Will UCLA's Josh Rosen finally live up to NFL potential and deliver this season?

LOS ANGELES – UCLA coach Jim Mora lives down the street from Josh Rosen in Manhattan Beach, compares him to his own son and has remained a staunch defender of the junior quarterback during his various media dustups. The two have a relationship that transcends the typical player and coach, which is what made Mora’s recent prediction on Rosen’s future so intriguing. “My firm belief is that he will not leave,” Mora told Yahoo Sports on Sunday afternoon of Rosen declaring for the NFL draft after this season. “I don’t think he’ll leave.”

Mora sensed the skepticism on the other end of the line. Rosen projects as a potential No. 1 pick in the NFL draft and has spoken openly about enrolling early at UCLA to attempt to accommodate a three-year graduation plan. “I want a disclaimer, I have an option to change my opinion,” Mora said. “But as we sit here right now, I can really honestly say I don’t think he’s going to leave.”

Mora’s prediction on Rosen’s future may be classified somewhere between wishful thinking and self-interest. He lists the injury that cut short Rosen’s sophomore season in October, Rosen enjoying his UCLA experience and the tight relationship with new Bruins offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch as reasons he expects his quarterback to return.

Rosen enters the 2017 season at UCLA as a portrait in contradiction. He’s an elite NFL prospect with middling production, a brash kid attempting to stay quiet and an articulate intellectual who struggles to get his point across. A skeptical football world waits impatiently, as the question looms whether his production will finally match his talent. Everyone can agree that Rosen, who is just 11-8 as a starter, needs to showcase a season of change and progress. Rosen came to UCLA thinking he had all the answers – about football, school and eventually carving out a career as an entrepreneur – but now NFL executives and cynical media are wondering whether he even took the right test.

“He has real high-end NFL talent, but he has to show me something this year,” said former Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, an analyst for the Pac-12 Network. “He’s been a little bit spoiled, and I think he’s actually hurt that team more than helped that team in his first two years there. I think they’ve catered to him.”

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Rosen’s NFL potential and off-field brush fires – harmless as they may be – have garnered him more publicity than his actual on-field accomplishments. He missed the second half of UCLA’s 4-8 season in 2016 because of surgery on his throwing shoulder, and the closest thing to a signature win came at No. 18 Utah his freshman year. In his career, he’s completed less than 60 percent of his passes and has a pedestrian 33-to-16 touchdown-to-interception ratio through two seasons. Whether UCLA has supplied him with enough protection and skill players is a debate for the barstools at Barney’s Beanery. But through two seasons in Westwood, he’s only won 11 games compared to Troy Aikman’s 20 in his two years there.

Still, Rosen has managed to transcend the football field, becoming a polarizing in a world that values Belichickian blandness. Rolling Stone wrote up him wearing a “F— Trump” headband on one of Trump’s courses, part of an ironic birthday gift for a liberal buddy. TMZ covered him smuggling a hot tub into his dorm room as if he’d been canoodling with a Kardashian. CNBC billed his recent comments to Bleacher Report about academics and football not mixing with a headline of, “The ugly truth about major college football.”

Josh Rosen’s off-field opinions have generated more conversation than his on-field play thus far in his college career. (Getty)
Josh Rosen’s off-field opinions have generated more conversation than his on-field play thus far in his college career. (Getty)

Rosen gave the interview with those comments about academics and athletics in the spring, and Mora said the timing and blowback were unfortunate, as they’re not indicative of Rosen’s maturity. Mora says Rosen’s comments are rooted in the right place – an attempt to speak up for his teammates. “His teammates love him,” Mora said. “He’s a completely different guy, which you’d expect of someone who matures. He’s stepping up. I hated it came out when it did. It’s not reflective of who he is now.”

Rosen will present a fascinating test case for the NFL, a league known to overlook much more glaring character deficiencies than being outspoken. “There’s no doubt he has the arm talent,” said Phil Savage, the former Browns general manager who runs the Reese’s Senior Bowl. “Teams need to make sure there’s a maturity there that [he] can handle the job. It’s not a position. It’s a job. That’s something he’s going to have to answer some questions on.”

