Spring Practice Takeaways: Part 1

With UCLA's spring football practice in the books, here are some of the things we saw and concluded, including who is the most important player on the team (and it's not a quarterback), the effect of the new coaches, and more...

In our spring football preview, we said this spring there'd be an enormous amount to watch for on Spaulding Field.

With spring camp now complete, to be candid, there simply weren't that many dramatic developments compared to pre-spring expectations.

The offense, under new Offensive Coordinator Mike Johnson, to the casual observer, doesn't look much different than it did last season. While Rick Neuheisel said they're doing some split back formation, from our observation it's been about 95% out of the Pistol.

The defense, under new Defensive Coordinator Jim Tresey, is still operating out of the 4-3 with on occasional nickel, which is pretty much exactly what UCLA's defense has been in recent memory.

So, if you walked out onto Spaulding any time in the last three weeks, or watched the Spring Game, as a UCLA fan anticipating the offense and defense looking dramatically different you might have been disappointed.

On the other hand, we asserted that UCLA's biggest issue next season could be getting up to speed with a new offensive and defensive scheme, and the fact that both the offense and defense don't have to experience such a drastic learning curve is good.

That's not to say there hasn't been some significant differences in the offensive and defensive approaches, but it certainly isn't on the level of a complete overhaul of the schemes.

Offensively, it's clear that UCLA is sticking with the Pistol as its base formation, but Neuheisel wants to do it quite a bit better. He wants to throw the ball better, to improve on the passing game's dismal performance in 2010, and even upgrade what was a solid running game last season.

He's implementing what it will take to do that through three difference coaching changes – Jim Mastro, who is by title the Tight Ends/F-Backs coach, working on improving the running game out of the Pistol, Johnson improving the passing game, and Neuheisel himself working more closely with the quarterbacks.

You might have noticed a recurring theme in the player interviews this spring – with many of them commenting how there's been an emphasis on fundamentals, particularly positioning and footwork, in the offensive skill positions. Every practice Mastro and Neuheisel worked with the quarterbacks and the running backs in the zone read, with Mastro trying to get the footwork of the quarterbacks exactly correct. From what we've heard freshman quarterback Brett Hundley picked it up quickly, Kevin Prince is solid, while Richard Brehaut had a tendency to be a little rough around the edges but was pretty solid by the end of spring practice.

The running game, too, has changed, even if it looks subtle. With the implementation of the strongside/weakside approach to the offensive line, the running game is different in terms of how the OL moves in combination with the running backs hitting certain holes. It is subtle, but there is far more diversity in terms of what hole a running back intends to hit than last season. The OL, having moved to the strongside/weakside, will increase its options in terms of what the running game does on each side of the field, and be far more difficult for a defense to read. We've also heard that there is far more sophistication in the zone read for the quarterbacks as a result of Mastro's influence, knowing what keys to recognize in pulling the ball out, which further increases the running game's options and the difficulty of the defense to read.

It still might look like the running game is merely handing the ball off for the tailback to hit a hole tackle-to-tackle, but the sophistication of the execution and its diversity has improved.

The passing game is the aspect of the offense that needed the biggest upgrade, and Johnson has started with going back to basics with the receivers, emphasizing stance, footwork and precision in route running. Johnson has also used some more sophisticated elements to the route running; we've seen more moves to the routes, increasing the chances of the receivers to get separation. He's also implemented the use of certain routes that Norm Chow didn't, such as an out and a slant. The players have pretty much raved about Johnson and his work to upgrade the passing game. It was clear it had a considerable impact on the efficiency of the passing game, with the quarterbacks and receivers far more consistent this spring in completing some of the bread-and-butter routes that the UCLA offense seemed to struggle with last season.

In terms of the offensive personnel, it was a disappointing spring session, mostly because the one unit that couldn't afford to suffer injuries – the offensive line – was the one that did.

Jeff Baca, who many consider UCLA's best offensive lineman, broke his leg in just the spring's second practice, even before putting on pads. It was particularly tragic since Baca had just returned from sitting out all of last season. Sean Sheller then broke his hand halfway through April and sat out most of the remainder of practice. Then starting center Kai Maiava tweaked his ankle, the same one that kept him out all of last season. So, the unit was without three starters for most of spring.

There are three things to take away from these developments on the OL. First and foremost, it illustrates how thin the OL is. With these injuries the starting offensive line this spring was made up of Brett Downey, a former walk-on, and Connor Bradford, a player who has moved from position to position and probably weighs 270 pounds. Bottom line, next fall, UCLA needs to keep its OL healthy. On the bright side, it did offer the opportunity for some young players to develop this spring, which is a legitimate upside. Thirdly, Baca, Sheller and Maiava are expected to be back by fall. However, while Sheller and Maiava should be fine by August, Baca – who is the key – might not be back until September. This is particularly significant; Baca could miss the month of August, all of fall camp. He'd rejoin practice in September and be behind a month. It would probably take him a while to get up to speed, so UCLA, with an OL already thin, could be without its most important offensive lineman for some of September.

