While there has been a certain air of sincerity around most of what Jim Mora has said about culture change at UCLA, an early sense of caution from most battered Bruin fans is understandable. We know how this song goes, and all that.
But with the first week of spring practice in the books, it's fair to say that what Mora was saying was not just talk. Those who have not been out to practice may not quite understand, but there is an entirely different feel to everything happening on Spaulding field. The three practices this past week were the most up-tempo and organized practices I've seen at UCLA, which includes both Karl Dorrell's and Rick Neuheisel's practices. Heck, they might have also been the most physical, and two of the three days were not in pads.
The tempo, though, is the biggest thing. During such a critical time for the quarterback position at UCLA, the six competitors are getting so many more reps than they have in the past. Last year, there were three quarterbacks during the season who needed team-period reps (Richard Brehaut, Kevin Prince, and Brett Hundley) and it seemed like it was always difficult to get them enough. Now, even true freshman walk-onMike Fafaul and Jerry Neuheisel are getting team period reps, and it's not as if anyone is being short-changed.
Finally, UCLA is practicing like a real football team.
Now that the first week is over, we wanted to take a look at where we stand with the major story lines for spring.
Heading into spring, we expected Richard Brehaut and Kevin Prince to be the two early front runners, with the possibility of Brett Hundley making some noise depending, first, on how much he was able to improve in the off-season, and second, how much coaching he could get from Noel Mazzone. Then, we thought, given what we've heard from people inside the program, that T.J. Millweard would have a dark horse chance of stealing the spotlight.
As it turns out, the first three days have been a near dead-heat between Prince, Brehaut, and Hundley. If we had to pick a leader at this point, it would probably be Brehaut, just based off overall body of work since Tuesday. He's been the most consistently accurate of the three, and is probably making the quickest decisions. Prince got off to the rockiest start, looking pretty tight during individual periods on Tuesday. After that, though, he's actually looked much better, and is showing increased accuracy.
Hundley has been the biggest surprise. While it'd be a little much to say he's made the leap, he looks much improved from where he was in the fall. He's still a little slow on his decision-making at times, taking what would have been a couple of sacks on Saturday during 11-on-11, and he's still got some accuracy issues on his longer throws where he lets the ball sail, but he just looks so much more comfortable in the pocket.
Millweard looks like he's going to take some development, and probably won't factor in to the quarterback competition this year. He has a bit of a hitch in his throwing motion, which makes his throws take longer, and also causes some inconsistency in his release. He's also getting used to a new ball, which can take a while for a freshman. Given the competition among the top three, it's going to be difficult for him to make enough advancements in just his throwing motion, much less knowledge of the position, to fight his way in.
Jerry Neuheisel and Mike Fafaul have both been pleasant surprises. Among the six, they might have the two best throwing motions. Neuheisel doesn't have much in the way of arm strength, and has to almost jump to hit some throws, but he's pretty accurate. Fafaul has more arm strength, and can hit most short to intermediate passes with some zip. The walk-on probably has the best natural motion of any of the quarterbacks. Neither will probably factor into the competition much, but, in the nerdiest moment of this article, it'll be exciting to see what kind of look they can provide on the scout team this year.
Who's a Nose?
Coming into practice, we expected Donovan Carter and Seali'I Epenesa to be the primary two nose tackles, with Angus McClure working in Brandon Willis if those two didn't look like they could cut it.
Well, let's just say McClure fast-forwarded the process. Willis has manned the nose with the first team since day one of spring ball and has generally looked pretty good doing it, although he probably needs to put a little more weight on. Epenesa has been taking the second reps, and he provides more of the necessary size for the position, although he's not quite as strong as Willis. Carter has been little seen thus far, which might be a case where he's more of a known quantity, and the coaches want to get a look at guys who haven't gotten quite as much time.
This is one to continue watching as the team works more in pads. If Willis is still taking most of the first team reps through this coming week, then we have a pretty good idea who's going to be the primary challenger to Ellis McCarthy in the fall.
Devin Lucien, Shaquelle Evans, Ricky Marvray, Jerry Johnson, and Joe Fauria. Those were the proven guys heading into spring (and yes, we're including a guy who played on the scout team last year, and another who has had serious ankle injuries and has barely played). In Noel Mazzone's offense, it's accepted that you really need at least eight guys who can play significant snaps.
