INDIANAPOLIS — When it comes to the NFL scouting combine, UCLA has done a U-turn.
The Bruins, largely irrelevant here for much of the last decade, finally matter again.
They have five players at the combine, and while that's two short of USC's contingent, UCLA has the region's most coveted player in linebacker Anthony Barr, a potential top-10 pick, and one of the event's best interior offensive linemen in guard Xavier Su'a-Filo. Also being put through the paces at Lucas Oil Stadium are Bruins receiver Shaq Evans, defensive end Cassius Marsh and linebacker Jordan Zumwalt, all of whom figure to be selected in the seven rounds of May's draft.
"We've created a real professional-like atmosphere in our program, from the way we train, to the way we prepare for games, to the way we recover, to the way we think, everything," UCLA Coach Jim Mora said. "It's very NFL-like."
That stands to reason, seeing as Mora was strictly a pro coach before he was hired by UCLA two years ago, and his staff is rich with NFL experience, including former NFL players Adrian Klemm, Jeff Ulbrich and Eric Yarber, and pro strength coach Sal Alosi.
"Sal has done a tremendous job, not only on the physical part, but teaching them over the past two years what it takes to be special," said Mora, who has been monitoring the combine online from Los Angeles, and fielding calls from scouts, coaches and general managers who have various questions about the UCLA prospects.
"The whole staff brought that type of [NFL] mentality to our team," Evans said. "It wasn't like college coaches where they're always trying to follow you or be all up in your business. They treated us like pros a little bit. As long as we handled our business, they weren't checking up on us like we were little kids. It was a good experience having those guys there."
For most of the last 13 years, UCLA has been an afterthought when it comes to producing draft picks. Yes, there was 2006, when tight end Marcedes Lewis went in the first round and running back Maurice Jones-Drew went in the second. But most years were closer to 2007, when the only UCLA player selected was fifth-rounder Justin Medlock, a kicker. In 2012, the season before Mora arrived, the Bruins were blanked — no draft picks.
Making matters worse for the Bruins, USC was pumping out a steady stream of first-rounders. Since 2000, the Trojans have had three times as many players picked as their crosstown rivals, 85 to 28, and can boast 37 players taken in the first two rounds, compared to nine Bruins.
If this year's combine contingent is an indication, USC isn't fading from relevance. Marqise Lee is an elite receiver prospect, and is joined at the combine by Trojans tight end Xavier Grimble, safety Dion Bailey, linebacker Devon Kennard, defensive end George Uko, running back Silas Redd and center Marcus Martin.
But along with the huge strides UCLA has made on the field, the Bruins have re-established themselves as a must-stop destination for NFL scouts. Six UCLA players attended last year's combine, and, by Mora's count, 15 seniors were drafted, signed as free agents or were worked out by NFL teams. That's a tribute to the recruiting of former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, too, as he also played a significant role in the rekindling of interest from NFL teams.
"UCLA used to have the reputation of being soft," Zumwalt said. "A lot of our guys hated that. We weren't about that at all. That's when Coach Mora showed up and he just made it OK for us to be ourselves: 'It's OK for you guys to go be you on the field. Go make plays. Go play as hard as you can while you're out there.'"
The recent turnaround is a far cry from the days when the main reason NFL scouts attended UCLA's pro day was that they had little else to do while waiting for USC's to start.
"We're just starting our journey," Mora said. "It's only been two years. But there's positive things happening around the program and certainly last year the guys came out, did a good job at the combine, and went on to play in the league. And then this year the guys I know are going to do a great job at the combine and get a chance to play in the league. That certainly bodes well for the future of the program."
An NFL team scout, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said: "UCLA players were always very good athletes and had a basic understanding of football but they lacked an edge and a fire to them. Now they come in and there's a confidence, they have good football knowledge, and they're better prepared physically, from a development standpoint. It's amazing they can do that in just a couple years since Jim has been there. It's a mind-set that they've changed."
Just as Mora and his staff have transformed the program, they have kept an open mind and transformed players, frequently playing some of their best athletes on both offense and defense. Nine defensive players played on offensive snaps for UCLA last season, and three Bruins at the combine — Barr, Marsh and Zumwalt — have spent time on both sides of the ball. Zumwalt lined up at fullback and caught a pass. Marsh dabbled at tight end and reeled in a touchdown catch.
Barr began his UCLA career as an H-back before switching to linebacker in Mora's first season. In two years, he established himself as one of the best pass rushers in college football.
"The transition was pretty smooth, honestly," Barr said. "Difficult at first, I think moving backward. Going back in coverage was something that was new to me. But now I feel comfortable with that. . . . If I continue to work, the sky's the limit."
That's reflective of how Mora feels about the program as a whole.
"Our players have trust in us," he said. "They know we're going to get them ready to play on Saturdays."
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