This year, UCLA's fall camp was full of interesting storylines, with the influx of the talented freshmen and the experience level of the team in both the offensive and defensive schemes. Here are our biggest takeaways from San Bernardino.
Eddie Vanderdoes –
Coming into fall camp, Eddie Vanderdoes was probably the biggest storyline, after his struggle and eventual success in being released from his Notre Dame NLI. Vanderdoes, though, early on in camp was held out of most work because of a back injury. It would have been fairly ironic if he had gone through such an ordeal to be cleared to play this season, and then unable to play this season (even though, regardless, if he hadn't been let out of his NLI he would have lost a year of eligibility). We were kept in the dark about the extent of his back injury, and started to hear details later on in camp, and came to realize that it was a potentially serious injury. He, then, was cleared to go fully in practice, in individual drills and team, and plugged into the 2s and 3s at defensive end, and looked very impressive. Even when he matched up against the first-string offensive line for a few reps, he looked exactly like he was billed – tough to match up with physically because of his combination of quickness and strength. Perhaps one of the most exciting storylines going into practice in Westwood is how Vanderdoes, now expected to participate fully, will impact the DL depth chart. We expect, if there are no health setbacks, to move up the depth chart to be right there at the top for the starting left defensive end spot.
Asiantii Woulard –
In the first couple of days of fall camp, the revelation was Asiantii Woulard, the freshman quarterback. It was easy to see from the first few times he threw the ball that he had a great throwing motion and a strong arm. It was pretty easy to see that physically he was very impressive, with a body similar to Brett Hundley, and perhaps even a little better – slightly taller and a bit leaner. Even dealing with a new brand of balls, which we were told were bit slick, Woulard threw the ball exceedingly well those first few days. Yes, as soon there were more team periods in the later practices Woulard started to struggle, since he is a true freshman and overwhelmed, "swimming" as Jim Mora described it. But even throughout some of those mental struggles, which are entirely understandable, the strong arm, pretty motion and beautiful spiral were intact. We also know that Woulard has shown the coaches he's a smart kid, and willing to put in the homework in the meeting and film roolms. Woulard also showed some maturity and leadership qualities, in San Bernardino and in San Diego during the Seal training. In other words, it's pretty clear UCLA has found its heir apparent to Brett Hundley as UCLA's future starting quarterback.
Myles Jack -
We knew from our friendly northwest correspondent Brandon Huffman, and our own eyes, that Myles Jack was a considerable talent at linebacker, but seeing him in person over the last week and a half has been particularly eye opening. His level of quickness and change of direction is something that no other linebacker on the team has, not Jordan Zumwalt, not Anthony Barr, and not Kenny Orjioke. Physically, he already looks like he's been in the program for a year, looking like he's about 6'2, 230, and fairly well built. By the end of camp, he was playing at least three positions in the defense, including outside backer, inside backer, and nickel linebacker. He also took reps as a kick returner. There's talk that he could see time as a running back later in the year once he gets the defense down. There's little doubt that he's going to play significantly this year, and it wouldn't shock us if he were starting at some position by the end of the season. He's the kind of player who can slice into the backfield and blow up a running play by throwing a 200 pound running back like a rag doll, as he did against Steven Manfro at one point, and then, later in the same sequence, do a credible job covering a slot receiver. He's just an immense physical talent.
Experience in the Schemes on Offense and Defense -
Last year's spring and fall camp were rough at times, as the team got a crash course in both the offense and the defense. This year, everyone seemed much more polished, and UCLA was able to work at full speed much more often through the early stages of camp. It's actually astounding that they were able to work so fast given that the coaching staff put in so many true freshmen. The experienced players were so experienced, though, that it seemed to provide a point of reference for the talented freshmen, allowing them to just ask a quick question to the right or the left to get in the right position. Much was made of the penalties throughout the two days with referees, but the very good thing for UCLA is that nearly all of the penalties were called on true freshmen. The experienced players look, now, like they understand the timing of snap counts, the rotations, the formations, and the look and feel of the offense and defense so much better than they did before.
Experienced Defensive Backs Holding Off Freshmen -
Heading into camp, we were actually expecting that UCLA would only have one or two true freshmen in the starting secondary, but it turned out even we were overshooting. Anthony Jefferson moved to safety, a position he played last year, to help account for the lack of experience there, and Ishmael Adams returned fully healthy from his shoulder injury and slotted in at one of the corner spots. But the development that really made the secondary was the emergence of Fabian Moreau. Moreau was our biggest surprise of the fall on defense. After looking fairly pedestrian through spring, he apparently spent hours every day perfecting his backpedal, and looked like the best cornerback on the team this fall. Priest Willis looked the most ready of the freshmen to play immediately, and he'll likely come in when UCLA drops into nickel, but both Tahaan Goodman and Tyler Foreman look like they'll get mostly spot time through the first few games. As it stands right now, every starter in the secondary has been in the program for at least a year.
Brett Hundley's Development -
It actually got short shrift from us in practice reports, but, as we suspected might happen before camp, Hundley made a quiet leap during San Bernardino. In every aspect of the game, he was a little bit better. He threw the ball away better, he ran better, he hit slant passes better, he hit deep passes better, and he seemed to, overall, make quicker decisions. He is by no means a finished product in any aspect, and he didn't get wildly better in any one area, but the overall effect is that he is a much improved quarterback with the strides he's made in nearly every area. He still can't slide, but apparently that's just a thing with quarterbacks, since Asiantii Woulard also slides like he's stepped on a banana peel. With no backup quarterback solidified, Hundley will need to not only be good but durable this season, so the sliding, as Jim Mora seemed to emphasize during one particularly vocal practice, is an area where he needs to improve.
