UCLA post-spring position outlook: Special teams

Spring football is done, and over three months still stand between us and the start of UCLA’s third season under Jim Mora — one that comes with national title aspirations and accompanying media glare. This blog has covered the status of each position group moving forward. Last in the series is …

Special teams

Recently, special teams hasn’t been a major concern for UCLA. Over the last two seasons, the team blocked 12 kicks and punts — an FBS total matched only by Rutgers. Last year, it ranked top-20 in both opponent punt and kick returns; in four of the five years prior, the Bruins ranked outside the top 40 in the former and the top 100 in the latter.

A key difference looms heading into this fall: Jeff Ulbrich is no longer the UCLA special teams coordinator.

Promoted the defensive coordinator, Ulbrich will continue coaching inside linebackers but surrenders lead oversight of the unit that helped extend his own professional career. Outside linebackers will be charged to new assistant Mike Tuiasosopo, who also holds the title of special teams coach. Continue reading

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UCLA post-spring position outlook: Secondary

Spring football is done, and over three months still stand between us and the start of UCLA’s third season under Jim Mora — one that comes with national title aspirations and accompanying media glare. This blog will cover the status of each position group moving forward. Next up …

Secondary

UCLA is very familiar with offense-to-defense success. With the last project off to the NFL as a top-ten pick, can the Bruins duplicate that sort of transformation?

Heading into the 2014 season, the best bet on the roster is Fabian Moreau — a former three-star running back who converted to cornerback as soon as he arrived in Los Angeles two years ago. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound soon-to-be junior earned an all-conference honorable mention in just his second year at the position — one in which he started 12 games. Continue reading

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Spring notes: Early enrollee NaJee Toran playing with a mean streak on offense line

Two weeks through spring camp, NaJee Toran has been a pleasant surprise on UCLA’s offensive line.

A three-star recruit out of the Houston area, Toran has found a spot as a backup right guard, mixing in some first-team reps along the way. The 6-foot-3, 275-pound lineman doesn’t overwhelm most opponents in size, but makes up for that with a relentless motor.

He’s been that way ever since he started playing football.

“I think it was my seventh grade year, I just exploded through somebody,” Toran said. “They just fell back. Since then, I’ve just been doing the same thing.”

The habit may have actually started on the basketball court. Though Toran usually had a physical edge over players his age, he felt like he had something to prove when matched up against older, bigger opponents.

“The feeling of overpowering somebody … of making somebody look weak — it puts a feeling inside me that I like,” he said.

– Receivers had a great showing in one-on-one drills on Saturday, with several players creating tons of separation off of just one cut. Devin Lucien, Thomas Duarte and Mossi Johnson were among the standouts, but almost nobody fared poorly. Linebacker Myles Jack probably performed better than most of the defensive backs during one-on-ones. Continue reading

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At a glance: No. 12 UCLA at No. 2 Oregon

No. 12 UCLA (5-1, 2-1 Pac-12) at No. 2 Oregon (7-0, 4-0)
Location:
Autzen Stadium, Oct. 26, 4 p.m.
TV: ESPN (Brent Musberger, Kirk Herbstreit, Heather Cox)
Radio: 570 AM (Chris Roberts, Matt Stevens, Wayne Cook)

Last meeting: An already-fired Rick Neuheisel coached his final game, a spot in the 2011 Pac-12 Championship game that came by way of a USC postseason ban. UCLA lost 49-31 against No. 8 Oregon, as LaMichael James rushed for three scores — tying LenDale White with 52 career touchdowns.

He scored one more in a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin, taking sole possession of second in conference history.

Key storylines: UCLA is trying to rebound after its first loss of the season, a 24-10 loss at Stanford in which its offense struggled as much as ever in the Jim Mora era. Continue reading

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Anthony Jefferson recalls Kodi Whitfield’s 30-yard touchdown

Kodi Whitfield’s 30-yard touchdown yesterday didn’t just give Stanford a 10-3 lead in the third quarter. The one-handed grab in double coverage locked down the top spot on SportsCenter’s Top 10, and established a strong case as the catch of the year.

“It was a phenomenal catch,” Cardinal linebacker Trent Murphy said. “Once I saw it up in the air, I started jogging out for the PAT because I knew he was coming down with it. We trust those guys to make those plays.”

UCLA safety Anthony Jefferson saw the play differently. Continue reading

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Myles Jack, Anthony Barr crush New Mexico St. quarterbacks

I have no idea how Myles Jack ended Saturday’s game with just one credited tackle, but New Mexico State’s quarterbacks sure felt his presence during their 59-13 loss to UCLA. The freshman linebacker obliterated King Davis III on a third-and-5 in the second quarter, shortly before the latter’s pass turned into an interception for Ishmael Adams.

Less than 10 seconds later, Jack knocked Davis down again. Continue reading

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Inexperienced UCLA secondary eager to start season

He’s eager to watch them play.

No matter that the group returns only five games’ worth of combined starting experience, or the idea that most regard the unit as the team’s weakest link. Jim Mora is ready to see his UCLA secondary take on Nevada Saturday night — even if, he joked, he has to peek through his fingers.

“I want them to just be able to play free and not worry,” said the Bruins’ head coach. “Be able to cut it loose and let their skills take over. I think they’ve worked hard enough on the mental part that they know what’s going on, they know the adjustments.

“I don’t want to see them play hesitant.”

After weeks of hitting their own teammates — first in San Bernardino, then back at home in Westwood — the Bruins are itching to finally get on the field against some different uniforms. That may go double for the defensive backfield. Continue reading

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Fabian Moreau earning praise as converted cornerback

Questions still abound in UCLA’s secondary, a unit that lost all four starters and returns few upperclassmen.

The group does have talent, however, and a starting lineup is nearly solidified: at safety, Anthony Jefferson and Randall Goforth, who have five combined career starts; at corner, Ishmael Adams, who played two games in 2012 before season-ending shoulder surgery.

The most unlikely of the quartet is sophomore Fabian Moreau.

The Florida native had played running back for most of his life. As a senior at Western High, near Ft. Lauderdale, he ran for 889 yards and 11 touchdowns. Tacking an additional seven touchdowns and 416 yards through the air, he was named All-County by both the South Florida Sun Sentinel and the Miami Herald. Continue reading

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Friday night notes: Eddie Vanderdoes commands double teams

Half a day after his first extended practice, Eddie Vanderdoes started turning heads.

Still working his way back from a tight back, the 6-foot-3, 310-pound defensive end commanded regular double teams — quickly backing up his ranking as the No. 21 recruit in the country. Even when going up against starting offensive linemen Caleb Benenoch and Torian White, Vanderdoes more than held his own.

Vanderdoes looked more bothered by fatigue Friday night than by the back issues (likely a herniated disc) that had sidelined him for over a week. If the injury doesn’t flare up again, the Auburn, Calif., native will be a beast.

– Before practice started, quarterback Brett Hundley tried to drill a fast-moving camera drone from at least 40 yards away. As teammates and coaches formed an eager audience, he missed the target by just two or three feet. Even got plenty and oohs and aahs out of the crowd.

– Devin Fuller is such a difficult cover coming out of the slot. Continue reading

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