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UCLA should be good, but one question: How will it fare at quarterback?

UCLA should be good, but one question: How will it fare at quarterback?
Coach Jim Mora's Bruins football team returns plenty of talent for a run at thePac-12 Conference championship. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

UCLA Coach Jim Mora sent a clear message when it was his turn at Pac-12 Conference media days: Leave us alone.

He called on the polls: "I would like no one to rank us."

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He had a special request for ESPN, Fox and even the Pac-12 Networks: "I'd like to never be on TV."

His standing order was: "No one talk about us until the end of the year."

Unfortunately for Mora, he has no jurisdiction, and with training camp set to open Monday afternoon at Cal State San Bernardino, it's time to talk about the Bruins.

They should be good; very good; possibly Pac-12-champion good. They are ranked 14th in the preseason USA Today coaches poll and, yes, they will make weekly appearances on television.

However, the Bruins have attached a self-imposed moniker, that of underappreciated underdogs, and who can blame them for trying to foster such an opinion?

A year ago, UCLA finished with a 10-3 record, defeated USC for a third consecutive season, and finished 10th in the final Associated Press media poll, its first end-of-the-season, top-10 ranking since 1998.

But a failed-to-meet-expectations label was attached by many of the same TV pundits who had billed the Bruins as national playoff contenders.

What a difference a year and the departure of a key player can make.

A recent media poll picked UCLA to finish third in the Pac-12's South Division, and now the Bruins are taking a we're-not-respected stance in venting their displeasure over Twitter.com.

Call it an overcorrection, with the Bruins' overreaction stemming from the sting of their having bought into last season's hyperbole.

"In the preseason, hearing all the hype, from my perspective, a lot of players thought more of themselves and listened to the noise a little too much," junior linebacker Deon Hollins said. "I think it hurt us in the end."

Still, there is a lot to hype about this UCLA team, which arguably can match conference favorites USC and Oregon in man-to-man talent.

The Bruins return 18 starters. The five projected starters across the offensive line have started a combined 96 college games. Junior Paul Perkins, the Pac-12's leading rusher last season, will be running behind that line, and there is a cadre of able receivers. On defense, UCLA is strong and experienced in the middle and returns four starters in the secondary.

Mora's take: "I think we're a team that has potential."

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That sentiment, the coach said, is based on one "gigantic, unanswered question."

Which is: How will the Bruins fare at quarterback?

The Bruins have to replace Brett Hundley, who jumped to the NFL after a record-setting, three-year career in which he led the Bruins to a 29-11 record.

The lack of a proven quarterback was why the Bruins were picked third in the division, behind USC and Arizona State.

UCLA is the only Pac-12 South team that does not have a proven quarterback. By midseason, the Bruins may have one.

Freshman Josh Rosen and junior Jerry Neuheisel are said to be in a competition for the job, with junior Mike Fafaul as the dark horse. Yet anyone who attended spring practice saw the high-end skills that led Rosen to be nicknamed "Chosen Rosen" by classmates at Bellflower St. John Bosco High.

The downside to starting a freshman, no matter how talented, is that there is a learning curve to ride.

Neuheisel, a fourth-year junior, saved the Bruins against Texas last season, throwing the game-winning touchdown pass. But his other relief appearance, a loss against Stanford, was less noteworthy.

But questions about the quarterback won't be the only ones the Bruins face during training camp. Here are a few others:

Where does the defense need to improve?

On the perimeter.

The Bruins gave up 30 or more points in nine games last season. They were often scorched on their defense's edges. End Owamagbe Odighizuwa left for the NFL and junior Myles Jack is moving from outside to inside linebacker, leaving two holes.

Hollins and junior defensive end Takkarist McKinley had success as pass rushers last season. Both displayed more rounded abilities during spring practice.

The Bruins still need to settle on an outside linebacker opposite Hollins. Getting junior Kene Orjioke back from knee surgery should help.

What senior needs to make the most improvement?

Kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn has been nearly automatic inside 40 yards, making 35 of 40 field-goal attempts. But 40-yards-and-beyond has been a struggle; he's made 11 of 22.

Other than Rosen, what freshman should have the most impact?

Mora has dipped into freshman classes in each of his three seasons. This year should be no different.

There are a handful of ready-to-play freshmen, but tight end Chris Clark should stand out.

He was the top-ranked high school tight end in the nation a year ago. His size — 6 feet 6, 247 pounds — and abilities pose problems for a defense.

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

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