Q&A: Looking at ‘The Drive’ with producer Michael Tolajian

After two seasons of shooting football, the Pac-12 Networks’ “The Drive” docu-series is trying to focus on basketball for the first time — jumping around the conference to focus on its various teams. Tonight’s episode, which airs at 9 p.m. on Pac-12 Networks, is focused on UCLA and Oregon State.

“The Drive” crew shot the Bruins’ loss to Oregon State on Jan. 22, their win at home over Colorado on Jan. 31, and some of the practices leading up to each one. It also focused on the respective coaches, Steve Alford and Wayne Tinkle, as well as Bruin freshman Kevon Looney and Oregon State’s Gary Payton II.

I caught up with senior coordinator Michael Tolajian to ask him how the experience of shooting the two sports compared, as well as his thoughts on Alford and Jim Mora.

How did you pair teams together for episodes? This is the first episode that isn’t arranged geographically (i.e. Arizona State and Arizona, Colorado and Utah). Was it a factor that UCLA and Oregon State are teams have underachieved and overachieved, respectively?

Michael Tolajian: We weren’t set in stone with doing the local teams. We did it sometimes. A lot of it had to do with what the programming lead-in was going to be. … Ideally, there would be a live UCLA game or live Oregon State game going in. we weren’t able to do that every time, but that’s a good way to get audiences to tune in.

The other aspect was talking to the coaches and talking to the school. A lot of the times they had preferences. There was no set formula. It was kind of a combination.

We kind of set this early. We didn’t really know (who was good). Other than knowing Arizona would be good and maybe Utah. Really, the rest of the Pac-12, you could throw them in a hat. Any given night, you don’t really know. We shot with Cal. They started off well, went in the toilet, and then now they’ve won a few in a row. … It’s really been hard to predict. Like any documentary type programming, you just have to be there and follow along. Sometimes the stories contrast nicely, and sometimes not.

How does it compare to shooting “The Drive” for football the past two seasons? Do you lose a bit of depth in favor of breadth versus depth compared to the football format? Are there any advantages to being able to dabble around the conference through the season?

Tolajian: Unlike football, where it’s kind of episodic, you’re following along each and every week. You’re tied in every week. With basketball, we’re bouncing around the conference. More than it being about the narrative of the team, it’s really taking a step behind the curtain, hearing from some of the players, hearing how the coaches run the teams. … It’s really sights and sounds and process, rather than trying to tell some overarching story. Continue reading

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Who will UCLA get to replace Mike Tuiasosopo?

UCLA’s relatively quiet search for a defensive coordinator isn’t the team’s only job opening. The Bruins have also let go of outside linebackers coach/special teams coordinator Mike Tuiasosopo, who served that position for just one season.

Tuiasosopo never looked like a great fit on UCLA’s staff, and if you had polled observers way back in August, he would have been the one least likely to keep his job at the end of the year. His background lay mostly in coaching defensive lines, and although he was nominally the special teams coordinator, those duties were split between different members of the staff.

So who’s up next? If Jim Mora decides to keep it in-house, the most logical choice would be Scott White, a former graduate assistant who assisted with coaching linebackers the past couple of seasons.

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When Roquan Smith picks a school, he won’t sign an NLI

There still isn’t a firm timetable on when four-star linebacker Roquan Smith will commit to school, but when that happens, he won’t be signing a National Letter of Intent.

Smith had originally picked UCLA over Georgia on last Wednesday, only to put off his decision after news broke that Bruin defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich would be heading to the Atlanta Falcons. As a precaution “in case something else unexpectedly happens again,” Montezuma (Ga.) Macon County coach Larry Harold told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Smith won’t be signing a letter at all.

That means that the 6-foot, 203-pound prospect will only sign a grant-in-aid agreement, which binds the school to the player — but not vice versa until the player enrolls. It allows coaches to publicly comment on the player, and can also be signed months before National Signing Day (as quarterback Josh Rosen did with UCLA last September). A player can also sign these agreements with multiple schools.

If anything, it’s surprising that more elite football recruits haven’t exercised their leverage and opted for this route, which has been taken more commonly in college basketball.

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Clancy Pendergast officially hired by San Francisco 49ers

The San Francisco 49ers have officially hired longtime defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, striking one potential name off the list of candidates for UCLA defensive coordinator.

The Bruins officially announced Jeff Ulbrich’s departure for the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, although the offer was first reported last Tuesday.

Pendergast’s name had been tossed around as a potential replacement for Ulbrich, even though he had reportedly been hired by the 49ers. With the hire not yet finalized until today, the door remained open to the possibility that the 47-year-old might opt for the college ranks despite his distaste for recruiting. He had mentioned for defensive coordinator openings at both LSU and Utah last month.

He had been a defensive coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals and Kansas City Chiefs for over half a decade before taking the same position at Cal (2010-12) and USC (2013). Pendergast is about as bland as Ulbrich is charismatic, but is a football lifer with well-regarded knowledge of the Xs and Os.

UCLA could still opt for someone with a similar background — with the most popular name now being Jim Haslett, who worked with Bruin head coach Jim Mora on the New Orleans Saints staff in 1995 and 1996. Haslett mutually parted ways with Washington at the end of 2014, and is currently without a job.

