Things are good for UCLA this summer. For one, in advance of preseason practices, the Bruins can recline by the pool and reflect on having defeated USC in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1997-98. That span, by the way, is also the last time preseason expectations were this high.
As in Pac-12 and national championships high.
The reclamation project that Jim Mora has wrought, one that had Texas eyeballing him in the winter before he signed a new contract with UCLA, seems to be gathering momentum rather than peaking.
“It feels great, but at the same time, this is where I believe we are supposed to be," linebacker Eric Kendricks said of the swirling enthusiasm in Westwood. "All the hard work me and my teammates have put in, I feel like we were supposed to end up in this situation.”
Yet the 2013 season, a transformative one for UCLA, wasn't so easy for Kendricks. While the Bruins were asserting themselves, their star middle linebacker struggled through a variety of injuries -- kidney, shoulder, back and ankle. He played through most of them, but the bum ankle forced him to undergo surgery and miss the dominant Sun Bowl victory over Virginia Tech.
Winning eases pain, but it doesn't cure it.
“Last season was probably the hardest season I’ve ever been a part of," Kendricks said of his personal travails. "It was a learning experience for me having to play through pain. It made me mentally tougher. I was playing for my teammates. That was the main reason I was out there trying to fight my butt off.”
Even with the injuries, Kendricks -- who has started 28 games -- didn't have a bad campaign. He still ranked third in the Pac-12 with 8.8 tackles per game. He again earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors. Still, when folks thought of a UCLA defense that -- finally? -- was developing some grit, they tended to start with Anthony Barr and true freshman Myles Jack, Kendricks' fellow linebackers, and then perhaps move on to a defensive front speckled with young talent.
Kendricks has been a tackling machine in the past three seasons with 332 career stops -- his 150 tackles in 2012 were the most by a UCLA player since 1978 -- but it's fair to say his junior season didn't play out how he would have scripted it. If his season had followed a logical progression from his sophomore production, he would presently be sharing top billing with Jack as the Bruins' defensive stars and probably would have earned preseason All-American attention.
Yet when asked about the finding himself outside the spotlight, Kendricks gives it a rhetorical shrug.
“I could care less," he said. "As long as I do my job, I think the film and the numbers speak for themselves. As far as attention I get from NFL teams, that will take care of itself. I don’t need any of the spotlight, honestly.”
A healthy Kendricks is an NFL prospect. For one, he's got good bloodlines. His father, Marv, led UCLA in rushing in 1970-71. His older brother Mychal, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2011 at California, is a budding star for the Philadelphia Eagles. Both brothers are listed at 6-foot, but Eric Kendricks is a leaner version (230 pounds vs. 240).
As to who's faster, Eric said this about a 40-yard race between the two: “He might win one without pads, but I’d win one in pads.”
The brothers talk frequently, and Eric is eager to learn about the NFL game and what it takes to play on Sundays. The general gist he's picked up is that everyone is a spectacular athlete, so it's your focus and preparation that separates you from the competition.
That lesson also applies to the current Bruins as they eyeball big goals. Preseason expectations don't mean squat. They don't block and tackle and make plays. No one is ceding the South Division to the Bruins.
Of course, Kendricks and his teammates know that. That, however, shouldn't stop them from enjoying the burgeoning excitement.
Or expressing to each other on a regular basis what it means to presently own the series with USC.
"Yeah," he said laughing. "That is awesome."