The biggest concern on the team going into spring practice was the quarterback position. And while there were a few developments in spring concerning the young quarterbacks vying for the starting position, nothing really substantial occurred that completely alleviated the worry about the position.
Drew Olson (6-2, 213, SO) probably nudged ahead in the depth chart. Olson had a pretty solid spring, losing the weight he had gained (when they weighed him in the off-season before conditioning he was 223), and displaying a good grasp of the new offense. He threw the ball better than the other two quarterbacks for most of the spring, and made the least amount of bad decisions. Olson, though, didn't have what you could describe as a breakout spring where he really stepped up and took control of the starting position. You have to concede that it was a unique situation and possibly one that didn't lend itself to such an occasion – since the quarterbacks were just getting their feet wet with the new offensive system. The coaches wanted to start them off slowly, and in doing so, it didn't give them a big opportunity to really stretch themselves. The coaches, though, will be expecting big things from the quarterbacks in the fall, after having spring practice and the off-season under their belt. The program is hoping that Olson will seize that opportunity and do his stepping-up then.
Matt Moore (6-4, 190, SO), had just
an okay spring, according to sources within the department. Being generally considered the one
between him and Olson that might ultimately have more potential – with more
athleticism and a stronger arm – much was hoped for from
John Sciarra (6-1, 216, R-SO) had a
fairly good spring, which was encouraging.
He made advances in his arm strength, accuracy, decision-making and
ability to throw the ball down the field.
It still probably wasn't enough to supplant
Something to take into strong consideration is how much potentially the summer could affect the development of the quarterbacks. Being young, and early in their learning curve, the four months between now and fall camp could make a signficant difference in their development. Especially for someone like Matt Moore, who has some considerable room to develop physically.
Overall, Olson's spring performance was guardedly encouraging, and Sciarra's performance led many to believe he has a chance to be a functional backup next season. That might be key, since it's thought that sometime in the next two seasons UCLA would like to see if it could get away with redshirting either Olson or Moore for a season. In doing so, it would move one of them to a class behind the other, and give UCLA more, longer-term security at the quarterback position. If, theoretically, both Olson and Moore became good Pac-10 level quarterbacks, it would give UCLA security at quarterback for the next four years, rather than just the next three. It would also behoove whichever quarterback redshirted, since it would, at the very least, give him an open opportunity to start his senior season.
The biggest blow to the offense this spring was the loss of tight end Keith Carter (6-4, 246, R-SO), who seriously injured his hip in a motorcycle accident and underwent surgery. Carter's status is very much up in the air. There is not only the question of when he could return to the team, if he'd be able to return by the upcoming season, but there is also the question of whether Carter will be able to return at all. Or at least, be able to return and have the same physical capabilities he did before the accident.
With the loss of Carter, the tight end position went from one of potentially solid depth, to now one a bit thin and inexperienced. Marcedes Lewis (6-6, 250, SO) had a good spring, looking more comfortable as spring practice went on and shaking off some of the rust from playing basketball. Without Carter, it's critical that Lewis becomes the offensive weapon UCLA needs at tight end. He shows flashes of greatness, and then, at other times, still looks pretty raw catching the ball. The coaching staff is hoping that Lewis, playing just football for the summer and working out, will show more refinement by fall. He is, though, a huge factor in next season's plans.
The loss of Carter shoves more responsibility next season onto some tight ends who previously would have been getting not much more than backup minutes. Blane Kezirian (6-6, 241, R-SR) saw some considerable playing time with the first unit this spring, particularly in two-tight end sets, and the general consensus is that he played solidly this spring. He's not going to be a big offensive threat, but he showed this spring that he has a solid ability to catch the ball, and is a good fundamental blocking tight end. J.J. Hair (6-5, 241, R-FR) also got more time, and looked a bit out of his element. Hair will have to show that he's ready to get some playing time behind Lewis and Kezirian next fall. Walkon Will Peddie (6-5, 263, R-FR) also got some chances this spring, and didn't look too bad. He'll probably get more chances in fall.
The strength of the offense is its
wide receivers, and it was quite evident this spring. Not only is it clear there is some very
elite talent at wide receiver, but there is some depth of talent.
Craig Bragg (6-2, 189, R-JR) was probably the unofficial MVP of spring practice, and has probably become UCLA's #1 offensive weapon. This spring, he showed that his game has continued to improve. He is almost uncoverable for a defensive back. He has some uncanny moves that he uses to separate so easily from his defender. And he has excellent hands. There wasn't a let down this spring, with Bragg bringing his "A" game every day in practice. That consistency of quality from Bragg is probably what was the most encouraging.
Impressive – but a bit inconsistent – this spring was Tab Perry, (6-3, 215, SR). Perry looked physically better, looking leaner and quicker. He also had better energy this spring in practice than we've ever seen in Perry's time at UCLA. He also was probably less inconsistent than he has been in the past, but still, nonetheless, still a bit inconsistent in holding onto the ball. Perry, with his physical gifts, has the potential for a huge senior season. The word is that working with new wide receiver coach Jon Embree will give him his best chance of achieving it – that Embree is pushing Perry pretty hard.
Having somewhat of a steady but a
somewhat quiet spring was Junior Taylor (6-2, 197, SO).
