With camp in the books, and game prep starting today, we take a look at which position battles are still unresolved, and which ones have been resolved through the last two weeks.
Running Back - Steve Broussard said that UCLA is down to three options at running back, but from what we've seen, Jordon James looks like he has the inside track to start. Steven Manfro and Paul Perkins are also still in the running, and right now we suspect that Manfro is close to being the No. 2 guy in the rotation. Craig Lee will likely redshirt at this point, unless there are a series of injuries to the running back corps, and Malcolm Jones will likely see mostly situational work as a bigger, power back. James has looked much better through camp than he has at any point over the last year, so the hope is that he can carry it over to games. His decisiveness is improved, and he's running much more North-South. That being said, we could see this as the kind of position where the starter changes throughout the year, depending on how well or poorly each player is running.
Backup Quarterback - This competition is unsettled primarily because no one has really seized the job. Through the last few days of camp, it appeared that T.J. Millweard was getting more and more of the No. 2 reps, but he decided to transfer on Monday, so UCLA is in the position of having to find a No. 2 between Jerry Neuheisel, Mike Fafaul, and Asiantii Woulard. Taylor Mazzone told us on Monday that Woulard was effectively out of the running, likely because UCLA would love to redshirt him, if at all possible. Neuheisel has had an overall poor camp, with well over a dozen interceptions thrown, but has picked it up a bit over the last couple of days. Fafaul has been more consistent, but has physical limitations that might prevent him from ever being anything more than a spot relief kind of quarterback. Asiantii Woulard certainly has the physical tools to be the No. 2 quarterback, but he's still behind on picking up the offense and making quick decisions, which is why UCLA would like to redshirt him. As we said prior to the start of camp, if Hundley were to go down for a significant period of time, we could see a scenario where the coaching staff attempts to get Woulard ready immediately to throw him into the fire—and that's more a commentary on the other options than it is a show of confidence in Woulard. In an ideal scenario, he's still a year or two away. For now, we suspect that Neuheisel will win the backup job, since the coaching staff has always been impressed with his knowledge of the offense.
Left Defensive End - Arguably the most important position battle on the defense is the one that is still completely undecided. Eddie Vanderdoes sat out almost the entirety of San Bernardino, finally getting some team work in over the last few practices. In those few reps, though, he showed a level of talent that none of the other competitors at the position possess. He is very strong, with quick hands and feet that allow him to shuck or get past even fairly stout defenders. He's good against double teams, occupying both blockers and actually generating some positive push into the backfield most of the time. He's still coming back from the injury to his back, so he's been a bit limited over the past few days, but as Coach Mora said on Monday, the intention is for him to play 30 snaps against Nevada at the end of the month, which should give everyone a nice look at the future. He's still running primarily with the 2s and 3s, though, and as of right now, it looks like Keenan Graham is the first string left defensive end. Graham has had an impressive camp, using his quickness to get around blockers, and actually demonstrating some surprising strength. He's only about 250 or 255 pounds, so we're not sure how well he would stand up to the rigors of playing more than 30 or 40 snaps per game at that spot, but as a situational end, he could have an impact. Brandon Willis hasn't had a really impactful camp, and seems to have settled in as the No. 2 guy behind Graham. When Vanderdoes returns to full health and participation, we expect he'll be the official first string end.
Nose Tackle - Ellis McCarthy and Seali'i Epenesa are still alternating reps with the first string defense, but it looks like Epenesa has gotten more over the last few days. We actually like what we've seen from both this fall, with Epenesa looking like he's in fantastic shape after looking a little overweight in spring and McCarthy looking more and more like the five-star prospect from a year ago. Kenny Clark also looked good during camp, but with McCarthy and Epenesa ahead of him, he may redshirt. The depth is so good at nose, actually, that guys who'd probably be best inside, like Eli Ankou and Vanderdoes, have moved to defensive end. These are what they call "good problems to have".
Left Outside Linebacker - Annnnnnnd the player who will win the honor of getting a lot of relatively easy sacks is…Aaron Wallace! With Anthony Barr, Vanderdoes, Cassius Marsh, Ellis McCarthy, and the rest of the talented linebacker corps eating up blockers, the left outside linebacker was destined to be a pretty cushy spot, with plenty of sack opportunities. Wallace, over the last week or so of practice, has locked down the spot. Taking nearly every rep with the first string, he's been solid in both run defense and pass rush. He's also a load physically, at about 6'2, 240, so he's the kind of guy who can beat tight ends at the line of scrimmage and hold his own against tackles. Kenny Orjioke was Wallace's main competitor through the early part of camp, but he struggled in a few aspects of the game, one being his play of the zone read. From what we saw, on about a half dozen plays, Orjioke invariably went after the wrong guy on the read play. With Orjioke out of the running, Myles Jack stepped in and pushed Wallace pretty well. Jack is a bit of an athletic freak, with the build to take on big running backs as well as the flexibility and quickness to cover slot receivers. While this position battle may be resolved for now, we could see a scenario where Jack has the starting job by the midpoint of the year.
Right Guard - This one sure was settled quickly. After about a day of camp, Caleb Benenoch grabbed hold of the first string right guard job and never let go. Ben Wysocki had the spot until he suffered a concussion very early in camp, and then when he returned, he slotted in with the second string offensive line. In the ideal scenario for the coaches, Benenoch will hold onto the starting job at guard, but there are a few combinations in the case of injury where Benenoch would slide to right tackle. We expected that Alex Redmond would have a good shot at the job, but after suffering a concussion in the first week of camp, the coaches have brought him along slowly. At this point, the job is Benenoch's to lose.
The First String Secondary - From what we've seen over the last few weeks of open practices, it seems that UCLA is very comfortable with a starting secondary of Fabian Moreau and Ishmael Adams at cornerback and Anthony Jefferson and Randall Goforth at safety. Moreau, as we've said, was easily the defensive surprise of camp, looking arguably like the best corner on the team through the last few weeks. The talented freshmen who were expected to come in and play immediately proved a little less ready to play immediately than was previously expected. The most likely seemed to be Priest Willis up until a few days ago, but it looks like Brandon Sermons has since surged ahead in the competition for the third cornerback job. Tahaan Goodman and Tyler Foreman both had moments during camp, but also looked like they could use some more seasoning. Johnny Johnson, as has been discussed, has a shoulder injury not unlike Adams' last year, and will likely miss the year if he opts for a surgical procedure.
Recapping the Position Battles
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