An NFL-type hire would make sense for a few reasons. It would fit Mora’s pattern for hiring assistants, and could be used as a selling point with recruits — even if the candidate himself doesn’t turn out to be a stud recruiter. It also might be harder to lure a NCAA assistant away at this time of year, at least without a significant pay raise or other extenuating factors.

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Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams picks Oregon

Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams will transfer to Oregon, giving the Ducks a graduate transfer who could smooth their transition into the post-Marcus Mariota era.

UCLA and Texas had both made late inquiries into potentially getting the two-time Walter Payton Award runner-up, but neither became a real factor in Adams’ decision. The Bruins, of course, will head into spring camp with a competition to replace three-year starter Brett Hundley, with freshman Josh Rosen being the likely favorite over returning backup Jerry Neuheisel and redshirt sophomore Asiantii Woulard.

One of the rare players to jump from the FCS to the FBS at his position, Adams led EWU to a 49-46 upset of then-No. 25 Oregon State in 2013, and almost did the same against Washington a year later. He totaled 886 passing yards, 13 total touchdowns, and no interceptions in the two games.

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UCLA announces departure of defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich

UCLA has officially announced the departure of defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, who leaves the position after just one year.

Ulbrich is leaving to join the Atlanta Falcons, returning to the NFL to become a linebackers coach. The announcement comes two days after the 37-year-old accepted his new job.

“I would like to thank Coach Ulbrich for everything he has done for UCLA Football over the past three years,” UCLA head coach Jim Mora said in a statement. “The hard work he put in on a daily basis was surpassed only by his dedication to helping develop our student-athletes both on and off the field. It was a pleasure working alongside him and watching him develop as a coach, and I anticipate nothing but success for him in the future.”

Mora will soon be hiring his third defensive coordinator at UCLA.

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Report: UCLA, Texas showing interest in EWU’s Vernon Adams

UCLA and Texas have joined Oregon in trying to woo Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams.

The potential graduate transfer has twice finished as both Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year and runner-up for the Walter Payton Award, given to the FCS offensive MVP. His former coach at Mission Hills (Calif.) Bishop Alemany, Dean Herrington, told The Oregonian‘s Andrew Greif that he has fielded calls from the Bruins and the Longhorns — but that he still thinks Adams will choose between either going to Oregon and staying at Eastern Washington. Continue reading

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Jeff Ulbrich leaves UCLA to join Atlanta Falcons coaching staff

UCLA defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich will leave the Bruins to join the Atlanta Falcons staff, two days after news first broke that he was considering an offer to become the NFL team’s linebackers coach.

Bruin Report Online first reported the news.

Ulbrich, 37, had just completed his first year as UCLA’s defensive coordinator, having been promoted after two seasons as the team’s linebackers and special teams coordinator. On Wednesday morning, shortly after four-star linebacker Roquan Smith had announced his commitment to the Bruins, reports surfaced that Ulbrich would be joining the Atlanta Falcons and new head coach Dan Quinn.

Smith then reopened his recruitment, and is currently deciding between UCLA, Georgia, Texas A&M and Michigan.

UCLA head coach Jim Mora said on Wednesday that Ulbrich had not yet accepted the offer, and said he would “fight tooth and nail to keep him.” Both Mora and Quinn coached Ulbrich when he was a San Francisco 49ers linebacker.

The Bruins will head into the 2015 season with their third defensive coordinator in as many years. Lou Spanos, who held the position for the first two seasons of the Mora era, left to become the Tennessee Titans linebackers coach in January 2014.

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UCLA’s Spring Game scheduled for April 25

For those trying to mark their calendars, UCLA’s Spring Game has been set for Saturday, April 25. The time and location have not been announced, and the rest of the Bruins’ spring camp schedule is also not yet released.

Quarterback Josh Rosen will obviously be the main attraction, and is set to compete for the starting spot after enrolling in January along with JUCO transfer offensive tackle Zach Bateman. Of the 2015 recruits that just signed their letters of intent this week, linebacker Joshua Woods and defensive backs Nathan Meadors and Will Lockett are expected to enroll early.

Head coach Jim Mora also said Wednesday that one player he can’t name could potentially participate in spring practices — likely referring to still-undecided four-star linebacker Roquan Smith.

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Brett Hundley among five UCLA Bruins invited to NFL Combine

Brett Hundley, right, runs around defensive end Jonathan Johnson (11) during UCLA's 36-34 win at Cal on Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014. (Eric Risberg/AP)

Brett Hundley, right, runs around defensive end Jonathan Johnson (11) during UCLA’s 36-34 win at Cal on Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014. (Eric Risberg/AP)

The NFL Scouting Combine released its list of invites today, and there weren’t any real surprises on UCLA’s end.

Brett Hundley, who set multiple school records in three seasons as a starter, was included — the mild kerfuffle over his Senior Bowl absence having not knocked him off his status as the consensus No. 3 quarterback in the draft. So too were defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa and linebacker Eric Kendricks, who represent the Bruins’ other chances to produce a first-round draft pick for the third year in a row.

A recent SI.com mock draft projected Kendricks to go No. 30 overall to the Green Bay Packers, while Odighizuwa followed at No. 37 (New York Jets) and Hundley at No. 41 (St. Louis Rams). Continue reading

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