Baca is perhaps more important than any player on the team. Seriously. Given the state of the OL, how thin it is, his presence tips the OL toward being pretty good, and his absense tips it toward being pretty mediocre. Baca, because of that, is probably even more important than the quarterbacks. Seriously. Because without an effective OL even the best quarterback in the country would be running around avoiding a pass rush, or the tailbacks would be barely able to get to the line of scrimmage. Scheming and play-calling can offset a mediocre offensive line – but only to a degree.

The key to UCLA's season in 2011 will be its offensive line – and getting Baca back for a majority of it, healthy, is the key to the offensive line.

In spring, without Baca, Sheller and Maiava, UCLA's thin, makeshift OL ended up consisting of Bradford at weakside tackle, Stan Hasiak at weakside guard, Greg Capella at center, Chris Ward at strongside tackle, and Downey and veteran Mike Harris alternating at strongside tackle. When Sheller went down, Hasiak and Wade Yandall were the two competing to step up into that vacant guard spot. Yandall suffered a concussion in the last week of practice, but Hasiak appeared to be establishing himself even before Yandall went down.

A completely healthy OL depth chart would like this:

WT: Jeff Baca, Connor Bradford, Torian White (incoming frosh)
WG: Sean Sheller, Stan Hasiak, Ben Wysocki (frosh)
C: Kai Maiava, Greg Capella, Jacob Brendel (frosh)
SG: Chris Ward, Wade Yandall, Casey Griffiths, Kody Innes
ST: Mike Harris, Brett Downey, Will Oliver (frosh), Connor McDermott (frosh)

Griffiths also sat out spring ball. He's expected to be good enough to potentially lend quality depth in fall.

If it's healthy, you have three seniors, four former starters, and the one new starter, Ward, being a budding star. For depth, you then would have Hasiak and Yandall as your first guys off the bench.

If it's unhealthy it could look something like it did this spring.

Issues to watch for in fall camp:

-- The recovery of Baca
-- Maiava's condition. Will issues with the ankle persist?
-- Will the back-up center, Capella, continue to have errant snap issues?
-- Is Torian White good enough as a true freshman to be a back-up option?
-- Can Bradford put on some good weight and get up to about 290? The coaches think he's fairly athletic, and has good enough feet, but needs weight and strength. But that would only, ideally, be as a back-up option. At this point, though, with how the OL is snakebit, it's critical Bradford get to playing weight.
-- Will Harris assert himself and clearly win back the starting tackle spot? Not to insult Downey, but it's a worry that a two-year starter could lose his spot to the former walk-on. It's more a reflection on how Harris needs to improve rather than how good Downey is. One of the reasons UCLA went to the strongside/weakside was to give Harris, or whomever is the weaker starting tackle, help from the tight end.
-- Neuheisel could potentially bring in an additional JC offensive lineman for fall.

In spring practice, in our observation, the OL, while missing three starters, has done pretty much what it has in recent years – been fairly effective in the run game, but struggled to provide protection in the passing game. It could be that UCLA's defensive line is exceptional at getting to the quarterback, but UCLA's OL continued to look vulnerable in pass protection.

What we've heard helped the development of the OL this spring was the addition of Angus McClure as a coach on the field. McClure was UCLA's On-Campus Recruiting Coordinator, but was moved back to an on-field coach, taking over the title of Special Teams Coach. In practice, though, McClure worked a great deal with OL coach Bob Palcic and the OL this spring, and having that additional coach there we've heard was greatly helpful.

The quarterback spot has been the most interesting so far this spring. Of course, there was the debut of true freshman Hundley, who performed at the level you would just about expect. He's clearly a superior prospect, and has all the tools to be an elite college quarterback. But as we all expected, it might not be soon. One one hand he looked more purely talented in his first 15 practices on Spaulding Field than just about any quarterback we've seen, having a strong arm, an ability to make every throw, a presence and the considerable athleticism to create with his legs. The plays he made running out of the Pistol during spring were exceptional. On the other hand, he was clearly overwhelmed by being thrust into a college football offense in what should be the spring of his high school senior year. He showed a tendency to pull it down and run quite a bit, mostly because he's just not seeing the field well yet, and not grasping the offense entirely. He also showed a tendency to throw behind receivers, also clearly a result of seeing things too slowly at this point.

It will be interesting to see how Hundley improves even between now and fall practice in August. While we're still skeptical that he'll be able to get up to speed and master it all quickly enough to win the starting spot in September, he's shown at least that he's talented enough that there's a chance. And you can't predict how fast it will all start to click for him.

