What's new in Westwood? UCLA's Jim Mora talks about offense and why QB Josh Rosen is a next-level talent
UCLA coach Jim Mora Jr. has gone 37–16 since taking over at the school before the 2012 season. Eight Bruins were selected in this spring's NFL draft and UCLA has perhaps the most intriguing quarterback prospect in college football in rising sophomore Josh Rosen. Mora recently discussed the Bruins' transition to a more pro-style offense, his love of lacrosse, his passion for player safety and receiver Cordell Broadus's (Snoop Dogg's son) decision to play for the program this fall.
Campus Rush: You've undergone a philosophical overhaul on offense, installing a more pro-style system and elevating Kennedy Polamalu to coordinator. What brought you to this point?
Jim Mora: It was a number of things. Noel [Mazzone] and I started talking about it before he left [for Texas A&M in January], how we wanted to morph this offense into something that really took advantage of Josh Rosen's skill set, because this guy is a premier player in the country. I'm not saying he's the [premier player], but he is one of the premier players.
In looking at his skill set, it became apparent that we needed to make some changes to enhance his ability to make plays. So, for one, putting him in a little bit more of a pro-style offense, putting him under center more and working some play-action game. I think being able to run the ball more effectively with common runs—powers and leads and isos and things like that—will open up some things in the pass game for him in play-action stuff, because he's so good at that.
And then the game-planning aspect of it. Everybody game plans, but the spread is a real system. You game plan, but it's just a system, whereas in the pro-style offense there's more of an emphasis on week-to-week game-planning, which is another thing that I think takes advantage of Josh's intelligence.
CR: Does Rosen have a high level of intellect at the line of scrimmage?
Mora: I want to give him and our program every opportunity to max out, and this kid—he's pretty special. I wanted to give him a little bit more control of the pace of our play, the tempo of our play and the plays that we get in and out of at the line of scrimmage. So, sometimes we'll huddle; sometimes we won't. Sometimes we'll go fast; sometimes we won't. We studied [NFL] teams like Denver, New England and Green Bay. We studied New Orleans a little bit. And not necessarily what they were doing schematically, but the pace they were playing at. You'll watch Peyton [Manning] and you'll watch [Tom] Brady, and sometimes they huddle and sometimes they just get going. Or sometimes they get to the line of scrimmage and give the quarterback an extra 15 seconds to diagnose—because the defense is eventually going to show its hand.
With a quarterback like Josh who has a great understanding of defensive concepts, it only makes sense to give him an opportunity to dissect a defense before the ball snaps so he can make the best decision.
CR: UCLA was 4–0 last year before losing back-to-back games against Arizona State and Stanford in October. What did Josh learn going through that adversity?
Mora: The Stanford game (a 56–35 loss on Oct. 15), it was really hard for him, but at the end he showed me something—a maturity and mental toughness in a really difficult situation—that gave me great hope. Do you remember that Cover-2 beater he threw down the middle?
CR: In the fourth quarter?
Mora: Yeah. Dime. For a touchdown.
He came to the sideline and he said, "I figured, what the hell. Might as well throw it." Because he's very cognizant. And I go, "Josh, you got to make that throw at every point in the game. This has got to be a throw you're willing to make in the first quarter and the fourth quarter, because that's a throw you're capable of making that others aren't. And that's an NFL throw."
I want him thinking next level. So I don't want to scare him away from making throws like that.
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CR: I know player health and safety are paramount to you, and you are involved with a company named Vicis, which has created a helmet designed to reduce concussions. Why do you feel so strongly about this?
Mora: Because coming from the NFL to college, you're dealing with a different age of athlete. They're amateurs. I think their health and welfare are much more my responsibility at this point than theirs. I think when they're adults and playing in the NFL and getting paid, I still think it should be a priority, but I think the responsibility shifts a little bit more to the individual player and hopefully to the team.
But at this level, I believe such a small percentage of them are going to go on and really make a living doing this that I have to be the gatekeeper of their health. And you can see a sprained ankle because it swells up. When someone blows out a knee, he can't run or walk.
