commit Ishmael Adams, and the intelligent – and highly talented – young player had some interesting things to say about his decision to commit to UCLA on Monday.

JG: What made you decide to verbally commit to UCLA today?
Ishmael Adams: “I prayed about it, talked it over with my family, and weighed the pros and cons about the two schools – Cal and UCLA. It just felt right to go with UCLA. I did it early to see if I can convince some players to change the program around with me.”

JG: Halfway through your senior year, UCLA switches coaches on you – how did that affect your recruitment?
Adams: “My uncle has a great connection with Keyshawn Johnson, and he’s close with Jim Mora Jr.; he knew aout him,and gave my uncle some good feedback. Coach (Bill) Redell knew Jim Mora’s dad, and he’s known Jim since he was little. I got good information and feedback from Coach Redell, and those are people who really helped me make my decision. It wasn’t too big of a difference with the coaching staff – it was the players they have. I made connections. Those connections helped me make the decision, and they’re excited about building the program up and making changes and building a class now to help.”

JG: You are very active on Twitter discussing your recruitment, especially vocal with other uncommitted players; how has that kind of communication changed just in the few years of your recruitment?
Adams: “You really, truly want to have a great class. Those are the guys you’re playing with for four years. If you don’t feel comfortable with them now, how are you supposed to for four years? Making those bonds you make during trips, during the summer – those really help, especially if you make connections with top players. Bryce was always in my ear about going to Cal which had some influence. It really comes down to where a few players are going, and does that program also fit you? It’s really changed a lot even since the very beginning for me.”

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Oaks Christian’s Adams commits to UCLA

Landed in San Francisco to discover the news that Oaks Christian cornerback Ishmael Adams has committed to UCLA. Chatted briefly on the phone and he confirmed, but we’ll pick up the conversation later today.

The verbal commitment is a big one, from one of the premier cornerbacks in the country, and one of UCLA’s top targets, a consensus four-star prospect. Adams is rated nationally as the No. 10 at his position by, No. 12 by and No. 12 by ESPN, and cornerback is a position of need for the Bruins, even with six current verbal commitments from cornerbacks.

Here are some of his highlights, and I’ll have our chat up later today:

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