Taking Stock of Camp After Three Days

You can tend to take it for granted now, expecting to see the high level of talent and athleticism of the program under Jim Mora, but you still need to appreciate how far the program has come in three years...

Perhaps we’re getting a little spoiled.

Three days into fall camp in San Bernardino and there’s a difference in our reporting from the last two years.

At those first two fall camps under Jim Mora we were effusive about how different the team was, how there had been a major upgrade in talent and athleticism on the field.

Just because we haven’t raved about it this year doesn’t mean it’s not evident. It just means that we’re used to it now.

In fact, after the first practice this year, Dave Woods turned to me and said, “Meh.”

Later that night, by the time we were in the middle of that long drive back to this time zone, we realized that, perhaps, we were a little jaded and weren’t appreciative of how different the UCLA football program is just from three years ago.

Malcolm Bunche
If the last time you had seen the team in practice was during the Rick Neuheisel era – and then you walked out to the Cal State San Bernardino fields and saw this year’s team you’d think that you had taken the wrong exit on the freeway. From man to man, Jim Mora’s UCLA’s teams are physically on a different level than any of his predecessors, and the team this year, again, has taken that physicality and athleticism to another level. There were never really so many guys that physically looked like Kenny Orjioke, Eldridge Massington or Nate Iese. Do you ever remember UCLA having an offensive line that physically looked like Caleb Benenoch, Malcolme Bunche, Alex Redmond and Conor McDermott? The unit that really epitomizes UCLA’s athletic and physical transformation is the defensive line. No time in UCLA’s history, and I’m not even going to limit that by saying “recent history,” has UCLA had physical specimens like Owamagbe Odighizuwa, Kenneth Clark, Eddie Vanderdoes, and Ellis McCarthy. Remember the days of Kenneth Lombard and Chase Moline, with UCLA’s defensive line manned by players who would never even sniff the two-deep today? Heck, UCLA’s second and third string looks physically better than any team under any recent former head coach, with guys like Eli Ankou, Craig Lee, and Marcos Rios capable of being first off the bus. The freshman class has kept up the Mora tradition of physical specimens, with Matt Dickerson, Nathan Starks, Alex Van Dyke, Zach Whitley and Kenny Young.

Again, if you were on the freeway, you might suspect you really got lost and took an off-ramp into SEC country.

It’s just not about pure bodies, too. The talent level has gone through the roof. When was the last time UCLA entered a season with a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate as its quarterback, and maybe all potential NFL players on it starting offensive line, a good five-deep at running back, and a receivers group that has a deep blend of talented veterans and youngsters?

Speaking of receivers, one thing that really did jump out at us watching the first few days of practice is how well-coached the veteran receivers are in the program. Juniors Jordan Payton, Devin Lucien and Devin Fuller are so technically and fundamentally polished as a result of being coached by Eric Yarber for three years. The route-running itself from those three is so technically precise that the three almost look like receiver robots. No wasted motion, no rounding-out of routes, precise footwork and handwork. When Lucien and Payton execute simple comebackers it looks almost impossible to defend since they are now so good at running the route perfectly and using their bodies properly to create their catch zone.

It’s a completely different world than how the receiver groups used to look under previous staffs, when they didn’t seem to improve year after year. The difference in Payton and Lucien is remarkable.

Nate Iese
The upgrade in coaching of the running backs, too, is blatantly clear. Coach Kennedy Polamalu has set a new precedent for attention to detail. He’ll make a running back repeat a rep because he missed a foot placement by a couple of inches. You can see the difference it’s already made in Jordon James and Paul Perkins from just spring practice. And Polamalu, and assistant Deshaun Foster, are working really hard to speed up the learning curve of talented Craig Lee. He is the most purely talented running back on the roster, it’s just a matter of whether he gets the game mentally. It might not be this year, in fact, but he’s still young, just a redshirt freshman. And the work we’ve seen and heard that Polamalu and Foster are doing with him is exceptional.

