This post was updated on July 25 at 1:24 p.m.
In the first 13 minutes of his interview during Pac-12 Football Media Day Thursday morning, UCLA redshirt senior inside linebacker Eric Kendricks fielded five questions about the quarterbacks of the Pac-12.
The crop of passers lining up for teams has dominated much of the talk over the past two days and most of the offseason – and deservedly so. Ten starters returned to the conference from a year ago, headlined by Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, Oregon State’s Sean Mannion, Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly and UCLA’s redshirt junior quarterback Brett Hundley.
Kendricks joined the pundits and reporters on hand in praising the signal callers, saying that the versatile quarterbacks throughout the conference present an enormous challenge – one he’s ready to accept – for defenders.
“Every quarterback for each team brings something different to the table. I know there is a lot of speed as far as the Pac-12 is concerned,” Kendricks said. “As a defensive guy, I have to drop back because some of these quarterbacks can throw really well, but at the same time when I’m dropping back, I have to keep a spy on them, which is nearly impossible with the speed that they have. So thats a challenge I’m putting on myself and my defense: to contain them, and it should be fun.”
The fact that most of the attention has been paid to players on the offensive side of the ball, such as Oregon’s Mariota – a preseason Heisman favorite – doesn’t bother Kendricks. In fact, he’d like to keep it that way.
“I don’t mind (not getting attention) at all. I like it being like that – I like being the underdog,” Kendricks said. “People are going to worry about ‘Oh, we have the Bruins – we have that explosive offense next week,’ but hey, they can think that all they want, but they are going to have to face our defense as well. And me and my guys are going to come ready, I can promise you that.”
With the departures of linebackers Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt as well as defensive end Cassius Marsh, Kendricks, who normally shies away from the spotlight, finds himself in a new role entering the season. The redshirt senior said that he has taken it upon himself to embrace being one of the leaders on the team, a position Kendricks’ coach thinks he is well suited for.
“You know what’s great about Eric: I don’t think he cares that he’s been overshadowed,” said UCLA coach Jim Mora. “I don’t think it matters to him. … I don’t think he’s that type of person, and that’s what you want out of your leaders. You want that selflessness and that team-first attitude. That’s what he embraces – I love that about him.”
Kendricks, who was named to the Butkus Award watch list, said that while he appreciates the acknowledgement, he considers such recognition a “distraction” and an “empty thought” with a full season still ahead of him.
His mindset appears to be one evocative of the UCLA football team entering a season with mounting praise and expectations. The Bruins were selected by the media as the favorite to claim the Pac-12 South title, and some consider them a possible contender for a spot in the new College Football Playoff this winter.
While much of the attention Thursday, and likely all season, was spent on a handful of individual players, the Bruins insist that if they are to reach their lofty prognostications this season, it will be because of a mindset that places the team above the individual.
“I feel like it’s just the guys we recruit. We’re just team guys,” Kendricks said. “I’m not too worried about (expectations). As long as we handle our business in the league, we’ll be where we need to be. We’re not worried about anyone besides ourselves: We have a standard we are trying to create within ourselves before we display it to anybody else. We have to get it in-house first.”
While Mora took center stage at the Paramount Studios theater hall, UCLA’s most significant player, Brett Hundley, was tucked away in the outskirts of the hall, answering questions.
With the program projected to be ranked in the top-10 this year, the burden to deliver on those expectations falls heavily on the redshirt junior quarterback’s shoulders. The opportunity, after all, is what he came to UCLA for.
“You can go to Alabama and just be another player,” Hundley said. “I wanted to go somewhere and be something special.”
All the hype has done little to distract Hundley from his focus on improving.
Mora said it’s not unusual for him to do two to three workouts a day, and that he’s always calling receivers to throw with them outside of practice.
“When your best player is your hardest worker, it sets a great example for your team,” Mora said. “And Brett is our hardest worker.”
Over the offseason, Hundley also attended the Manning Camp, spent time with current and former NFL quarterbacks like Philip Rivers and Tim Tebow, and picked the brains of his coaches to develop a stronger understanding of the game.
“He has an ego like we all do, but it’s firmly in check,” Mora said.
If it’s possible, the hype around the UCLA football program will likely grow even more as the team stars in the Pac-12 networks series “The Drive: Pac-12 Football.”
The team’s appearance on the show’s second season, which premieres Aug. 27th at 7 p.m., was one of main topics Mora fielded questions about at media day.
“It’s okay to have cameramen embedded with our team because we have that anyway. There are cameras all the time around us,” he said. “So it won’t be a distraction one single bit … I probably won’t even talk to the team about it.”
From a player’s perspective, Hundley understands the team will have to learn to tune the cameras out. Mora, meanwhile, has taken extra precaution to make sure his team, and its environment, is protected.
“We have full editorial control,” Mora said. “So nothing’s going to get out there that we don’t want out there or it will be the last show we do.”
Injuries & Freshmen
Mora confirmed today that incoming freshman wide receiver Austin Roberts, a four-star recruit, would miss the upcoming season after he tore his ACL in a 7-on-7 drill earlier in the offseason.
Likewise, redshirt freshman cornerback Johnny Johnson will miss the season with an undisclosed injury. It’ll be his second straight season out with an injury.
While Mora said he hasn’t spent much time around the incoming freshmen, he’s heard about a few standout players, apart from the early enrollees.
“The players that I’ve talked to, talking to Brett, talking to Eric. They keep talking about (wide receiver) Alex Van Dyke,” Mora said. “They keep talking about (running back) Nate Starks. They keep talking about (defensive end) Matt Dickerson.”
Mora, though, said he doesn’t expect to play as many freshmen as last year, when a record 19 freshmen saw the field.