VIDEO: Jim Mora talks about bowl prep, linebacker recruiting

– After Monday’s practice, UCLA head coach Jim Mora emphasized that he wants to get more of the team’s “heavy, physical, padded work” done while the Bruins were still on campus. They have one more workout tomorrow before taking a few days off for the holidays, then flying to San Antonio on Dec. 28 to continue practice for the Alamo Bowl.

– Mora said he didn’t know how the talk of receiver Jordan Payton potentially going pro started. He said he asked Payton “20 times” if he was coming back and the answer was always yes. Continue reading

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Linebacker Zach Whitley has not been practicing with UCLA

UCLA linebacker Zach Whitley has not practiced with the team for the last week, but head coach Jim Mora said the true freshman is still on the team.

Mora did not disclose the reason for Whitley’s absence. Earlier this month, the coach refuted reports that he had dismissed the former four-star prospect, rated a top-100 recruit nationally this past spring.

Whitley enrolled at UCLA in January after decommitting from Alabama and performed well in camp, but suffered a concussion in August that may have stunted his development. The 6-foot-1, 220-pound defender played in nine games this season and made one tackle.

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UCLA continues preparation for Kansas State in Alamo Bowl

Here’s a roundup of this weekend’s news from Spaulding Field, where Tyler Keckeisen and Phil Collin filled in while I was still in Chicago for UCLA basketball.

» Star receiver Tyler Lockett isn’t the only part of Kansas State’s offense that concerns UCLA’s defenders.
» The Bruins need to get past last month’s Stanford loss to focus on the Wildcats.

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Jordan Payton confirms he will return to UCLA for senior year

Jordan Payton confirmed on Saturday that he will return to UCLA as a senior next season, ending talk of him potentially declaring for the NFL draft.

“I’m coming back,” Payton told reporters after practice. “There were reports saying that I was leaving or something, but I’m coming back. Didn’t really even think about leaving, to be honest with you.”

Payton was not projected to be a high draft pick, but ranks seventh in the Pac-12 with 896 receiving yards and 10th with seven touchdown catches. A polished wideout who excels at gaining yards after the catch, the junior is responsible for more than a fifth of the Bruins’ receptions this season.

With the Alamo Bowl left to play on Jan. 2, he has a shot to become UCLA’s first 1,000-yard receiver since Nelson Rosario had 1,161 in 2011.

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Three things to watch as UCLA takes on No. 1 Kentucky

Let’s be honest here. Almost no one expects UCLA to upset Kentucky on Saturday at the United Center, the toughest challenge yet for a Bruin squad that has yet to gel into a team with a strong identity.

Last week, No. 8 Gonzaga already showed how just how far UCLA is from being one of the country’s elite teams, controlling the game the entire night at Pauley Pavilion and easily snuffing every semblance of a Bruin run. So what’s going to happen when Steve Alford’s squad takes on the top-ranked Wildcats, whose rotation consists almost entirely of former McDonald’s All-Americans? A UCLA win would require a number of things to break right. (An act of God wouldn’t hurt either.)

Here are a few things to keep an eye on today.

1. Can UCLA handle Kentucky’s assembly line of big men? The Bruins have outrebounded nearly every team they’ve faced this season, but their loss against Gonzaga finally pitted them against an opponent that could toss superior size their way. Against 7-foot-1 Przemek Karnowski and 6-foot-10 Domantas Sabonis, UCLA gave up a 34-30 edge on the glass and struggled to convert second-chance opportunities. It also allowed 65 percent shooting inside the arc, with Sabonis missing just one of his five field goal attempts.

The Wildcats have the biggest rotation in the country, starting with seven-footers Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson. Continue reading

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UCLA misses on Texas recruits Malik Jefferson, DeAndre McNeal

UCLA currently has a top-15 class coming in next spring, but it missed a chance to vault even higher on Friday morning.

Linebacker Malik Jefferson and receiver DeAndre McNeal announced in a ceremony at Mesquite (Texas) Poteet High that they would both be attending Texas, choosing the Longhorns over the Bruins as well as Texas A&M. Jefferson is the consensus No. 1 outside linebacker in the country, while McNeal is rated a three-star athlete by Rivals and a four-star prospect by Scout and 247Sports.

The two teammates visited UCLA together last weekend. A few days before that, Jefferson hosted an in-home visit and got to place his high school Butkus Award next to Bruin linebacker Eric Kendricks’ version of the same trophy.

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Weekly Q&A — 12/16/14 Answers

Q: How is UCLA doing with their allotment of Alamo Bowl tickets? Any estimate as to how many Bruins will be in San Antonio for the bowl game?

A: I don’t have estimates on tickets sold yet, but the Alamo Bowl contract allots 6,000 tickets to the Pac-12 representative and 12,000 tickets to the Big 12 team.

Q: Has Jim Mora said anything about the ridiculous suggestions that he might be the next Michigan head coach?

A: He hasn’t made any public statements, but he’s not going anywhere. Don’t even worry about it.

Q: In your opinion, with regard to football, who was the most underachieving player and who was the breakout player this season? As of now, who do you think will the breakout player next season?

A: I think the biggest underachiever was Fabian Moreau, even though he turned things around a bit in the second half and was still made the All-Pac-12 second team. But he looked so, so impressive during camp, and coupling the eye test with the “All-American” hype that Jim Mora gave him just set the bar too high.

For simplicity, let’s define “breakout” as someone who played at least sparingly this season making a big jump — i.e., no Josh Rosen. It wouldn’t shock me if everything clicks for Moreau, but freshman Jaleel Wadood seems like a safe bet to take over Anthony Jefferson’s vacated spot in the secondary. I still like Thomas Duarte to put up some big numbers if he can stay healthy.

Q: Looking back on Stanford game week, did you sense any sort of letdown by the Bruins leading up to the game? Or did the Bruins simply suffer the misfortune of facing a Stanford team that everyone thought would show up before the 2014 season started? Continue reading

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Eric Kendricks named first-team All-American by Sporting News

UCLA’s Eric Kendricks was named a first-team All-American today by the Sporting News, part of a clean sweep by Pac-12 linebackers.

Alongside Kendricks on the Sporting News list are Washington’s Hau’oli Kikaha and Arizona’s Scooby Wright — both of whom were tabbed as unanimous All-Americans.

Kendricks became UCLA’s all-time leading tackler this season and won both the Butkus Award and the Lott IMPACT Trophy, but settled for second team on most of the five major All-American teams. In addition to the Sporting News, the other lists used to determine consensus and unanimous All-American status are the Walter Camp Football Foundation, the Associated Press, the AFCA and the FWAA.

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