Focused Bruins embracing expectations

What we know about UCLA today versus one year ago is exponential. Consider the question marks heading into UCLA’s game at Rice in Week 1 of 2012:

  • A redshirt freshman quarterback with a new coach and a new system? How’s that gonna go?

  • A veteran NFL coach coming back to college for the first time in decades? Would his coaching style translate?

  • Switching to a 3-4 with a converted running back at outside linebacker? Really?

Most would agree all questions were answered with considerably positive results.

We know a lot more about the Bruins – but so do their opponents. Opening the season ranked No. 21, the Bruins aren’t going to sneak up on anybody this year.

“We’re not? Dang it,” joked offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. “Just say that we look terrible then people won’t worry about us.”

Hard to look terrible with Brett Hundley returning at quarterback after an outstanding redshirt freshman campaign and Anthony Barr returning as one of the most feared defensive players in the country. And as they kick off the 2013 season this weekend with Nevada, the players are very much aware that the expectations have been raised.

“We now we have a target on our backs now,” said running back Paul Perkins, one of several backs fighting for carries in a crowded backfield. “We know we have to come into every game with the mentality that we have to punish the other team. We’re embracing the pressure. We’re embracing the spotlight. I love how the guys have responded to it.”

The Wolf Pack should provide a nice test for the Bruins in Week 1. Recall this team spoiling Cal’s season opener last year and then pushing Arizona in the New Mexico Bowl. It took a fairly miraculous final minute for the Wildcats to come from behind. And their key playmaker, quarterback Cody Fajardo is back.

How much of a thorn was he last year for the two Pac-12 teams? In those two combined games against Cal and Arizona, he completed 74 percent of his throws (47 of 63) and rushed for 237 yards and three touchdowns.

“I think he’s an outstanding quarterback,” Mora said of Fajardo. “The things he did last year in terms of his statistics speak for themselves. He’s a real threat both running the ball and throwing the ball.”

Of course, getting past Nevada is only step one. The Bruins then have a week off before making the trip to Nebraska in a rematch of one of last year’s more exciting nonconference games. The schedule only gets tougher as later in the year they make back-to-back trips to Stanford and Oregon. But if you’re a team that believes it can win its conference and be in the national spotlight, it’s just par for the course.

“This year, I think we’re just like every other top-notch program,” said defensive end Cassius Marsh. “We’re looking to go undefeated and win a national championship. If you’re a good team and you have that potential, that’s what your goal should be.”

Much of that success will fall on Hundley, who is expected to take a much larger leadership role with the departure of players like Johnathan Franklin, Datone Jones and Damien Holmes.

“Stay grounded,” Hundley said. “During the season I stay off social media. Nobody is going to hear much from me. Right now we’re in training mode and we’re getting our minds right. This team grew up a lot last year and I think we're ready to handle whatever comes our way.”

The Bruins still have some question marks, as virtually every team in the country does before the first game of the season. How will they round out the linebacker corps? How will the young secondary hold up? How will the running back-by-committee system work with Franklin’s departure? But the big-picture questions about schemes, philosophies, coaching styles and personal doctrines are answered. People know what Mora, Hundley, Barr and the rest of the Bruins are about. And while last year’s Pac-12 South title was nice, it won’t mean much on Saturday.

“We can’t win today’s game off of yesterday’s home run,” Mazzone said. “That’s the message you have to get through to these guys. That’s what you fight against. This is a brand new team. Different guys at different spots with a different personality.

“Do we have a chance to be as good as we were last year offensively? Heck, I don’t know. But we bring a lot of guys back. The rearview mirror is smaller than the windshield. Right now, we’re looking through the windshield.”