The running backs have been impressive. One of the biggest positives of spring practice so far is Sotonye Jamabo's new, harder-nosed approach to running the ball. The coaches seem to favor him, and if he keeps looking like he has so far this spring, he’ll more than likely win the starting tailback spot. But Nate Starks has also looked very good, with the new downhill running game really benefitting his running style, while he’s also looked shiftier. Bolu Olorunfunmi has been right there with Jamabo and Starks, in running hard, not only between the tackles but in bouncing runs outside. It’s a shame that Steven Manfro did, ultimately, have to hang up the cleats since he was looking good this spring, too.
With a passing game struggling so far, Josh Rosen has been the primary bright spot. His beautiful throws, and his instincts in being able to know where and how a receiver is going to be open has really been evident so far. It’s exciting to see how he’ll look once he gets some pass protection and the passing game in general gets more in sync.
The Offensive Tackles
UCLA has two future NFL players at its starting tackle spots. It’s ironic that perhaps the offensive linemen from the 2015 team with the most NFL upside – left tackle Conor McDermott – was the one who returned. He’s looked very good, and that’s saying something against the DL’s quick pass rushers. Perhaps the guy who has really taken the next step in his game is sophomore right tackle Kolton Miller. He’s been consistently able to win the battles in one-on-one drills, with excellent feet and mobility. Keeping these two healthy is a big key to the 2016 season.
Wide Receiver Talent and Depth
After losing three of its top four receivers from 2015, you’d think the receivers group would look depleted. It’s pretty common in spring for units to be under-manned, especially when UCLA has three still to come in this fall (Damian Alloway, Adewale Omotosho and Dymond Lee). But UCLA’s receiver depth chart has, really, never looked deeper.
There is a good depth of talent, clearly, with Darren Andrews (a returning starter), Eldridge Massington (a one-time starter), Kenny Walker, Stephen Johnson, Jordan Lasley, Alex Van Dyke, and Aaron Sharp returning. But the ranks have swelled a bit this spring with the addition of Ishmael Adams switching from DB, early entrants Theo Howard and Demetric Felton, and Cordell Broadus returning to the team. That’s a lot of bodies for the amount of playing time available. And that’s even with one of the most talented receivers on the roster, Mossi Johnson, not participating while still recovering from his knee injury.
And you have to count the new position of tight end, which this spring has included Nate Iese and Austin Roberts, both of whom have had flashes to the point you think this offense is going to rely on the tight end in a way it hasn’t in years.
What has also been encouraging is just not the depth, but the emergence of some guys. Probably at the top of the list is Van Dyke, who has looked exceptional, showing very good explosion and an ability to get open. He just needs to continue to refine his pass-catching skills. Early entrant Howard, too, has looked like an elite level of talent, in terms of speed, elusiveness and ball skills. Adams has clearly shown he’ll be able to make a contribution at receiver, being very tough to cover. Massington has looked better than he did last season, and Lasley, also, has taken a step forward – it’s just a matter of Lasley continuing to mature and channel his energy toward the positive.
Power Running Game
UCLA has instituted more of a power-running game option this spring under new offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu, and it looks like UCLA’s personnel fits it pretty well. Not only does UCLA have tailback that look comfortable running in the downhill style, the newly-minted fullbacks have really taken to their new position. Cameron Griffin’s rugby skills tend to lend itself well to fullback, with him looking like a big physical presence there. Ainuu Taua, who kind of didn’t really have a true position on the defensive line, returned to his high school position of choice, and has been good. He’s a very athletic kid that weighs 280 pounds, and it’s been clear that when he’s leading an interior running play and puts a hat on a linebacker it can be painful.
Defensive Tackle Nick Terry
Usually the rankings and notoriety a recruit gets before coming to college is very reflective of that player’s potential. Yeah, there are exceptions, but most of the time a well-sought recruit was well-sought for a reason, and he proves it once he gets to college. There is still a slight possibility of guys flying a bit under the radar, however, and it appears UCLA has found a fairly unrecognized gem in JC transfer Nick Terry. He, first, looked really good without the pads on the first couple of days – really quick for his size (and he’s a good 6-4 and 300). Then he put the pads on and it hasn’t stopped him; the quickness still translated. Because of his size and his strength, he’ll probably play more of the nose, but his quickness and pass-rushing ability make him more of a three-technique. Regardless, UCLA defensive line coach Angus McClure, who plucked a fairly unheralded Terry out of Sacramento American River, has to be a bit giddy with how Terry has shown. It’s all very early, of course, and it’s premature to say Terry is going to be a big-time guy for UCLA. He has a long way to go in terms of technique, among other things. But being only mildly recruited, and from a JC, we were hoping Terry would be a playable guy who could contribute some depth, but it appears he has more potential than that, and has the tools to be a significant contributor next season. That's a big thing, given that Eddie Vanderdoes is not yet fully recovered, and how much incoming true freshman Boss Tagaloa can contribute.
