By Christian Caple The Spokesman-Review
PULLMAN — Everything has changed for the once-struggling program since firing its coach and hiring a new one.
Players run harder and play faster. They’re tougher. There’s a different atmosphere thanks to a stern, fiery head coach and a staff of quality assistants.
“He came in with a plan in place,” WSU running backs coach Jim Mastro says. “They’re executing that plan, and you’re seeing the results.”
Yes, Jim Mora’s first year at UCLA has gone just swimmingly.
As for the Cougars? They’re still winless in Pac-12 play in Year 1 of the Mike Leach era, trying to snap a six-game losing streak when the Bruins (7-2, 4-2 Pac-12) visit Pullman at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
But WSU at least got a proven, veteran running backs coach out of the deal. Leach hired Mastro to join him at WSU after Mastro, a tight ends/fullbacks coach at UCLA, was let go as a result of coach Rick Neuheisel’s firing.
It was a necessary change, Mastro said.
“It was deserved,” Mastro said. “They needed to make a change there. Jim came in and did a nice job of changing the culture there. … I still visit with some of those guys, and he did a hell of a job putting a staff together, and that to me is huge in this business.”
Mora, who last coached the Seahawks in 2009, has seen the most immediate success of the Pac-12’s four new coaches this season. Rich Rodriguez (Arizona) and Todd Graham (Arizona State) have each coached their teams to 5-4 records and could both qualify for the postseason.
But Mora has the Bruins leading the Pac-12 South and, perhaps even more importantly to UCLA fans, ahead of the USC Trojans in both major polls. Mastro especially praised Mora’s hiring of offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, receivers coach Eric Yarber and offensive line coach Adrian Klemm to his offensive staff.
The cupboard wasn’t bare from a personnel standpoint, either.
“We’ve got a bunch of really good kids here,” Mora said. “They’re very smart kids. They want to win. That was evident right from the start. They appear to be willing to do whatever we ask them to do.”
By “really good kids,” he might also mean that he inherited a roster full of, well, really good players. That’s especially true at running back, with the school’s all-time leading rusher, Johnathan Franklin, already over the 1,000-yard mark and ranked No. 4 in the nation.
And, as Mastro is quick to point out, their quarterback ain’t bad, either. Mora chose redshirt freshman Brett Hundley as his starter in early August, and Hundley has accomplished something no other Bruin signal-caller in recent memory has — he’s stayed healthy.
Heck, even Hundley couldn’t stay healthy last year, tearing his MCL in the summer and eliminating the chance of playing. It also forced UCLA to play Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut last season, part of the reason the Bruins’ inconsistent offense sputtered and Neuheisel was fired after a 6-8 season, his third losing record in four years.
Hundley’s completion percentage (67.8) and touchdown to interception ratio (21 to 8) are especially impressive for a freshman. And his ability to run gives the Bruins’ offense even more balance.
“He’s got another gear,” WSU defensive coordinator Mike Breske said. “When he wants to run, he hits that gear and he’s 3rd-and-15, 3rd-and-20, first down. … We’ve got to be aware of where he’s at. He extends drives.”
“If we could have not torn his MCL in the summertime, he probably would have been our starting quarterback last year, and Rick would probably still be there,” Mastro said. “But everything works out for the best.”
At UCLA so far, it has.