Jim Mora has made a career -- and a pretty darn good one at that -- capitalizing on teachable moments.
On Dec. 27 of last year, the Baylor Bears provided his UCLA squad -- a group still in its infancy when learning to deal with success -- with a slew of teachable moments. There were 49 to be exact, if you're keeping track at home.
Mora's UCLA team -- which climbed as high as 16 in the BCS standings in his first year at the helm -- was throttled by the Bears 49-26 in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl in San Diego. After a 9-2 start, the Bruins closed out the year with back-to-back losses to Stanford and then the Holiday Bowl defeat. As always, Mora didn't pass on the opportunity to teach.
And to learn.
"It taught me that we need to get bigger, faster and stronger," Mora said. "They were a bigger and faster and more physical team than us on that night. Their players looked a little bit different than our players. Though we've done good things and come a long way, we're not where we need to be. Baylor was the best team we played all year. They were the biggest, most physical, athletically gifted team that we played all year and they took it to us pretty good. It was good for us. It was not fun. We would have liked to have a different outcome. But it showed us where we are as a team ...
"That put things right back in perspective for us. It was very humbling. We all realize we have a long way to go. We feel like we are headed in the right direction. But for all the good things we did, we're nowhere close to where we want to be or where we will be."
With the three-game skid, it's easy to overlook what Mora accomplished in Year 1. Like the fact that he and his staff took a first-year starter at quarterback and molded him into one of the most exciting players in the country. Like the fact that they took a running back/fullback at the bottom of the depth chart and turned him into one of the preeminent defenders in the nation. Like the fact that they beat USC, won the Pac-12 South Division sans the asterisk and grabbed a major chunk of the Los Angeles recruiting market.
He'll look to continue that success when the Bruins open spring camp on April 2. He doesn't expect any hangover from the way the season ended. In fact, he noted that his players are already "bigger, stronger, faster and more flexible" than they were heading into spring camp last year. A full year in the system should work wonders in Year 2.
Of great interest will be the continued maturation of quarterback Brett Hundley -- the aforementioned exciting player -- and linebacker Anthony Barr -- the aforementioned preeminent defensive player. Mora said he expects big things from both in 2013.
Barr's move to linebacker was the single most significant position switch in the conference last season. With only about a month to learn the position, Barr tallied a league-high 13.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for a loss. A leading candidate for defensive player of the year, Barr opted to bypass the NFL until 2014 so he could gain more seasoning at the position.
"I think if he continues to progress, he'll be a top 5 pick," Mora said. "Talk about an impact player, and he's still so new at the position. He didn't go through spring at outside linebacker so he's been an linebacker for less than a year. The education of Anthony Barr as an outside linebacker started in August in San Bernardino. If he can come anywhere close to duplicating the acceleration of the position -- learning the position like he did last year and the improvements he made -- he's going to be scary."
And then there is Hundley, the wildly athletic quarterback who will be asked to do more with the offense now that the school's all-time leading rusher -- Johnathan Franklin -- is gone. So is his favorite red zone target, hybrid tight end Joe Fauria. Hundley was very solid in his first year, completing 66.5 percent of his throws for 3,740 yards and 29 touchdowns. But he was also sacked 52 times. Part of that was a young offensive line. Part of that was Hundley. As his understanding of the offense increases, Mora said he expects better decision-making from Hundley.
"He's so gifted and sometimes he needs to know when to trust himself and trust [offensive coordinator] Noel [Mazzone] and sometimes he just needs to let it fly," Mora said. "Everything he was seeing last year, he was essentially seeing for the first time. The first time he picks up the ball at our first spring practice, without having taken a snap from center in a competitive situation between the bowl game and now he will be a much, much better football player because he's been able to absorb all of the lessons from last year."