Potential for Good Pash-Rushing DEs
Perhaps with just the addition of Keisean Lucier-South to the DE group, the defense’s edge pass-rushing looks like it has a chance to be a real strength for the defense. There is Deon Hollins, and we know he’s a good pass-rusher. We think if he’s not as much of an every-down player and more situational, too, he’ll be an even better pass-rusher. He also, mostly used to work with linebackers in unit drills when UCLA was predominantly a 3-4, but now he’s working with Angus McClure and the DL, along with DC Tom Bradley when he has taken the DEs aside. We think this can only help Hollins’ pass-rushing skills. Takkarist McKinley, too, has looked better and more developed in his pass-rushing. And then there’s Lucier-South, who has been the guy the UCLA tackles have struggled with most to contain – being just too quick and long, which helps him get leverage, around the edge.
Play of Jayon Brown
Jayon Brown is arguably the MVP of the defense through the first third of spring ball. He's settled into that weak-side linebacker role particularly well, and just looks completely natural making plays from that spot. While obviously there's a good deal of open competition at many spots in the defense, we're pretty confident that Brown has more or less secured his starting job for this fall.
Interior Offensive Line
It’s clearly been the weak spot of the offensive line so far this spring, and understandably, compared to the tackles. First, Scott Quessenberry has returned after being out due to injuries for a year and a half, and he’s plugged into center. He’s physically looked good, but the snaps haven’t been perfect. Then, at guard, it’s been a work-in-progress. Kenny Lacy, at times last season, was UCLA’s best guard, but he’s struggled this spring, especially with the new policy of run-laps-for-false-starts. Najee Toran has been the guy stepping in at left guard, and has done fairly well, showing some of the best athleticism of any OL. Poasi Moala has had the most time at the starting right guard spot, and been disappointing, getting beat a bit too much. Redshirt freshman Josh Wariboko, too, hasn’t been able to contain his man enough, even though he looks much better physically. Tevita Halalilo isn’t participating in practice, but is working with the Strength and Conditioning staff on the sideline. He looks physically good, and doesn’t show signs of any issues due to his knee injury last season.
Then there is Jake Raulerson, the Texas transfer who will join the team this fall. We’d have to think Raulerson will be good enough to be among the best five. Whether he or Quessenberry play center, the other you’d think would be at guard. If that ends up being true, then offensive line coach Adrian Klemm only has to figure out one more starter at guard. As we’ve said, we have to think, in an effort to get your best five on the field, back-up left tackle Andre James might be considered, and James has done pretty well so far this spring, and we know the coaches like him.
Between Lacy, Toran, Halalilo and possibly James, we’d have to think, by Sept. 3rd when UCLA takes the field against Texas A&M, it will get worked out. But there definitely are some things that have to happen (like whether Halalilo is completely healthy and if Raulerson is really good enough to be among the best five) before it does get worked out.
This is definitely related to working out the interior OL, but it’s more than just that. UCLA’s edge pass rush, too, in team drills, has gotten the best of the OL too often. UCLA’s DL, at times in team drills, has looked like it lives in the offensive backfield. There are so many things that go into protections, and with UCLA installing some new offensive wrinkles, the protections have to get ironed out. Also, always keep in mind, in spring and fall camp, pass protection is almost always not great – just a nature of the beast, with pass rushing easier to be effective on a very basic level than pass protection.
But pass pro has been spotty enough that it definitely can’t completely be pooh-poohed as just a spring camp thing. Right now, the poor pass protection has been the tactical element that has most limited spring practice. Rosen just can’t get a good enough rhythm in the passing game because he’s having to step around the pass rush almost instantly. If there’s something you’d like to see improve during the course of the rest of spring practice, it’s to get Rosen a little more time to throw the ball so we can see the new-wrinkles passing game.
