Spring Practice Preview: Offense

There hasn't been a spring practice for UCLA like this ever in recent memory, where there are so many things to be watching for in terms of personnel, coaching, and schemes. Here's the preview of the things to take note of on offense when UCLA takes the field tomorrow...

It's difficult to write a Things-to-Watch-For in regard to UCLA's spring football practice this year. In years past there were a few items per unit, and some things to note in regard to coaching.

But this year's spring practice has far too many Things to Watch For -- with a new offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator, and a true freshman probably getting the majority of the minutes at quarterback.

So, we'll probably miss a few things, but here we go:

OFFENSIVE LINE

The OL got a major boost in the off-season when it learned that Sean Sheller, last year's returning left tackle, was granted a sixth year of eligibility. Just adding that one veteran changes the entire outlook of the OL for next season, and definitely for spring practice.

It helps to soften the blow of losing three starters in left guard Darius Savage, center Ryan Taylor and right guard Eddie Williams.

What also helps to soften the blow is the return of two former starters from injury and academic issues, Jeff Baca and Kai Maiava. Those two, if able to play last season, would have been starting over Savage and Taylor. So, with their return, UCLA is really only trying to find one new starter for the fall season. And it looks like it's already found it in true sophomore Chris Ward at right guard.

In other words, UCLA's offensive line might be in the best shape it's been in entering spring practice in many years.

Spring Projected Depth Chart:

LT: Sean Sheller (SR, 6-5, 315), Connor Bradford (JR, 6-5, 278)
LG: Jeff Baca (JR, 6-4, 304), Stan Hasiak (SO, 6-5 301)
C: Kai Maiava (SR, 6-1, 318), Greg Capella (SO, 6-4, 310), Kody Innes (R-FR, 6-4 285)
RG: Chris Ward (SO, 6-4, 325), Casey Griffiths (SO, 6-5, 292), Wade Yandall (R-FR, 6-4, 329)
RT: Mike Harris (SR, 6-5, 334), Brett Downey (JR, 6-7, 305)

Things to Watch:

-- As always, the biggest issue for the OL in spring is health. While this is a good-looking depth chart, it's one injury away from the depth falling away like dominoes.

-- The return of Baca and Maiava. After having to sit out, they are expected to be 100%, or at least close to it, for spring. Baca, having sat out due to academics, should be hungry to re-establish himself.

-- Ward moving into the starting spot at right guard. He really was impressive last season, not redshirting as a true freshman and getting some playing time. He now has had some time to get in better physical shape, so that will be something to note. He's considered a star of the future.

-- Depth at tackle. Bradford has bounced all over the depth chart, from offense to defense, to tight end and back again. He might athletically be best suited for left tackle, but just not physical enough, so he's going to get a look there this spring to see if he can hold up. If he could provide any kind of depth it'd be considered a positive. Downey, the former walk-on, is a question in terms of providing playable depth. UCLA does have some true freshmen coming into the program, most noteworthy being Torian White, but it's questionable whether he'll be physically able to do the same thing that Chris Ward did last season and provide a solid back-up option as a true freshman, especially at such a critical OL spot as left tackle. So, watch for UCLA to perhaps try to find more back-up options at tackle. Baca would certainly be the first to be moved there if need be, and then Hasiak, Griffiths or Yandall would be next in line to step in at guard. It's a shame that Griffiths will miss spring because of back issues.

-- Center Depth. Maiava was the slated starter last season but then broke his ankle. UCLA was lucky to have someone of the caliber of Taylor be able to step in. This spring they'll see if the have anyone who has that type of potential. Capella as well-documented snapping issues. Innes, who was pretty highly-touted out of high school, has now had his true freshman year to improve physically and make a mark this spring.

WIDE RECEIVER

It's not very often when a team has more depth in spring practice than it did in fall. If UCLA were completely healthy at wide receiver that would be the case. The Bruins return all of their receivers from last season, and they add Notre Dame transfer Shaquelle Evans. The problem, as always, is injuries; Jerry Johnson is completely out for spring, still recovering from off-season surgery on his ankle, and Evans will only see limited practice due to off-season surgery on his shoulder.

Spring Projected Depth Chart:

SE: Nelson Rosario (SR, 6-5, 218), Randall Carroll (JR, 5-10, 186), Jerry Johnson (JR, 6-4, 213), Shaquelle Evans (SO, 6-1, 199)
FL: Taylor Embree (SR, 6-3, 205), Josh Smith (SR, 6-0, 209), Ricky Marvray (SO, 5-11, 190), <i>Jerry Rice (SO, 5-11, 186)</i>

Things to Watch:

-- Mike Johnson, the new OC, also takes over the duties of wide receiver coach. From what we've heard, he's made a big impact on the receivers after being in the program a short time, instilling a high-level of discipline and work ethic. In fact, we heard that Carroll considered transferring right after Johnson arrived, after the two had a run-in. It will really be something to note how the receivers group looks different at all this spring under Johnson's influence.

-- Seniors stepping up. The wide receiving group at UCLA is long overdue. There's enough talent there, but there hasn't been enough production. We'll put some blame on the offensive scheme the last few seasons, but it's now time that long-time starters Rosario and Embree started producing. This spring will be an indication of whether that's a possibility.

-- While we heard that Carroll had that run-in with Johnson, we've also heard that since that initial flare-up, Carroll has really buckled down. In fact, the buzz is that Carroll, with that elite sprinter speed, is going to be a highly-featured weapon in the passing arsenal, so be watching for that this spring.

