UCLA is now heading into week three of what has been a very workmanlike spring practice. Unlike last year, when the entirety of spring acted as a shock to the system for UCLA's players with the increase in tempo and intensity, the players this year have maintained an elevated level of play without too much fuss. Last year, the main storyline dominating the entire spring was the competition for the starting quarterback spot, but this year, there isn't a single subject that has dominated the proceedings.
There have been some developments, though, and at the halfway point of spring, we thought we'd take a look at some of the major ones.
Running Back Competition
Heading into spring, figuring out a running back rotation was probably the most important thing to get out of spring practice. At the halfway point, there isn't much clarity with the rotation of players, in that Paul Perkins, Jordon James, and Malcolm Jones have all had moments where they've looked very good, and all have had moments where they've looked pretty pedestrian. Coach Mora called them all out at one point last week for dancing too much behind the line of scrimmage, which has been a common criticism of James his entire career at UCLA. From our perspective, Perkins still looks like he'll nail down the starting spot, but he hasn't had that series of "wow" practices where you could see him rising above the others. The addition of Jones to the mix has been most welcome. He's arguably in better shape now than when he left the program in the fall, which is a testament to his individual work ethic over the past few months. He seems to be showing an increased dedication to football, and he is running with power more consistently. As we said before the spring, if UCLA can get some credible carries out of Jones (something like 5 to 8 per game) it would go a long way to solving their running back issues. At this point, we could easily see that happening.
James has also had moments, but most of them came in the first week. He seems to have fallen back into the indecision that plagued him toward the end of last season. If he can snap out of it and put together some nice practices over the next couple of weeks, we could see this competition continuing into the fall, but otherwise, we'd have to guess Perkins will be all but named by the end of spring.
Defensive Back Depth
When looking at the defensive back situation, it's easy to see why there are four more coming in this fall. We knew heading into spring that UCLA would be limited in the secondary (with the graduated seniors, the loss of Tevin McDonald, and Marcus Rios being held out) and then just two practices in, Dietrich Riley separated his shoulder, which has kept him out of the last week of practice. The interesting thing, though, has been the two players who have stepped up in the absence of others: Anthony Jefferson and Brandon Sermons. Admittedly, we had all but written off the two of them prior to the spring. Jefferson, who herniated a disc in his back that left him unable to walk two years ago, has had a long, slow recovery, and given where he was physically at the end of last year, we didn't think he'd have much shot at competing this spring. We're learning, though, that it isn't necessarily intelligent to discount the quality of UCLA's rehab regimen. Jefferson has been a new man this spring, showing off some speed that I hadn't seen from him in two seasons of watching him, in addition to a level of flexibility and fluidity to his movements that would have been hard to picture a year ago. He's had some dominant moments during the spring so far, and looks more and more like the player he was projected to be out of high school. If he can maintain this level of play, there's no reason why he couldn't start come September. Sermons, likewise, is blooming late, and last week put together his best collection of practices in quite some time. He's a more natural fit at safety, and uses his strength very well. With only two scholarship players who are healthy at safety, having Sermons step up was huge.
Ishmael Adams has been the other story in the secondary, thanks to his exceptional play. He's short, but not small, and uses his strength to body up bigger receivers and push them off their routes at the line of scrimmage. He can struggle against players who are both bigger and stronger (like Anthony Barr), but it's going to be a very rare situation where he is matched up against players of Barr's caliber. He has held his own against Shaquelle Evans and Devin Lucien, which is a good sign that he'll be able to do the same against the higher level receivers in the Pac-12.
Who Will be the Backup Quarterback?
Last year, we were trying to figure out who the starting quarterback would be, and at this point last spring, it really wasn't clear, with Brett Hundley, Richard Brehaut, and Kevin Prince all heavily in the race. This year, we're trying to figure out who the backup quarterback will be, and there's even less clarity. We had expected heading into the spring that Jerry Neuheisel would have a pretty easy task of at least maintaining the backup spot until Asiantii Woulard arrived in the summer, but there have been some developments so far this spring. First, Neuheisel simply hasn't been as good as he was last year. We said it last year, but looking at his body, he doesn't have much physical upside, so there's reason to believe he isn't far from his ceiling. This spring, he has struggled with some things that should be his strengths, namely accuracy and decision making. There's a lot of time left for him to right the ship, but he'll have to do so, because now there is some actual competition. T.J. Millweard, who had some very obvious mechanical flaws last season, looks like a changed quarterback this spring. He's worked on his body, looking slimmer and more muscular through the upper body, and, more importantly, he's drastically refined his mechanics. He's still not anywhere near a finished product, as his motion is still a little wonky (with almost a pumping motion with his hands before a throw), but the results have been much, much better. Through the first two weeks, he has thrown the ball with pretty consistent accuracy and power, and the ball is spinning better out of his hand. He's had a few days where he's reverted a bit to the old style of throwing, but that's to be expected while he works on the new motion.
If you track Millweard's rate of progress from last spring to now, you see an obvious upward trend, and , given that, you can probably project that he'll look a bit better in summer and fall than he does now. If Neuheisel can't regain some of his form from last year, we could easily see Millweard taking the backup spot.
Mike Fafaul has been as solid as always this spring, but might have less physical upside than Neuheisel. He's probably had a better spring than Neuheisel, though, and still throws the best looking ball on the team.
*Devin Fuller is clearly one of the best receivers on the team already. He hasn't had a bad day of practice, and if you really pay attention to him, he has been quietly spectacular. He makes catches that are very difficult look very easy, reaching over defensive backs or extending for a finger-tip catch as if he's been playing the position since birth. He's such a smooth athlete, with such good body control, that it's obvious how natural a fit he is at receiver.
*Anthony Barr just oozes confidence at this point, knowing that he can get anywhere on the field at will. He's been so dominant at linebacker at times that it almost inhibits the flow of practice. Like last year during games, he's had entire series during scrimmage situations where he has made every stop. He's also being worked into the offense as a receiver in certain situations, and it's abundantly clear that if he devoted himself to the offensive side of the ball as a receiver (rather than that silly F position that Rick Neuheisel never used), he'd be a dominant force there as well. Getting him back for this season pushes the ceiling for this team much higher.
*The defensive line has been hit by the injury bug. With Owamagbe Odighizuwa out for the entire spring, and now Kylie Fitts out with a sprained ankle, the defensive line is down to just five bodies. Eli Ankou and Brandon Tuliaupupu have had their moments in backup roles. Brandon Willis hasn't looked really dominant yet, although he's had a few moments where he's looked explosive and gotten into the back field. Getting Odighizuwa back in the summer will be big, and getting another talented body in Kenneth Clark will provide some much needed depth.
*UCLA has received visits from dozens of recruits throughout spring practice, with even more scheduled to arrive for the spring game at the end of the month. The feeling around the program is, really, unlike anything in the last ten years. At the beginning of each practice, UCLA does its "Pride Alley" Oklahoma drill, and the energy is especially astounding for anyone who remembers Karl Dorrell or Rick Neuheisel's practices. On each of the past two Saturday's, there's been a crowd of hundreds surrounding the field during practice. For some contrast, we've heard that only a handful of decent recruits showed up to USC's spring game on Saturday.
Spring Practice: Halfway Point
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