With Josh Rosen, always expect the unexpected.
Rosen delivered his latest surprise Tuesday after UCLA’s first spring football practice.
The outspoken quarterback was uncharacteristically restrained, guarded almost, as he answered questions. He kept his inner LaVar Ball in check.
Whatever visions Rosen has of a Heisman Trophy or a conference championship, he wouldn’t say. Whatever dreams he has about his NFL future, he wouldn’t share.
This was the same player who went into his sophomore season last year declaring that the Bruins were good enough to challenge for a national championship.
A season-ending shoulder operation can change a person like that, especially a 20-year-old.
“It gave me a really new, fresh perspective,” Rosen said.
What mattered to Rosen was that he was able to practice without any discomfort or limitations and should be able to do so again Wednesday. And Thursday. And so on.
“He did not look like there’s anything bothering him,” Coach Jim Mora said. “Looked normal. Good to see.”
Rosen, who underwent surgery in early November, was able to start throwing at full strength a few weeks ago.
“My motto this year is kind of just get 1% better every day, and compound interest that, and at the end of the road you find yourself a lot further ahead than you really thought you would have been,” he said.
What about the Heisman Trophy he was expected to win when he showed up in Westwood as a five-star recruit? And UCLA’s anticipated transformation into a national power?
“Going day-by-day, hopefully, the all the accolades just kind of happen on accident,” he said.
This could be Rosen’s final season at UCLA. He will be a junior in the fall, making him eligible for the NFL draft in 2018. So … ?
“You don’t have to finish that question,” he said with a playful laugh.
He explained: “Basically, the same thing with the accolades. If I do everything day-by-day, then everything will fall into place and happen naturally. A decision is a decision. I can’t make one this far ahead. But right now, it’s basically go step by step and handle what you can handle.
“The situation will come if I do what I can right now. But if you’re looking ahead in the future and you forget what’s at your feet, you find yourself trying to reach a false dream.”
Rosen has ground to make up on USC counterpart Sam Darnold. While Rosen was sidelined, the Trojans re-established themselves as a national power and Darnold emerged as the potential No. 1 quarterback of the NFL’s 2018 draft class.
Rosen said he was unaffected by Darnold’s sudden rise to stardom.
“No, because everyone knows how good they are and they have that, sort of, internal scoreboard,” he said. “I know where I’m at, so I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing.”
Rosen acknowledged he didn’t play as well as would have liked before his injury, when he followed a spectacular freshman year by throwing for 10 touchdowns and five interceptions in six games.
UCLA was 3-3 when he was sidelined. The Bruins finished with a 4-8 record. But as Rosen reflected on the difficult year, he spoke more about what he gained than what he lost.
“Honestly, I’m lucky,” he said.
The operation he underwent was exploratory.
“They went in to diagnose what was wrong,” he said. “They knew where something was messed up; they didn’t know what it was. There were a few possibilities, they said before going in. Came out, said it was the best-case scenario.”
What was found was soft tissue damage.
“It’s like pulling a hamstring, almost, in the shoulder,” Rosen said.
Did he fear something worse?
Rosen laughed. “Hell yeah,” he said.
He was spared not only a long recovery, but also psychological anguish.
“A lot of guys with full reconstructive surgeries, whether it be knees, shoulders, anything like that, when they’re out eight to nine months it takes a real strong mental toll and you really have to fight through it,” he said.
“I was a pretty quick four to five months, and I was back in the swing of things relatively quickly, considering what it could have been. I got to hit that emotional bottom, in a sense, pretty quickly, and I got to get back on the horse pretty early, relatively, so this whole experience has been awesome.
“I’ve learned a bunch about my body; my nutrition’s gotten a lot better. It gives you sort of a little bit of fire, because in college you’re going 46, 47, 48 weeks out of the year. You get it taken away from you, you don’t really realize what you have until you don’t have it.”
Rosen wasn’t the only UCLA player excited by his return.
Linebacker Kenny Young recalled smiling when the offense lined up against the defense Tuesday with Rosen under center.
“I could see the energy, from the way he’s practicing, his approach to practice,” Young said. “He’s locked in, he’s focused, he’s not taking anything for granted. We probably have a good chance of winning the championship now that he’s back because he’s a great quarterback.”
Young added, “There’s something different about Josh Rosen.”
Young was speaking generally, comparing Rosen to other quarterbacks he has seen up close, including former UCLA star Brett Hundley.
But what Young said wouldn’t have been any less true had he been comparing Rosen this year to the Rosen of last year.
At least on Day 1 of spring practice, he was very much different.
Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez