With the sounds of pads smacking still echoing in the ears of all the UCLA faithful who regularly went out to Spaulding Field, we thought we'd provide you a list of quick takeaways from spring practice.
We'll be going far more in-depth unit by unit over the next couple of weeks, but these are the main storylines of UCLA's Spring Camp.
#1 -- TRANSFORMATION OF THE OFFENSE
You can't even call it a transformation. It's just night and day, apples and oranges, etc. The offense of new Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone is like watching football on another planet compared to the offenses UCLA fans have seen over the last 10 years or so.
If you go all the way back to Steve Axman, the first OC Karl Dorrell hired, to just a matter of months ago when UCLA was using the P-word, UCLA has been through an offensive desert.
It's really very simple, and Mazzone will say his offense is simple, and based on very simple principles.
The first concept that so many of Mazzone's predecessors never seemed to grasp is: You stretch the field horizontally to create space and then put the ball in the hands of your playmakers in that space. What a novel idea. It did always seem that all of the epically failed offenses of the last decade played entirely narrow, pounding the middle of the field, failing to use all of the turf from sideline to sideline.
The second very simple concept: Make the offense simple. These aren't 8-year pro veterans you're working with. These are 20-year-old college kids. Make it simple. What a vast departure from Dorrell's or Norm Chow's West Coast Offenses that had phone-book-thick playbooks. There were a few reasons why sometimes UCLA failed to get the play called in time in the last decade, but one of the reasons was that the name of the play was simply too long. Mazzone's offense is very simple, utilizing a few different formations but with all of the same concepts, with very simplified assignments. It definitely makes it quite a bit easier on quarterbacks, who have quicker, easier reads.
So many times it's presumed that if you have an intricate plan -- and have it down thoroughly -- you'll be better than your opponent. But that failed to recognize all of the basic, inherent issues of college football. Mazzone's offense is a college-suited offense that has proven to work, rather than all of the experimental offenses we've been through with Dorrell and Neuheisel.
So this is Football 101.
And heck, the offense truly showed its successful formula this spring. The Spring Game Saturday was a testament to a simple, proven offensive concept that works. It was easily the most explosive, potent offensive showing in a spring game in the last 10 years or so.
And the another beautiful thing about it: Since it's so simple, the players have made an easy transition to it. It wasn't a matter of it taking months of studying the playbook and long hours of film sessions to only prepare to lay down the first quarter of the playbook in spring practice. Yes, Mazzone installed the basics in spring but, to be candid, there isn't much more elaborate layers of the offense to install this fall.
#2 -- INJURIES
At one point in spring practice, the Spaulding Field sideline looked like the Tour de France, with so many of the injured on stationary bikes. UCLA peaked at 27 injured and sitting out at one time.
Why so many injuries? It's a combination of factors. First, it's becoming a pretty standard storyline in college football -- the proliferation of injuries. If you look around the rest of the Pac-12 and their spring football practices it was much the same. It's why having quality depth in college football is such a key. Rick Neuheisel thought that scaling back the hitting was a way of limiting injuries, but UCLA's team last year still had a good amount of injuries, plus its defense plainly didn't tackle well, and you had to attribute that to not going live very much in practice. No, probably the successful formula in modern college football is to practice live a decent amount, concede you're going to get injuries, but recruit like a mother and build quality depth. And have a system in place that isn't as dependent on top-level star talent, but one that is based more on players performing roles in a team-oriented scheme, which both of UCLA's new offense and defense are.
Some sources have told us that Jim Mora knew if he went live quite a bit this spring he'd suffer a good amount of injuries. He was betting that they'd mostly be nicks, and not too many serious ones, and it would serve a purpose of sending a message to the players that UCLA is no longer a soft program.
#3 -- SPRING'S BIGGEST LOSSES
There were a couple of ACL tears, to second-string middle linebacker Isaiah Bowens and walk-on defensive back Librado Barocio. Bowens was a bit of a blow, since inside linebacker depth is an issue and Bowens was really coming into his own. Barocio is such a trooper, you always hate to lose a kid with a work ethic like him, one who sets an example for the rest of the team. But heck, Barocio might be just as much of an example coming back from the ACL since the reports are, so far, he's showing the same character in the beginning of his recovery.
