UCLA football, hopes in clouds but feet on ground, opens at Virginia

UCLA football, hopes in clouds but feet on ground, opens at Virginia
UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley passes during the Bruins' win over Virginia in the Sun Bowl in December. Hundley should benefit from a more experienced receiving corps this season. (Victor Calzada / Associated Press)

UCLA receiver Jordan Payton gets the question on campus sometimes. When someone asks him about winning the national title, "I keep my headphones on and keep walking," Payton joked.

That thought, though, is never far from the Bruins.


"The national championship is the motivation off the top," receiver Devin Lucien said. "I have never been so excited for a season to start."

That's the feeling throughout the Bruins' fan base, and the wait is over. The most anticipated football season at UCLA in more than a decade starts Saturday here with a game against Virginia.

The Bruins are No. 7 in the Associated Press media poll, their highest preseason ranking since 1998. UCLA is the Pac-12 Conference South Division favorite and has become a trendy outsider to tab as the national champion when the dust settles after college football's inaugural four-team playoff.

"The fans, people you meet, you see in their eyes how proud they are of the program," linebacker Myles Jack said. "There's not any pressure. We just continue to do what we're doing."

Virginia appears to be a perfect appetizer for that kind of season. The Cavaliers were 2-10 last season and have question marks on offense and defense.

The Bruins will be playing history, and chasing it. The University of Virginia was founded in 1819. It only seems that long since UCLA was in the national title discussion.

"It's time to shine," quarterback Brett Hundley said. "We will be able to show people on the East Coast. We can get the UCLA name out there."

This game probably will not be a watershed moment. Those may lie ahead. UCLA has lost 27 consecutive games to teams that finished the season in the AP top 10. The Bruins have lost six consecutive games to Stanford and five to Oregon, both of which visit the Rose Bowl this season.

But this is a starting point, and the bar has been set high. "We don't expect to lose," Hundley said. "We expect to be perfect."

The return of Hundley, the development of Jack (one of nine returning starters on defense) and the across-the-board talent brought in by Jim Mora, who is about to begin his third season as coach, have stirred hopes of something big.

The edge-of the-seat anticipation spans generations.

"I am so fired up," said Dennis Dummit, the Bruins' quarterback in 1969 and '70. "There are a lot of things that are impressive."

Sam Boghosian, a lineman on UCLA's 1954 national championship team — the Bruins' only football title — said, "You've got to go with the Bruins. They have me interested."

There is a lot that can pique interest, starting with the two main talking points: Hundley and Jack.

Hundley is the Bruins' first legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate since Cade McNown. When he decided to forgo the NFL draft and return for his junior season, the Bruins were assigned elite status — a big promotion for a program that was 81-80 from 1999-2011.

"When a program starts from where we were to where we are, and this being L.A., there is a lot of attention," Hundley said.

Hundley will not lack for targets among a cadre of receivers, any one of whom could become a go-to guy. Their strengths include size (Thomas Duarte), speed (Devin Fuller), elusiveness (Lucien) and all-around skill (Payton).

"It's nice to have some depth," offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said. "There is still a lot of youth, but the abilities are there. We've been through the growing pains the last two years. I'm excited about this group."

Jack was a whirlwind at linebacker as a freshman last year. But when he added running back to his chores late in the season, he became a national phenomenon. Jack was named the offensive and defensive freshman of the year in the Pac-12.

The Bruins have a trio of running backs — Jordon James, Steven Manfro, Paul Perkins — but expect to see Jack in the backfield again in certain situations.

But it's at linebacker where Jack will have the greatest impact.

"Last year, he was doing things instinctively at linebacker," defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said. "He has a better understanding of schemes now. He's bigger and more experienced."

Jack is far from a solo act. The Bruins lost linebackers Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt, along with end Cassius Marsh — all impact players who are now in the NFL. Yet, UCLA may be better on that side of the ball with defensive linemen Eddie Vanderdoes and Kenny Clark, linebacker Eric Kendricks and the entire starting secondary returning.

All of which has the Bruins — and their fans — eager to get started.

"In talking to people around here, people who have been here a while, they are impressed how much the culture has changed," Jack said. "There are differences in how things are done, and all the attention we're getting."

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