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UCLA football seniors welcome their third coach, and last chance

UCLA FOOTBALL

Ten of 23 players remain from 2008 recruiting class, including QB Kevin Prince, RB Johnathan Franklin. Bruins, 21-30 since they arrived, start anew under Coach Jim Mora.

August 07, 2012|By Chris Foster

They were recruited by Karl Dorrell.

They played for Rick Neuheisel.

They finish with Jim Mora.

Members of UCLA's 2008 football recruiting class arrived on campus thinking about championships, but the seasons haven't gone according to script. UCLA is 21-30 since they signed on.

"The question that always comes up in camp is, 'What makes a successful season?'" says one of them, senior quarterback Kevin Prince. "We have to take a humongous step forward.

"The most wins we have had since I've been here is seven. We have to blow that out of the water to make this feel like a special season."

The Class of 2008 — 22 freshmen, one community college transfer — was ranked 10th nationally by Scout.com. Many were from the Los Angeles area and became close before arriving at UCLA.

Some are now chasing pro careers. Some transferred. A few washed out.

Ten remain, and they have one last shot at redemption. "The window of opportunity is closing," senior wide receiver Jerry Johnson says.

In 2008, when these players were freshmen, the seniors on that team were playing their final season for a new coach, Neuheisel. The final tally: a 4-8 record.

Back then, the rookies talked about being the ones to change the culture of UCLA's program and make the Bruins consistent winners again. Instead, the only thing that changed — again — was the head coach.

"I look back on those seniors, and I don't want to go out the way they went out," senior running back Johnathan Franklin says. "I want to go out being remembered for leaving something behind. I can come back and think I contributed to the success."

Neuheisel propped up 2008's seniors by saying they would be the "foundation" for a bright future. Early on, there were signs the Bruins might be on the right track. UCLA defeated Tennessee in overtime in the season opener as freshman Rahim Moore made a key fumble recovery and freshman Sean Westgate returned a blocked punt for a touchdown.

Moore, now with the Denver Broncos, said afterward, "This is what they brought us here to do; that's the reason we're here, to make the team better."

The next game, the Bruins were hammered, 59-0, by Brigham Young, the first of three consecutive losses. UCLA also lost four of its last five that season.

In 2009, the Bruins showed some progress, finishing with a record of 7-6. But they slipped to 4-8 in 2010 and 6-8 last season.

Ask a senior what happened and you hear a variety of answers. Injuries hurt. Players didn't develop as well as projected. Assistant coaches came and went, different strategies and plans with them. All were contributing factors.

Not even severe NCAA sanctions against crosstown rival USC altered the course. UCLA was routed, 50-0, by the Trojans last November and Neuheisel was fired days later.

"I don't feel like we reached our potential as a class," senior cornerback Aaron Hester says. "But the culture here is different. There is no tolerance for mediocrity."

The goal, he adds, hasn't changed over the years: "Our aspirations are the same, to win."

Mora says he made it clear in his first team meeting as coach that he would be relying on veteran players for strong leadership. "I told them I didn't want them to think we were coming in here with the attitude to rebuild," he says. "That minimizes their contribution. To say 'to heck with the seniors' isn't fair.

"It's their senior year. They want it to be a great one."

Hester says the seniors need to "take charge, make more plays and bring young cats along."

Meanwhile, a new crop of freshmen verbalize some of the same dreams the seniors did when they were the rookies. "We want to win a championship, get a ring on our fingers," freshman linebacker Aaron Porter says.

That was the talk in 2008 as well. That class of recruits, which Scout.com ranked one spot behind USC's, was held together by former UCLA assistants DeWayne Walker and Eric Scott after Dorrell was fired.

It helped that the players had already bonded, before even playing together.

"We're still close," Prince says. "Guys from our class who have moved on will come back and it's like they never left."

The group would gather for barbecues and other events prior to enrolling at UCLA.

"They really connected early on," says defensive line coach Angus McClure, who was also on staff under Dorrell and Neuheisel. "A lot of those guys committed early, so they got to know each other during the season. A lot of leadership came from that class."

Just not a lot of victories. But with a new season comes another chance.

"Time is running out, all the seniors realize that," Franklin says. "It's time to go. We have only one shot at this."

chris.foster@latimes.com

twitter.com/cfosterlatimes

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