Who is Standing Out?
Craig Lee, Running Back, (5'11", 188) RS Freshman
Lee has been the best of the running backs through three practices, showing excellent speed and, actually, a good amount of shake, particularly on Saturday with the pads on.
Caleb Benenoch, Left Tackle, (6'5, 315), Sophomore
From the eye test alone, Benenoch had the biggest offseason transformation, going from a pudgy freshman to a fairly rocked-out sophomore with much less fat on him. His quickness has improved from a year ago, allowing him to get around in front of quicker pass rushers better (his matchups with Deon Hollins and Kenny Orjioke have been fun to watch). His strength was already his best asset, and he's improved there as well. Before, he looked like a guard playing tackle, but now he looks very much like a tackle, and with his improved quickness, could be a nice fit on the left side.
Poasi Moala, Right Tackle (6'4, 285), RS Freshman
According to Jim Mora (and not just our eyes), Moala actually did have the biggest transformation among the offensive linemen in the offseason, going from a skinny 260 pounds or so when he started last June to a good 280 or 285 pounds now, with very little fat on him. Even last year, as skinny as he was, he was strong, and that seems to have increased. What's most impressive is that even with the weight gain, he's probably improved athletically, showing better quickness and explosion off the line and that same level of flexibility and lateral quickness that made him such a good prospect in the first place. He had a really fun matchup against Kenneth Clark during 1 on 1s Saturday where he probably did the best job anyone has done against Clark this spring, stymying him to a draw at the line of scrimmage, using his bend to get lower than Clark, which is quite a feat.
Mossi Johnson, Wide Receiver, (6'0, 185), Freshman
Johnson has been our biggest surprise of the spring, particularly since a) we didn't know he was coming in as a receiver until the last couple of weeks and b) he's coming off a very serious knee tear. Judging by the way he's moved so far this spring, about the only thing inhibiting him is the knee brace itself, because he seems to have regained all of his quickness and speed from before the injury in December 2012. He has caught the ball well, and so far he's played mostly as an inside receiver, actually working with the Y-receivers most of the time. We see him being able to play at both inside spots, though, and he could be a weapon as early as this year.
Kenneth Clark, Nose Tackle, (6'2, 305), Sophomore
Clark was arguably the best defensive lineman on the team last year, and this spring has left little doubt about it. With pads on, he's ferocious, with the ability to take on double teams at the point, and, when matched up against a single blocker, the ability to be a pass-rushing force on the inside. With Clark clearly a potential weapon on the inside, it'll be interesting to see if the pass-rush strategy changes from a year ago, where the defensive linemen were mostly used as a containment force against mobile quarterbacks. Clark's ability to beat centers and guards quickly off the snap could be a key element in developing a real pass rush this year to compensate for the losses of Anthony Barr and Cassius Marsh.
Tahaan Goodman, Safety (6'2, 189), Sophomore
Goodman played the most of the true freshmen defensive backs last year, and showed flashes of good play, but also looked like he was still getting the hang of the speed of the game. This spring, he's looked much more comfortable, and it's allowed his natural athletic gifts to come to the fore. Every practice so far this spring he's looked better and more comfortable, and with Anthony Jefferson playing both corner and safety, and UCLA likely playing nickel a good amount this year, Goodman seems like the early candidate to be a de facto fifth starter in the secondary.
Nate Iese, Fullback, (6'3, 243). RS Sophomore
Iese is another player who has done some considerable work on his body in the offseason, looking much leaner through the torso with a much stronger lower body. His latest position switch seems to be one that suits him well. He's looked very good catching the ball out of the backfield, and with his size and ability to get up to speed quickly, he is a bit like a freight train when he starts going in one direction. Knowing that Kennedy Polamalu likes bigger backs, and recognizing that there isn't a real big back among the true tailbacks, Iese could be looking at a very significant role this season.
Area That Has Surprised for the Better
On the surface, UCLA should be in its usual panic mode on the offensive line. Torian White is gone. Simon Goines is out for the spring and might still be a redshirt candidate this season. Conor McDermott is probably going to be limited for the entire spring. With three of last year's top four tackles out, it would appear that the situation is decidedly harrowing.
Of course, as we wrote in our analysis immediately after White's dismissal, the situation is better than you might otherwise assume. Benenoch, Moala, and Kenny Lacy have all made significant strides since last season, to the point where Benenoch and Moala clearly have the chance to be very good as early as this season, and Lacy looks like he'll have every chance to contribute. With those three guys shoring up the tackle depth, Malcolm Bunche, the fifth-year graduate transfer from Miami, potentially coming in on Monday, and Jake Brendel and Alex Redmond shoring up two of the interior spots, about the only question mark left is the left guard spot. Just looking at Bunche's body, he seems like more of a tackle at 6'6, so our initial instinct would be that, if he starts, it might make sense for him to be the right tackle, with Moala moving to the left guard position, where he could replicate some of the athleticism of Xavier Su'a-Filo. Regardless, it looks like Adrian Klemm should have the pieces to start an offensive line that has the chance to be just as good as the offensive line that started last season.
Areas that Remain Concerns
Even with the explosiveness of Lee, there are still some concerns with the running backs, particularly in terms of finding a natural No. 1 guy. Lee has the most natural talent of the bunch, but, as we mentioned above, he still needs to develop in his understanding of the finer points of the game. Also, to be a true lead back, he'll need to get stronger. At his current size, he can get bounced off his line really easily by bigger players. Jordon James hasn't had a great spring so far, and looks a step slower than last season. Steven Manfro and Paul Perkins have both looked similar to last year, with Perkins looking reliable, without that really explosive burst, and Manfro looking good in practice, as usual. With those four, plus Nathan Starks coming in this fall, there are certainly enough candidates for the job that one should rise to the top, but, until that shakes out, running back is still an area of concern.
Pass Rush/Outside Linebacker
As we've mentioned since the end of this past recruiting cycles, one of the few areas where UCLA missed this past cycle was in securing an elite, or near-elite, pass rusher. Rashaan Evans would have been key for UCLA, probably even his freshman year. Right now, looking at the outside linebackers, Kenny Orjioke is the only one who projects as your prototypical outside linebacker/pass rusher, with good length, quickness, and athleticism, combined with very good strength. He is also untested, and still relatively new to the position. After him, there are a variety of guys who either a) are even more untested, like Ian Taubler (who moved to OLB this spring) or b) look more like inside linebackers (Myles Jack, and potentially Zach Whitley). Once again, the move to more 4-3 elements makes sense this spring because UCLA doesn't really have multiple pass rush options among the linebackers. Jack looks like he's improved in that area this offseason, and Whitley has the athleticism to make an impact wherever he plays, but it's an open question how UCLA is going to manage to get pressure on the quarterback without blitzing significantly more than they did last year.
Most Exciting Off-Field Development
Recruits at Practice
The amount of high school talent that has shown up at practice through the first three days of practice, including one 7 A.M. practice, has been very impressive. While a good amount of 2015 talent has been out (including five-stars Iman Marshall, Josh Rosen, and four-stars Marvell Tell, Cordell Broadus, Ykili Ross, and Roy Hemsley), what's most impressive is how many younger players have also been in attendance. 2016 linebacker Breland Brandt (who projects as one of the top prospects in the West) has been out to each of the three practices, while 2016 linebacker Lokeni Toailoa and 2016 quarterback Malik Henry have each been to practices as well. UCLA is clearly hitting the recruiting trail hard for 2015, but with limited scholarships and an ability to focus in on a few handfuls of guys for the remaining scholarships, the coaching staff has been able to also recruit 2016 harder than it otherwise would have. Early on, it appears to be paying dividends.