Rosen is accustomed to awkward questions. At the first meeting between Rosen’s family and Fisch this off-season at The Strand House in Manhattan Beach, a restaurant patron came up to the table. “Are you Josh Rosen?” he asked. When Rosen affirmed, the patron spoke for much of the football world by awkwardly declaring: “I expect you to have a better year.”

Fisch will be Rosen’s third coordinator, following Noel Mazzone in 2015 and Kennedy Polamalu last year. Mazzone bolted for Texas A&M and Polamalu wasn’t renewed after UCLA’s offense flopped last season, including finishing No. 127 of 128 FBS teams in rushing offense. Mora, who has a defensive background, takes the blame for the offensive inertia and expressed supreme confidence in Fisch and Rosen re-energizing the Bruins. “I think in Jedd, Josh has found somewhat of a kindred soul and intellectual equivalent,” Mora said. “Josh has tremendous respect for Jedd. He’s outstanding at teaching the particulars of the position and the entire offense.”

Fisch said he set boundaries early with Rosen, who developed a reputation for being inquisitive to the point of annoyance. (At St. John Bosco High School, coach Jason Negro and offensive coordinator Chad Johnson often reminded Rosen he didn’t have to constantly show how smart he was.). Fisch stressed to Rosen they needed to fast-forward their relationship. Fisch recalls telling Rosen: “It’s important for you to take what I say at face value, and as we build this relationship, we’ll give you more freedoms.” He adds: “We were very black and white early on. Yes, you’re right. No, you’re not. Wrong here, right here.”

There’s a blueprint for the coach-player shotgun marriage, as Fisch helped transform Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock, who transferred from Iowa, into an NFL quarterback in their lone season together. “The biggest thing is that he’s an NFL guy and really treats us, like this is what they do in the NFL,” Rudock, now with the Detroit Lions, said by phone this week. “I owe Jedd so much in how much he was able to help me. He and coach [Jim] Harbaugh made me that much better.”

Fisch’s ability to maximize Rosen’s talent will ultimately determine UCLA’s fate, as the Bruins finished 11th in the Pac-12 in scoring and total offense last year. (Another dud year could further the murmurs about Mora’s job, but he’s owed nearly $12 million if UCLA wants to fire him at the end of this year. At cash-strapped UCLA, that conversation is a non-starter).

Fisch came to UCLA from Michigan, leaving the stability of Harbaugh’s back-to-back 10-win seasons to be the sole offensive coordinator and play caller. Fisch, a New Jersey native, brings with him a bit of an edge, as his unusual path includes never playing organized football. He left the Northeast for Florida as an undergraduate to learn from Steve Spurrier, and said he left notes on Spurrier’s car 436 straight days in an attempt to volunteer for the staff. (He roomed with Eagles GM Howie Roseman while there). Eventually, Fisch found his way onto the Gator staff and rocketed up the coaching ranks. (He gleefully points out Spurrier attended his wedding). Fisch has been a coordinator at the University of Minnesota, Pete Carroll’s quarterback coach in Seattle, Al Golden’s OC in Miami and the offensive coordinator in Jacksonville. He’s been a rising star, fired and rehabbed, a breadth of experience that’s kept Rosen’s attention. (They have also bonded occasionally over their shared Jewish faith, as Fisch said he’ll joke with Rosen, “I’m not even going to have you over for Seder this year” if something goes wrong.)

Both Mora and Fisch have raved about how Rosen has looked in camp, with Mora noting Fisch has let Rosen call plays in no-huddle periods to give him ownership. (Rosen declined requests to speak for this story as part of an attempt to keep the focus on the team).

Fisch has brought to UCLA what he’s calling a “Sunday offense,” a snazzy marketing moniker to encompass the multiplicity – shotgun, under center and varied tempos – players need to prepare for the NFL. “Physically, he has all the talent in the world,” Fisch said. “Mentally, he certainly is smart enough to do it.”

Fisch followed Mora’s party line that Rosen will return for 2018, as he said they’ve operated like they’ll have two seasons together. So what would Fisch tell his NFL cronies who call about Rosen whenever he does declare? He answered without hesitating: “I would tell them they’re going to get a franchise quarterback.”

Externally, there’s skepticism. Internally, there’s optimism. And with the entire football world watching, everyone can agree that production is paramount. If Mora is right about Rosen returning, it’s likely something went wrong in Westwood again this season.