Which leads us here. It’s not all just a lack of pass protection that has limited the passing game so far this spring. There does seem to be an element of the passing game generally being out-of-sync. There are new routes, and new timing with the quarterbacks and receivers, given different drops and going under center, etc., and it’s still in the process of being worked out. It’s been particularly noticeable with the short passing game, with Rosen just not quite in sync on many routes that seemingly should be easier than it looks. Some of this, too, is on the receivers, being able to get separation. There have been some flashes, though, when the routes and timing have been in sync and it's looked very nice, and varied, in terms of when UCLA throws out of which sets, the variety of routes, both vertical and short, etc. If the passing game can get in sync, it has shown the hint of a varied, diverse playbook.
Filling Out the Starting Linebacker Spots
This is more just a case of figuring out who among the talented options is going to play. Right now, based on what we've seen, we'd say the best group is probably a combination of Jayon Brown at weak side linebacker, Isaako Savaiinaea at middle linebacker, and probably Josh Woods at strong side linebacker, though we'd be willing to hear arguments for Cameron Judge or Mique Juarez. As it stands, though, Kenny Young is still working in with the 1s pretty frequently, and while he's been better this spring than he was during the season, he hasn't been as effective, to our eyes, as Savaiinaea. There's plenty of talent in the group, though. We love what we've seen of Woods, and think he can be special, and Juarez, once he's done swimming, should be very good. Brown, as we said, has been arguably the MVP of the defense. The big question is middle linebacker, and whether Savaiinaea can break into the starting group.
Finding a Go-To Receiver
Which leads us here. So many elements of an offense are inter-dependent on each other. It could be that UCLA’s passing game last season found its “sync” because it had a go-to guy in Jordan Payton. It could be that, if it had that guy this spring, the passing game might not appear as out-of-sync. No matter, finding someone who can step into Payton’s shoes, at least to a degree, is going to be key for this offense, when it’s trying to find its way with new routes/rhythms, etc.
We think the guy who looks like the #1 candidate is Van Dyke. Again, like we said above, he needs to be reliable in catching the ball, but he’s looked very good at getting separation and establishing his catch window, on short routes. Andrews might lead the team in catches this fall, however, since he brings the most returning reliability to the field. Massington, too, has looked a bit better, more comfortable and more natural, almost like he wasn’t entirely healthy last season.
It’s a big question, though: When Rosen needs a completion, who is he going to look to first?
This is definitely a worry at this point, as it has been for much of the last few years at UCLA. Mike Fafaul hasn't looked his best this spring, while Matt Lynch, the freshman early enrollee, has flashed some potential, but very clearly still has a long way to go. That's obviously as expected with Lynch, who virtually everyone expected to redshirt this year anyway, but it doesn't change the thinness of the actual depth heading into next year. Devon Modster comes in this summer, and it would really alleviate a lot of concerns if he looked ready enough to step into that No. 2 role as a true freshman. We've heard, though, that the offense is gearing much more toward the quarterback diagnosing defenses pre-snap and changing plays, which works toward Rosen's strengths, but making reads is one of the main areas where Modster is relatively weak. Even if it weren't a weakness of his, true freshmen are generally not known for their football savvy. Dymond Lee, from what we gather, will probably decide to move to receiver sooner rather than later once he comes in. In any case, the No. 2 job still looks pretty uncertain, and we'd probably pencil in Fafaul for now.
Sorting Out Cornerback and Randall Goforth
UCLA is mixing and matching with the secondary this spring, which we guessed would happen as UCLA looks to improve its physicality, particularly at safety. Randall Goforth, one of UCLA's starting safeties from last year, has dropped down to corner this spring, and the transition has been a little rocky so far. Goforth brings a lot of leadership and headiness to the field, but he's struggled so far with the transition, and with UCLA opting for more physicality at safety, it's going to be interesting to see how UCLA keeps Goforth on the field. With Ishmael Adams moving to offense, the Bruins could toy with the idea of putting Goforth at nickel, where he can use his combination of safety and corner skills to his advantage. Nathan Meadors has looked pretty good at the other corner spot, and among the backups, Marcus Rios and Octavius Spencer have both been solid. In any case, with Fabian Moreau and Johnny Johnson slated to return this summer, the corner competition should be a heated one in fall camp. If those two are fully healthy and return near the level they played last year, that could go a long way toward solidifying the starting lineup.