The question was posed on the message board: how does the team we see in spring compare to the team that started last year? While you'd have to take everything with a grain of salt because we're only seeing UCLA compete against UCLA in spring, the improvement even in that short time is noticeable. Virtually across the board the starting talent and depth has improved, and below we'll break the situation down position-by-position.
NOTE: Again, we're comparing the team right now to the team that started last year (so when you read that we say the offensive line is not improved, don't wet yourself).
In total, you'd have to say that Brett Hundley is an improved quarterback from last season. He's throwing the ball better, he looks like he's in command of the offense, and his confidence certainly looks improved from mid-year last year. We'd still like to see him make quicker decisions in the pocket, but he's doing a better job of throwing the ball away when he doesn't see something open.
The depth is pretty similar to last year. Asiantii Woulard hasn't made that meteoric leap that Hundley made between fall and spring of his first year in the program, but there's little cause for concern yet, as Woulard still has a year of apprenticeship ahead of him. Jerry Neuheisel has improved marginally from a year ago, looking a little stronger with a bit better arm strength, but there's a pretty firm ceiling for him. At this point, we'd probably feel a bit more comfortable with Neuheisel coming in for Hundley in the case of spot work (finishing out a game, or coming in for a series), but if it were a situation where Hundley missed significant time, getting Woulard up to speed would, in our estimation, become the priority.
Has the unit improved from last year? Yes.
At running back, Craig Lee has emerged as one of the stories of the spring, with his ability, seemingly every practice, to break out into the open field with his speed. Jordon James, Steven Manfro, and Paul Perkins have all had moments during the spring, but Lee provides the unit something it didn't have last year: a true speed threat with the ability to make one cut and get to the second level of a defense.
UCLA returns every meaningful contributor from last season, and adds in Lee, who looks like he should compete for playing time this year.
Has the unit improved from last year? Yes.
There's no Shaquelle Evans, but the guy replacing him in the first string, Devin Lucien, is more physically talented and has spent all spring trying to demonstrate how he can be a more mature leader. Thomas Duarte takes over as the starting Y, and he's demonstrably more physically talented than Darius Bell and Grayson Mazzone. Jordan Payton and Devin Fuller reprise their roles from last year, and players like Mossi Johnson and Kenny Walker seem capable of providing playmaking threats from the slot and outside respectively. Walker, in particular, seems like he could provide a deep speed threat the team has lacked since time immemorial, while Johnson provides another slot receiver who's shown an ability to get consistently open over the middle (like Devin Fuller, in that respect, with more natural hands). Combined with the contributions Eldridge Massington should be able to provide in the redone, this unit may be one of the most improved on the team from last year.
Has the unit improved from last year? Yes
It's a tossup whether Xavier Su'a-Filo or Anthony Barr was the biggest loss from last year. For our purposes, we'd lean toward Su'a-Filo. His versatility was a huge asset, but what made the running game really effective at times through the first two years was his ability to get downfield from the guard spot. His level of athleticism is not easily replaced.
To compare the group that started last year to what will likely be the first string group coming out of spring: Caleb Benenoch looks, physically, a lot like Torian White last year, and has had an excellent spring, despite hyperextending his knee last week. Malcolm Bunche, who we think will be back at left guard before fall, looks pretty good at guard, with decent mobility for a guy his size and great strength, but we'll say that he'll be a step down from Su'a-Filo (especially since he isn't quite in shape still). Jake Brendel looks better than last year, and hasn't had many snapping issues this spring. Alex Redmond has a club on his hand, but his body looks better than last year. Whether this line will be better, the same, or worse than last year's starting unit, though, will hinge almost entirely on the right tackle position. Kenny Lacy and Poasi Moala are currently competing there, but that one likely won't be settled until fall, when we see Conor McDermott and Simon Goines again. So, as it is right now, we'd say that the unit is a bit worse than the one that started out last year, but with the talented depth in the program, there's a good chance it could be better by the time fall rolls around.
Has the unit improved from last year? No.
The unit trades Cassius Marsh for Owamagbe Odighizuwa, and right now we might be inclined to call the trade in favor of Owa. He's had a very good spring, and doesn't look like he's had to shake off much rust at all. He's stronger than Marsh and has been able to bull rush effectively from the outside while also using a nice inside swim move. Kenneth Clark looks bigger, stronger, and quicker. On the right side, Ellis McCarthy looks about the same as he did last year: pretty good, but probably still needs to play with a bit more consistency.
The depth is so-so at the moment. Losing Keenan Graham was a blow to the pass rush, and there isn't an easy replacement already in the program. Kylie Fitts has turned it on over the last week and looks like he's getting his legs back under him. Eli Ankou hasn't had a great spring backing up McCarthy. Kevin McReynolds has had a few moments, and might be angling for a rotational job on the interior as a backup nose tackle. Not having Eddie Vanderdoes this spring throws things into a bit of flux.
Grading the unit right now (as in the group that is actually participating in practice), considering the depth and everything, we'd probably say it's similar to the group that started last year, but we're going to count Vanderdoes, since he'll likely be a starter in the fall. With him in the fold, even if he's much the same as he was last year, this should be an improved unit.
Has the unit improved from last year? Yes.
This unit probably lost the most from last season, with Barr and Jordan Zumwalt both graduating, and the losses have probably played a significant role in the shifting defense UCLA is using this spring (what looks like a 4-2-5 mixed with a 3-3-5 at times). Kenny Orjioke is the only prototypical outside linebacker the group has, particularly since Aaron Wallace's status is completely uncertain now that he is not enrolled in school this spring. Orjioke has had a good spring, and the light seems to be flicking on, but Barr is a tough guy to replace.
Myles Jack looks better than he did last year, which is scary. He has added a little bit of weight, but actually looks a bit faster and quicker than last year. Isaako Savaiinaea has had a very good spring, and would be an easy starter in last year's 3-4. Eric Kendricks is sitting out most of the spring, but is participating in walkthroughs. Zach Whitley is a significant addition, providing UCLA with another athletic freak on the inside, but he doesn't quite have Jack's natural instincts for the position, and might take a bit more time before he can translate all of his physical talent to the field.
So, to put it in simplified terms, UCLA has plenty of inside guys to replace Zumwalt, but replacing Barr is the tougher nut to crack. As it stands right now, it's still too difficult to say whether UCLA will be able to successfully replace him.
Is the unit improved from last year? No.
UCLA returned every starter this spring from what was a pretty good group last year, and Tahaan Goodman, who played sparingly last year, looks significantly better this spring, and has become essentially the fifth starter in the secondary. Fabian Moreau has also made a leap this spring, and looks every bit like the guy Jim Mora is hyping him to be. With those notes alone, this group is better than last year, but the depth, with Marcus Rios returning, Priest Willis looking a bit better than last year, and freshman Adarius Pickett in the fold, makes this probably the closest contender to the receivers for most improved unit on the team.
Is the unit improved from last year? Yes.
As a final note, UCLA has done a smart thing with it's defense, given the relative strengths of the personnel. Recognizing the significant amount of talent the team has in the secondary, and the relative lack of depth at linebacker, the defensive shift from a straight 3-4 to more of a hybrid defense with five defensive backs is a very good anticipatory move. So, even though you might say that the linebackers don't look like a significantly improved unit from last year, UCLA has already taken steps to mitigate that by using fewer in the base defense.