Anyone who has attended UCLA Bruin football practices over the last few years is familiar with the business-like tone that permeated the setting: careful attention to technique and teaching, but lacking in observable passion.
And anyone who has ever played the game (or listened to a Fox pre-game show chock full of clichés) knows that football is a game of emotion. If you don't know how to harness the flood of emotion that arrives Saturday morning leading up to kickoff, you're at a disadvantage.
While the new staff of coaches under Karl Dorrell are, if nothing else, LOUDER than some of their predecessors (making it easier to glean the objectives of drills and techniques!), the tone at this Spring's practices among the players has fallen just short of "playful" after years of conditioning…
Until Friday's practice. Specifically, during the goal-line and short-yardage scrimmage that capped off an excellent week of work for the UCLA Bruins.
It started innocently enough: the first full-speed, full-contact scrimmage work of the year, both sides playing smashmouth football to evaluate who can get it done man-to-man when it's winning time. Even the weather obliged, as the cool, damp marine layer came in off the Pacific to give the scrimmage a distinct autumn feel.
After a running play to the right side that Marcus Cassel (running with the 1st team D at left corner) helped stuff, Coach Gary DeLoach whooped, jumped, hollered and bounded onto the field and into the pile to celebrate Cassel's play. Shortly thereafter, Coach Larry Kerr joined in as C.J. Niusulu, adapting to the one-gap system being instituted this year, shot the backside B gap and made a tackle of Akil Harris in the backfield for a loss. At this point, the D was into it. Another layer of the past was shed as the guys started woofing and actually having fun playing the game of football…
Up to this point, though, the D, like blondes, was having more fun (nudge-nudge, wink-wink). That changed when Manuel White, Jr., The Manster, blasted over the goal line behind the right side. The entire O swarmed to the end zone to congratulate Manster and themselves on reaching paydirt. This display was not lost on the D, and it raised the stakes of the game.
A series or two later, on one of the few passing plays called during the approximately 25 minute scrimmage, Drew Olson rolled right, looking for Blane Kezirian in the flat, but instead decided to tuck and run, tiptoeing up the sideline after a good screen from Blane, and nipped the front corner of the end zone, getting the call from the line judge. But not without dispute: Justin London, helmet in hand, came down from the sideline to let Drew know that, if he were in the game at that time, Mr. Olson wouldn't have had six, and that Drew didn't get in anyway, so there! At which point the resident enforcer for the O, Mr. Eyoseph Efseaff, sprinted over to support Drew, which gave those of us in attendance a chance to see Justin's acceleration and escapability as he high-tailed it back to the sidelines and the friendly confines of the D, cackling all the way. It was that kind of day. Nice to see that burst from Eyoseph…Sons ‘bout jumped over the fence he was sitting on when Efseaff started gathering steam.
The good feeling extended to after practice, as Tab Perry was chasing Junior Taylor at high speed all over the field for whatever reason. A very nice moment was seeing Keith Short greet his wife and young son after practice; Keith's helmet probably weighs more than his son, or I'm sure he would have done a better job of dragging it off the field for daddy!
Earlier in practice, it was great to see UCLA practicing the passing game down near the goal line (a real sore spot for the UCLA O over the last few years). Similarly, the Bruins practiced downing short-field punts near the goal line, the first time we've seen that during spring ball.
A few comments post-practice from head coach Karl Dorrell.
Was it good see to the energy and the team having fun in the scrimmage today?
"It's nice to see. It's funny how practicing the game is not as fun. But when you actually have a scrimmage, and actually play the game, withouth the coaches talking, that's when they start having all the fun. It was a good scrimmage. Both sides of the ball did some good things."
You looked like you were getting some practice in, too, working the refs...
"The whistle was blowing a little bit slow, so I was wondering, 'Wait a minute, are the refs working, or what?' I'm excited, too. And when the team starts reacting the way they were reacting, pumped up and fired up about playing, that's what it's all about. If we can just play that way during our season, boy I think we have a chance to be a good football team."
It must feel good to the players to actually play and not just practice...
"Practice is a grind. When you're practicing technique, that's never any fun. The coaches are screaming at you and it's time-consuming. The fun part about football is when you're actually playing the game, the time element goes away. You're just thinking about making your plays. It's always fun when you're just playing the game. But when you're doing drill work, you just keep looking at the clock and you're saying, 'Ah, shoot, there are still three minutes left in this period.'"
What do you think about the development of the defense so far in spring?
"On the defensive side, I'm really excited about the youth in our secondary. Jebiaus Brown has had a very good spring so far. Marcus Cassel has had a good spring. Glenn Ohaeri has had a good spring so far. Matt Ware and Matt Clark are our top guys at the corner position, but those other guys have really done a good job. When they've had their opportunities, they've made some plays. I'm excited about our linebackers. It's good seeing Justin London back from his minor surgery he had in the off-season. He's back full speed now. Dennis Link, he's an old veteran, but he's making some plays, and had a few plays today. Spencer Havner's doing fine. I'm really happy that the linebackers are starting to gel. The defensive line, that's old news. They're the most experienced guys anyway. I'm excited that we have that depth there. I'm excited generally with how our defense is developing."