Of course, Kevin Prince could only participate in some individual drills and limited 7-on-7 for spring, and this all gave Richard Brehaut a chance to seize the spot. If you listen to Offensive Coordinator Mike Johnson in his comments in the video interview after the spring game, it seems pretty clear that Brehaut didn't accomplish that. Brehaut, in our opinion, made some significant strides in spring, throwing far more consistently and appearing to have far more confidence in knowing the offense. He strung together more practices this spring where you would come away thinking that he looked like a starting quarterback. Yes, there were some trip-ups, and some of that, at least, had to do with adapting to a new OC, new terminology, and many aspects of the offense that had changed since last season. But overall, it was a clear step forward for Brehaut.

Prince told us that he'll be completely cleared soon, and we heard it could be within a month. While in spring you couldn't directly compare Prince to Brehaut and Hundley, since he didn't do much, in the drills he did participate in Prince still looked like the starting quarterback. He threw the most accurate, strong ball, and most consistently. From what we all know previously, Prince is the best in the film room and grasping the offense. We'd expect Prince to be the frontrunner for the starting spot in fall, and we've heard that the coaches expect it too. The problem, though, as it's always been for Prince, is his durability. Whether the string of injuries he's suffered in his UCLA career is a result of pure bad luck or that he's fragile is anyone's guess. Prince might never have another significant injury in his last two years at UCLA. He could, though, continue to get injured. Because of the history, UCLA's coaches know they have to be prepared regardless – and that means having Brehaut prepared to be the #1 guy by September.

While the uncertainty at quarterback is naturally worrisome, spring saw some of the best quarterbacking on Spaulding Field from a collective group in recent memory. Brehaut had improved, Prince (while limited) looked strong, and Hundley showed flashes of his talent. Even Nick Crissman, who was healthy and contributed for all of spring practice, showed the capability of executing the offense. While we're not expecting Darius Bell to compete for the starting spot next fall, it has to be said, too, that this was all done without him, since he sat out spring with a shoulder injury.

We can't remember a spring practice when UCLA was so deep at both running back and receiver. When was the last time you could say UCLA had a returning 1,000-yard rusher, a reliable senior running back, a high school All-American as a sophomore and a potential star as a redshirt freshman? Then, add to that a 6-5, 240-pound tailback? Johnathan Franklin looked like he had taken his game to the next level this spring, appearing even more explosive, and running with more authority and confidence. Derrick Coleman, too, looked good and more confident. Malcolm Jones struggled for a good portion of spring, looking fairly tentative while still struggling with blocking, but he picked it up in the last week of spring practice and had a good performance in the spring game. Jordon James, the freshman, showed the most elusiveness, which earned him the nickname of "Joystick." He's one of the guys on the list of new players that many within the program expect to make an impact next fall. Then, throw in Anthony Barr, who worked with the running backs as well as the F-backs during spring. Neuheisel believes Barr is a superior talent and wants to get the ball in his hands, and this spring we saw Barr running the ball from the tailback and F-back spots. He got quite a few touches in the spring game.

The wide receiver and tight end depth charts look well stacked. Perhaps the best development of the spring was the emergence of Nelson Rosario as truly a potential star. He's teased us over the last three seasons, but this spring he consistently performed at a very high level, and looked focused for the entire month. We've heard that Johnson's presence as wide receiver coach and OC has had a profound effect on Rosario, and as he himself stated in a BRO interview, his own maturity.

With the impact of Johnson, the receivers looked very good as a group. Taylor Embree looked strong and effective as a veteran possession receiver. Randall Carroll was able to exhibit his moves and speed. Ricky Marvray had a good spring, showing the ability to make a catch in traffic. Josh Smith looked more like the pre-injury version of himself that we saw at the beginning of last fall. Shaquelle Evans, the transfer from Notre Dame, while still in a red, no-hit jersey, had some very impressive moments. And this was all without Jerry Johnson, who is expected to be a big contributor but was out because of injury. Even Jerry Rice, the walk-on, had a very good spring, enough to give the coaches confidence in playing him.

The tight ends and F-backs looked deep. Cory Harkey did drop a few balls, but looked more consistent. Joseph Fauria looked the best he has since coming to UCLA (he attributed it to being the healthiest he's been in Westwood). Morrell Presley showed up on Spaulding Field at a good 245 pounds and looking like a tight end, and he put in most of his work at that position in spring and produced. John Young had a solid week and a half of spring before he re-injured his shoulder, but the coaches were encouraged by how he performed before the injury. Damien Thigpen, the F-back, sat the last week or so because of a hamstring injury, but up until that point it was clear that Neuheisel intends to get the speedster touches.

Part Two is coming soon…

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