One week into fall camp, we know that UCLA offensive coordinator Mike Johnson and defensive coordinator Joe Tresey were not just talking to hear themselves talk when it came to the expectations for their groups, the energy they would bring to the meeting rooms and practice field or the emphasis on fundamentals and execution.
We know that the addition of tight ends/F-backs coach Jim Mastro is a huge spur in the development of the offense from the Bruins' Pistol formation.
We know that the depth on the defensive side of the football has gotten much better – seemingly overnight. The names are basically the same as they were in the spring, but some key players have taken significant steps forward in their development, some strong additions have joined or rejoined the mix, and that depth is now more than just bodies in blue jerseys.
We know there still are questions, too, most of them on offense.
The kicking game is a huge question mark. The offensive line, lacking experienced depth, will be a concern from Game One to Game 12, or Game 13. Until Jeff Baca can return, an injury to a lineman, particularly a tackle, will put the Bruins in a tough spot. Quarterback play is an issue right now, perhaps more than anticipated. History also has to be a big concern. Having seen some offense that hasn't shown up yet on the practice field, it seems the only thing that can slow down this thing is operator error. While the offense out of the Pistol formation is well ahead of where it was at this time a year ago, it is up to the players to make that pay dividends.
And, as Nelson Rosario proved midweek, some habits are hard to break.
He is not the only one, obviously. Need we go over the numbers again? UCLA last season ranked 118th among 120 bowl subdivision teams in passing efficiency, 107th in tackles for loss allowed, 106th in turnovers lost, 104th in scoring offense and red zone offense, 95th in third-down conversion percentage, 89th in fewest penalties per game.
That said, we do also know the Bruins have a chance, mainly because there has been a lot to like.
We like Owamagbe Odighizuwa. Though gifted physically, Owa looked a little lost when given opportunities last season as a true freshman and even into the spring. We made the mistake of making a few snide comments about the quality of high school football in the state of Oregon to defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield last spring – hey, I know he went to Oregon State but it's not like he went to high school in Oregon. But Owa, who didn't need great technique (or any technique) to excel in high school, is putting the pieces together. He had a very productive summer and looks like he can be a very solid No. 2 at both defensive end spots, which gives Breckterfield and Tresey more flexibility up front.
We like Jordon James. The injuries to Anthony Barr and Damien Thigpen will hurt the depth early on, but James definitely could start there. Coming into camp, he was stuck in a running back rotation headed by Johnathan Franklin. But given more opportunities at the F, he has proven that he needs to be on the field and he could be the perfect package for the position – he can catch it, can run right by people or run with power and is a very tough matchup for opposing defenses. Blocking is a question, but he is a more explosive presence than Barr, who is talented but just a tough fit on the offensive side of the ball, and he is a more physical presence than Thigpen.
We like Shaquelle Evans, who looks completely different than when he showed up at UCLA following his transfer from Notre Dame. He is in much better shape, for starters, and all of the moving pieces are back together now more than a year removed from that surgery on his shoulder. He also has displayed a competitiveness and expectations of himself that are serving him very well in camp.
We like Richard Brehaut. Many, no doubt, were expecting just more of the same from the junior quarterback. But Brehaut has improved at the zone reads – he is much better than a year ago, but still not as deft or fluid as Kevin Prince – and has progressed within the offense. He still has had his moments, not getting the offense through a play correctly and holding the ball too long on occasion. But now at least he can make the decision on a starting quarterback a little more difficult, especially if Prince continues to make the mistakes he did in the live period on Saturday when he didn't get a screen pass over a blitzing linebacker, a play that ended up going for a Pick Six, and threw a first-down pass to a back in the flat that went for a 9-yard loss rather than throwing the ball away.
We like Greg Capella, who, fitter and stronger, has held up at guard with the No. 1 offense to this point. We like Devin Lucien, who impressed over the summer in PRPs and has continued to improve. We like Dalton Hilliard, who is back on the field after missing the spring and has made plays despite having some difficulties getting lined up properly from time to time. We like Jake Brendel, who as a true freshman has shown himself capable of holding down the No. 2 spot at center. We like Patrick Larimore, who apparently didn't miss much in the meeting room during the spring when he was out following shoulder surgery. We like the progress Isaiah Bowens has made at Mike behind Larimore. We like the futures of Eric Kendricks, Wesley Flowers, Will Oliver and Torian White, and Raymond Nelson.
None of that means anything on Sept. 3, of course.
This week leading into the Saturday scrimmage at Drake Stadium, the Bruins need quite a bit of work, starting with the quarterbacks, Prince and Brehaut.
The offense has had its moments, but it has not been as consistent as anticipated. Neither quarterback has thrown the ball on time and on target consistently, even in 7-on-7. They need to be able to make plays and allow the backs and receivers to make plays when in position to do so, and that ability is not yet in evidence.
The misplays by Prince in the live period on Saturday are troubling, but should be easily fixable. Brehaut needs to start getting through plays on time – in team on Saturday a receiver started back to the huddle following a broken play muttering, ‘'Come on, throw the ball …''
The receivers had a terrible stretch of dropped passes – some of the drops a lack of focus or rushing a play, some stemming from really poor technique. The offensive line has yielded to pressure when the defense has lit them up with blitzes and sometimes when it has not.
Operator error might never be an afterthought, but it has to be less of a concern going forward. They need to close some major ground there this week because Johnson and Mastro have shown that they will get players into position to make plays - the offense is just that far ahead of where it was a year ago. Will they make them? It comes down to execution and it's difficult to imagine that coming together in a game if it hasn't shown first on the practice field.
It will take a lot of quality reps to get those pieces together and working consistently, so many in fact it wouldn't be a surprise if it didn't happen - or come close to happening - until after the scrimmage and Coach Rick Neuheisel and Johnson have settled on a starting quarterback.
It also will be an important week for Kip Smith, who needs to snap out of his funk and make some progress. He doesn't need to make every field goal – a good start would be hitting the ball consistently. He had six kicks on Saturday – four field goals and two kickoffs – and three of them came off his foot knuckling. Neither of the kickoffs made it past the 20-yard line and one went out of bounds. Right now, he's not even hitting the ball correctly.
Brett Hundley has started to do some light throwing coming back from his knee surgery, but it would be good to get him up to speed and some plays to run by the time UCLA hits Pac-12 play on Sept. 24 at Oregon State. Just throwing lightly after practice on Saturday afternoon, it didn't appear he was all that close to adding significantly to his workload.
The Bruins also need to get some players back going. Jamie Graham (knee) has shown that he can be an important piece, if healthy. Jordan Zumwalt (concussion) is an important piece and has to get back into competition at Sam with Glenn Love, and keep getting reps. Jerry Johnson (ankle) was felled along with a few others by the flu or food poisoning, but it would be good to see him join the receivers mix here soon because the group, which no doubt has had its moments, has yet to find a high degree of consistency. Barr also needs to get back into practice and make a positive statement.