Quickly, we have reached the halfway point of UCLA's 2014 spring practices. It's been an interesting spring, in many ways, and perhaps the biggest takeaway we've had through seven practices is an echo of what we said through the first few days in fall of last year: the talent level of the team has skyrocketed in the last two years. Some of that increase is due to the talent influx from Jim Mora's first three recruiting classes at UCLA — in particular the 2013 class — but an equal part is the quality of talent development significantly improving throughout the program.
As we said in one of the first practice reports this spring, having even three or four guys who can throw a football would have been a luxury by Rick Neuheisel/Karl Dorrell standards, but the shocking thing is that if you were judging the team this year, you'd still say quarterback was one of the least stacked units on the team, despite having two potential NFL prospects in the depth chart. There are potential pros at virtually every position on the team, and the dead weight on the team has been reduced to essentially zero.
Over the first two weeks, it's become fairly apparent that unless there are significant injuries or a freshman comes in this fall and really wows, the vast majority of the starting spots are mostly set. It's as you might expect given that UCLA didn't really lose many starters last year. Below, we break down the positions that are set so far, and which ones are still up for grabs. Many of those position battles won't be settled in spring.
Positions Mostly Set
Starting Quarterback: Brett Hundley
Left Tackle: Caleb Benenoch
Left Guard: Malcolm Bunche
Center: Jake Brendel
Right Guard: Alex Redmond
Z Receiver: Jordan Payton
X Receiver: Devin Lucien
F Receiver: Devin Fuller
Y Receiver: Thomas Duarte
Fullback/H-Back: Nate Iese
Defensive End: Owamagbe Odighizuwa
Nose Tackle: Kenneth Clark
Outside Linebacker: Myles Jack
Outside Linebacker: Kenny Orjioke
Inside Linebacker: Eric Kendricks
Safety: Anthony Jefferson
Safety: Randall Goforth
Cornerback: Fabian Moreau
Cornerback: Ishmael Adams*
*We've indicated that the starting secondary remains the same, but that doesn't do justice to the job Tahaan Goodman has done this spring (and is more due to the limitations of a traditional depth chart). He's the first defensive back off the bench right now, and the dominos that fall when he comes in actually force Adams into what is essentially the nickel role, guarding the slot receiver. Think of the secondary as five starters instead of four.
Position Battles Remaining
Right Tackle — Poasi Moala came into spring with the first opportunity at right tackle, but he faltered during the second week, and in that same period of time, Kenny Lacy has put together a very good beginning to spring. Both players have worked on transforming their bodies in the offseason, but Lacy's actually looks more game-ready right now. This battle is unlikely to be settled this spring, because we still have yet to see what transpires with Simon Goines, who is out for the spring, and we haven't seen much of Conor McDermott, who should be back soon after spring after recovering from shoulder surgery. Both players could factor into the competition.
Running Back — Jordon James and Paul Perkins have been getting the lion's share of the reps with the first team, but the running backs have been splitting reps across the board pretty evenly. With a new coach, depth charts tend to get thrown into a bit of upheaval, but we'd still have to tab James as the favorite to land the spot, not just because he's a good runner, but because he does the nitty gritty aspects of the job (blocking, specifically) better than the rest of the backs. Craig Lee is the wildcard, and he's been getting significant coaching from both Kennedy Polamalu and Deshaun Foster throughout the spring in an effort to quickly get him up to speed. If he can make some real strides in understanding the offense and blocking, his natural gifts as a runner could quickly rocket him up the depth chart.
Defensive End — There's been little competition for Ellis McCarthy this spring with Eddie Vanderdoes out, but that'll change in fall camp, and if Vanderdoes is similar to how he looked last year, we'd say it's likely he'll secure the starting spot in fall. Eli Ankou has also gotten reps at McCarthy's spot, but it'd be a tall order for him to beat out either player.
Inside Linebacker — Isaako Savaiinaea was having a solid spring prior to his shoulder injury, and we'll see whether he makes it back for the remainder of spring (we heard that he could be back as early as this week, but with spring injuries, coaches are usually more cautious). We still think he's the favorite, because experience at that position is extremely important, but he'll have some talented contenders. Zach Whitley, we'd imagine, will move back to inside backer before too long has passed, and Kenny Young, in the fall, should factor in as well. That should be a very fun San Bernardino competition.
Backup Quarterback — On the surface, this is actually a close competition, with Jerry Neuheisel looking a bit steadier this spring, but Asiantii Woulard having the exceptional physical gifts that make him such a good prospect. Beyond that, though, it seems fairly obvious that Woulard should have every opportunity to take the backup job. With Brett Hundley leaving after this season, Woulard needs the mental reps of playing directly behind Hundley as well as the actual physical reps of playing in mop-up time. Neuheisel doesn't project as being a UCLA-level starter at quarterback, so it doesn't make a tremendous amount of long-term sense to have him as the primary backup. It'll be interesting to see how this one shakes out.
Position Battles at the Midway Point
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