UCLA wrapped up spring practice with its showcase event Saturday at Drake Stadium, following the blueprint of a typical two-hour session while capping it with an autograph period for the fans that showed up.
It was probably one of the best practices of spring, and head coach Jim Mora sounded pleased with the team's progress when he met with reporters afterward. Mora actually pegged Takkarist McKinley as the MVP of camp, citing his ability to disrupt plays off the edge and consistency in getting into the backfield. McKinley was at it again Saturday, blowing past offensive tackles on the outside but also showing good technique on run plays to occupy space inside. Left tackle Conor McDermott said McKinley has really improved his power at the point of attack -- the speed has always been there -- and it would be safe to assume the Bruins are expecting All-Conference type production there.
Josh Rosen had one of his better days, too, showing confidence on his deep ball and putting those deeper throws only where his receivers could get them. Rosen was intercepted three times -- twice by former walk-on Charles Dawson and once by Mique Juarez -- but only one of those was truly his fault, with Dawson baiting him on a crossing route. There were some play-action calls and rollouts where Rosen looked much more in control than he did as a freshman last season.
Rosen's best throw of the afternoon came on a 50-yard heave to Kenny Walker, who got open with ease on the play and had to find the ball to make a basket, over-the-shoulder grab that made position coach Eric Yarber very happy. He has really improved as a pass-catcher and Mora said he has a gut feeling that Walker could be one of the bigger surprises in the country.
Eldridge Massington also had a good practice, getting open over the middle and getting the best of Denzel Fisher on a jump ball near the sideline. He came on in the last two weeks of practice and has confidence heading into the summer. Alex Van Dyke had a great catch in one-on-one drills, beating Marcus Rios on an inside post and bodying him up for position before coming down with the football. If he can turn into a consistent option inside the read zone where his size is a plus, Rosen could have something there.
The running backs again stood out for different reasons. Soso Jamabo scored a handful of touchdowns, including a 60-yarder where he scampered free and reached the end zone untouched after putting a move on Dechaun Holiday in the open field. He has shown more decisiveness in hitting the hole than we saw last season. Bolu Olorunfunmi continued his strong spring and earned praise from Mora as the team's most improved player. He runs with complete control and is a tough guy to bring down. Nate Starks also showed well, particularly on a screen pass that he turned into a nice 15-yard gain to the right.
The offensive line had the services of McDermott at left tackle, and he said the left arm injury he suffered earlier in the week was nothing serious.
The tight ends each had their moments, with Nate Iese making a leaping one-handed grab that went for a touchdown and Austin Roberts once again showing improvement in the area of getting open, but he had a couple big drops. Cameron Griffin ran with the first unit at fullback but Ainuu Taua got his share of looks in 9-on-7, at one point carrying two or three would-be tacklers on a dive up the middle that drew quite the response from those in attendance. It was evident that after four weeks, the team grew more comfortable with some of the new concepts and formations.
The cadence issues that were so prevalent early on also disappeared. The one flag came from a slot receiver who jumped early.
Aside from McKinley, the linebacker group had a strong performance for the defense. Jayon Brown was once again a nuisance getting into the backfield to get to ball carriers but also hurrying the quarterbacks. Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley estimated that Brown got the most reps of anyone this spring and said he loves his versatility which allows him to use Brown in different packages.
Juarez had a diving interception matching up against a tight end, jumping a short throw and showing the athleticism that made him such a coveted recruit.
Dawson had the two interceptions and Mora said with production like that, the secondary has got to find a way to give him some looks in the fall. He's not the biggest player out there, but Dawson doesn't back down and shows great play recognition. Randall Goforth had maybe his best practice of the spring from what we could see and seems to have grown more comfortable on an island in one-on-one situations. He had his way with true freshman Theo Howard throughout the day.
J.J. Molson was money again despite the pressure that comes with kicking in front of an audience -- something he didn't do at all in Canada. He was good from 31, 42 and 49 yards out with some length to spare.