UCLA football players spent the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s Spring game in a delirious afterglow, all smiles and backslaps, wading through an adoring crowd at the Rose Bowl, signing autographs, posing for pictures, kissing babies, satisfied at their performance after a mostly entertaining three-plus hours.
After 15 spring practices that left more than two dozen wounded at one point, practices that tested their mettle, their courage, their ability to downblock, the work was over. The mission, accomplished. The pain, gone.
Now it begins.
For the first time in a long time, UCLA football players feel as if they are being treated to a year-round program, much of that having to do with the hiring of a coaching staff with a lengthy NFL pedigree. Young, fiery, eager coaches who seem to share the same bravado they hope to extract from their players. It is a loud, boisterous, vivacious group, any one of them seemingly ready to sprint on the field to jostle with a referee or fill in as a back-up.
Now the Bruins have to treat it as a year-round program right back. Simply, they have to find a way to summon that intensity even when it’s not being barked at them.
For UCLA to become the team it wants to be, that success-starved fans hope it can be, that for Dan Guerrero it needs to be, the next three months are going to be pivotal.
The difference between a college football team and a college football program is the dedication of the players, particularly during the off-season, particularly when no one is watching.
“I just got done telling them now is the time that they really need to start working harder,” offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said after the spring game. “There’s three months before we get back to camp, and to me it’s what they do between now and Aug. 1 that will make a decision on what happens this next season. I’m really looking for some ownership from our players.”
Mazzone knows a thing or two about external motivation, and he’s given some to his quarterbacks.
Mazzone and head coach Jim Mora pushed the decision to name their starting quarterback back three months, to the middle of fall camp, essentially telling the group, “Game on.” They are eager to begin, looking forward to organizing throwing sessions, 7-on-7s, even late-night study groups. Senior Richard Brehaut, vying for the starting nod, is giving up baseball, choosing to devote himself in full to football.
But it’s not just the quarterbacks.
Much of the work is needed on the offensive and defensive fronts, where there are more spare tires than a used-car lot. Mazzone’s offense demands tempo and quickness, and if some UCLA offensive linemen don’t trim the fat, coaches are going to do it for them. Perhaps no other unit needs to devote itself during the summer than the hogs up front, who have been long-criticized and even-longer-unproductive.
They’ll only go as far as their defensive counterparts will join them, a similarly disappointing unit for two years that has an abundance of talent but has lacked technique.
“Offensive and defensive linemen need to continue to work with each other on different drills we’ve done,” defensive line coach Angus McClure stressed on Saturday. “That’s only going to make them better. They need to practice football, and a lot of times, linemen forget to do that.”
No, they bulk up in the weight room, getting bigger and stronger but oftentimes not faster, because it is easier for a 300-pound lineman to hoist a 45-pound dumbbell and flex in the mirror than it is to cajole a teammate into working on proper hand technique. It’s easier to get tangible results in the squat and clean-and jerk than to run two miles and risk that specific pain that hits directly under the right rib.
That pain is necessary if UCLA is to become the team it wants, though.
The program it wants.
“Summer is when you become the player you are during the season, it’s when you put the most work in, you get the weight up to the top,” rising junior defensive lineman Cassius Marsh said. “It’s that extra. You’ve got to get that extra during the summer and I think everybody is committed to do that.”