Column: UCLA’s Josh Rosen is a shadow of former brash self

UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, talking to reporters Sunday before the start of camp, is taking a more subdued approach.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

On the new practice fields outside the sparkling new UCLA football facility, there is only one sliver of shade.

Josh Rosen is sitting in it.

While coach Jim Mora addresses the media Sunday morning in front of a UCLA banner, Rosen sits downfield in a darkened corner, sipping on water, silently waiting his turn.

Is that really him? He has been completely out of the news all summer, he didn’t attend Pac-12 Conference media days last week, and has sent only six tweets since the end of last season, so a closer look is required.


Is this really the same boyish personality who once used a beer funnel to fill up a hot tub in his dorm room, then posed for a photograph of himself and a female companion lounging in it?

Is this the same college kid who was once the subject of a Sports Illustrated cover story in which he appeared so brash, part of the headline read, “Big Arm? Big Mouth?’’

Is this really the guy about whom Mora once asked, “Do you want to be Johnny Manziel or do you want to be Tom Brady?’’

Rosen eventually rises out of the shadows and walks over for his first group interview in several months and, yeah, it’s him. Only, different. Subtly, different. He looks older than his 20 years. His demeanor is more subdued. One might say he’s even been humbled?

He is directly asked that question. Without pause, he quickly and quietly agrees.

“I lost three games out of six last year, it’s not been great,’’ he said. “Definitely gotta take a step back, regroup, regather, and see how you’re going to attack this thing differently.’’

If this different attack works, it’s good news for the Bruins, who desperately need Rosen to mature into the sort of leader whose previously questionable intangibles will finally equal his celebrated skills. This is also good news for Mora, whose inability to parlay Rosen’s gifts into a continued Bruins resurgence has put the coach on the hot seat.

But, more than anything, this new attitude is good news for Rosen, who still has time to lead the Bruins back into relevance while vaulting himself to the top of next year’s NFL draft.

“You grow every day,’’ Rosen said. “You get older, you get bigger, you get better, you get smarter.’’

This was not his approach as he swaggered into last season as the top quarterback in Los Angeles and one of its most interesting sports personalities. Then he threw three picks in the opener against Texas A&M, then struggled with a porous offensive line and no real running attack, ultimately injuring his shoulder and undergoing surgery that ended his season after those six games.

For all the greatness portended when he won the first four games of his college career, Rosen has been unable to lead the Bruins past deficiencies on both sides of the ball, and UCLA has gone 7-8 in his last 15 games. And, oh yeah, at some point midway through last season, all this local talk about his brilliant potential was eclipsed by the mighty rise of USC’s Sam Darnold.

Suddenly, a quarterback who was once being discussed around the nation wasn’t even the talk of his town.

But, once again, this might not have been entirely a bad thing. If nothing else, the perceptual sack not only seemed to knock Rosen off twitter but also elicited a phrase not heard much from him last year, something called, ‘’the grind.’’

“I kind of haven’t said anything on social media,’’ he said. “But for the most part, just doing the grind — focusing, working out, practicing, throwing.’’

For Rosen, the grind is good. The grind is necessary. The grind is what Darnold, whose subdued public personality appears to be the polar opposite of Rosen, is becoming famous for doing. The grind could be exactly what Rosen needs to churn his way back on to the local college football landscape.

“He doesn’t have too much to say, he just wants to play,’’ Bruins defensive back Jaleel Wadood said Sunday, later adding, “I think he’s ready. More ready than he’s ever been.’’

UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen meets the media.

The Bruins have surrounded Rosen with all sort of tools, including new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch from Michigan, new running backs coach and former Bruin DeShaun Foster, new receivers and offensive line coaches, a new right tackle in Miami transfer Sunny Odogwu, and, of the course, the shining new Wasserman Football Center.

In the wake of the first losing season in the five years of the Mora era, everything around the Bruins football team seems to be recharged, which makes it a nice time for Rosen to chill out and grind.

“I think that young men progress and mature through their time here,’’ Mora said. “Everybody comes here at a different stage of maturity … and I think we’re all really happy with where Josh is right now and the offseason that he’s had, and the attitude that he’s taken. … He has done a tremendous job of self-reflecting and figuring out ways that he can become better.’’

That attitude seems to be less is more. It’s a good look for a kid who seems to have made the smart choice of no longer focusing on his former nickname of “Chosen Rosen.’’

“I just tuned out a little bit,’’ Rosen said Sunday, and his short interview answers reflected that.

Is the quiet approach intentional?

“I don’t know, maybe?’’ he said.

No more great quotes?

“I hope to keep giving you some,’’ he said.

But you’ll let your play speak for itself?

“Maybe. We’ll see. I don’t know,’’ he said.

He shrugs, thanks the gathering of 10 media members, and slips back into the cool, dark, rejuvenation of that shadow.

Get more of Bill Plaschke’s work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke