Photo by Steve Cheng

Top 10 Takeaways From UCLA Fall Camp

Aug. 25 -- What were our top ten takeaways from UCLA's fall camp in San Bernardino?

1. The Starting Offensive Line is Impressive

Usually the way it works in fall camp is that the defensive linemen usually eat the offensive linemen for lunch.  You would have expected it in this camp, too, with some of the talent UCLA has on the defensive line.  And the DL did get an edge at times in team drills in San Bernardino, but it was far more even than we had ever seen it, and in the individual one-on-ones, you’d have to say that the starting OL won the camp over the starting DL. It’s not fluff to say that this is the best starting offensive line we’ve seen at UCLA in a long time.  From left to right – Conor McDermott, Kenny Lacy, Jake Brendel, Alex Redmond and Caleb Benenoch – showed a great deal of athleticism, and were in terrific shape.  We view the minor injuries that McDermott and Brendel experienced to be blessings – keeping them out of any riskier team drills for a while to preserve their health. 

We do think, however, that the offensive line group doesn’t have great depth. With Scott Quessenberry taking off the year to have two shoulder surgeries, and then Simon Goines having a health issue that could sit him for an unlimited amount of time, there isn’t much proven playable depth.  One or two injuries to the starters and UCLA is back to the familiar scenario of playing freshmen.  But overall, it was one of the most positive takeaways from San Bernardino – how good the starting OL was and that it got out of there without a significant injury.

2. Serious Injury Avoidance

In fact, the entire team emerged from San Bernardino relatively intact.  Running back Steven Manfro (shoulder tweak), defensive end Takkarist McKinley (concussive symptoms) and freshman OL Tevita Halalilo (concussive symptoms) were the players who missed significant time.  But no-season ending stuff, which usually happens to just about every college program in its fall camp, and nothing that will keep out a starter for a prolonged period of time. 

3. Team Depth of Talent

We don’t think we’ve ever seen the type of depth of talent this UCLA team has in any fall camp.  The standard was the starters were pretty talented, but it was an unknown cliff after that, made up of guys who had never really played real minutes before and were of questionable talent. San Bernardino showed us that you can go through just about the entire depth chart and find guys you wouldn’t feel reticent about putting in a game.  The group of receivers goes very deep, with guys like Jordan Lasley, Alex Van Dyke, Darren Andrews and Austin Roberts – guys who looked like they could start elsewhere – fighting for time in the receiver rotation.  At linebacker, we’d be completely fine if Jayon Brown or Cameron Judge had to play a good amount of time, and then you have other guys to be excited about what they could contribute, like Cameron Griffin, Kenny Orjioke and Keisean Lucier-South.  San Bernardino proved that UCLA has some depth of talent at DB, too; that talent might not have much experience but it still showed some talent.  On the DL, when McKinley went down, Matt Dickerson stepped in and looked like he’d be a standout, and in camp Jacob Tuioti-Mariner was perhaps one of the guys who made the biggest leap.  Quarterback and offensive line are the worry in terms of depth, but we’ve never seen the type of playable depth throughout the roster like with this team.

4. Sotonye Jamabo Didn’t Impress

Soso Jamabo was ranked the #1 running back prospect nationally in the 2015 class, so there was some expectation coming in. We, though, at Bruin Report Online, were skeptical – thinking he was a 6-2 finesse player that might not be a running back.  Jamabo doesn’t look like a running back right now, not only ill-suited physically but in his approach to the position.  He looked many times like he was going through a walk-through in a live drill.  Perhaps it’s just overwhelming for him – his first couple of weeks of college football practice, in not-comfortable San Bernardino, etc.  Perhaps it will click soon.  We do think, though, that his height and body type will make it interesting to see if he’ll stay at running back, since he does catch the ball out of the backfield well and could be moved to slot receiver. If he starts running hard – kind of like his freshman counterpart Bolu Olorunfunmi -- that would go a long way to maybe convincing us he has a future at running back. 

