Jim Mora pleased with UCLA’s emerging leaders

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — Jim Mora might have been an immediate success as head coach of the UCLA Bruins, but the longtime NFL guy is still adjusting to some aspects of coaching college kids.

In the early days of this year’s San Bernardino training camp, Mora noticed older players taking aside the freshmen and going over the playbook, assisting them in drills and even sitting with them during meals.   

This notion of leadership was something often displayed in the NFL, but came as a pleasant surprise to Mora.

“I think what’s kind of permeated our whole team is the older guys grabbing a hold of some of the younger guys and helping them out,” Mora said. “It’s kind of a different concept for me to observe, because in the National Football League you don’t see a lot of that. You’ve got new guys trying to take the old guys’ jobs.”

Mora realized how uniquely different the dynamic is on a pro team, where players approach games, practices and workouts with a business-like attitude. College athletes are immersed in the game and the team atmosphere differently, living with one another and attending most of the same classes.

Away from the distractions and influences of everyday life in
Westwood, Mora is finding that this San Bernardino training camp is
becoming a place for leaders to prove themselves in a way he never
expected.

Monday’s night’s practice, which was ended early due to a fight, was a perfect example. Mora relied on those leaders, and even saw a few new ones appear in attempts to diffuse the situation.

It’s a somewhat foreign concept for Mora, but one that he is quickly realizing is invaluable at the collegiate level.

“You’re
looking for guys to kind of step up and grab the team,” Mora said.
“Sometimes things around here look a little ugly. But it’s all part of
the process of trying to learn and come together as a team.” 

“Because they’re all part of the same university and the natural attrition of your graduates, you see a little bit tighter bond, I think, and it’s fun to see that,” Mora said. “That’s not something I’m used to.”

But Mora soon understood how integral those leaders are on a team that may feature athletes as young as 17-years-old.

A talented, athletic teenager can still be far behind the fifth-year seniors they are forced to line up against, and nerves can get the best of any player, whether at a skill or specialty position.

Kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn, jeered for missing simple PATs as a freshman last season, has become the grizzled veteran of the kickers with All-American punter Jeff Locke gone.

Fairbairn, only a sophomore, is now tasked with mentoring freshman punter Sean Covington.

“He’s helped me a lot,” Covington said. “[He’s taught me] to overcome. If you make a bad kick, just overcome it and get a good kick and stay ahead.”

It can be a difficult balance for some. UCLA is desperately seeking someone who can lead in his play on the field and by example off of it with the departure of running back Johnathan Franklin.

Walk-on Malcolm Jones, who returns to running back after leaving the team last season, has the most experience at the position, but is still trying to prove that he is ready to play after disappointing results early in his career.

“I’m doing a little bit of both,” Jones said. “I’m kind of more of a silent leader, really [leading] by example rather than words. I’m also trying to do the best I can and try and compete for playing time.

“It’s kind of hard to mix the two, but I think I’m doing a pretty good job of it.”