UCLA hoping another opener against Texas A&M doesn’t slip away

The play happened late in ’s last season opener, one calendar year and what might seem like a lifetime ago in the world of a college football player.

It developed exactly as intended. Tight end Austin Roberts had the defensive back beat by a few steps on third and goal as he raced toward the front corner of the end zone. Quarterback Josh Rosen, scurrying away from a pass rush that had sacked him five times, threw the ball where only Roberts could catch it. The Bruins needed the touchdown to force a second overtime against Texas A&M.

Roberts stretched out his white-gloved hands. The ball struck his thumb and forefingers and tumbled toward the turf. Roberts held his hands toward his face in disbelief.

If time heals all wounds, then more will need to pass before Roberts can fully get over the play that symbolized a crushing defeat and what would become a lost season for the Bruins.

“I’ve kind of replayed that every day this week,” Roberts said Thursday of the next-to-last play during UCLA’s 31-24 setback against the Aggies, “just reminding myself that I’m not trying to have any repeats of that and trying to make sure that it doesn’t happen” again.

That makes Sunday something of a do-over for Roberts and the Bruins. They will face Texas A&M once more in a season opener, this time at the in what could be a palate cleanser for that year-old yucky taste.

“I fully agree with that expression,” Rosen said when a reporter suggested the phrase. “It definitely is a palate cleanser.”

Only if UCLA prevails, of course.

The Bruins are heading into a season unranked for the first time since coach Jim Mora’s first season in 2012, which means they can only hope the parallels continue all the way into the Conference championship game. UCLA lost that game to Stanford five years ago and hasn’t made a return trip. Far more troubling is that the Bruins have backslid considerably over the last three seasons, going from 10-3 in 2014 to 8-5 in 2015 before bottoming out at 4-8 in 2016.

UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero made clear after last season that he remained firmly behind Mora, but that support could ebb if the Bruins can’t at least challenge for the Pac-12 South Division title and get back to at least a mid-tier bowl game.

“We want to be able to compete for a Pac-12 championship,” Guerrero said in December. “That’s our goal.”

Mora overhauled his coaching staff in the wake of last season, hiring four new assistants and putting play-calling duties in the hands of veteran offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch. An offense that returns six starters looked a lot more dynamic during training camp, running some trick plays and featuring more variety than it did last season when it tried a pro-style formation that faltered badly.

Rosen’s return from the shoulder injury that ended his sophomore season after only six games won’t solve every problem. The Bruins must show that they can run the ball after rushing for only 84.3 yards per game last season, ranking No. 127 out of 128 major college teams. A slimmer Bolu Olorunfunmi emerged as the top tailback in training camp, with Soso Jamabo also getting plenty of carries with the first-team offense.

Fisch said he liked the way the running game looked in the preseason but acknowledged the need to prove it repeatedly in the coming months.

“It matters to us,” Fisch said, “so we better run the ball well.”

Doing so will depend heavily on an offensive line that already suffered a big loss with tackle Kenny Lacy’s season-ending hip injury. That leaves the Bruins short on quality depth and an injury or two away from a possible repeat of last season’s inability to open holes and protect the quarterback.

Considerable turnover in the receiving corps could be a plus. Walk-on Christian Pabico has joined the rotation because of his consistency catching passes, something that was absent last season among a group that struggled.

Sophomore Theo Howard also appears poised for a larger role alongside Darren Andrews and Jordan Lasley.

The defense should be a strength with six returning starters and two impact newcomers, end Jaelan Phillips and cornerback Darnay Holmes, both true freshmen. Every assistant coach on defense has been part of the program for at least three years, providing continuity.

Fisch issued a mandate to his players at the end of spring practice, labeling the months that would follow “the summer of improvement.” The impetus for Roberts started seven months earlier when that pass against Texas A&M slipped through his hands.

“I truly believe going through that valley has helped me as a football player and as a person as well — just being able to look the ball in, especially this summer, and go forward,” Roberts said.

“The thing about history is that you can’t really run away from it. It’s always going to be there. We didn’t want to be 4-8, obviously, but the things we did this off-season, we embraced it. The reality is we were 4-8, that was not the record we wanted, so we’re out here improving each and every day to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

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