Making the wide receivers even more talented and deep was the re-establishment of Ryan Smith (6-3, 213, R-SR) in spring. Smith, who was slowed by a persistent ankle injury last year, looked very strong all spring, with very precise routes and hands. If he stays healthy, he's probably locked himself into one of the five receivers in the rotation for next season.
The battle for that fifth receiver spot was one of the most entertaining aspects of spring practice. Former walkon Garrettt Lepisto (6-2, 197, R-SR) would have to be the incumbent, but he's going to get pushed for playing time by some younger players that showed some ability this spring. Perhaps the biggest threat to get some playing time as a result of his spring performance was Idris Moss (5-11, 162, R-FR). Moss is one of the quickest – if not the quickest – players on the team. He has excellent feet, and very good moves. He still needs polish in his pass-catching technique and overall route-running, but he showed enough this spring to get the eye of the coaching staff. One player you can't really ever count out is Jacques Lazarus (6-2, 184, R-SO). Lazarus is generally thought to be one of the best few athletes on the team, in terms of agility and speed. He looked more refined this spring, and able to sustain effort better, with the new coaching staff staying on him. Antwuan Smith (5-11, 185, FR), enrolling in winter quarter, had a good first spring practice. He was obviously rusty, but once he got warmed up, showed some ability. He has good technique and good hands, and could also be an option at punt/kickoff return down the line.
A unique potential option also at wide receiver was converted safety Jibril Raymo (6-3, 203, JR). Raymo switched to receiver with about a week left in spring practice, and actually took to it pretty quickly. He probably looks more comfortable as a receiver than he does at safety, being better at running routes than making defensive reads and reactions. His hands were a bit rusty catching the ball, but came around after a few days. Raymo talked about potentially redshirting next season, to give him a better chance at playing at wide receiver in the future. The word is that UCLA feels it's pretty well stocked at safety and they could allow Raymo to redshirt. If, though, he's needed at safety for any reason, the receiver experiment would end pretty quickly. After a summer of work at receiver, it will be interesting to see how much Raymo has improved by fall, and even though it's unlikely, if he's good enough to contend for playing time at wide receiver next season.
Running back is also another area of strength for UCLA's offense, as exhibited this spring. Tyler Ebell (5-9, 171, R-SO) looked like he came to spring all business, in great shape, and having even improved his quickness. He looked far more confident and instinctual running the ball all spring. Manuel White (6-3, 247, R-JR) looked like a monster, lining up both at fullback and at tailback. Both caught the ball very well out of the backfield all spring, too. What was also very encouraging was to see Akil Harris (6-0, 213, R-SR) run the ball very well this spring, with power and authority. Wendell Mathis (6-0193, R-SO) got some considerable time at tailback, and had just an okay overall outing. He physically looks good, and once he recognizes a hole, is good at filling it and getting into the defensive backfield. He still looks like he's struggling a bit in recognizing holes, though.
The fullbacks, after White, are a bit better than just solid. Pat Norton (6-1, 253, R-JR) had a good spring, showing a good blocking ability, with also good hands out of the backfield. J.D. Groves (6-2, 240, SO) also looked good during spring, fighting with Norton for playing time. All of them rotated with the #1 offense at times, and all are expected to get playing time, at least, early on, next fall.
Perhaps the biggest worry on the team besides quarterback was the offensive line going into spring practice. And actually, it was probably the biggest worry on the team after a week or so of spring. The word is that the offensive line didn't look great at the beginning of spring, and it showed in the way the defense dominated practice early on. The coaches, though, generally thought that the OL showed some marked improvement by the end of April. While Steve Vieira (6-6, 305, R-JR) was thought to be a mainstay on the line, he made a move from guard to tackle, and didn't get in the groove really until late in spring practice. Shane Lehmann (6-5, 296, R-SR) predominantly filled the vacant starting guard spot, and had generally good reviews. Ed Blanton (6-9, 325, R-SO) filled the other vacant starting tackle spot and, like the rest of the line, struggled early, but gelled more toward the end. Mike McCloskey (6-5, 272, R-SO), at center, might be considered the best offensive lineman on the team. Eyoseph Efseaff (6-3, 305, R-JR) will be a third-year starter next season and, with experience, a solid aspect of the line.
The loss of two backup OLs this spring (Matt Mosebar and Elliot Vallejo both left the team) was a sizeable hit to the depth of the OL. Paul Mociler (6-5, 301, R-JR) becomes very important with those losses, since he'll be the first guy off the bench. Backup center Robert Chai (6-3, 277, R-FR) got a look at guard because of his quickness, and with the lack of depth, he could be asked to backup there next season. Robert Cleary (6-7, 304, R-SO) has improved physically, but the program is still waiting for him to step up. He'll be needed to fill out the two-deep and give the coaches a viable option in case of injury. Alex Potasi (6-6, 300, R-FR) didn't participate due to a knee injury, but in running drills, looked liked he could be ready to join the two-deep next fall. Potasi is key; considered a good talent, he would give the line the depth it needs next season having lost so many bodies in recent years.
The general consensus coming out of spring practice from the coaching staff and the program was optimism. The new offensive coaches were a bit surprised by just how much talent is on the team. They feel good about the quarterbacks, feeling there is enough talent – and it's developed enough – that they'll be able to get the production they need from the position next year. The concern for many in the program had shifted somewhat to the offensive line halfway through April, but the offensive line made strides in the last two weeks of spring practice and calmed many worries.