5. Aaron Wallace Held on to the Starting LB Spot

One of the things-to-watch coming into fall camp was the competition we expected at the open outside linebacker spot, the one vacated by Myles Jack when he moved inside to replace the departed Eric Kendricks.  Aaron Wallace was penciled in there, but we believed he’d get seriously pushed by the likes of Cameron Judge, Jayon Brown (even though Brown plays inside) and others.  But no real competition ever really materialized.  It appears that in the base defense Wallace is going to be the guy at the spot, since he’s a good run stuffer. But in many other UCLA defensive looks an assortment of linebackers and defensive backs will be used for coverage. 

6. Josh Rosen Didn’t Seize The Position

We made no secret of the fact that, going into fall, we were expecting San Bernardino to be little more than a victory lap for the talented freshman quarterback Josh Rosen. He looked so good in spring, and so demonstrably better than the other quarterbacks on the roster, that it seemed simply a matter of time before he was named the starter.

Of course, it didn’t end up that way. Rosen had some nice moments, but showed much more inconsistency than he showed during the spring. On the other side, Jerry Neuheisel looked much better in San Bernardino than he did during the spring, when he was uncharacteristically inconsistent. The competition was fairly even, and if we were grading it, we’d probably say that Neuheisel had a slightly better two weeks than Rosen.

We still think Rosen will be the starter this year, but he has certainly been tested a good deal more this camp than we anticipated.

7. Some Potential First-time Contributors

Fall Camp is always the best time to see which new players could impact the depth chart. More often than not, this includes a variety of freshmen and redshirt freshmen who project to play.

Rosen, obviously, will play and be a big impact player, but we’d guess that true freshmen Bolu Olorunfunmi, Stephen Johnson, Fred Ulu-Perry, Rick Wade, Keisean Lucier-South, and even Jamabo (since it looks like UCLA really wants to use him this year) could make an impact this season. Among the redshirt freshmen, Cameron Griffin and Austin Roberts both caught our eye this fall camp and seem poised to play this season.

8. The Defensive Backfield is Impressive

The defensive backs in general were one of the very pleasant surprises of fall camp, both in terms of the starters and in terms of the depth. Marcus Rios looks great, Fabian Moreau had a nice camp, and having Randall Goforth back was huge for the continuity of the safety position with Anthony Jefferson now gone.

But the depth is what makes this position much stronger than we anticipated heading into camp. Tahaan Goodman had his best series of practices as a Bruin, looking much more in-tune with the defense and where he needed to be. Denzel Fisher had a really strong fall camp, and looks much further along in his development than he did in the spring. Adarius Pickett, who we had concerns about, appears to finally be settling in at safety and had a really nice final week in San Bernardino. Dechaun Holiday, Octavius Spencer, and Nathan Meadors all look like potential contributors as true freshmen. Even Will Lockett and Colin Samuel had moments, though they might still be a little further away.

We still have some long-term concerns at the corner position, but for this season, UCLA looks to have a very solid rotation of defensive backs.

9. The Kicking Game Continues to Be a Question Mark

We didn’t see much this fall camp to indicate that kicking woes are behind UCLA. Ka’imi Fairbairn looked about the same as he has through his UCLA career, with a couple of missed kicks during the scrimmage on Friday, including a missed PAT. UCLA did seem to focus more on kicks from 40 yards and in, so perhaps the Bruins will play a bit more aggressively on long-distance 4th downs. The punting situation isn’t great either. Matt Mengel and Adam Searl were both fairly inconsistent in camp. Both have the legs to be effective punters, but each of them dealt with a pretty high rate of shanks.

10. Tom Bradley’s Defense Will Be Much More Aggressive

Bradley didn’t have a rep as a blitz-heavy coach, so perhaps we’re just judging based on Jeff Ulbrich’s passive play-calling from a year ago, but the defense this fall camp looked significantly more aggressive than last season.

What stands out isn’t so much the amount of blitzing, but where the blitzes are coming from. Bradley did a really nice job of mixing and matching personnel and moving players into unexpected positions for advantageous match ups (e.g. an “outside” linebacker lining up directly behind the three-technique to take advantage of his block to get into the backfield quicker). Each blitz that we saw seemed well-designed, with a real purpose to it.

Obviously, we’ve seen pressure in practice before that didn’t translate to games (would Joe Tresey like to stand up and say a few words?), but we think there’s a very good chance UCLA’s defense looks like a much more aggressive product this season.

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