UCLA heads into summer as somewhat of a mystery

Josh Rosen's relationship with new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch will be integral to UCLA's success this season. Keith Birmingham//Icon Sportswire

LOS ANGELES -- Following UCLA's spring game on Saturday, coach Jim Mora was asked to assess the play of quarterback Josh Rosen.

"I thought he was fine," Mora said. "I thought he was fine."

Moments later, he fielded the same question about the team's running backs: "I think they did fine."

Perhaps sensing he wasn't offering much, Mora continued, "It's hard to come over here after a game like that and truly evaluate anybody, so I'm not going to."

He was right not to try. It was a televised game (hello, prying Texas A&M eyes) that featured a vanilla offense against a vanilla defense and a successful extra point by women's soccer coach Amanda Cromwell. The point wasn't so much to have a competitive game as it was to have a good time and give the players a taste of a game-like atmosphere, while welcoming fans on campus for an opportunity to see the team up close. Check, check and check.

It's natural to want to use these games to form firm expectations for the fall, but to do so would be an exercise in futility.

"I just want to save any big time statements about improvement until we get on the field against Texas A&M and after that game maybe we can all feel good," Mora said. "Right now, I'm cautiously optimistic, but I am optimistic."

In many ways, the Bruins enter the summer in an eerily similar position to a year ago. Outside expectations won't be as high following a 4-8 season (the Bruins were the preseason favorites in the Pac-12 South last year), but the makeup of the roster has a familiar feel, as does the state of the offense following another system change.

On defense, there are again some high-profile players to replace (this time: defensive end Takkarist McKinley, linebacker Jayon Brown, cornerback Fabian Moreau, etc.), but enough proven players returning (linebacker Kenny Young, defensive back Jaleel Wadood, defensive back Adarius Pickett) to forecast a strong unit.

On offense, there is a healthy Rosen -- an extremely talented quarterback with an obvious NFL future -- but he is still surrounded by very few established players. Left tackle Kolton Miller and center Scott Quessenberry have locked up starting jobs, but after them, everything is up for grabs.

Jedd Fisch has a more proven track record as an offensive coordinator than his predecessor, Kennedy Polamalu, but that guarantees nothing. He has essentially the same group of running backs at his disposal from a team that couldn't run the ball and many of the same receivers who lacked consistency.

So then, why the optimism?

"I've learned more in this spring ball about just the game of football than I have in a very long time," Rosen said on Saturday. "[Fisch is] not just teaching his offense, he's teaching us how to be good quarterbacks and good people and good teammates in general."

To be fair, Rosen had almost identical praise for former quarterbacks coach Marques Tuiasosopo following last year's spring game. Tuiasosopo, however, who has since moved on to Cal, wasn't in full control of the offense. Fisch will be the first quarterbacks coach Rosen has played for at UCLA who also serves as the coordinator. The hope is that dynamic will help Rosen gain a deeper understanding of what Fisch is trying to accomplish.

"We work really well together. He kind of understands how I function and I'm using it as an opportunity to get inside his head because I want to, by [the Texas A&M game], I want to be his head on the field," Rosen said. "He'll call a play and I'm not just trying to run it, I'm trying to ask, ‘Why are you doing it in this situation? What are you looking for?'

"I want to understand where he's coming from so I can really do everything he asks because he's been around the block with the NFL and college and knows exactly what he wants and that's what I'm trying to do for him."

Throughout the spring, Fisch has tried to install more of an NFL mentality with the quarterbacks. No detail is too small. There is a certain way to call a play in the huddle. A certain way to leave the huddle. A certain way to approach the line of scrimmage. He wants Rosen to carry himself with a presence that make it clear he is in control.

Fisch needs Rosen to trust him and knows it's imperative he trusts Rosen. Their relationship is arguably the program's most integral for success this year. Fisch joked at the start of spring about his long stretch of working with a new quarterback every season and how he was hoping that would soon change. However, if things go well there is every reason to expect Rosen will declare for the 2018 NFL draft.

Rosen didn't want to address that looming decision a few weeks ago, but it will be an ever-present storyline as the year progresses. He took the stance that by taking care of business on a day-to-day basis, the other stuff -- accolades, the NFL, etc. -- will take care of itself.

"Depending on how hard he works in May, June and July will determine how good of a quarterback he can be for us this year," Fisch said. "Because kind of all we were able to do this last month was lay the foundation of the offense and he just has to own it and work at it and master it the best a 20-year-old can master it."