WESTWOOD, Calif. -- The UCLA Bruins appear ready to claim their third consecutive Pac-12 South title because of the character Jim Mora has developed with his team. Judging from injuries and inexperience, UCLA must have a fighting spirit to have a chance.
Mora and his staff have brought a sense of toughness to the program. Most important, the Bruins have dual-threat sophomore quarterback Brett Hundley, who has assumed a leadership role going into the season opener on Saturday against Nevada.
"He's gone from being an 'athlete' playing quarterback to being a quarterback that's an athlete," UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone told CBSSports.com.
Hundley is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate as a dual-threat quarterback. Last season, he completed 319 of 479 passes for 3,745 yards. He passed for 29 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions. Hundley also rushed for 702 yards.
Backing up Hundley is true freshman Asiantii Woulard, a highly regarded former Elite 11 quarterback from Florida and also a dual threat.
Hundley was sacked 52 times last season, so the possibility exists that he may have to be spelled on occasion. UCLA's offensive line is talented but young. Mora will likely play three true freshmen -- tackle Kenny Lacy, center Scott Quessenberry and guard Caleb Benenoch.
Offensive tackle Simon Goines, who started 13 games at right tackle last year while struggling with knee problems, has apparently recovered from an unrelated bone bruise and is expected to start Saturday. He relieved stress on his knees by losing about 15 pounds from the 330 he played at last year.
"I just feel a lot better, more in shape," Goines said. "I can move better. ... I'm more light on my feet."
The defense is formidable as long as All-American linebacker Anthony Barr remains healthy. Barr was taken off the field during practice last week with an apparent concussion. He continues to undergo tests and his availability for Saturday's games is uncertain.
Barr was injured during an 11-on-11 team drill. The Bruins were in full contact. Barr was injured during a running play, in which he appeared to take a hit to the head from an offensive lineman.
Mora can take solace in the return of linebacker Eric Kendricks, a senior who returned to practice full time after rehabilitating from an ankle surgery.
Another factor not in Mora's favor is the schedule. UCLA has difficult road games against Nebraska, Oregon, Stanford and Arizona. The Bruins have a back-to-back road games in October against Stanford and Oregon.
The Bruins have a bad taste in their mouth from their last game, a 49-26 shellacking at the hands of Baylor in the Holiday Bowl. Nevada has a potent offense, led by veteran quarterback Cody Fajardo, who hails from nearby Anaheim.
Because of what happened in the Holiday Bowl, Mora is determined to practice with physical play to generate toughness.
"One thing we worked on was having players take care of things so coaches didn't have to," Hundley told the Los Angeles Times. "The guys who were here last year know how things are supposed to work. We jump on the young guys when they aren't doing what they need to do."
Players to watch:
--LB Kenny Orjioke has formidable size at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, and he has a physical style that Mora loves. During fall camp, Orjioke, a 18-year-old sophomore, established himself as an athletic, fast, heavy-hitting linebacker. He played as a true freshman last year mostly on special teams. He finished with two tackles in five games. Look for him to be much more productive this year.
--DE Eddie Vanderdoes' tight back has bothered him during fall camp and limited his ability with some drills. Vanderdoes, a five-star recruit who first signed with Notre Dame, is expected to make an immediate impact on the defensive line. If Vanderdoes' back injury does not subside, Mora could look at a possible redshirt for him to adjust to the college level.
--CB Fabian Moreau, a converted running back, is a possible fill-in after UCLA lost all its four starters in the secondary. He comes from the football-rich state of Florida, which generally produces raw athletes such as Moreau. "He can find the ball in the air quickly and he can make a play on it," Mora said. "That's really what it comes down to, is winning at the moment of truth. He does that."
--WR Shaq Evans led the Bruins with 800 receiving yards last season and returns as the No. 1 receiver. The former Notre Dame player told the media that he notices better pass routes and more depth in the second season under Mora. "Getting off the line against press coverage is a lot better this season," Evans told the Los Angeles Times. "That's from being more physical in our routes."
--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.