LOS ANGELES -- Spring is the time of change for football programs around the country, and there will be plenty of quite noticeable change Tuesday when UCLA opens camp.
A new coaching staff led by Jim Mora will bring a new no-nonsense, tough-nosed approach to the proceedings. Some key players are gone because they have no eligibility left. At least one key player--offensive lineman Xavier Su'a-Filo, will be back in uniform after a two-year Mormon mission.
Many players, some established veterans, will be playing new positions and even switching sides of the ball. Mora and his staff will be installing completely new schemes on both sides of the ball and just about every position is up for grabs under the guidance of the new staff.
What it all adds up to is a camp designed to help remove UCLA from the jaws of mediocrity that have had a strong grip on the program for the better part of the last decade.
"We're excited to get going," said Mora, the former NFL coach who took over at UCLA in December. "We're excited to see what we have here and to get started on building this program into what we think it should be."
The most important order of business is to find a quarterback, though that is far from all the Bruins will be doing this spring. With an entirely new coaching staff led by new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone and new defensive coordinator Lou Spanos, there will be new plays, new formations and new terminology. The team will be hitting the playbooks as hard as they hit their school books over the next few weeks.
Mora has softened that blow a bit by extending the 15-practice spring session over five weeks in order to help all the newness marinate in minds of the players. Spring football ends with the spring game on May 5 at the Rose Bowl.
"This being our first year, I didn’t want us to feel rushed with our installation," Mora said. "I wanted the players to have time to digest what they just practiced, look at it on film, get a good install in and go back on the field. As we go through the years, that’ll change. We’ll modify the schedule, but this first year that’s what made the most sense."
Many players will need the extra time because they are switching positions. The most notable and drastic of the position swappers are Anthony Barr, who has appeared in 24 games as an F-back and running back--starting 11 of them--but asked to be switched to linebacker, and Dalton Hilliard who will move to running back after playing 28 games at defensive back over the past three years.
Barr, at 6-5, 238, is a better physical fit at linebacker. He was an outstanding high school linebacker and Mora said he's probably a better fit at linebacker at the next level.
"When you look at him physically, he looks exactly how you want an outside linebacker to look," Mora said. "What he told me is he felt like to play at the next level, that was a better fit for him. Our opinions kind of matched."
Hilliard was a standout running back in high school and was known a a good pass catcher out of the backfield. With the new spread offense looking to utilize swing passes, a running back with good hands became a necessity. Current starter Johnathan Franklin has only 25 catches over three years. Backup Malcolm Jones has two in two seasons.
Jordon James proved a viable weapon in the pass game out of the backfield with seven receptions for 122 yards last season, but Mora wanted another.
"It makes sense to get him in that position right now and see if he can—he was a really good running back in high school," Mora said. "A really good running back. Some of the skills and drills stuff we've done, he looked pretty impressive there."
There are other changes, such as former backup quarterback Darius Bell moving to Y-back--a slot position--and David Allen going from linebacker to fullback. The tight ends all have new positions because there is no tight end in the new offense, so Joseph Fauria is now listed at the Y position.
Many of the other changes are not quite as drastic--Andrew Abbott is going from cornerback to safety and several defensive ends are going to outside linebacker in the 3-4 defensive scheme while defensive tackles are going to nose tackle or defensive end--though those changes are "fluid" Mora said.
"I would say that as we go through spring there will be a lot of movement and it’ll most likely be between defensive ends and outside linebackers," Mora said. "Trying to find the right fit for those guys. And maybe some inside to outside and outside to inside. I think that’s where you’ll see most of the movement."
None of the position changes are written in stone, Mora said. Guys might not work out as hoped or might prove to be a better fit somewhere else. That is what spring football is all about, he said.
"You want to look at them as permanent, but still have the flexibility to say it worked or it didn’t work, let’s go back home, Mora said. "You could see something the first day and go ‘god, that guy is a lot better than I thought.’ Or you could go ‘oh, jeez, we’ve got some issues here and we have to open this thing up.’"
And when he said things are going to open up, he means it. He said there are one or two position with established front-runners for the starting job, but that he will go into spring without a depth chart.
"I’m going to put up a depth chart for these guys...and there’s not going to be a name on it," Mora said. "It’s going to say 'top performer, second-best performer, third-best performer, fourth best performer' at each position. That’s how the depth chart is going to be. I don’t want anyone to feel comfortable, that’s for sure. You want to create an environment where there is competition because that’s going to make everybody better. I don’t want them to feel comfortable."
Competition at every position will be an ongoing affair for all five weeks of spring practice. It will take place on the field, in the film room and in positional meetings. The guys who prove they deserve the job will get it. Mora said he has limited the time he has spent watching film from last year because he doesn't want to have too many preconceived notions about players.
"I want to be able to evaluate them based on what we see in spring ball," Mora said. "It’s important that you have a feel for guys, but kids get coached different ways and different things get emphasized so I kind of want to evaluate them on what we emphasize."
2012 SPRING FOOTBALL PRACTICE DATES
*all practices are held at Spaulding Field and are open to the public
*practices typically run for two hours
April 3 – 3:45 pm
April 5 – 3:45 pm
April 7 – 9:30 am
April 10 – 3:45 pm
April 12 – 3:45 pm
April 14 – 9:30 am
April 17 – 3:45 pm
April 19 – 3:45 pm
April 21 – 1:00 pm
April 24 – 3:45 pm
April 26 – 3:45 pm
April 28 – 1:00 pm
May 1 – 3:45 pm
May 3 – 3:45 pm
May 5 – Spring Game at the Rose Bowl, 5:00 pm