Game Week: Five Things to Watch

AUG. 25 -- It's the first game week of the season, and these are the five things that, to an extent, still need to be sorted out before UCLA takes the field against Virginia Saturday...

Besides the usual game-week preparation, like game-plan installation, etc., there are some lingering issues #7-ranked UCLA needs to sort out this week before it takes the field against Virginia on Saturday in Charlottesville.

#1 – Settle the Offensive Line

Caleb Benenoch
Last week, Coach Jim Mora said that UCLA had the guys on the offensive line, it just still had to find the right places for them. Most of the uncertainty stems from Jake Brendel, UCLA’s two-year starter at center, still recovering from an MCL he suffered the second week in San Bernardino. He’s been out of the line-up since, but Mora said he expected him back for the Virginia game. Whether that’s Mora just saying that or whether Brendel is actually going to play is the issue. If Brendel plays, the pieces tend to fall into place. Alex Redmond, who has been working at center in Brendel’s absence, moves back to a guard spot, most likely left guard. It would then be left to be determined how the right side of the line comes out of the huddle in Charlottesville – first, whether Caleb Benenoch returns to right tackle or Conor McDermott starts at right tackle. If Benenoch moves to right tackle, the competition at right guard would be between sophomore Scott Quessenberry, who started at a guard spot last season as a true freshman but has been injured ( minor concussion), or this year’s true freshman, Najee Toran. There is also Kenny Lacy, the redshirt freshman, who has spent some times with the 1s, but Toran has seen more first-string reps.

If Brendel doesn’t play against Virginia, Redmond would remain at center, and if Benenoch moves to right tackle over McDermott, then the two guard spots will be filled by two of Toran, Quessenberry or Lacy.

The offensive line, clearly, is the biggest priority to get straight this week before Virginia.

#2 – Get As Healthy As Possible

There is really only one projected starter who is out for the Virginia game – and that’s right tackle Simon Goines, who is out for probably the first two games after bone-spur surgery on his ankle. Other than that, UCLA is relatively healthy. With Goines, too, there is probably a question whether he does return or sits out the season, which was a consideration. Goines has always had a number of nagging injuries, mostly to his knees, and it was thought that he could redshirt the entire 2014 season to get completely healthy. It’s still undertermined what will happen on that front, and it’s dependent on how Goines feels when he does return from the bone spurs.

Some other players definitely in UCLA’s playing rotation had been returning to the practice field after San Bernardino, like wide receiver Devin Lucien (minor concussion), Y receiver Thomas Duarte (leg injury), cornerback Marcus Rios (headaches) and defensive lineman Ellis McCarthy (conditioning), but Mora said last week they should be ready to go against Virginia.

#3 – Find the #2 Quarterback

The battle for the #2 quarterback spot has been going on between redshirt freshman Asiantii Woulard and redshirt sophomore Jerry Neuheisel since the beginning of camp. You would think UCLA wants to nail down who the #2 guy is this week to get him more reps in preparation. As we’ve said, Neuheisel represents the more knowledgeable quarterback, while Woulard has more talent and physical capability.

#4 – Sort Out the Open Outside Linebacker Spot

Aaron Wallace
UCLA and Defensive Coordinator Jeff Ulbrich have been sorting out the open spot at outside linebacker, Anthony Barr’s spot, since the beginning of fall camp. So saying it needs to be “sorted out” this week probably isn’t accurate. From anyone who watched camp, you could see it looked like UCLA was going to use junior Aaron Wallace, junior Kenny Orjioke and sophomore Deon Hollins in a platoon approach, with all three having specific talents that fit different packages. As we said coming out of fall camp, we think the spot will mostly be manned by Wallace and Hollins, with both probably getting a comparable amount of time.

#5 – Determine Who Will be on Scout Team

Mora told us toward the end of last week that he and his coaching staff were going to have a meeting to determine what players would be in the playing rotation and which would be on the scout team. This means, too, which true freshmen Mora at least initially intends to redshirt.

Mora conceded that one of the spots remaining open was the fourth running back spot, with the contenders being redshirt freshman Craig Lee and true freshmen Adarius Pickett and Nathan Starks. We’ve said before, we thought that Pickett looked the best and most promising of the three, even though he had only been at running back for a short time (having been converted from defensive back the second week of San Bernardino).

With UCLA having some experienced depth now, as Mora has said, there won’t be as many true freshmen playing this season. Receiver Mossi Johnson is clearly going to play. Offensive guard Najee Toran, as we said, has a very good chance to play. He said he expected the three true freshman defensive linemen – Matt Dickerson, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Ainuu Taua – not to redshirt, but we’re skeptical that all three will play against Virginia, with the staff retaining the possibility of at least one of them redshirting. Linebacker Kenny Young is slotted to start at inside linebacker when UCLA is in its 3-4. We don’t expect to see linebacker Zach Whitley against Virginia, as he still is recovering from a concussion, but it’s likely he ends up playing this season. We expect Jaleel Wadood to see time on special teams against Virginia and be one of the first two DBs off the bench.

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