So someone needed to emerge. And in the first week of practice, in probably the shocker of the spring so far, that person might be Darius Bell. Bell has dropped about 20 pounds, and looks much better physically. He's still stocky, and not really fast, but he's actually using his body to his advantage, at times boxing out against safeties to make catches. And his hands have been tremendous. If he can keep this up, he could go from a guy who was buried on the scout team to a useful cog in Mazzone's offense.
The five proven guys have all showed flashes of brilliance, although Johnson still needs to play with more consistency. Physically, he might be the best looking receiver of the bunch, but he needs to sharpen his technique.
With Jordon James switched to the F, and looking pretty good thus far there, it appears the coaches might need just one or two freshmen to contribute heavily in the fall, which would be ideal.
This was the biggest area of concern heading into the spring, with the lack of a true right tackle, and the lack of depth really everywhere. Through the first week of spring, it's fair to say that those concerns are a reality.
At left tackle, Xavier Su'a-Filo has looked pretty good overall, and even with the two years off, is still the most athletic of the UCLA linemen. His conditioning, though, will need some work. He was sucking wind at various points throughout the first three practices, so, physically, he is not fully back yet. Given that he'll have the rest of spring, and the offseason, to get back into shape, that shouldn't be an issue. At left guard, Alexandru Ceachir has gotten the vast majority of the first-team reps. He is still learning how to play the position, having played mostly tackle prior to this, so he's a work in progress. He plays mean, though, and when he finds a guy to hit, he's a very effective blocker.
Center is really where the issues begin. With Greg Capella out with a calf injury after the first day, Jake Brendel has had to step up in his place, and he just doesn't physically look ready. He still needs to add weight and strength. On the first day of contact on Saturday, he got pushed around quite a bit. And at third string, the converted walk-on defensive tackle, Tre Hale, got his first snaps at center on Saturday, and he'll be a project. He struggled to deliver the ball to the quarterback, but he actually looked decent holding his own physically at the point.
Jeff Baca is, like always, the most consistent of the linemen, and looks much more natural at guard. The big issue is right tackle. Brett Downey has gotten the majority of the reps there, but walk-on Michael Padovese has worked in at times. Downey is a very hard worker, and has done a lot of work on his body since coming to UCLA, but he's probably not the answer at right tackle. The defense has been able to feast on the right side quite a bit in the first three practices. During 11-on-11, the left outside linebacker, whether it's Jordan Zumwalt or Keenan Graham, has generally had a pretty easy time scooting around Downey's right side to disrupt plays.
When Capella gets back, it'll give the line a boost, and make center a position of strength again, but right tackle has to be a big worry at this point. We have to wonder how long it takes until Baca gets the move there.
*Damien Holmes has undergone the biggest physical transformation on the team. He now really looks like a linebacker, and looks much quicker than he did last season. While we thought Graham would make the easier adjustment to linebacker, it appears Holmes has the early lead.
*Anthony Jefferson looks like he's still coming back from his back injury. There was a play on Saturday during one-on-one's where he played Devin Lucien perfectly off the line, but as soon as the play became a race downfield, he was a clear step or two slower than Lucien, who's not a burner. If Jefferson can regain his speed, he'll be fine at corner, but if not, we could see him making a move to safety.
*Wide Receivers coach Eric Yarber is great. He coaches each receiver after every single play, either praising them for what went right, or telling them exactly what went wrong and how to improve it the next time. From walk-on Tyler Scott to Lucien, he's providing the same level of coaching. It's really neat to watch.
*Malcolm Jones hasn't shown much, and is now officially a worry at this point; He has been disappointing so far in two years at UCLA, and now has a chance to be the #2 tailback in the offense, fulfilling the Derrick-Coleman role, and he continues to look unexplosive. Steven Manfro, on the other hand, has shown he could have a chance to contribute, which would be an unexpected bonus. He looked quick and shifty Tuesday and Thursday, and then a little slower once he put the pads on Saturday, but not by too much, and still broke a few big runs. While he probably doesn't have the strength or frame to be an every-down back, he might have a shot to fill a change-of-pace kind of role. Converted safety Dalton Hilliard, too, has suprised a bit by looking good at tailback, with some good straight-ahead quickness. We thought going into spring practice, with the lack of depth at safety, that Hilliard would be moved back to defense pretty quickly, but he's shown enough to intrigue the coaches and, at least, stick around a little longer on the offensive side.
Spring Practice: First Week in Review
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