SAN BERNARDINO — When coach Jim Mora reveals his team’s captain votes upon returning to Westwood on Sunday, the UCLA football team will fail to find a familiar face among the chosen, save for junior offensive guard Xavier Su’a-Filo.
The Bruins have lost an offensive captain in running back Johnathan Franklin, defensive captains in Andrew Abbott, a safety, and Damien Holmes, an outside linebacker, and special teams mainstays in punter Jeff Locke and fullback David Allen.
Franklin’s departure to the Green Bay Packers means the Bruins have lost an effective pass blocker, a small but speedy back who almost always managed to find the hole and most important, a talented player who never took his success too seriously.
“Johnathan on campus was a different kind of guy; he was very high-profile,” Mora said. “He was never standoffish, he was a great ambassador. He would talk to anybody.”
At 2 p.m. on Friday, the Bruins decided who best possesses these qualities in a vote that will decide the team’s three offensive and three defensive captains, with one rotating special teams captain throughout the year.
While Mora said that redshirt sophomore Brett Hundley possesses these “qualities” despite an enormous load on his plate as quarterback, at special teams the loss in defined leadership has been made apparent.
“We had some really prominent special teams … guys (last year) that were really established,” said Mora, citing Locke and Allen, among others. “This year we’re so young on special teams that we can really identify anybody, so I don’t want to force the issue with them.”
Mora expressed desire for more consistency from redshirt sophomore long snapper Christopher Longo, responsible for replacing current San Francisco 49er Kevin McDermott.
“I don’t think we’re close to where we need to be. The operation between the snap, the hold and the kick has to be just flawless. That’s where your kicker gets his rhythm. Right now, it’s not,” Mora said.
The coach likes what he sees, however, from holder and quarterback Jerry Neuheisel. Mora expressed potential interest in utilizing the redshirt freshman in trick plays.
Mora is still at least a week away from naming a starting kick returner, saying that a decision will not be “settled until game week.” In addition to holdovers from last year, the coach named freshmen wide receivers Darren Andrews and Jalen Ortiz as candidates for kick-returning responsibilities.
Turning Maydays into Paydays
Some key members of the Bruins’ kicking and punting units spend much of their time during positional drills in San Bernardino along a tree-line parallel to an end zone, focusing on drills that develop their cores and muscle memory.
During team game simulations, however, kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn and Longo are among the players summoned to the field by a “Mayday!” shout from the coaching staff. The call directs them to set up and kick a field goal within 10 seconds.
Although the coaching staff sometimes calls Fairbairn to kick balls from as far away as 60 yards, the sophomore kicker keeps his attention on making more realistic targets.
“You want to be money inside of 40 (yards) … Everything above that is just a bonus.”
Longo believes that the kicking unit has improved “a lot” since coming together at the start of the offseason. He cited the development of “pretty good chemistry” among himself, Fairbairn and Neuheisel.
Y So Serious
Alongside what appears to be UCLA’s two starting wide receivers in redshirt senior Shaquelle Evans and sophomore Jordan Payton is a receiver position that has failed to fit any particular mold so far this camp.
Used by offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone to keep red zone weapon and 6-foot-7 receiving target Joseph Fauria on the field last season, the Y position has given reps to players of all sizes and skill sets, from a 6-foot-3 prototypical tight end in freshman Thomas Duarte, to Grayson Mazzonne, a 5-foot-8 redshirt senior who uses shiftiness as his primary weapon.
Big or small, however, wide receivers coach Eric Yarber said the position boils down to the same process for all, including the ability to find separation off the line and locating small windows between defenders over the middle in order to catch short passes.
“The fundamentals and techniques are consistently the same whether it’s a big guy or a little guy,” Yarber said. “A little guy is going to use his quickness a little more and a big guy is going to use his strength. They’re a little different, but they have a lot of similarities.”
Lining up opposite sophomore F receiver Devin Fuller, Grayson Mazzone said his role is that of a slot receiver, to draw defenders in the box and then quickly burst away from them.
“(Yarber) always tells me to get close to get open,” Mazzone said. “You need to get close to those linebackers so they take their eyes off you and you can make your moves. With a smaller guy like me, you … really just have to be a technician out there.”
Four different Bruins, including Mazzone, Duarte, redshirt freshman Nate Iese and last year’s starter before going down with a shoulder injury at Cal, redshirt senior Darius Bell, have a chance to earn reps at the Y. They could alternate depending on whether a package requires blocking, pass-catching in the flat or quickness over the middle. In the meantime, each of these very different players relishes the competition.
“It depends on the players and who you’re playing against and how you want to play them,” said Iese on what type of player best fits the Y spot. “Everybody that plays at the Y position is very good and we’re all competing every day … and it just feels like a very good environment.”
- Freshman cornerback Johnny Johnson will miss this season because of damage resulting from a separated shoulder. Mora called Johnson’s injury similar to, but worse than, that suffered by sophomore cornerback Ishmael Adams in 2012.
- Mora expects left tackle Simon Goines, who hyperextended his right knee Thursday morning, to be available for Friday night practice. The coach joked that the sophomore should be ready to go if New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady did not miss practice after a knee injury scare on Wednesday.
- On Friday morning, freshman Eddie Vanderdoes was active for the entirety of a San Bernardino practice. The defensive end indicated that he is about 85 percent healthy with regard to his back.
- Freshman defensive end Kylie Fitts has suffered through cramping problems over the course of the week and missed Friday’s morning practice.