Week 1: What Questions are Answered?

We already have some clarity at a few positions along the offensive line and in the defensive backfield, but there are still some significant question marks...

Before the start of fall camp, we published a story concerning the top ten questions and storylines heading into fall camp. Now that we’ve had a week to watch the team and assess every position, we have a better idea of what the answers to those questions are.

1. What defensive formation will UCLA run?

In spring, UCLA’s defense used mostly nickel formations, with 4-2-5 and 3-3-5 looks being common. So far in camp, we’ve seen significantly more base 3-4 defense than we saw in the entirety of spring. UCLA still is using a fair amount of nickel, though, and we’d imagine the amount may increase in the coming weeks now that the Bruins have shown they have depth in the defensive backfield and still no real clarity at one outside linebacker position.

2. Is Brett Hundley reading defenses better pre- and post-snap?

As we wrote in the preview piece, it’s difficult to tell in practice how a quarterback will read a defense in a game. As of now, he looks marginally improved, and is doing a better job of making somewhat quicker decisions. Tracy and I have written it a few times, but Hundley has never really been a great practice player, so it’s even more difficult to really assess how he’s going to look in a game based on how he’s looked in practice.

Paul Perkins.
3. Who are the top three running backs?

It looks pretty clear at this point that Jordon James, Paul Perkins, and Steven Manfro are at the top, but the addition of Adarius Pickett to the mix has added some intrigue for the next three weeks. Perkins, to our eyes, has looked the best of the bunch so far, and has shown great balance and vision in camp. Manfro has had his now-typical stretches where he looks great in practice, and James, when he was healthy during the first few days, looked like he had regained a step since the spring. As of now, we don’t think Nate Starks has much of a chance of cracking that top three, since he’s looked a bit tentative, as freshmen often do. Craig Lee has shown explosion when he breaks into the open field, but far too often he doesn’t read the hole correctly and runs into his own blockers. We haven’t seen really any of Pickett in team drills yet, but he looks the part in individuals, in particular when catching the ball.

4. Who will fill the shoes of Anthony Barr/Cassius Marsh as a pass rusher?

We really haven’t seen anyone seize the role. Deon Hollins has shown some ability as a pass rusher, and will likely play a role this year, but he’s not an every-down outside linebacker at 215 pounds. Kenny Orjioke was inconsistent in the first week, flashing his incredible athleticism at times, and then at other moments playing way too fast and taking himself out of the play. Owamagbe Odighizuwa will give UCLA a good amount as a pass rusher, and the interior linemen (Kenneth Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes) should be able to generate some pressure up front, but that pass-rushing outside linebacker position is still a big question mark.

5. Who is the right tackle?

This one sure got answered quickly: Caleb Benenoch. The left tackle moved to right when Malcolm Bunche moved from right guard to left tackle. It has opened up another question, though: who’s the other guard? If you agree that Alex Redmond has secured his spot even though he hasn’t been able to practice much this week, then it’s really a competition for the starting right guard spot between mostly Scott Quessenberry and Najee Toran. It’s a very interesting competition: we love Toran’s mean streak, and from a physical perspective, we’d probably prefer him to Quessenberry. But, if you remember, last year when Quessenberry was inserted into the starting lineup at guard, it helped to settle the group down by adding another true center to the mix who could help Jake Brendel with line calls. We know Quessenberry has impressed the coaches with his intelligence and savvy, so we’d have to assume that those qualities, combined with his experience, should win him the job.

6. Who will fill out the depth in the secondary?

This has been probably the most positive development of the fall so far. Heading into camp, this was a major concern of ours, because only five players (the four starters and Tahaan Goodman) had really emerged in our eyes as legitimate players at this level. One week later, virtually every major question we had has been answered positively. Marcus Rios, who many within the program thought could still be a year away, looks better physically than he did before the fungal infection, and has regained almost all of his quickness and speed. Priest Willis, who struggled through his first year in the program, has put together four straight good practices, and it’s easy to see his confidence building as time goes on. If he can continue playing at this level, he will be a valuable contributor this year. Freshman Jaleel Wadood has shown already that his instincts and savvy have carried over untainted from high school. Between those three, the four starters, and Goodman, UCLA should have a solid eight-man rotation this year.

