Reporting from San Francisco — Datone Jones, UCLA defensive lineman, is dealing with the present with an eye on the future.
Playing Illinois on Saturday is that kind of twofold assignment.
The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl trophy might not find a place of honor in the UCLA Hall of Fame, but it would make a nice bookend to the EagleBank trophy the Bruins won in 2009.
“When game time comes, we’re going to be ready to compete,” Jones said.
But there is more at work than pursuing a shiny bauble.
While UCLA (6-7) and Illinois (6-6) tangle at AT&T Park, new Bruins Coach Jim Mora will be upstairs watching.
“The first impression is everything,” said Jones, a junior. “And you only get one shot at a first impression.”
Illinois players can say the same about showing off for Tim Beckman, who was hired after Ron Zook was fired in November. But Beckman has been on the scene in Champaign, watching practice and talking with underclassmen the last two weeks.
Mora has mostly remained incognito since being hired to replace Rick Neuheisel, not wanting “to be a distraction,” UCLA officials have said.
“You really don’t know what to expect,” said Randall Carroll, a junior who has converted from receiver to cornerback. “All we have done is talk with him one day. Everything is going to be different when he comes in.”
So Saturday’s game “is a way to get off on a good start,” Carroll said. “Someone sees you do something nice, they are going to remember it.”
Players, though, have been aware what Mora has been doing away from the practice field.
Adrian Klemm was hired as run-game coordinator, Steve Broussard as running back coach, Demetrice Martin as defensive back coach and Noel Mazzone as offensive coordinator. Mora retained defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield and promoted intern Marques Tuiasosopo to tight end coach.
“I want to talk with Coach Mazzone as soon as I can and start getting ready for next season,” quarterback Kevin Prince said.
But, Prince added, “right now I’m more concerned with winning this bowl game.”
Winning will give one team something happy to talk about after a chore-like season.
Illinois started 6-0, then lost its last six games, averaging 11 points during that streak. The Illini lost to Ohio State and Penn State even though the Buckeyes completed only one pass and the Nittany Lions gained only 209 yards.
UCLA has allowed 45 or more points five times this season and, with a loss, could become the first bowl team to lose eight games in a season.
The seniors, UCLA interim Coach Mike Johnson said, will be “trying to go out on a positive note.” Meantime, the undergraduates “are looking at going forward” — knowing their new football boss will be watching.
“I hope he sees that I like to play defense and that I’m aggressive and that my speed is something you can’t coach,” Carroll said of Mora.
Johnson has been through coaching upheaval as a player and now as a coach. “It’s part of the deal, part of the business,” he said. “Every time you go out there you’re under the microscope.”
He also has coached with Mora, spending two seasons with the Atlanta Falcons as his quarterback coach, so he has an idea about what is coming.
“I think a lot of things have to change [at UCLA],” Johnson said. “He has a plan. Having worked with him, there are things I know he’s going to do differently. And I think some things will be positive.”
Said Jones: “I know if I was the new head coach, I’d be checking out who my guys were for next year.”