Offensive Line Coach Adrian Klemm has done a remarkable job of transforming UCLA’s offensive line. Two years ago when the team first went to San Bernardino under Mora, UCLA lost close to 10 offensive linemen – not only because of the extreme heat but because of the extreme lack of physical shape. Yesterday, Jake Brendel said that, as a UCLA offensive lineman, you either get in great shape “or die.” It’s so evident after the first few days in San Bernardino that Klemm’s regimen has had a huge effect on the conditioning and bodies of his players. Every time you see Caleb Benenoch, Conor McDermott, Alex Redmond or Kenny Lacy it appears their bodies have taken another step in an on-going transformation. For the first time in a long time, UCLA returns six guys who have started games in the past. Klemm, for the first time in three years, won’t have to start a freshman, or multiple freshmen. A couple of years ago a talented player like Poasi Moala would have come to UCLA and had to step into the starting lineup, way before he was ready to do so, but now he’s able to develop. UCLA is actually thinking of attempting to redshirt a starter from last season, Scott Quessenberry, to give him time to physically develop, and allow his body time to catch up with his talent. Two years ago a talented true freshman like Najee Toran, despite weighing just 270 pounds, would be starting. And as Klemm said in his interview from yesterday, the offensive line still isn’t where he wants it to be, still probably a year away from having the talent, experience and, especially, the depth he wants.

As we said above, the defensive line is a revelation, comparatively to the types of DLs UCLA had with the previous coaching staffs. First, the recruiting upgrade has been shocking, with UCLA having four U.S. Army All-Americans on the DL roster, and one who wasn’t, Ken Clark, perhaps being the most talented. We’ve said before, but after seeing the defensive line for the first several days of fall camp, we think the unit has the best chance to take the biggest leap of any this season. Clark, Vanderdoes and McCarthy all had decent seasons last year when, at times, they flashed some brilliance. They are all young, but very talented, and could possibly all have their break-out seasons simultaneously. Owamagbe, after sitting last season, looks like he’s also on the verge of a break-out. This year’s defensive line could be UCLA’s best in 20 years. If the line realizes all of that potential this season, you’d have to say that Defensive Line Coach Angus McClure has probably done the best job of upgrading his unit, in terms of recruiting and development, than any coach in the program.

We haven’t even mentioned the guy who is probably the most purely talented player on the team – Myles Jack. As we reported, the play he made Tuesday when he broke on a short out to get the pick was probably the best defensive play we’ve seen so far in San Bernardino. A BRO Premium Message Board poster was recently asking just how much more upside could Jack have – and if the first few days of practice are indication: Plenty. He looks far more instinctual, able to make plays quicker without having to think. The athleticism, though, is remarkable, and it looks to have even improved. He has a flexible, lithe body and, by the way, has dramatically improved his strength while retaining that flexibility. Jack very well could live up to the pre-season hype he’s received nationally, and actually emerge as one of the best defensive players in the nation.

Kenny Orjioke
When was the last time that, in the linebackers group, UCLA had talent like Isaako Savaiinaea, Zach Whitley and Kenny Young – all not starting? And then there’s the guy who could be next in the pass-rush spotlight – Kenny Orjioke, who has Anthony-Barr-esque athleticism. In fact, in the first couple of days, Orijioke at times dropped into coverage and his back pedal and change-of-direction were exceptional, and drew praise from Defensive Backs Coach Demetrice Martin.

When was the last time UCLA returned its entire starting defensive secondary – from a secondary that was pretty good, and young? Junior Fabian Moreau has gotten a great deal of attention after Mora said in spring that he has a chance to be a first-round draft pick at cornerback, and it’s deserved. Moreau has looked very good in San Bernardino. But play for play, there isn’t a better defensive back on the team than sophomore Ishmael Adams. The quickness he displays in coverage – his ability to change direction without hesitation and at a very high rate – has been the most impressive trait of any defensive back so far in fall camp. Tahaan Goodman, the true sophomore safety, too, has shown more pure instinctive reaction and better anticipation. Watch for the first day when UCLA actually hits live in practice, because Goodman has had to pull up on many hits so far that potentially looked very violent.

Oh, yeah, and we forgot about that quarterback guy. Remember the days when we used to report how poorly the quarterbacks looked in the first few days of fall camp? Every year – in fall and in spring, both – we’d give the quarterbacks some slack for the first few days of practice. We are definitely spoiled now, expecting Brett Hundley to not only look as good as he did the last time we saw him, but even improved, without giving him any first-few-days-of-practice slack. And Hundley hasn’t disappointed. He had a very good day Wednesday, throwing with great accuracy and power. His presence and leadership - -just having a Heisman Trophy candidate for a quarterback – brings such a different air to the practice field. It signifies, probably more than anything we’ve written here, that UCLA’s program has the makings of a top 10 national program.

So, a few days in to fall camp, we’re now appreciative – that it’s only been 90 degrees, UCLA dumped the red jerseys for the quarterbacks – and there is a completely different level of talent and athleticism in the UCLA football program.

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