TIGHT END, F-BACK

Talking about having some mystery at a certain position going into spring, the F-back spot would be the place. We're not even sure if the F-back will look or function anything like it did last season. We're being told the offense will look more often like a spread than anything else, and that could mean the F-back lines up just about anywhere, or isn't even in the game.

Then, UCLA will have a new coach, Jim Mastro, coaching the tight ends and F-backs. He's billed as a knowledgeable run game guy, and someone who, coming from Nevada, knows the Pistol. He'll be UCLA's first tight ends coach under Rick Neuheisel.

Projected Spring Depth Chart

TE: Cory Harkey (SR, 6-5, 273), Joseph Fauria (JR, 6-7, 258), John Young (R-FR, 6-3, 265), <i>Kevin McDermott (JR, 6-5, 250), </i>
F: Anthony Barr (SO, 6-5, 238), Morrell Presley (JR, 6-4, 245), Damien Thigpen (JR, 5-8, 183)

Things to Watch:

-- Mastro. Being new, and at a new coaching spot on the staff, everything about him and his coaching role will be new.

-- How will the F position function in the offense? The three guys listed on the F position depth chart represent three clearly different types of players. Barr is a big running back type, who looks like a tight end. Presley is a tight end/wide receiver and Thigpen is a scatback. Neuheisel, in the conference call from last week, said they wanted to give Barr a look at running the ball more. All three of them represent a wide range of capabilities out of that position. But it's really a mystery, and one of the most exciting aspects of UCLA's spring practice, how this position is going to function in the offense, especially with the different talents of those three players.

-- The depth at tight end. Young redshirted last year due to a shoulder injury, so this will be the first time we really get a look at him. Whether he can actually be an option at tight end is a key to the depth there. Harkey's weight was eye-popping when the depth chart came out last week. He might be physically developing into a offensive tackle, since he is a very good blocker, and did tend to drop some passes last season. Whether he can hold onto the ball this spring is a key. It's something to watch, too, if Fauria can actually develop into a weapon.

RUNNING BACK

Compared to the rest of the depth chart heading into spring practice, this is easily the most established, stable and injury-free position on the team. It's not often that UCLA has a returning 1,000-yard runner, a veteran senior, a promising true sophomore and then a much-heralded freshman who is supposed to be better than all of them for the fall, much less spring.

Projected Spring Depth Chart:


Johnathan Franklin (JR, 5-10, 198)
Derrick Coleman (SR, 6-0, 233)
Malcolm Jones (SO, 6-0, 227)
Jordon James (R-FR, 5-11, 193)

What to Watch For:

-- Jones and James. You'd have to think that rather than risk injury to Franklin and Coleman, we're going to be seeing quite a bit of Jones and James in spring. After some flashes as a true freshman, and an off-season to continue to get in better physical shape, you'd expect Jones to have a break-out spring. The word since last fall is that James might have the most talent of any of the running backs, and he had moments in practice where he was very impressive.

-- The position being utilized differently in the new offense. It will be interesting to see how much there are two-back sets, and if, say, two of these guys could line up together in the backfield. Will there be more creativity in the running game, with Johnson, Mastro and Neuheisel now designing the offense and calling the shots, rather than former OC Norm Chow?

QUARTERBACK

As always, the position holds the biggest unknowns heading into practice. With Kevin Prince very limited due his knee surgery (getting just individual reps), and Darius Bell out because of off-season surgery on his non-throwing shoulder, the majority of the team snaps are going to go to Richard Brehaut and Brett Hundley.

Projected Spring Depth Chart:

Kevin Prince (JR, 6-2, 230)
Richard Brehaut (JR, 6-1, 225)
Nick Crissman (JR, 6-3, 226)
Darius Bell (JR, 6-0, 230)
Brett Hundley (FR, 6-4, 225)

Things to Watch For:

-- Of course, Hundley. He graduated early and enrolled at UCLA for winter quarter to be ready for spring practice. He has put on some good weight, and we're hearing that the coaches, particularly Johnson, has been very impressed with him in meetings. We've said so many times over the years that, despite how talented you are, it's a big jump to come in as a true freshman in college and be able to play – effectively. This spring will give us our first hint of whether Hundley can do it. The poor kid is hearing "The Savior of UCLA Football" everywhere, and expectations are far too heightened at this point.

-- Brehaut. He's playing baseball, but will reportedly not miss spring football practice because of it. You have to wonder how focused he'll be on football, though. This was another big chance for him to seize the position, with Prince still limited due to his knee.

-- Prince. We've heard reports that he's recovering ahead of schedule, but he'll be very limited in spring. How he looks and how his knee holds up will be a big indication of whether or not he'll be hindered by the injury next fall.

-- Crissman. C'mon, you have to be pulling for the guy, after all he's been through. We've still heard he could take a medical retirement, but he's coming back this spring to give it another shot.

-- How will the quarterback change in the new offense?

COACHING

UCLA, of course, starts a new era with a new offensive coordinator, and some other key changes in the offensive coaching staff.

What to Watch For:

-- While we've been told things about Johnson's new offense, what to expect, etc., it's still just talk until you see it on the field. There are just too many things to list in terms of what to watch for with the new offense. Basically – everything.

-- Can UCLA get back to having an effective throwing game? This spring will provide a big indication of that under Johnson's new offense.

-- How Mastro will affect the offense. He was brought in as a run game guru, and it will be interesting to see how his philosophy and methods mesh with Johnson's.

-- How quickly the players can get up to speed with the offense and execute it with precision. Perhaps the biggest question concerning UCLA's offense going into next fall isn't even going to be the scheme or the personnel, but whether the personnel can get accustomed to the scheme quickly enough to be fairly seamless. With the introduction of the offense this spring will give us a good idea.





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