The spring game on Saturday was more of a display of offensive execution than probably any spring game in the last ten years. And it's not because of any exceptional amount of talent, although the talent on offense is good. But the scheme just works. Even at its most simplistic, which it was on Saturday, the philosophy behind the offense is sound: stretch the field horizontally, spread the defense out, and then attack vertically.
Behind drives by Brett Hundley, Richard Brehaut, and Kevin Prince, in the "first half" on Saturday, UCLA scored six touchdowns, and so much of that was due to the sheer design of the offense. Hundley's first drive ended at the 40, after gaining about 35 yards on a healthy dose of short passes and runs. But what happened in that drive helped to set up Hundley's second drive, which was a very impressive piece of work. Starting at the 25, he went down the field in 4 plays, hitting a slant to Jerry Johnson, who sliced into the center of the defense, for a first down, and then capping the drive with a beautiful touchdown pass to Tyler Scott over Dylan Price in the corner of the end zone.
Hundley was extremely sharp to start the day, getting the first three series of the game, and getting most of his reps with the first team offense. In the second half, he struggled more, mostly because the defense started blitzing more and he was getting a few more series with the second team offensive line, which struggled containing the defense.
Richard Brehaut had, by far, the two most impressive throws of the scrimmage. On two consecutive drives, he hit 60+ yard bombs to Tyler Scott and Jerry Johnson, both over Erick Zumwalt, and the passes were nearly perfect, hitting both Scott and Johnson more or less in stride and allowing them to score easily. It was good for two reasons: first, Brehaut showed why there might be some more competition than expected this summer, and second, there was such an obvious mismatch, with Zumwalt on either of those guys, and Brehaut and the coaching staff identified and exploited it. That might sound like a small thing, but after the past 40 years in the desert, it's nice to see good coaching.
In other good news, Brehaut has decided to take baseball off this summer and focus on football, which the coaching staff has to like. With a good summer of work for both he and Hundley, it could be an interesting competition come the fall.
Kevin Prince was just OK, but it was nice to see him bounce back a little after the last five practices or so with some decent play. He looks like his shoulder is ailing him quite a bit, because his motion has basically become a shot put, but he hit some nice passes in his first drive, nailing Logan Sweet on a slant for a touchdown to cap a 9 or 10 play drive. He did have a pretty bad interception to Marcus Rios in the end zone on his second drive, where he really under threw the ball.
If there was a weak spot for the offense, it was the offensive line. While the first string was decent, with Jeff Baca at right tackle, Albert Cid at right guard, Jacob Brendel at center, Greg Capella at left guard, and Xavier Su'a-Filo at left tackle, the drop off was considerable to the second string. Tre Hale and Kody Innes both had adventures snapping the ball. On Prince's first drive, he must have dealt with at least four wayward snaps from Hale before Innes came in to settle him. Even Innes was a little off. And then, in terms of pass blocking, that second unit had a really hard time picking up blitzers.
But it's a credit to the scheme and the play of the skill position players that even when the offensive line isn't fantastic, the offense can look this good.
Of course, when the offense looks this good, there's always a flip side, but even that flip side isn't all that bad. Two guys (Dylan Price and Erick Zumwalt) who really aren't going to be playing much were responsible for a few of those touchdowns. While it is a concern that so many guys are out with injuries, the secondary is not only getting Anthony Jefferson back over the summer, but also Brandon Sermons. Additionally, there's going to be a healthy dose of freshmen reinforcements coming in to help boost the secondary.
And there were even some good moments for the defense. The pass rush, for once, looks like it might be extremely effective. In the first half, the defense really didn't seem to do as much blitzing, but they turned it on more in the second half, and it seemed like they had more success. Keenan Graham in particular was constantly in the back field, and the ability for the defense, in a 3-4, to send guys at the quarterback from multiple spots seemed to really confuse the blocking. At one point, even the steady Jeff Baca was flummoxed by Graham, who shot past him unblocked for a sack.
The big weakness for the defense on Saturday was the secondary, obviously, but going forward there are a few issues with run defense that also need to be cleaned up. Damien Holmes is still learning how to play inside linebacker, and it's a credit to him that he's been able to effectively switch from playing defensive end in a 4-3, to outside linebacker in a 3-4, to now inside linebacker. But he's still learning the position, and a few times on Saturday he was caught either over pursuing or out of position. Hundley scrambled for a touchdown at one point primarily because Holmes went a little too far forward.
Steven Manfro was extremely impressive all day. He doesn't have elite top end speed, but he's super quick, has very good vision, can change direction well, and is surprisingly powerful for a smaller back (he isn't really 5'10- more like 5'8 or so). Although the refs called it back about 20 yards short, we're going to say he returned a kickoff about 95 yards for a touchdown, because it really didn't look like anyone had a shot to catch him. And in the offensive game, he was even more impressive, catching frequent short passes and turning them into long gains, including a swing that he turned into a 55 yard reception.
Tyler Scott, in the biggest shocker, was the most impressive wide receiver on Saturday, but he's looked good throughout the spring. Early on in spring, Eric Yarber seemed to want him to slim down a bit, and they'd still like him to get a little bit faster, but he's got good hands and has a knack for getting separation. He caught three touchdowns, including a couple of deep balls from Hundley and Brehaut respectively.
Devin Lucien also had a nice day, probably his best day in the last three of four weeks. He started out the spring very strong, but seemed to get a little overwhelmed heading into the last few weeks. But he turned it on in front of the crowd, and had one extremely impressive catch where he caught a short pass, and then probably had 25 yards after contact, at one point stiff arming Marcus Rios so hard that his feet went completely out from under him.
Despite the defensive issues, the scrimmage ended on a high note for the defense in the overtime period, with Sheldon Price intercepting the first play from scrimmage and returning it all the way down the field for a touchdown. Price had a very good scrimmage, picking off a couple of passes and neutralizing basically every receiver he was matched up against. On two consecutive plays in the corner of the end zone against Jerry Johnson he really showed why some consider him a potential shut down corner. On the first play, the ball was perhaps a little overthrown, but Price kept his body close to Johnson and kept his hands in his eyes, which kept Johnson from catching the ball. On the next play, with the offense basically running the same play, Price adapted, and this time turned around and picked the ball off, rather than even letting Johnson have a shot at it.
Lou Spanos may not be the most talkative guy in the world when speaking with reporters, but he's kind of a hoot on the sideline. At one point, the defense forced a safety (after Mora started the offense on the one yard line) and Spanos went screaming onto the field shouting for a safety with his hands clamped firmly above his head. Even Mora seemed to chuckle a little. Spanos is a very vocal coach, but actually seems to be mostly positive about it, frequently yelling encouragement when there's a good play.
As expected, the only one among the injured over the last week who participated was Darius Bell, who caught a number of passes during the scrimmage and seemed to pick up right where he left off when he got hurt after the first week of spring practice. He's changed his body quite a bit, looking much slimmer and faster, and he has, really, exceptional hands for a guy who's spent most of his life as a quarterback.
The crowd was good, and was announced at roughly 13,000. The Rose Bowl looks like a bit of a construction site right now, with the entire press box gutted and several of the tunnels on the north end being widened. Although I didn't get to spend much time outside, the food truck alley seemed to be a big hit outside of lot H, with fans lined up at each of the trucks.