Football coaches from Japan attend UCLA spring practices

UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley carries the ball during a morning practice session April 1. The Bruins had some out of town visitors at their practice Monday.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

It is not unusual to find coaches from other schools visiting UCLA practices. It is a little different when one comes from halfway around the world to be there.

Daisuke Nishimura, head coach at Kyoto University, and one of his assistants traveled to Los Angeles last week to watch spring practices as a guest of offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. The two met last summer, when Mazzone was in Japan doing football clinics with a group of coaches.

“I love the passion for it,” Mazzone said. “Obviously, it’s not as big as baseball over there. But the kids are all involved in it. They are attentive guys, trying to soak up all information they can about the sport.”


Nishimura and Mazzone hit it off and an invitation was extended to come to the United States.

“We met right after we beat our rival, Ritsumeikan, for the first time in 13 years,” Nishimura said. “I wanted to make my team better and improve football in Japan.”

The Kyoto Gangsters have five Koshien Bowl titles — the Japan equivalent of the NCAA championship — the last coming in 1996. The team has also won four Rice Bowls, which is played between the collegiate champion and the champion of Japan’s professional league.

Kyoto also has had a taste of American football teams. The Gangsters played an exhibition game against Harvard in 1997, losing. 42-35.

But the Gangsters had fallen on hard times, going 25-29-2 the eight seasons before Nishimura was promoted from assistant in 2012. Kyoto has gone 9-5 since, including a 5-2 record last season.

To continue improving, Nishimura came to Westwood. He has attended practice and sat in on meetings, so “I can learn how they run their program,” he said.

He has absorbed a lot already.

“I was surprised to see the tempo in practice, and the discipline,” Nishimura said. “The coaches work hard and I respect the players’ attitude.”

And how will UCLA benefit from the relationship?

“We’re recruiting in Japan now,” Mazzone said with a smile.

If so, the Bruins already have a friendly contact.

“UCLA is leading the world,” Nishimura said. “No doubt.”

Next man up

The big picture questions around spring practice have centered on who will replace Anthony Barr at linebacker. Yet, the Bruins also have to find someone to fill linebacker Jordan Zumwalt’s spot.

That was an easy one to plug.

UCLA certainly will miss Zumwalt’s see-it, hit-it style. But Isaako Savaiinaea should make a seamless transition.

The sophomore has the same physical makeup in his 6-foot-2, 230-pound body. Savaiinaea said he added muscle and trimmed fat during the off-season.

“He’s a natural leader,” said defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. “At that Mike position, you want an inherent leader.”

Savaiinaea played in 13 games as a freshman. He started against Colorado, with Eric Kendricks out with an injury, and made seven tackles. He was ready to make the leap this spring.

Asked whether he expected to replace Zumwalt, Savaiinaea said, “Pretty much. It was second nature already. Now prove it should be mine.”

He will lean on what he learned from Zumwalt to do that.

“He had a great mental toughness and physical toughness to him,” Savaiinaea said. “That’s something you have to have as a linebacker.”

Bunche arrives

Guard Malcolm Bunche, who has transferred from Miami as a graduate student, cleared admissions and was in pads for the Bruins’ practice Monday.

Bunche, who is 6-8, 330 pounds, started 12 games for Miami in 2012. He was a reserve last season.

“It looked to me like he was struggling a little bit, like you’d think,” said UCLA Coach Jim Mora. “He hadn’t played in a while and wasn’t in our winter program. I think you’ll see Malcolm ascend every practice.”

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