On defense, one of the biggest things to watch going into spring practice was how the new Defensive Coordinator, Joe Tresey, and new defensive line coach, Inoke Breckterfield, worked in practice, and how well the players would take to the "new scheme."
Tresey immediately brought a new energy to the field, talking constantly, running from sideline to sideline to give instructions, etc. Breckterfield also brought intensity to the DL drills and the rest of practice.
The scheme itself, as we said, didn't look that different to the casual observer. But the players commented about how there was a basic change in philosophy – repeating that Tresey had simplified things a bit to allow the players to fly around more and not have to think as much. For going into a spring practice not knowing all the intricacies of the scheme, the defense looked very comfortable, and did look like they played instinctually.
While Tresey didn't overload the team with a huge amount of blitzing schemes in spring, he did install quite a few, and it showed, with blitzes coming from different positions and spots on the field. We're hearing we should expect the defense (as well as the offense) to continue to change in subtle but significant ways when fall practice kicks off in August. Tresey used the spring to install his basic scheme, get the players acclimated, and then to also get to know his talent. We're told that Tresey will build on that even more in fall practice and continue to add blitz packages.
It was interesting that many of the defensive players cited a whole new approach to some fundamentals, like footwork and stance, this spring. In a post-spring-game interview, senior linebacker Sean Westgate said that he practically overhauled much of his fundamentals, and he said the details helped him in being more effective.
If you talk to the defensive linemen, Breckterfield got very good reviews. As it has started to come out, such as in interviews with graduated defensive tackle David Carter, there were many technical aspects of playing the DL that weren't being emphasized previously, and Breckterfield's hire was intended to solve that, and bring a higher level of intensity to the DL coaching, and reports are it was accomplished this spring.
One of the brightest spots on the team for spring practice was the defensive line – the burgeoning talent and the depth. It was punctuated by the return of Datone Jones to the practice field, the defensive end who sat out all of last season after breaking his foot in fall camp. Jones was expected to be a potential star last season, and this spring it looked like it had only been put off a few months because of the injury. Jones was dominating at times, looking like an NFL lineman against college players trying to block him.
One of the surprises of the spring was the play of Damien Holmes, the junior defensive end, on the other side. It was highly expected that vastly talented sophomore Owamagbe Odighizuwa would seize the starting spot pretty quickly in spring, but Holmes started out as the starter and kept it throughout practice. And it wasn't done primarily as motivation for Owa; the word is that Holmes deserved it as a result of his play. Tresey praised him a number of times for his performance during the spring. It makes you worry a bit about Owa – whether he's going to be one of those guys that looks like an NFL player but doesn't play like one – but, on the other hand, if Holmes can beat out Owa then Holmes has to be pretty good.
Iuta Tepa also returned after last year's injury, and backed up Jones, and looked good. Keenan Graham sat out spring after off-season surgery on his hip, and spent the afternoons at Spaulding on a motorized cart. Derrick Bryant, the redshirt freshman, saw his first time after sitting out most of last season, and while he passes the eyeball test, it was tough to get much of a read on him this spring. True freshman Sam Tai, who should be a senior in high school right now but enrolled early and participated in spring practice, had his moments. Tai was listed at 264, and that could be the case, but if this is how big he is as the equivalent of a high school senior, without any college weight lifting or benefit of the training table, it's not a stretch to expect Tai to end up moving from defensive end to defensive tackle. Watching him this spring he clearly looked more like a DT in the way he moved. Redshirt freshman defensive end Wesley Flowers, now at 6-4 and still a rangy 264, still looked fairly raw, but had some definite moments.
Inside on the DL, UCLA had a number of players who stepped up this spring. Sophomore Cassius Marsh moved from the 1s and 2s every few days, but was regarded as having a good spring. Many in the program are saying to expect a good season from senior Justin Edison. The two guys that really took a step forward were senior Nate Chandler and junior Donovan Carter. Chandler, now having been at a position for a while, looked very comfortable in spring, and at times was very difficult to block with his combination of size and quickness. Carter, the former linebacker, now looks like his transformation to defensive tackle is complete, looking very effective this spring, particularly in run stuffing. Seali'i Epenesa, to be blunt, wasn't heard from that much this spring.
Many BRO readers are still very curious about the status of Brandon Willis, the defensive tackle who transferred to UCLA after a few month at North Carolina and sat out last season – and then left UCLA a couple of months ago with the intention of returning to North Carolina to be with his ailing grandmother. Here's the latest update on Willis, and it appears highly likely that he'll be at North Carolina.
The linebackers looked promising this spring. It was hard to get the full picture when such a critical part of it – middle linebacker Patrick Larimore – was in a red, no-hit jersey for practice and didn't participate in any team. Sophomore Isaiah Bowens got most of the reps at #1 middle linebacker, and was one of the best surprises of the spring. He's leaned down some and really showed improved mobility. So, it was curious when Jordan Zumwalt, the sophomore, who had been working behind Bowens for most of spring practice, was given the nod to start in the spring game. Zumwalt had a very good spring game, and generally a good spring practice. Inside the program the word is that there was some displeasure with Zumwalt's work ethic in the off-season, and they are now hoping that, after spring practice, he'll put in the work between now and August. Zumwalt is, well, sort of a free spirit who enjoys college life tremendously.
