Spring practice starts in four days, and the Karl Dorrell era officially begins at UCLA.
There probably hasn't been this much anticipation for spring football practice in many years, with the UCLA community excited about seeing the new coaching staff in action for the first time.
With that new coaching staff being able to really study the UCLA players for truly the first time in-depth, spring practice could be particularly interesting, particularly in the potential changes that the new coaching staff could make. Predicting what could happen at this point is a crap shoot, but we have heard a few things that could possibly give you a clue as to what to watch for during spring practice.
Of course, all eyes will be on the sophomore quarterbacks, Drew Olson, Matt Moore and John Sciarra. How successful this team is in the 2003 season could depend on the quality of production from the quarterback position, and the coaching staff is very well aware of that. It was one reason that Steve Axman, a quarterbacks guru, was named the offensive coordinator, rather than someone like Al Borges, who is considered a good coordinator but less of a quarterbacks coach.
While, of course, anything could happen between now and the first game in September, there is a growing sentiment around the UCLA program that Matt Moore will ultimately win the starting position. It's hard to argue with that basic assumption –
John Sciarra will be trying to muscle in on the assumed lock that Olson and Moore have on the starting position. Sciarra faltered last season when he had the opportunity, and he's determined to show that he's now worthy of being considered with Olson and Moore. Sciarra has steadily improved since he's come to UCLA, and will be heading into his third year next season. It's believed that he has the capability of being a serviceable backup quarterback down the line, but given UCLA's shortage of useable, experienced quarterbacks, Sciarra's development is critical to UCLA's much-needed depth at the position.
The depth at quarterback for next season is a very distinct issue. UCLA is only a couple of injuries away from having to start Sciarra. And then after, Sciarra, it's only potentially walk-ons as possibilities. So, the health of Moore and Olson is a high priority, as well as their durability.
The big thing to watch for in spring practice, though, when it comes to the Olson-Moore competition, is if
UCLA needs to replace two long-time veteran starters at the two tackle positions, but returns three returning starters at the interior positions.
The three interior linemen – guards Steve Vieira and Eyoseph Efseaff, and center Mike McCloskey -- will be expected to step up this spring and take the leadership roles on the offensive line. They're still a young group, with Vieira and Efseaff both being juniors next season and McCloskey just a sophomore. But the UCLA coaches believe these three have the potential to be really good, with Vieira and McCloskey potentially NFL material.
When it comes to filling the starting tackle positions, it's really fairly wide open heading into spring practice. Probably the most certain is that big Ed Blanton, the 6-9, 325-pound sophomore lineman, is thought to be already pretty entrenched as a starter at the left tackle position, replacing the departed Bryce Bohlander. The left tackle position, of course, is key in pass protection, being the primary blocker who keeps a right-handed quarterback from being blindsided by an oncoming rusher. Blanton is not lightning quick, of course, being that large, but he does have good quickness for that size. What he is, though, is huge. Even if he might not be able to keep up from a quickness standpoint with defensive ends, the fact that he's just so large makes it hard to get around him. When Blanton sets up in his pass rushing stance and extends his arms, he's covering quite a bit of real estate to try to get around. This spring will be a big indicator if he can hold down that left tackle position and provide the protection that position needs to provide.
In the newly released depth chart, junior Paul Mociler is listed as the projected starter at right tackle. Mociler is thought to be the best candidate to fill the role of departed Mike Saffer since he might have the most talent among the remaining offensive linemen on the squad. The question with Mociler has been the fire in his gut. He's a good kid and is well-liked by the coaching staff, it's just a matter of meanness at this point. For the last three years it's been a matter of waiting for Mociler to gain some nastiness and hopefully this is the year he does.
There is a chance for others to step up this spring and earn one of the starting tackle positions. UCLA has been waiting for Matt Mosebar and Robert Cleary, both heading into their redshirt sophomore years, to step up and be able to contribute. Both are now physically developed enough, with Mosebar at 294 and Cleary weighing 304. It's a matter, much in the same way with Mociler, of Mosebar and Cleary getting some fire in their play. Cleary is now listed in the depth chart as a tackle and, with Mosebar, be given a shot at showing they're serious contenders for a starting tackle position this spring. Elliot Vallejo, a redshirt freshman, showed some good agility last year on the scout team and it's believe he has a chance to be a good contributor down the line. Perhaps the player with the most potential at tackle, redshirt freshman Alex Potasi, will sit out spring practice while he rehabs the knee after surgery. It's still a bit uncertain whether Potasi will be able to return to football, and his return is pretty vital to the talent and depth of the offensive line.
There is also a thought that, depending on who steps up this spring, the line could be juggled a little to get the five best linemen in the starting lineup. That would depend quite a bit on senior Shane Lehmann. Lehmann was hobbled a bit by injury last season. Right now, the word is that he's a bit in the doghouse and he'll have to really step up this spring to get out. Lehmann has talent and if he stepped up to be good enough to start as a guard, Vieira conceivably could move from right guard to right tackle, a position he played quite a bit in his first couple of years at UCLA.
