Eddie Vanderdoes and Myles Jack arrived at UCLA this summer hoping to make big contributions as freshmen. They didn't wait even one game to get started.
The Bruins' big defensive end and versatile linebacker stood out among several youngsters whose performances in a season-opening 58-20 victory over Nevada suggested the 21st-ranked Bruins could be deeper than many expected.
UCLA showed off an impressive mix of veteran experience and young talent while outscoring the Wolf Pack 41-7 in the second half on Saturday. The Bruins used 14 freshmen, and several made big contributions immediately.
"True freshmen played a significant amount, and all of them played well," UCLA coach Jim Mora said Sunday night. "Going out in their very first college game in the Rose Bowl against a quality opponent and playing the way they did, I was extremely impressed. They were all going out and making a lot of good plays that a lot of people took notice of."
Two tantalizing prospects immediately got to work for a defense that struggled before making sharp halftime adjustments against Nevada. Vanderdoes made six tackles, including two for losses, while Jack was second on the team with eight tackles.
Vanderdoes, the coveted defensive line prospect from Northern California who made headlines by backing out of his commitment to Notre Dame this summer, appeared to be worthy of all that trouble in his first appearance for the Bruins. The 18-year-old demonstrated enough strength to compete with top offensive linemen, even if the whole experience was a bit surreal at first.
"You've been watching it on TV your whole life, and then you're finally in a game, so it was great," Vanderdoes said. "I was surprised a little bit, but it was good."
Although Vanderdoes was listed as the third-string left defensive end on Mora's hastily assembled depth chart, his teammates weren't surprised by his immediate impact.
"You should have seen him in practice," UCLA linebacker Jordan1 Zumwalt said. ""It was really cool to see him do it in a game."
Jack, a former track star and running back from the Seattle suburbs, showed an impressive nose for the ball right away, with only linebacker Eric Kendricks making more tackles for the Bruins. Jack and Kendricks made up for a quiet statistical night from star linebacker Anthony Barr — something that could be a theme this season if opponents run their offenses away from the imposing Barr.
UCLA's thin defensive secondary is still a concern after Nevada passed easily against the Bruins in the first half. UCLA has plenty of time to work on it with an oddly placed bye week before the Bruins' visit to Nebraska on Sept. 14.
The Bruins are sticking to Mora's plan to build depth through experience. With only half of the starters returning from last season's 9-5 squad, UCLA's youngsters must mature quickly to keep up with Stanford, Oregon and the Pac-12's powers.
Mora found plenty of areas for improvement in the one-sided win, but he's glad the freshman got on-the-job training without paying for it in the standings.
"One silver lining in the (Nevada) game was the young guys getting the experience of that game," Mora said. "Our young guys made some impact plays. We want to be able to depend on those guys, so for them to get a chance to play is important."
The Bruins also stuck to Mora's plan to use several tailbacks to replace departed Johnathan Franklin, and nearly every candidate looked sharp behind an impressive effort by the offensive line. Five tailbacks got carries and gained at least 30 yards: Jordon James, Paul Perkins, Steven Manfro, Roosevelt Davis and Malcolm Jones.
James, Perkins and Jones all scored touchdowns, but James excelled as the starter, racking up career highs of 155 yards on 21 carries. Three years after the touted ball-carrier from nearby Corona chose UCLA, the smooth-moving back known as "Joystick" appeared ready to live up to the expectations — just like his Bruins, the preseason Pac-12 South favorites.
"Last year, nobody expected us to do much," James said. "They're all aiming for us now, so we've got to be ready every week."