SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. -- The crack and pop were unmistakable, and Fabian Moreau instantly knew he was in trouble. But fueled by adrenaline -- and an injection -- the UCLA cornerback hobbled back onto the field just in time to see Myles Jack snag an interception and lock up a 24-23 victory over No. 19 BYU.
“I planted wrong on my left foot and it just snapped,” recalled Moreau. “I wasn’t really thinking about anything else other than getting back on the field with my teammates.”
In retrospect, the decision to get back on the field in the third week of last season was heroic, if not extremely foolhardy. Because that crack and pop turned out to be a Lisfranc fracture that would sideline the potential All-American for the rest of the 2015 season. And instead of being in an NFL camp right now, he’s grinding in the 108-degree heat at Cal State San Bernardino.
But it’s those same qualities -- brash, gutty, heroic -- that continue to make Moreau one of the most dangerous defensive backs in the Pac-12, and probably the country.
He exudes what head coach Jim Mora called “a standard of excellence” that makes the entire defense better. Thing is, that’s pretty tough to do since the Bruins boasted the top passing defense in the Pac-12 last season, yielding a league-low 203.2 passing yards per game. Opposing quarterbacks completed just 57.1 percent of their throws (second in the league) and the Bruins allowed just 18 passing touchdowns (third). And that was without Moreau for 10 games.
They return all of their secondary starters from last season, and even moved accomplished defensive back Ishmael Adams to wide receiver to help accommodate Moreau’s return and give the receiving corps a little more depth.
So far, defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin said he’s seen everything he’s wanted out of Moreau. He knew what he was getting off of the field. It was the confidence and stability on the field that he was hoping to see during camp.
“For him, I wanted to see the change in direction without knowing which direction he was going to have to change to,” Martin said. “Plant that foot, stick it in the ground. He’s shown me that. You can see he’s still second-guessing a little bit. But he’s also so mentally smart in FBI [football intelligence] that he’s always ahead of the game. He doesn’t put himself in a bad situation. He knows what his job is already and I think that’s going to help protect him.”
Hopes were high for Moreau last year. He was coming off of a 2014 where he earned second-team all-conference honors after posting 53 tackles, three for a loss, nine pass breakups and an interception. Mora was touting him as one of the best in the nation. He might still be. But until he really goes live Sept. 3 in UCLA’s season opener against Texas A&M, we won’t know for sure if he’s truly back.
For Moreau, that first plant and tackle were a realization that the grind of the past eight months weren’t a waste. He didn’t miss a single rehab session for eight months. He watched film with the coaches and took the opportunity away from the field to become a more intelligent player.
“I prepared like I was still playing every Saturday,” Moreau said. “I was in every meeting taking notes and getting my mind to a point where I was still going to play. I feel like even though I wasn’t playing, I become a more complete player.”
The Bruins enter 2016 riding a perfect storm of sorts. With Moreau coming back -- as well as defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes (knee) -- they gain two A-list players who were absent most of last season. In that time, others picked up the slack and got valuable playing experience. The result is a defensive roster that looks formidable, tested and deep.
“You can see right now we’ve got great front-end-back-end chemistry,” Martin said. The best coverage option is to have a great pass rush. Fabian can handle it out on the island so long as there is top-notch communication. Right now I think we’ve got that. You didn’t get that before.
“Knock on wood that everyone stays healthy because situations like this don’t come around often. Those guys have a ton of experience and now they are coming back and playing together and it’s coming together into some special.”