A learning period was to be expected at UCLA this spring given that adjustments were made to both sides of the ball in the offseason, so it’s not entirely surprising that, through early practices, the tweaks have been more noticeable for the unit that features a new coordinator, new positions and a couple new assistants.
That trend continued Wednesday morning when a revved up defensive front overwhelmed an offensive line that still appears to be adapting to new concepts.
Yes, the run game looked up to speed, particularly with the line having the help of a tight end and, at times, a fullback. It’s a promising sign as Soso Jamabo and Nate Starks -- whom have split first-team reps through the first five practices -- and Bolu Olorunfunmi look to replace the production of Paul Perkins. But, as was the case in the previous practice Monday, the offense struggled to generate any sort of rhythm through the air.
Josh Rosen seemed a bit rushed, constantly having to make throws under pressure and trying to get the ball out before receivers were out of their breaks. He deserved credit for staying in the pocket, keeping his feet moving, his eyes down field and remaining patient rather than rolling out, but there was reason for him to be frustrated with the protection.
If there was a bright spot it was that the offensive line fared better in one-on-one drills, specifically left tackle Conor McDermott, who does a great job keeping his feet moving and using his length to absorb the rush. Kenny Lacy also had a solid morning, though much his success came in the run game.
The defensive line definitely looks a step or two ahead at this point. Takkarist McKinley and Matt Dickerson were explosive off the edge, with McKinley having his way against Kolton Miller throughout the session. Dickerson, meanwhile, has a great burst and the ability to beat his man outside or through the interior, so his versatility can't be understated. Jacob Tuioti-Mariner also had a good practice and told reporters he’s growing more comfortable in the middle as he adjusts to having a teammate on both sides.
Jayon Brown also fared well in 11-on-11, making back-to-back-to-back plays during an impressive sequence that featured a tackle near the sideline, a “phantom sack” on an outside blitz and an interception of Mike Fafaul up the middle. The captain has been a consistent presence for that group.
Converted fullback Cameron Griffin opened up a couple nice running lanes when he got to the second level and earned some praise from Starks, who said he doesn’t miss getting hit by the former linebacker. When the offense had success through the air, it was on quicker, shorter routes. On one play, Rosen baited a defensive end before dumping off a screen to Jamabo, who waited for his blocks to set before bursting into the end zone untouched. On another play, Griffin sneaked out to the flat before turning up field with the football. If the pass protection issues persist, that could be a way to keep the defense from being aggressive on every down.
The timing for the offense as a whole, though, looked off. A couple drops by open receivers only accentuated those struggles, especially when Rosen was able to step up and fire accurately.
In the secondary, Tahaan Goodman got some looks with the first team and was solid as a run stopper, recognizing plays early and shooting toward the line of scrimmage to get into the action. And with Marcus Rios still off to the side as part of the injured group, Octavius Spencer saw time at cornerback against the first team offense and had a good showing matching up with Eldridge Massington.
On field goals, kickers J.J. Molson and walk-on Andrew Strauch each hit from 47 yards out but were both short from 52 as Jim Mora continued to test them at the end of practice.
UCLA returns to the field Thursday afternoon.
Quick notes: Josh Woods was not in pads and did some work with the injured group off to the side ... Kenny Young saw most of the first-team reps at middle linebacker and made a couple nice plays moving laterally to get to ball carriers ... Keisean Lucier-South had an impressive sequence against Andre James in one-on-ones, lowering his shoulder to beat him outside and then going through him to get into the backfield ... Darren Andrews had maybe the best offensive play, catching a deep touchdown from Rosen (who may or may not have been sacked before stepping up to throw) ... Lacy stuffed newcomer Nick Terry and later did the same to Dickerson ... New assistant coach Rip Scherer told reporters his recruiting responsibilities include the Inland Empire, Orange County, Portland area and some of the Southeast region, as well as a national scope on tight ends.