With head trauma, you can't see it. You really can't recognize it except for [players] explaining the symptoms to you. And you don't really know when it is healed unless you [get an] MRI or blood test. I think there needs to be a culture change that starts at the top. And for me, I think I'm at the top. The verbiage that I use when I talk about head trauma and concussions is going to have a trickle-down effect to high school coaches and junior high coaches and youth coaches. And so, if they hear me say something like, Oh, he just got his bell rung, then they can say that. But if I say something like, We're going to make the health and the welfare of our athletes primary or Hey, Little Johnny looks like he took a blow to the head, let's remove him from play and get him evaluated, [then that type of thinking spreads]. Because no win—no win—is worth someone at age 40 taking their life because of CTE. It's just not. I feel like I'm the gatekeeper.
One thing I know is if you get to know your athletes well enough, you can tell the instant something is wrong. I can tell the instant. Because I spend so much [time with them]— they sit in my office, I'm in meetings, I talk with them, I eat with them. I can tell the instant something is wrong. I don't need a doctor to tell me right now that a kid's got something going on. I'm going to yank him in a heartbeat. I'll get him out of there so quick. To me, it's my responsibility.
CR: Let me ask you a throwback question. I happened to be in Los Angeles the day Myles Jack (who was selected No. 36 overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2016 NFL draft) announced he was leaving school. You made some pointed comments that day. Any regrets?
Mora: No. I think it was an overreaction on the part of people who read the comments and took them out of context. Myles and I have been tight since he was 12, and I'm just looking out for his best interests. What I said was perfectly fine, and he knew it was perfectly fine, but as you know, people can construct a quote to make it look like whatever they want. That's what they did.
When I read the stuff, I was like, "I didn't say it like that. That's not even close to what I said or how I said it." I always try to give those guys the best advice possible, and whatever their decision is, I back it 100%. And Myles is going to be fine.
But, no, I think that was taken completely out of context. There has not been one time I've been here that I haven't supported our players.
CR: Let's talk about this year's team. One of your strengths in 2016 should be your offensive tackles, as UCLA returns Conor McDermott and Kolton Miller. How is your line shaping up in the pro-style system?
Mora: Well, we lose both our guards (Caleb Benenoch and Alex Redmond) and our center (Jake Brendel). So that's troublesome. But we have two very, very good tackles. Big, athletic, good-looking NFL tackles. Getting Scott Quessenberry back from the redshirt, that will help us. We get a guard who rotated back, Kenny Lacy. I think it's a good group. We're starting to develop depth there. We've got some really good young players. But we'll miss those three.
CR: You had a great year recruiting, and wide receiver is a position in which you need guys to come in and immediately contribute. Did the idea of playing with Josh for two seasons help attract some prospects?
Mora: I think it did. I don't think any of them based their decision solely on that, but I think it certainly was something that attracted them. We've got a good group of receivers coming in, and I think getting Cordell Broadus to come back will be a feather in the cap, too.
CR: He came here and decided not to play for his first year?
Mora: He came here and went through summer school, and as he got ready to go to camp, he withdrew. He just didn't want to play football. He felt like he'd always played football for his dad (Snoop Dogg). He took a year, stayed on campus, went to school, worked on his production company. He's an incredibly talented kid. Amazing kid. Smart, well-liked, normal. Then he came to me. I could feel it coming, since we communicated. I could feel him coming back. And he said he and his dad are on different terms now, great terms, and he realized he loved football and wants to come back and play, so he's walking on.
CR: What is he like as a player? What does he bring to the field?
Mora: Well, he's about 6' 3", 200 pounds. He can run and catch and he's physical. He's very, very smart. We'll see. I wish I had gotten to see him play at this level. He's kind of like every freshman coming in. You have an idea of what they can be, but you're not sure that's what they will be.
CR: Doesn't he have some musical or film background?
Mora: He has a production company called Film School Productions. I mean, he's very talented. He can rap. He can sing. He's a cinematographer. He has a great eye behind the camera. He's really creative at putting things together, and he created this company called Film School Productions, and it was a lot of kids his age that were just pretty eclectic. He's still doing very well with it, but he also just loved football.
