Ten Takeaways From Spring Practice

Apr. 27 -- We offer 10 takeaways from UCLA spring practice, including standouts, some promising signs and several concerns heading into summer...

UCLA wrapped up its fifth spring under head coach Jim Mora last weekend, offering a glimpse of what the program could look like this year following several offseason changes. Here are our 10 takeaways from the four-week period:

1. Josh Rosen, no matter his talent level, will need time in the pocket for this offense to have success. The star sophomore proved he had a good grasp of the new concepts, especially toward the end of spring ball when he took control at the line of scrimmage, but a lack of protection from the line made him look average at times. That's a serious concern for the Bruins. Rosen looked comfortable rolling out of the pocket and throwing on the run, specifically on designed play-action calls, but that’s not something that should be too constant. New offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu knows what he has in Rosen and the goal would be to maximize that potential, especially since...

2. The Bruins have enviable depth at running back. It didn’t really matter who was in the backfield this spring -- Soso Jamabo, Nate Starks and Bolu Olorunfunmi each had their moments and stated their case for first-unit reps. Jamabo, the former five-star, proved deceptively quick and showed improvement in his decisiveness, attacking running lanes with better timing but also making defenders miss in open space. He looks like the No. 1 guy heading into the summer, but Starks and Olorunfunmi aren’t far behind.

Soso Jamabo

Starks will get his share of looks given his blend of power and speed, while Olorunfunmi might be the most improved player on offense, looking stronger and picking up yardage in between and outside the tackles. Of course, we can’t mention the running game’s successful spring without stating that...

3. The new fullback group showed potential. Converted linebacker Cameron Griffin led the way, showing a natural feel for the position and playing with the necessary edge to open running lanes for the backs. Griffin also looked comfortable going out for passes and demonstrated good hands, especially in one-on-one battles against his former position group. Converted defensive tackle Ainuu Taua also fared relatively well, primarily as a run blocker in the red zone but also getting a good amount of looks as a ball carrier in short-yardage situations. The Bruins were known to include defensive linemen in their Jumbo Package in recent seasons and, with Taua now on offense, that could continue to be a wrinkle, even without Myles Jack in the backfield and despite the fact that...

4. Expectations for Mique Juarez should be tempered. The early entrant suffered a concussion in one of the earlier practices and missed a good chunk of spring, limiting some of what he was able to do.

Mique Juarez

He had an interception in the showcase event Saturday and seemed to adjust well to the speed of college toward the end, but it would be unfair to expect an impact like the one Jack had when he stepped on campus three years ago. