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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

UCLA's Jim Mora has work cut out for him

New UCLA Coach Jim L. Mora is a defensive specialist with an NFL background; he's never seen anything like the wide and wild variety of offenses on display in Pac-12. He has a lot of studying to do.

December 13, 2011|Chris Dufresne
  • Newly hired UCLA football Coach Jim L. Mora is going to find out how much different Pac-12 football is to the NFL.
Newly hired UCLA football Coach Jim L. Mora is going to find out how much different… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

First-week UCLA Coach Jim L. Mora, a former pro defensive specialist, will need time to evaluate opposing Pac-12 Conference offenses.

If he starts now and doesn't take breaks, he should stumble out of his new office sometime in July. You could have guessed Labor Day had Arizona State hired June Jones.

"I can't wait to actually sit down and watch film on Oregon," Mora said after accepting the challenge of becoming UCLA's next football coach.

The difference between defending offenses in the NFL and the Pac-12 is the difference between a state dinner and potluck. The Pac-12 was junkyard enough, and then Arizona hired Rich Rodriguez and Washington State hired Mike Leach.

Mora, who was introduced during a news conference at UCLA on Tuesday, is an NFL lifer. His college coaching experience is limited to one year, 1984, as a graduate assistant at Washington.

What is Mora walking into? Many UCLA fans are convinced it's a propeller blade, while UCLA check-signers hope Mora is to Westwood what Pete Carroll was that other team across town.

Carroll, another plucked-from-the-NFL defensive specialist, was criticized as USC's football hire in 2000 before he ended up 97-19.

Yet, the conference is far more electric and eclectic than the one Carroll came to dominate.

The Pac-10-turned-12 has so many gadgets and gizmos it could be the "Popeil 12."

In 2001, Carroll's first year, Oregon won the league with a team that averaged 34.3 points per game. The Oregon team that won this year's first Pac-12 title averaged 46.2.

Coach Chip Kelly's spread offense, which has put coordinators on their heels, will be joined by those of spread-masters Leach and Rodriguez.

And that's not even factoring in Arizona State, still searching for Dennis Erickson's replacement.

Mora will also see offshoots and hybrids of NFL offenses, each with wrinkles designed to fit the needs of a coach and his recruiting base.

If Mora's head isn't yet swimming, well, it's peering out over a cliff.

"Every defensive guy who comes down from the NFL to college, well, it's mind-boggling," said Ed Cunningham, an ESPN college football analyst who played center at Washington and later in the pros. "I played five years in the NFL, switched teams three times, and never had to learn anything."

Most NFL offenses are cookie-cutter copies of each other, he said, with variations of the same blueprint. College is different because disparity in talent forces offensive coaches to be more creative in order to compete.

The adjustment is significant for NFL coaches. "It's like showing up at some wild bazaar and you don't even know what's for sale," Cunningham said.

How, for instance, do you begin to explain Oregon?

Kelly's Ducks averaged 73 plays per game this year while finishing dead last nationally in average time of possession, 25 minutes 3 seconds.

"You see things at Oregon and with some of these teams that you just don't see in pro football," Mora said.

That's why Mora can't wait to dig in. "I look forward to the challenge, I look forward to the newness of it," he said.

Oregon's spread offense is cutting edge, but different than the schemes Leach and Rodriguez will bring to Pullman and Tucson.

"Oregon spreads you to run, which is the most dangerous type of spread," Cunningham said.

Oregon's spread seeks to exploit speedy tailbacks LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and all-purpose freshman De'Anthony Thomas.

Darron Thomas, an able runner at quarterback, has seen his rushing total drop from 486 yards in 2010 to 205 this season. Thomas, though, has passed for 60 touchdowns in two seasons.

Kelly has added a frenetic tempo to his spread that has left audiences, and opposing players, breathless.

Arizona will have a different look under Rodriguez, who will be out to make people forget his 15-22 record at Michigan.

At West Virginia, and earlier as coordinator at Clemson and Tulane, Rodriguez pioneered the "modern spread" and opposing coaches made pilgrimages to Morgantown for insight to his success.

Rodriguez transitioned from a passing spread (with Shaun King at Tulane) to a quarterback-driven offense at West Virginia (Pat White) and Michigan (Denard Robinson).

"You've actually seen Rich Rod really morph into what he is now," Cunningham said.

Leach at Washington State will offer Mora something completely different. His quarterbacks almost never run.

Leach doesn't care what defense you line up in. His philosophy is to flood your zone or man-to-man with receivers.

"His theory is someone's open on every play and all you have to do is find them," Cunningham said.

Leach used his spread at Texas Tech as a talent equalizer in the Big 12. He made stars of passers who would never translate to the pros: Kliff Kingsbury, B.J. Symons, Sonny Cumbie and Graham Harrell.

Leach, at his best, will embarrass your defense the way his team did when it scored 70 on Nebraska in 2004.

The rest of what Mora will see is a hodgepodge.

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