This is the last time. They promise.
UCLA’s juniors participated in the team’s senior-day sendoff last season at the Rose Bowl, something interim coach Jedd Fisch asked them to do even with so much uncertainty hanging over the program in the wake of coach Jim Mora’s dismissal only days earlier.
“A lot of us didn’t know what the future was for any of us,” receiver Christian Pabico, now a senior, said this week.
Pabico had to tell confused family members that he was coming back for the 2018 season, but he’ll be among a small group of seniors and graduate transfers making their final appearance at the Rose Bowl on Saturday when the Bruins (3-8 overall, 3-5 Pac-12 Conference) face Stanford (6-4, 4-3).
Only four seniors are expected to play in the season finale after linebacker Josh Woods and tailbacks Soso Jamabo and Bolu Olorunfunmi suffered season-ending injuries. Their absence leaves only safety Adarius Pickett, cornerback Nate Meadors, punter Stefan Flintoft and Pabico.
Graduate transfers Wilton Speight and Justin Murphy are also expected to play in what may or may not be Murphy’s final game as a Bruin. The right tackle has petitioned the NCAA for another year of eligibility after having played in only parts of three seasons at UCLA and Texas Tech after a series of knee injuries.
Woods also could return for one more season after suffering a knee injury in preseason training camp.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly noted that the senior class was uncharacteristically small because of the early departures of quarterback Josh Rosen, left tackle Kolton Miller and receiver Jordan Lasley to the NFL, but he said those who remained helped establish the culture of accountability he wanted.
“Those guys have been great,” Kelly said. “Since Day 1, they understand our process, they understand what we’re trying to get accomplished. When … arguably your best players are your hardest workers, it sets the tone for the rest of the group, and the way Pick works, the way Meadors works, the way Wilton works, the way guys like that, Murph, the way they approach the game is a great learning tool for our young freshman and underclassmen.”
The payoff for all that work has been evident beyond the practice field and the weight room.
Meadors made an interception against USC and Speight threw for one touchdown and ran for another to help the Bruins beat their rival.
Flintoft ranks second in the Pac-12 with an average of 45.8 yards per punt and has posted 18 punts measuring 50-plus yards this season, the most in the conference.
Pabico has gone from a walk-on to a part-time starter on scholarship, making three catches in each of the Bruins’ last two games. Perhaps his only regret was not believing he could make such a significant contribution upon his arrival in college.
“I didn’t really have high aspirations for myself,” Pabico said. “I kind of just took it day to day, just kind of went through the motions a little bit, so I think I would tell myself that I have to believe and believe that I had potential to be a starting receiver here. Because really, I think that’s what separated myself last year and this year from the years prior, that I really believed in myself and put the work in and I worked my way to get to where I was at.”
Pabico said he planned to participate in UCLA’s pro day this spring but realized that Saturday could be his last football game.
“I don’t think I’ll be emotional because, truthfully, I’m not a real emotional guy,” Pabico said, “but I think it would be nice to have that experience with my family and we can look at it years from now and talk about that Stanford game 2018 and it’s just something to have in the memorabilia album.”
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch