UConn Football Coach Jim Mora Brings Passion To His First Fall Practice: ‘It’s Freaking Awesome’


STORRS — The familiar sounds of whistles and shoulder pads colliding, the sideline views of a perfectly threaded pass and blurry shirts whizzing past brought a breath of fresh air to Jim Mora in UConn Football’s first fall practice session on Friday.

“I hadn’t coached on a soccer field since November 18, 2017, when we played USC at the Coliseum, and the next morning I was fired,” Mora said of coaching UCLA five years ago. “I know exactly how long it’s been since I’ve had to come out and prepare for a game. It’s amazing. I feel it’s what I was built for.”

Before the clock struck 2:30pm and the 2022 chapter of UConn football history officially began on Friday, Mora made sure he was the first person on the field and savored the anticipation he had missed in recent years.

Mora wanted time to appreciate his new journey.

“It’s emotional for me to have the chance to do this again,” Mora said. “Especially here. I know people outside of those gates don’t think much of us, and I’m okay with that. I think highly of us and am excited to see where we are going.”

The lively three-hour practice began a new clean slate for UConn after the 1-11 record in 2021. The program is 4-32 for the past three seasons but shows no signs of improvement, leading UConn to part ways with Randy Edsall early last season.

Mora, 60, inherits a squad full of new faces. The only way for returning players is to go up – and Mora admits it’s already been a “long way”.

“Obviously we have a lot of work ahead of us, but the encouraging thing is that this is a group of young men who want to get better,” Mora said.

In the eight months since he was hired, Mora’s presence and personality has brought culture shock to the recovery program.

That’s one of the reasons he was hired. Mora’s resume includes stints in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks. He has experience as an NFL assistant and most recently served as a coach at UCLA.

Since being fired from UCLA, Mora has done media work.

“It was definitely a different experience,” said linebacker Jackson Mitchell. “It definitely felt like a revolution, everything was changed in pretty much every facet. It’s definitely exciting but also motivating because it gives us new hope I would say.”

After spring and summer training, the camaraderie on the first day of training may have surpassed that of last season.

Mora spoke about building a new culture in Storrs. The players say they feel it.

“I would say we’re more of a fraternity now,” running back Nathan Carter said. “We keep each other upright and keep each other positive. There have been a few times that we have faced difficulties in this practice today and we have picked each other up as you should. That’s what you need.”

Mora calls this “the least eligible group of players I’ve ever encountered”. The culture, he said, is built because the players embrace what Mora – and his coaching staff – preach.

Although there is still work to be done on the field, the team attitude has been the best Mora has ever coached.

“It’s refreshing, especially in this day and age,” Mora said. “We have a group of people who really want to work for it, rather than thinking they deserve it, and that’s really impressive to me.”

Of course, good culture is easy to maintain as long as there is a “zero” in the loss column. That’s a fact Mora is well aware of.

“Some of these guys haven’t had much success here,” Mora said. “Sometimes when things aren’t going right there is a tendency to fall back into old patterns, so we have to move on from there. I feel like we’re moving (in the right) direction.”

Mora and his staff are far from having concrete answers as to depth or skill, or even who the starting quarterback might be. Mora said after the first fall practice he hopes in a week he can say he likes the depth “here, here, here and here”.

Those ratings will come as he sees the performance of players at each position.

“But I have a sneaking suspicion that I’ll like the depth on the offensive line,” Mora said. “I think we added some decent players there with the two young guys that came in (Brady Wayburn and Ben Murawski). I think they have a chance to help us early on.”

The five-part quarterback competition also left Mora optimistic. Penn State transfer Ta’Quan Roberson and redshirt freshman Tyler Phommachanh, who sustained an ACL injury that ended his 2021 season after game six, saw the most first-team snaps.

Freshman Zion Turner, northern Arizona’s Cale Millen and runner-up Jacob Drena also made frequent rotations. Turner is a lauded recruit from football powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., while Millen – son of former NFL quarterback Hugh Millen, who was Mora’s college teammate in Washington – first played at Power Five Oregon before moving there landed northern Arizona.

“I really like our five quarterbacks as people and players,” Mora said. “I think they have the right attitude, the right mindset and the right work ethic. I’m excited to see how this competition goes.”

While the defense was one of the most criticized parts of last year’s squad, new faces and more focus have led to more confidence.

“I think the biggest leap we’ve made (on defense) from last year to this year is that we added a lot of people,” Mitchell said. “In the past we didn’t have too much depth but I think this year we will have a lot more. Our general understanding of the concepts has also become much better than in the past.”

As the team began its journey toward Week 1, kicker Joe McFadden underwent season-ending cruciate ligament surgery after injuring his kick leg during the most recent offseason workout.

McFadden hit on 12 of 17 field goal attempts, including a 47-yarder. He was 19 of 19 with extra points and was effective as a punter, dropping 14 of his 61 punts inside the 20 yard line.

“It’s obviously a heavy blow,” Mora said. “He’s an outstanding kicker and also a guy who could have been a substitute for us…but we have a lot of faith in Noe (Ruelas) that he’ll go in and do the job, I saw that in the spring.”

While the first day of training may not have shed much light on what is to come, Mora’s excitement was palpable. The players noticed.

“We see the passion in his eyes,” Carter said. “He not only loves the game of football, but also us players individually. That’s the great thing about playing for a coach like that, you want to go to war with someone who loves us so much and is so passionate about the school.”

[email protected]; @AldamWill


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