At weakside there was the stalwart Westgate, who actually didn't get that many snaps this spring, merely because the coaches wanted to get a look at others. Many in the program were saying that Eric Kendricks, the redshirt freshman, would be the next big thing at linebacker, and he looked exceptional this spring, aggressive and with a nose for the ball. JC transfer Ryan Hofmeister was actually a pleasant surprise, making some plays in various scrimmages, and the coaches believe he'll at least be able to lend quality depth next season.
At strongside, veteran Glenn Love worked mostly with the 1s, and while he's seemingly under-weight for the position, he did well. He has always had a knack for slicing through defenders to get to the ball carrier, and being a big hitter, and he showed some of that this spring. Redshirt freshman Aramide Olaniyan worked with the 2s and he's also underweight, but he generally got good reviews in spring, looking quick. He's very raw, having never been coached as a linebacker, so it's starting from square one with him. True freshman Aaron Wallace certainly passed the eyeball test physically, but looked very raw in the linebacker drills.
Spring was definitely an opportunity for some of the younger safeties to show what they have. Projected starting free safety Dalton Hilliard sat out all of spring practice because of off-season knee surgery, and then veteran strong safety Tony Dye went down with a knee injury of his own. That created some opportunities for Dietrich Riley, Alex Mascarenas, Stan McKay and Tevin McDonald. The youngsters got a lot of time and it gave the coaches quite a bit to watch and consider. Riley still looks like he's not quite there yet in terms of getting it all the time but, of course, the athleticism is there. Many in the program praise Mascarenas; even though he's undersized, he's smart and always in position. He's being called the safety version of Sean Westgate. There was a lot of buzz in the off-season about McDonald, that he was looking very good in the off-season workouts; in spring practice he did step up some, but also showed that he was still some distance away from getting all of the mental aspects of the game. There were a few times when Tresey laid into him for missing an assignment. McKay quietly had a solid spring, and even improved his stock in the eyes of the coaches. True freshman Anthony Thompson started first at cornerback and switched to safety. He definitely is a good-looking physical specimen, but after a pretty overwhelming spring it's far too early to determine if he'll be able to contribute.
The two returning starters are cornerback – Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester – had very good springs. Price showed his same good cover abilities, but perhaps the biggest step up came from Hester, who looked far more effortless in his coverage, particularly in not having to hold like he had in the past. The coaches were particularly excited about Hester's development. Behind them were the two steady, long-time back-ups, Courtney Viney and Andrew Abbott. Abbott looked to be the #1 nickel back, and both looked solid all spring. It was regrettable that Anthony Jefferson was still sitting out due to the foot injury. One of the coaches said perhaps the biggest disappointment among the injured this spring was that Jefferson wouldn't benefit from the spring practice. He did, though, look quite a bit bigger in his upper body when standing on the sideline watching practice, so it's clear he's putting in the work in the weight room. Brandon Sermons, who spent last season returning from a broken leg, switched back to cornerback in spring, and still appeared that he had a long way to go.
Special teams was a bit of a mystery in spring, to what seemed like the frustration of new Special Teams coach Angus McClure. First, starting punter Jeff Locke, who should be an All-American candidate, didn't participate in spring due to a hip injury. Yes, a hip injury to a kicker is definitely something that should be of concern, even though UCLA is saying he'll be fine by August. Because of the absence of Locke, and wanting to concentrate on offense/defense, there wasn't much special teams in spring practice. There was no live kick-off or punt returns, just run-throughs.
With All-American kicker Kai Forbath gone, and Locke hurt, redshirt freshman Kip Smith got a big opportunity this spring – and didn't really seize it. He looked shaky kicking field goals most of spring, very inconsistent from day to day, from kick to kick. You'd have to say that Smith probably has a bit of a lead over Locke heading into fall, but the door is very much open for Locke to potentially be the place kicker in fall as well as the punter. We've heard that Neuheisel is considering bringing in a JC place-kicker by fall for insurance.
All-American longsnapper Christian Yount also needed to be replaced, and walk-on Kevin McDermott stepped in and did solidly all spring. The holder for spring was mostly Locke, but there would obviously be an issue if he emerged as the clearly better place-kicker in fall. It'd be pretty difficult for Locke to both be the holder and the place-kicker (unless he was exceptionally quick). Mascarenas, it appears, would be the next in line as the holder.
Kick-off and punt returns appeared to be the responsibility of the usual suspects. Taylor Embree is the trustworthy punt returner, while Josh Smith is the guy they'd like to be more consistent catching the ball so they'd get more of a punt return threat. Jordon James also got reps as a punt returner. But it was only run-through drills, merely catching the ball, so no real decisions could be made in terms of who would get first-string duties. It was basically the same with kick-off returns, with Smith and a number of other guys trading off catching them.
Overall, it was a very informative spring practice, giving observers the first real glimpse of how the new offense and defense would function, the dynamic of the coaching staff with the new additions, and the talent and depth of the team.
To be candid, it was one of the best spring practices in recent memory, in terms of performance from both units, but also in terms of depth. Spring practice is notorious for many units and positions being very thin. In years past it wasn't uncommon for UCLA to conduct a spring practice with 5 scholarship defensive backs total. It was impressive to look out on Spaulding Field and, at least, see a good amount of bodies at every position.
Except for the snake-bitten offensive line. As we said in Part 1, the OL will be a huge key – if not the key – to the 2011 season, and that was the clear takeaway from spring practice.