The enduring images of their freshman season haven’t been ones for the scrapbook.
There was UCLA punter Austin Kent, slinking away on the sideline after Coach Jim Mora scolded him for failing to try and knock the ball out of bounds on a punt that bounced backward for a loss of one yard. And there was kicker J.J. Molson, telling reporters he lacked focus over the season’s first month after a string of missed field goals.
There was some resulting fallout. Mora benched Kent for two games and alternated Molson with fellow freshman Andrew Strauch in an attempt to alleviate pressure and improve results.
Now the coach said he is giving Kent and Molson the rest of the season to rewrite their early college histories by renewing his commitment to them.
“I think it’s time with three, hopefully four games left to let those guys go out and just play free and get better,” Mora said Wednesday, alluding to the possibility of a bowl game if the Bruins (3-6 overall, 1-5 Pac-12 Conference) win their next three games. Next up for UCLA is a game Saturday against Oregon State (2-7, 1-5) at the Rose Bowl.
Kent has averaged 38.7 yards per punt and Molson has made 10 of 17 field goals, one of five from 40 yards and beyond. They are not the numbers expected from players who were among the top kicking prospects in North America.
Mora said his kickers’ struggles largely coincided with the start of school and the multitasking that entailed.
“They both came in and were good early, and then when school started they hit a little bit of a wall and it’s not unusual for that to happen with freshmen,” Mora said. “We’re a quarter school and so you get a few games under your belt and then all of a sudden school hits you and all of your responsibilities change.”
The lightened workload in recent weeks appears to have especially benefited Kent, whom coaches said has been hard on himself after bad performances since the season opener. Mora said Kent was booming punts during practice Wednesday as he had during training camp, and that Molson was solid on both kickoffs and punts.
On the move
UCLA’s change to a more physical offense this season required several players switching from defense to offense to fill openings at fullback and tight end.
Cameron Griffin appears to be the first player to have moved back to his old position.
Linebackers coach Scott White said Griffin had switched from fullback to middle linebacker, a change that was made last week. White said there remained instances when Griffin could play fullback during goal-line and short-yardage situations, but he’s primarily back to being a defender.
It’s a change that required some reacclimation, including a tutorial from fellow linebacker Kenny Young.
“Listening to [Young] convey the defense and convey the information to Cam, it’s just stellar,” White said. “Saying all the right things, saying who he’s working with, that lets me know that he has a great grasp on it.”
Mora arrived at Josh Rosen’s house Monday evening bearing some high-calorie gifts for the quarterback recovering from shoulder surgery: cheesecake, tiramisu and his two favorite flavors of ice cream, mint chocolate chip and cookies and cream.
“We had a little smorgasbord,” Mora said.
Mora said Rosen appeared upbeat about his recovery from surgery to repair soft tissue damage in his throwing shoulder and sensed that the ordeal would inspire him upon his return next season. Rosen asked to attend the Bruins’ game against Oregon State, Mora said, a decision that would be left to doctors.
“The worst thing that we could ever do is just because he wants to be on the sideline helping, put him there and then he gets hit,” Mora said. “That wouldn’t be a good thing, but I know that he’s desperate to get out here and help where he can.”