Some of the next meaningful steps Jim Mora takes in his climb back from the depths of a 4-8 season could take him 19,000 feet above sea level in East Africa.
The UCLA coach is scaling Mt. Kilimanjaro next week to help raise money for fresh drinking water in Tanzania — and awareness about the cause — as part of New England Patriots defensive end Chris Long’s Waterboys charity. Mora will be accompanied by Long and former NFL players as well as a U.S. servicewoman using a prosthetic leg after being injured in combat, and a serviceman who lost his vision during fighting in Afghanistan.
“I don’t think I have too much to complain about or be worried about compared to them,” Mora told The Times on Wednesday during a phone interview, “so I’ll just offer my support where I can. Any time you climb a mountain, it’s a team effort.”
The same could be said for getting the Bruins back into bowl contention, and it appears they’ll be at full strength for the start of spring practice next month. Mora said quarterback Josh Rosen should participate barring any setbacks in his recovery from the shoulder surgery that ended his season last year after only six games.
“I’m excited to see Josh back on the field and taking another step in a positive direction as a player and as a leader,” Mora said.
The offensive line that yielded 24 sacks last season should get a boost from the return of right tackle Kolton Miller, who was lost five games into the season because of a foot injury. Mora said Miller was also on track to participate in spring practice that’s slated to start April 4, the day after the college national basketball championship. Mora hopes there’s a Bruins title to celebrate.
“I think that would be fantastic to be able to ride that wave,” Mora said of a team that’s ranked No. 3 in the country and leads the nation in offensive efficiency.
UCLA’s football team was far less enthralling on offense last season, leading Mora to overhaul his coaching staff in search of a more dynamic attack. He said he’s liked what he’s seen from new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, running backs coach DeShaun Foster, offensive line coach Hank Fraley and receivers coach Jimmie Dougherty, who will try to resuscitate an offense that averaged only 84.2 yards per game, ranking second to last nationally.
Mora said familiarity among the coaches has helped ease their transition. Fisch worked with Dougherty and Fraley at previous coaching stops and Mora has long coveted the opportunity to work with several of his new colleagues.
“Bringing them all in together and being on the same page right from the get-go is very important,” Mora said. “They’ve been doing a great job, our players have reacted very, very well to them, and I’m excited about seeing those guys on the field during spring ball coaching them up.”
Mora listed defensive end Jaelan Phillips, cornerback Darnay Holmes and tight end Jimmy Jaggers as freshmen who could immediately contribute, while he acknowledged that others could emerge once they arrive on campus. The aforementioned trio has already started classes and joined teammates for winter workouts.
One of the more intriguing battles could come at backup quarterback, with redshirt freshmen Devon Modster and Matt Lynch vying to be the insurance policy UCLA hopes it never needs. Mora also mentioned the secondary as an area he was eager to watch since the departures of Randall Goforth, Fabian Moreau and Marcus Rios.
Mora is an accomplished climber, having previously scaled Mt. Rainier in Washington state, a more technically challenging endeavor than the one he is about to attempt.
“I’m not worried about the difficulty,” Mora said. “I’m worried about the altitude.”
He would certainly welcome UCLA’s return to the heights it enjoyed earlier in his career, when the Bruins twice won 10 games and established themselves among the best teams in the Pac-12 Conference.