Perhaps the biggest hit of the spring, though, was the loss of wide receiver Ricky Marvray, who had surgery to repair a disc problem in his back. Marvray, before he went down, was having a very good spring and looked like he would flourish in Mazzone's offense. He has said he'll be back in time for fall camp, but we're a bit skeptical. Back and spine problems aren't generally something you just have patched up and they go away. It was a blow since the new offense needs a big stable of receivers and it's a bit thin at this point.
Wade Yandall, too, is a worry. He's had four concussions in his career, and generally has been experiencing headaches since last season. He attempted to come back for spring practice, participating in two practices, but the headaches re-occured. Again, while you'd like to be optimistic, it doesn't sound good for the future of Yandall's career. And it's a shame since he's a talented player who has really developed (at the spring game, in just his jersey, we were marveling at how he's grown to a good 6-4 to 6-5 and transformed his body). He would almost certainly be a starter if he were healthy.
There would be some worry about Anthony Jefferson, who had returned from his back injury to practice this spring, but then went back to the injured list.
Perhaps some worry would be appropriate for Patrick Larimore, too. The starting middle linebacker went out with a concussion and never even returned to the sideline for the last five practices or so.
#4 -- QUARTERBACKS
We'll leave most of the heavy lifting in terms of analysis to our quarterback breakdown that will be coming later.
But suffice it to say that there are really two storylines here: The emergence of Brett Hundley, and the news that Richard Brehaut is dropping baseball for the spring and concentrating on football.
It was clear by the end of spring it's a two-horse race for the starting spot, between Hundley and Brehaut. And Mora's decision not to name a starter until a couple of weeks into fall practice is only going to generate more competition between the two.
The feeling from the program is that, at this time, the leader for the starting spot is Hundley, but that he just didn't do quite enough in spring to completely seize it.
#5 -- OFFENSIVE LINE
It was one of UCLA's two biggest concerns heading into spring practice, and probably emerged as its #1 concern. Simply, there is a lack of talent and depth. The thought, though, coming out of spring, was that the coaches feel pretty good about the starting five, with the starters being (from the left) Xavier Su'a-Filo, Greg Capella, Jake Brendel, Alberto Cid and Jeff Baca, but if any of them went down with a serious injury they'd be in trouble.
BONUS TAKEAWAY -- THE EMERGENCE OF OFFENSIVE WEAPONS
For years UCLA fans wondered why UCLA just didn't have many playmakers. Most people close to the program knew UCLA had some potential playmakers but the offense never put them in the right place to make plays. That era, we can safely say, is over. Mazzone's offense, actually, in his various stops before UCLA, has shown it tends to make playmakers out of guys who aren't big-time talents, in fact.
Coming out of spring there were guys you would expect to be playmakers -- like Johnathan Franklin or Shaquelle Evans -- but in spring, with the new offense creating playmakers, there were some guys who stepped in, stepped up and emerged as players who could really make a mark on the offense in fall.
Jerry Johnson, the long-forgotten wide receiver who seemed to be either hurt or terminally in the doghouse with the last coaching staff, or both, was a revelation this spring. He always looked the part, and is very impressive physically, at 6-4 and 218, but he was very good, if not excellent at times, this spring.
Jordon James was the poster boy for being mis-used and under-utilized with the last coaching staff -- but no longer. He's going to get touches either at running back or the F-back spot, getting the ball in his hand in space facing vertically down the field, instead of only touching the ball one time a game on a fly sweep. He proved this spring that he's completely worthy, showing explosive speed and some moves that made him live up to his nickname of "Joystick."
We had to end this article, though, with perhaps the biggest surprise of the spring, the official BRO mascot and adopted son, Steven Manfro. You couldn't tell anything all of last season in practice watching him on the scout team. He did look small (he's not the 5-10 UCLA lists him, more like 5-8), and it was hard to project that he'd ever contribute at UCLA. But Manfro now has a new future and lease on life, because he is clearly more talented than previously believed, but also because of the opportunities presented to him by Mazzone's offense. He's plugged into the F spot and the tailback position, much like James, and Manfro has flourished in the offense, showing good quickness and moves. He's really done well because he has good hands and can catch a ball, which you need to do in Mazzone's offense. That has also put him in the running in the competition for kick-off and punt return.
Spring Practice Quick Takeaways
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