LOS ANGELES — Arizona had the best rushing offense in the Pac-12 last season at 235 yards per game, UCLA the worst at a paltry 84.2.
Other than the 150.8 yards on the ground that separated them, the Wildcats and Bruins had more in common than they would have liked with both teams plummeting to their first losing seasons under their respective head coaches.
Now Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez and UCLA’s Jim Mora would like to be linked again, this time for engineering significant and perhaps job-saving turnarounds in their sixth seasons.
These two decorated, sought-after coaches fell to low points in their careers last fall. Rodriguez’s Wildcats went 3-9 and failed to make a bowl game for the first time in his tenure, while Mora’s Bruins went 4-8 and ended his streak of five straight seasons with at least eight wins in his first college football head coaching job.
Rodriguez and Mora cited the same approach to self-evaluation in hopes of getting their programs back on track.
“I don’t think you should bury your head in the sand and kind of pretend it wasn’t there,” Rodriguez said at Pac-12 media days on Wednesday. “You’ve got to evaluate yourself, your staff, your program, and everything that you’re doing so you don’t go through it again.”
Said Mora: “The first thing you do is point your finger at yourself. You say, ‘Where did I not do a good enough job, and how are we going to learn from this?'”
— UCLA Football (@UCLAFootball) July 27, 2017
For UCLA, the education starts and ends on offense. Star quarterback Josh Rosen missed the final six games of last season because of a shoulder injury. Averaging just 2.9 yards per carry, UCLA also had the worst run game of any team in a Power 5 conference and second-worst among the 128 FBS teams.
Mora replaced all but one member of his offensive coaching staff, hiring Jedd Fisch from Michigan to serve as coordinator. Fisch will be tasked with melding elements of the pro-style offense Mora wanted to implement last season to the more wide-open approach better suited to UCLA’s players.
But getting Rosen back is what could vault UCLA back up in a muddled Pac-12 South. Rosen threw for 3,668 yards and 23 touchdowns against 11 interceptions as a freshman in 2015, immediately vaulting himself into the conversation of future NFL franchise quarterbacks.
“I think Josh has grown tremendously as a player and a person,” UCLA offensive lineman Scott Quessenberry said. “He’s a world-class guy, world-class competitor and a world-class player. Can’t really replace a guy like that, and it’s really, really good to have him back.”
Arizona also dealt with uncertainty at quarterback last season, using three different starters because of poor play and injuries. There were major health and depth issues across the roster, forcing Arizona to use a converted wide receiver at running back late in the year and an undersized defensive front that was completely overwhelmed.
Significant roster turnover, with Rodriguez saying nearly 50 new players will be on the team this fall, and more familiarity with second-year defensive coordinator Marcel Yates are the primary reasons for optimism at Arizona.
“Just judging on the way the guys have worked out in the last six or seven months, and judging by what’s going to happen the next three or four weeks, the attitude will be right where we want it,” Rodriguez said.
That mindset will be tested by another setback as linebacker DeAndre Miller suffered a foot injury last week and missed media days as a result. The senior was expected to help bolster an anemic pass rush while providing a defensive presence that could pair with the offense’s return to form to take Arizona back to a bowl game.
Luca Bruno sets the record straight at #Pac12FB Media Days!
— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) July 26, 2017
“This year, it’s kind of a reboot,” Rodriguez said. “That sounds kind of strange being in your sixth year, but that’s what it is.”