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UCLA comes a long way but isn't satisfied amid high expectations

Now that UCLA's football program has been fixed, what's next in Westwood?

Well, not so fast …

There was more than a little giddiness among Bruins fans a year ago. It only underscored how long the Bruins had spent in college football purgatory.

A 9-5 season and a Pac-12 South championship — one without an asterisk — was an achievement. It was a big step from 2011, when the Bruins were 6-8 and were allowed to call themselves South "champs" because first-place USC was on probation.

But Coach Jim Mora wasn't satisfied.

The season ended with a three-game losing streak. The Bruins were manhandled in two of the losses, including a 49-26 drubbing by Baylor in the Bridgepoint Holiday Bowl.

Mora saw the need for the roster to be deeper and the players stronger.

Still, there are grand expectations as UCLA opens training camp Thursday at Cal State San Bernardino.

The Bruins start the season ranked 21st in the USA Today coaches' poll, three spots ahead of USC. The last time UCLA was ranked ahead of the Trojans was 2001.

The Bruins are also the media's pick to repeat as Pac-12 South champions. The last time UCLA's football team was picked to win anything was 1998.

Quarterback Brett Hundley is on the radar for Heisman Trophy trackers. The only UCLA player to win the trophy was Gary Beban in 1967.

The Bruins are even on the board as a national champion contender — 65-1 at one Las Vegas casino.

First, here are the seven questions the Bruins must answer:

Can on-the-job training work in the secondary?

The old men in the secondary are sophomore safety Randall Goforth, who started five games last season, and sophomore cornerback Ishmael Adams, who played two games before undergoing shoulder surgery.

Junior cornerback Anthony Jefferson, who has battled injuries, could be a factor. Look for freshmen Priest Willis and John Johnson to get long looks.

At safety, more freshmen. Tahaan Goodman and Tyler Foreman will get a chance. Dietrich Riley's retirement forced some shuffling. Jayon Brown, a linebacker at Long Beach Poly High, will try safety and senior Stan McKay moved back to safety from linebacker.

Who can be special on special teams?

UCLA lost Jeff Locke, one of the top punters in the nation. Incoming freshman Sean Covington succeeds him.

More worrisome is the search to find a successor to long snapper Kevin McDermott. Christopher Longo weighs only 204 pounds. Late arrival Reed Bruce, a walk-on from Peoria (Ariz.) Centennial High, could be in the mix.

Is there someone who can step in for Johnathan Franklin?

Short answer: No.

Longer version: A group of running backs is likely to share the job. Junior Jordon James tops the list. Steven Manfro, redshirt freshman Paul Perkins and incoming freshman Craig Lee could be part of the committee.

How soon Damien Thigpen returns from a knee injury may determine how well the Bruins run the ball.

Who will form the left side of the defense?

Defensive end Datone Jones and linebacker Damien Holmes are gone.

Aaron Wallace gets the first crack at linebacker. Kenny Orjioke and Jeremy Castro are right behind him. Freshmen Deon Hollins and Myles Jack are intriguing possibilities.

Owamagbe Odighizuwa was the heir to Jones, but hip surgery has that transition in limbo. Again, freshmen may be needed. Eddie Vanderdoes and Kylie Fitts have a chance to earn playing time.

There may be no set answers, but defensive coordinator Lou Spanos can mix and match.

Who will protect Hundley?

It has been more than a decade since the offensive line looked so good.

Guard Xavier Su'a-Filo and center Jake Brendel seem rock-solid. Tackles Torian White and Simon Goines are back.

But the Bruins may again turn to incoming freshmen. The recruiting class included seven offensive linemen.

Will they love him in December?

UCLA fans were ready to build a bronze statue of Mora, even the ones who loathed the hire. The last time UCLA's notoriously fickle fan base seemed 100% behind the coach was … well, it has been a long, long time.

The shelf life could be short. The Westwood weather vane spins rapidly.

UCLA's schedule has beef rather than Hamburger Helper this year. There are road games at Oregon, Stanford and Nebraska. Washington replaces Washington State.

How many victories keep the fan base warm and fuzzy is still to be determined.

chris.foster@latimes.com

twitter: @cfosterlatimes

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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