Mossi Johnson.
7. Who’s the main go-to receiver with Shaquelle Evans gone?

It looks like Evans’ protégé Devin Lucien has taken on this mantle. Lucien has been the receiver who most consistently matches up against Fabian Moreau in practice, and he told us he does that because he sees himself as the leader of the unit and wants other guys to be able to get quality work in without being locked up all the time. If that sounds like Lucien has taken a major step toward becoming a mature leader, it’s even more obvious on the field. He has shown improved technical ability through one week, running very crisp routes, and has been very disciplined with his hands and eyes, giving away very little to defensive backs. Brett Hundley obviously has natural chemistry with Eldridge Massington, and Thomas Duarte is going to be a major target, but Lucien looks like he’ll be the go-to guy.

8. What freshmen will make an impact?

Through one week, a few names have emerged as obvious candidates to play this year. Kenny Young, the inside linebacker, could easily crack the starting lineup this season. He’s physical, smart, and already a good leader. Wadood, as we said up top, should play this year, but it’s very unlikely he’ll start unless there are significant injuries. On the defensive line, each of the three freshmen could play this year, but Matt Dickerson seems like the most likely, particularly with Kylie Fitts’ departure. Zach Whitley has been out most of camp so far, so we’re just not sure what his readiness will be for the season, but if he gets healthy in the next few weeks, he too would be a candidate to play early.

On the offensive side of the ball, even if he doesn’t win the right guard spot, we figure Toran will play at some point. Alex Van Dyke has made some real progress over the first week and could factor into the rotation this year. At 6’4, 215, he has the size, strength, and athletic ability of a true red zone threat. Mossi Johnson, who counts in this group since he greyshirted last year, should be a significant cog in the receiver rotation as well.

9. Depth at offensive line?

We wrote prior to the start of camp that the offensive line hasn’t been deeper than it is now in the Mora era, and the first week has been an interesting test of that depth. Redmond, Benenoch, Bunche, Conor McDermott, Carl Hulick, and Simon Goines have all missed time, with Goines actually forced into another surgery, this one on his ankle. Redmond’s issues are heat-related, Benenoch has tendonitis in his knees, Bunche may have pulled his groin, McDermott’s shoulder has needed reset, and Hulick looked as if he too had heat-related issues. We’d expect, at the very least, Redmond, Benenoch, Bunche, and Hulick to be all back to nearly 100% before the team heads home to Westwood next weekend, but it’s obviously a concern that UCLA is a week in and its top four tackles all sat out practice Saturday night.
Najee Toran

It’s still a deep-ish unit, though. If those injuries had all happened during camp the last two years, the first string offensive line would have looked abysmal. Even with all those guys out, Saturday’s offensive line wasn’t terrible, with Kenny Lacy, Quessenberry, Brendel, Toran, and Poasi Moala manning it from left to right. But it’s clearly not an ideal situation. As Adrian Klemm said during our interview with him, the unit still might be a year away from having the right amount of depth.

10. Is this when the defensive line becomes elite?

We’re cautiously optimistic. Eddie Vanderdoes is still figuring out the new defense after sitting out all of spring, so that’s left him looking a little out-of-sorts occasionally. Kenneth Clark and Odighizuwa have looked very good, though, and when Ellis McCarthy has been in, he’s shown flashes of brilliance. The three freshmen all look capable of playing this year, but we’d peg Dickerson and Taua as the most likely of the bunch. Even Eli Ankou and Kevin McReynolds have had their moments.

The top four guys should be better than the vast majority of defensive lines in the country, and based off some of what we’ve seen of the formational changes in practice, we’d speculate that the unit will attack more than it did last year. That should equal bigger numbers and a bigger impact from the unit as a whole this year.

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