More Complex Defensive Scheme -
We actually can't get into too many details here, even with the open practices, but there's clearly a more complex defensive scheme in place. Last year, UCLA had a limited amount of looks in the defense, including the base 3-4/5-2, the basic nickel, a little bit of a dime, and an amoeba front. This year, there's just so much more complexity, with several different versions of nickel (depending on what personnel they face), and a wide variety of looks on the defensive front. Now that the team has had a year in the scheme, it seems clear that the coaching staff is trying to feed them more of the defense. Last year wasn't a particularly simple defense, given what UCLA had been used to (cover 2 all day, baby), and this year looks like it could have even more layers.
Top Talent in Receiver Rotation -
UCLA may lack a true gamebreaker at receiver, a guy who can take a 2 yard pass 60 yards for a score, but, as we suspected prior to camp, the top talent in the rotation at receiver is very good. Devin Lucien, Jordan Payton, Shaquelle Evans, and Devin Fuller all look better than they did a year ago, and the result should be a drastically improved receiving corps. It's difficult, actually, to even determine who had the best performance of camp. Do you take Lucien's spectacular catches from early camp? Or Fuller's ability to get open at will? Or Payton's hands and deceptive speed? With Johnathan Franklin now gone, and Hundley looking much improved, we could see a scenario where the offense becomes even more geared toward the passing game, and it seems that UCLA has the receivers to make that a solid move. What's more, there actually appears to be some depth in the unit now as well, with Darius Bell, Thomas Duarte, Darren Andrews, Eldridge Massington, and Nate Iese all looking like they have a chance to be significant contributors this year.
Overall Talent Upgrade –
If you have been following UCLA football, and attended practices and fall camps over the years, you would have noticed a stark contrast in the team that took the field in San Bernardino two weeks ago. With the influx of the #3-ranked recruiting class in the country as true freshmen, the talent level on the field was impressive. There was a considerable difference from other years in terms of the size and athleticism of the team, and then the depth of talent. You tended to forget about certain players – "Oh, yeah, they got Kylie Fitts…and Deon Hollins…and Kenneth Clark…" It's not a stretch to say that this UCLA team has the most depth of talent of any team in a decade. It might not be experienced depth, since there are so many true freshmen, but the talent level is exceptional. Take the linebacking unit, as an example. You have the returning Pac-12-leading tackler in Eric Kendricks, the guy who is being hailed as a top 10 NFL pick in Anthony Barr, and then perhaps the guy who is the best athlete among the three in Jordan Zumwalt. Now, in past years, you wouldn't even had had that kind of talent at the top of the depth chart, but the depth behind it is startling. Aaron Wallace looks to take over the one open starting spot, and has looked good, but there's Kenny Orjioke, who is a physical and athletic freak, and then perhaps the biggest revelation among the true freshmen, Myles Jack. There is also Isaac Savaiinaea, who would probably be the revelation of any other linebacking unit in any other fall camp, but there's just so much talent. Then you have depth from veterans like Ryan Hofmeister, Aaron Porter, Taylor Lagace, Isaiah Bowens and Aramide Olaniyan, and then more true freshman talent in Deon Hollins and Cameron Judge. While not every unit is as loaded at the linebackers, the unit is more indicative of the talent level in the UCLA program than an aberration. Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but it's the type of depth of talent that top 10 college football teams consistently have in their programs.
The True Freshmen That Could Play –
With the freshman class being so talented, there were quite a few that showed in San Bernardino that they would have a chance to play. The ones clearly with the best chance are Caleb Benenoch, who looks to start at right guard, Eddie Vanderdoes on the defensive line and Myles Jack at linebacker. But after San Bernardino, seeing the talent level of of the true freshmen, it wouldn't be surprising if a good handful more played this season. It's a pretty good bet that Thomas Duarte is going to play at the Y. Priest Willis took many reps with the 1s at corner, and is the first DB who will come in for any nickel packages. Tahaan Goodman and Tyler Foreman looked like they'll make up the two deep at safety. Isaac Savaiinaea looks like he could be the first inside linebacker off the bench. Receivers Eldridge Massington and Darren Andrews look like they'll be in the rotation at receiver. Jayon Brown has been one of the freshman who has made the biggest impact, is working with the ones at times coming out of San Bernardino, and has a very good chance to play that safety/linebacker spot in nickel situations. If there's a second true freshman OL who could play it would probably be Poasi Moala. The thing is, too: In past years, UCLA had to play true freshmen because it needed the bodies; this season, the true freshmen would play because their talent dictates it.
Injuries to Watch –
The Bruins emerge from San Bernardino exceptionally healthy. There weren't any really serious injuries suffered and many of the players are expected back when practice resumes in Westwood today. Here are the injuries to watch coming out of San Bernadino:
Damien Thigpen – still not 100% recovered from the ACL. Mora has said he could expect Thigpen to possibly miss the first couple of games.
Caleb Benenoch – suffered heat issues, the projected starting right guard is expected back at practice today.
Eddie Vanderdoes – Are the back issues behind him?
Simon Goines – He hyper-extended his knee in San Bernardino, but is expected back in Westwood. Without him, the OL gets shuffled quite a bit.
Eric Kendricks – missed all of the team drills in fall camp because of an ankle. Mora has said he expects him to be back in Westwood.
Darius Bell – broke a bone in his hand in the off-season, and was limited as the starting Y in SB.
Eldridge Massington – the freshman receiver has looked increasing better coming back from his ACL injury, showing more explosion and confidence toward the end of camp.
Poasi Moala – He suffered a light concussion in San Bernardino, but his return is something to watch since he could be one of the first OLs off the bench if there are first-string injuries.
Alex Redmond – Suffered a more serious concussion and was sent back to Westwood. It's the same situation with him as Moala – something to watch since he could be in the two-deep.
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