CR: Your son, Ryder, is a highly regarded lacrosse prospect who committed to Maryland. Did you ever play lacrosse growing up?
Mora: No, I can't even throw or catch a ball now. My boys can. My kids can.
CR: Take me through falling in love with that sport. Do you like not knowing everything about it?
Mora: I do. I've learned a little too much now, where at times I'll get frustrated during a game, which I don't like. It was much more enjoyable when I was just blindly sitting there watching my son play. But what I love about the sport is a combination of the physicality, the speed, the quickness and the strategic part of it. Yet there's an individuality to it.
I love that kids can cover a whole field and use their athleticism, and there's physical contact without a high risk of injury. I wish I had played growing up. It would have been a perfect sport. You get to run, you get to hit, you get to wear cool uniforms. Dress up your helmet, your stick is always cool, whatever your mesh is. There's individual flavor to it.
And I love that my kids love to play it. I can't wait to watch them. It's the highlight of my week.
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CR: You've gotten to know Bill Tierney, the lacrosse coach at the University of Denver. He's a legend in the sport. What have you picked up from him?
Mora: I thought what was interesting with Coach Tierney is he tells a story, he was always very regimented with regard to facial hair and the length of a player's hair. And there's this young man, this Native American from Canada who has a ponytail—it's part of his culture—and it goes all the way down his back. And the kid was in there, sitting in his recruiting meeting and wanted to go to Denver. Tierney wanted him and was going to give him money and help pay for his college education. The kid was so nervous about the hair, because Tierney was so strict on it. And the kid said, "Well, you can't wear ponytails, what about my hair?" Tierney goes, "You're keeping your ponytail. As a matter of fact, we're all going to get ponytails."
So, this guy who is so strict and regimented still has the flexibility to understand where the game is going—not just the game, where the kids are going and how the culture is changing and that you can adapt without compromising. Because he didn't feel like he compromised. And I was sitting there with the kid and he's a great player for him now.
CR: You made a few staff changes this off-season. Marques Tuiasosopo is your new quarterbacks coach. Rip Scherer moved out of the front office and became your tight ends coach. What's the new dynamic like?
Mora: What we needed was to add a tight ends coach going into our new style of offense. Rip has been a really good coach; he's been more of a quarterback coach, but he has a great offensive mind. He missed it. He has been a tremendous resource to me upstairs, and just to have him now on the staff where I get even more interaction with him has really been helpful. And then Marques Tuiasosopo and I go way back—as a matter of fact, my dad recruited Tui's dad to UCLA.
CR: Wow, that's quite a nugget.
Mora: Yeah, so a long time ago. And then when I came here, I hired Tui full time, and then he left to go to Washington and now he's back. He was an interim head coach. He's very bright. He has a creative mind in terms of offensive structure and is extremely impressive in the pass game. I thought he'd be really good for Josh. That's a guy that played at a high level. He's a Rose Bowl MVP. He sees the game as a quarterback.
CR: On defense you lose a couple of high-end guys, including nose tackle Kenny Clark, but you have a good number of bodies back. Where does that unit stand?
Mora: We have some good players. We're going to more of a 4–3 structure than a 3–4. In this conference, you're in nickel so often, we've been in a four-down. But we're going to try to do a better job of putting our players in the best position for them. And I think being a strict 4–3 team will really, really help. It's more of the world that I'm from, and our personnel matches a 4–3 scheme better.
CR: Is toughness an area you need to focus on?
Mora: I think we're tough. We're a tough and a tough-minded team. But maybe just having a different mindset on third-and-one or on fourth-and-goal. And I think it helps our defense, too, because you know you're practicing against that all the time. And now, all of a sudden, we're bringing 9-on-7 back.
We haven't done 9-on-7 since my first year—the 9-on-7 inside run drill, where there are no receivers, and everything is basically between the tight end and the tackle and we're running. We're bringing that back.
It's interesting. I listen to some of our fan base, and they hear what we're saying and they're worried like, "Well, they're not going to use Josh. They're just going to run it all the time." [Laughs] Give me a little credit. I know what I have here. I know exactly what I have.