UCLA returned to the Intramural Field on Tuesday morning to kick off spring practice, and head coach Jim Mora said he was pleased with the attitude and work ethic the team showed for the first day.
Mora actually got a bit animated when the term “pro-style offense” was brought up in his post-practice presser with the media, saying he doesn’t want to categorize the various changes that strictly.
Still, there were some striking differences.
Sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen took some snaps under center, as well as out of the shotgun. At least one tight end was featured in every formation and fullbacks were also in the rotation. Mora said it was necessary for the staff to modify and adjust “concepts” to the skill set of the roster. Rosen looked bigger and comfortable operating the new offense, but failed to connect on some throws, which you would expect on the first day back. He gained 20 lbs. in the offseason, according to Mora, and offensive tackle Conor McDermott said the sophomore has become more vocal in the huddle.
And, yes, there were huddles.
At running back, Nate Starks and Sotonye Jamabo shared the first-team reps, with Bolu Olorunfunmi and Steven Manfro getting snaps behind them. Jamabo in particular looked more assertive when he reached open running lanes. Despite some heavier sets, there were still some zone-read looks in the backfield.
McDermott earned some praise from Mora for his stability and consistency at left tackle. Kenny Lacy, Scott Quessenberry, Poasi Moala and Kolton Miller lined up next to him from left to right. There were a number of false starts even in ghost drills, and those penalized were sent away to run a lap around the field.
The tight ends worked on several blocking drills and Nate Iese definitely stood out among the group, not only with his athleticism but flexibility and physicality. Austin Roberts also had some good moments, specifically up the seam where he was able to find open space a couple times.
At receiver, newcomer Theo Howard had perhaps the best two grabs of the morning. In fact, Ishmael Adams, who has moved over to the position, audibly praised the freshman after one spectacular catch down the sideline. Adams also had a good practice, easily beating a cornerback deep for what would have been a long touchdown from Rosen. Mora said the position change is a good opportunity for the staff to see if they can use Adams on offense this season, but he reserved the right to move him back to defense. Adams, though, certainly has the potential to be a two-way contributor.
Darren Andrews seemed like a steady choice at slot receiver when there was no fullback in the formation, and he too had a solid showing. Eldridge Massington, Alex Van Dyke, Jordan Lasley and Stephen Johnson rotated on the outside, with walk-on Cordell Broadus also trickling in at times with the second unit.
On the defensive side, a lot of the focus was on the new defensive front formation but Eli Ankou downplayed the difference, saying it hasn’t changed much in terms of assignments or gap control. Keisean Lucier-South was a standout off the edge, using his speed to beat tackles outside. Jacob Tuioti-Mariner had a nice morning as well, beating blockers inside and disrupting running lanes.
At linebacker, the first unit featured Cameron Judge, Kenny Young and Jayon Brown, with Isaako Savaiinaea also rotating in. Josh Woods had a good morning, drawing praise from assistant coach Scott White for his intensity. Mique Juarez, the No. 1 linebacker in the 2016 class, moved well in drills and Mora said he didn’t notice him being out of place, which was a good thing. Juarez and the other spring enrollees began classes Monday morning, and Mora joked they would be wiped out by Sunday. Lokeni Toailoa also looked comfortable and strong in individual drills.
It was uncertain whether Breland Brandt, the early enrollee, would play linebacker or defensive end, but he slotted it at outside linebacker for his first college practice and looked quick, mobile and comfortable.
Freshman kicker J.J. Molson made all four of his field goal attempts with Ka'imi Fairbairn, Kai Forbath and Jeff Locke all watching close by. Caleb Benenoch and Kenneth Clark were among the recent alumni in attendance.
Najee Harris, the No. 1 overall prospect by Scout and an Alabama commit, watched practice during yet another unofficial visit to campus. Three-star offensive guard Casey Roddick from Ventura (Calif.) St. Bonaventure was also on the sidelines.
The Bruins take the field again Thursday morning.