After a first week that might have come as a shock to some of the players, in terms of tempo and pace, UCLA settled into its new brand of practicing this week, with the majority of the players seemingly getting their feet under them. There was much less gasping for breath, at any rate.
With two weeks under our belts, there's still not much clearly emerging from the key position battles, but there's been a little bit of movement, so we'll take a look again at the main story lines from spring ball.
Through the first week of spring ball, all six quarterbacks were, more or less, getting an even number of snaps. This past week, the reps for T.J. Millweard and Mike Fafaul have been drastically reduced, as UCLA has focused much more on the returning quarterbacks. Since Saturday of the first week, the quarterbacks have alternated taking the majority of the reps during 11 on 11 and with the first team.
Right now, based on the performance over the first two weeks, we'd have to say that Richard Brehaut looks like the front runner. Brehaut, aside from a bit of a hiccup on Tuesday, has been by far the most accurate quarterback, from short pass to deep ball. Brett Hundley has shown flashes of brilliance, but just hasn't been as consistent.
Kevin Prince has also been quite good at times, but when the crowd noise comes on, he has more trouble. On both Thursday and Saturday, he looked pretty good heading into the team periods about halfway through practice, but at that point, the wheels kind of came off. During 11-on-11 on Saturday, he really struggled. In one period, he didn't complete a pass. And then, when it went to 7-on-7, his first throw was an interception to Sheldon Price (although Shaquelle Evans probably could have done a better job of boxing out).
Jerry Neuheisel has been a pleasant surprise, but he really doesn't have the arm strength to contend in this battle. He's fairly accurate, and he seems like he's got the offense down, but he has a hard time throwing mid- to long-range passes without having to go into full body contortions.
There are still three weeks before the spring game, but right now, we'd handicap it with Brehaut first, Hundley and Prince more or less tied for the 2nd slot, and Neuheisel bringing up the rear.
If you head out to practice, and you gaze toward the east end of Spaulding, you'll see about twenty guys doing sit-ups or riding exercise bikes.
There are two things that are amazing about that. First, twenty freaking guys out?! Spaulding is vengeful this year. And second, not a single one is a quarterback. Small favors.
While Jim Mora has been a bit more NFL-style in his discussions of injuries (a lot of talk of "tweaks" rather than the specifics we've heard under other staffs), UCLA does seem to be taking a cautious approach to the entire injury situation, preferring to hold players out even with relatively minor issues so that they don't turn into major issues.
Malcolm Jones, Damien Thigpen, and Aaron Hester were the latest to get dinged up in practice on Saturday, and we'll have word on Tuesday whether they'll have to sit out any additional time.
Second String Running Back
If Jones is not out for any significant period of time, he seems to have secured that second string slot with a week of very solid running. He's been getting an earful from Steve Broussard about running hard, and it really seems to have motivated him. Even when the offensive line gets no push during 11-on-11, it's refreshing to see Jones still pushing his legs forward.
Oklahoma Drills have been very kind to Jones as well, and while he's not typically a demonstrative player, he seems to gain a little bit of swagger after scoring in the Oklahoma drill at the beginning of practice that carries over into later drills.
Last week, we talked about how important it was to find a right tackle, but now it's looking like it's important to find a backup center, a right guard, and a right tackle. The only healthy guys on the team who are above average offensive linemen are Jeff Baca and Xavier Su'a-Filo. Wade Yandall just got back on Saturday, and he has a chance to take one of the starting guard spots, but after that, the depth is really scary.
Brett Downey had a better week in the second week, but he has some athletic limitations that keep his ceiling pretty low. He's one of the guys that actually does better against speed rushes, where guys try to get around him, than when rushers just go directly at him, so he looks better practicing against a 3-4, where he's mostly matched up against outside linebackers. But if you watch him during 1-on-1s, or when he's matched up against an end, he has a much harder time keeping them out of the back field.
Jake Brendel has not been super impressive with Greg Capella out. He needs to add weight and strength to match up physically at the point of attack, but he also had some pretty serious issues snapping the ball on Saturday, which was previously one of his strengths. Tre Hale actually filled in for him a couple of times with the first string, although he had issues snapping the ball as well. Capella's calf injury isn't thought to be serious, so you have to wonder if they'll try to speed up his return just so the team isn't wasting as much time with botched snaps.
Torian White has looked like the best of the second team linemen, and so you really have to wonder when he'll get a look at right tackle.
Offense ahead of defense?
Usually, at this time, we're talking about how far ahead the defense is. And given the issues with the offensive line, you'd think this year was more of the same. But through two weeks of practice, one thing is becoming obvious: tempo kills defenses.
Even though the first- and second-string defenses are able to mount a very good pass rush against the offensive line, the sheer offensive tempo, coupled with a much more effective short passing game, has made this one of the few spring practices where the offense and defense seem fairly evenly matched. Of course, the offense also looks better because secondary depth is a big issue.
It's, again, one of the more baffling things about the previous two regimes, that they so heavily valued execution over tempo. Even with UCLA's quarterback situation in flux, and even with an offensive line that's cobbled together from spare parts, and even with a completely new offensive system, the offense looks better during the first six practices of spring than it has in years. That's not nothing.
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