Owamagbe Odighizuwa

UCLA defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa pressures USC quarterback Matt Barkley during a game in November 2012. Odighizuwa is one of several top UCLA players who were recruited by former coach Rick Neuheisel. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times / November 17, 2012)

UCLA defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa was enjoying a beach day on Fourth of July, hanging out with quarterback Jerry Neuheisel, when he spotted the guy who brought him to Westwood.

Jerry's father.

Rick Neuheisel bounded over, flashing his ever-present smile, and immediately launched into the patter.

"He was like, 'How are you doing?' and 'How's your mom?' " Odighizuwa said. "We just talked. Man, I love him."

The Neuheisel Era was not a golden era for UCLA football. Yet, the renaissance the Bruins have enjoyed the last two years is rooted in his handiwork.

Odighizuwa anchors the defensive line. Eric Kendricks patrols at linebacker. Safety Anthony Jefferson roams the secondary. On offense, Jordon James is looking to bounce back from an injury that sidelined him after a productive start to last season. Center Jake Brendel guides the offensive line. And quarterback Brett Hundley is widely considered a Heisman Trophy candidate.

All Neuheisel recruits. Indeed, five of UCLA's six team captains were brought in under his regime, including linebacker Ryan Hofmeister, the special teams' leader.

"The cupboard certainly wasn't bare," Coach Jim Mora said. "Rick did a hell of a job recruiting these kids."

It was clear a change had to be made in 2011. In four seasons under Neuheisel, the Bruins had a 21-29 record.

Neuheisel came to Westwood as a prodigal son, a former UCLA quarterback coming back to restore the program as coach. But his final season included an ugly fight when the Bruins played Arizona and a 50-0 shellacking by USC just days after Neuheisel proclaimed that UCLA had "closed the gap" with the Trojans.

The Bruins have flourished under Mora, with 19 victories — including two over USC — in two seasons. And now UCLA is a preseason top-10 team, poised for even more success buoyed by the across-the-board talent brought in by Mora.

But there are 12 players remaining who signed up with Neuheisel; 10 in prominent roles.

"There are a lot of critical players on this team that came in with Coach Neuheisel," Hundley said.

None is more critical than Hundley, who redshirted his in 2011. Neuheisel was tempted to use Hundley in the Oregon State game that season, but resisted the urge after talking the matter over with the quarterback's family.

"I'm absolutely proud of what we assembled," Neuheisel said. "Obviously I was disappointed we didn't get to finish what we started, but I admire the work Jim and his staff have done.

"I take their accomplishments as a huge compliment. I love my alma mater and was disappointed things didn't turn out as I hoped. It doesn't take away from the fact I bleed blue and gold."

The uncertainty of a new regime left the remaining players nervous. Even for players such as Odighizuwa, who was certain to be a part of any new plan, there was uneasiness.

He said the change of coaches was "hard because the stability is not there. When you go through different position coaches and defensive coordinators, it's feels like you're always restarting."

Players on the fringe had even more reason to be concerned.

Hofmeister was an undersized linebacker recruited by Neuheisel, and when Mora took over he felt out on a limb.