Tyson Clayton, a walkon interior lineman, is a guy who is one of the best technicians on the OL, and thus has the potential to get some backup minutes. Robert Chai is a redshirt freshman who is slated to backup McCloskey at center. Chai is another that UCLA wants to see step up and show some fire this spring, and hopefully work himself into a useable option in fall.
With some projected guard/center prospects coming into the program this fall (Nikola Dragovic, P.J. Irvin, and even potentially Kevin Brown), the UCLA staff is trying to develop their depth at tackle this spring, thus the move of Cleary to tackle to join Mosebar, Potasi and Vallejo.
With Mike Seidman moving on to the NFL, it leaves UCLA without great experience at the tight end position, but with some great talent. UCLA generally needs two tight ends to be starting quality, since it will use many two-tight-end sets and possibly utilize one as an H-back at times like it did last season. The two guys slated to step in are sophomores Keith Carter and Marcedes Lewis, and the word is that the new staff is very excited about their potential. Carter has shown he's a potentially big-time tight end, with good hands, route-running and blocking ability. He was used sometimes as an H-back last season and showed good quickness leading the blocking for the tailback. Lewis is a potential weapon that the new staff has indicated they really want to take advantage of – at tight end, slot receiver, even split out wide. This spring watch to see how the new coaching staff tries to utilize Lewis – and Carter – to exploit their talents.
Blane Kezirian, the fifth year senior, provides depth at tight end. A big question this spring will be if redshirt freshman J.J. Hair will be able to show enough at the tight end position to rationalize leaving him there. It's long been thought that Hair might be more suited as an offensive tackle – being a fairly slow tight end but a quick offensive tackle. With the new coaching staff really seeing him play for the first time this spring, it could determine his future position. UCLA generally does, though, need four tight ends and Hair could be kept at tight end for depth. Will Peddie, a 6-5, 263-pound redshirt freshman walkon, has a chance, though, to be a contributor. He looked just as good, if not better, than Hair at times last season in practice.
It's truly a plethora of riches at wide receiver, and new wide receiver coach Jon Embree must be drooling over the returning talent he has to catch passes.
It's almost scary to think of Craig Bragg another year better and more experienced. And the fact that he'll only be a junior next year is even more exciting. .
Probably one of the biggest issues to watch this spring is how Tab Perry does under the new coaching staff. Perry is very talented, and even though he might not have gotten along with the last coaching staff well, the word is that he's responded well to the new staff and is dedicating himself. The thought of a more consistent Perry playing opposite Craig Bragg really gives UCLA's offense some strong anchors among its skill players.
But it doesn't stop there. Perhaps the most purely talented receiver is sophomore Junior Taylor. With potential NFL size, speed and agility, one of the most promising aspects of spring practice is to see how much
And speaking about watching young prospects, after Bragg, Perry and Taylor, there's a group of young guys who will be trying to make spring practice their spring boards to playing time next season, just as Junior Taylor did last spring practice. In fact, just like
Providing steady depth will again be senior Garrett Lepisto. Senior Ryan Smith, who has the talent and consistency to be the #3 or 4 receiver on the team, is still recovering from his ankle injury and it's uncertain as to how much he'll be able to participate in spring practice. Josh Roenicke, a walkon sophomore with some good promise, will be trying to prove he's worthy of a scholarship.
The sentiment is that Tyler Ebell is the clear #1 tailback on the squad, but with a new coaching staff, Ebell will have to bring it all spring practice to ensure his spot. As of right now, the feeling is that Manuel White might do most of his duty at fullback, but he probably will very well be utilized at both fullback and tailback like last season. The one-two punch of Ebell and White, the "Thunder and Lightning" Backfield, will be great to watch this spring, as they get comfortable in their roles and are one year older and more experienced. Watch for White to be utilized as a receiver out of the backfield even more. Again, it's amazing to think that White is just a junior and Ebell a sophomore next season.
Akil Harris, the deposed, one-time starter, will be trying to prove to the coaching staff that he's worthy of being considered again as a senior.
While there have been rumors circulating that sophomore tailback Wendell Mathis might transfer, he stuck out the off-season training and, the word is he's dedicated to making a good effort for spring practice. With the loss of Jason Harrison to potentially a career-ending ligament injury to his knee, Mathis' viability suddenly looks pretty important. Even though Harris is serviceable as a backup, Mathis has the explosiveness to be more than just serviceable. UCLA wants to see Mathis really step up this spring, and compete for the #2 tailback spot with Harris.
At fullback, White will get the first call, but the new staff has plenty of other options. Last season Pat Norton was slowed by injury, but it seemed he was in the doghouse with the old coaching staff. He'll try to prove he doesn't belong there this spring. Having started a number of games as a true freshman last season, J.D. Groves goes into spring ball listed as the #3 fullback on the depth chart, but the word is that the coaches like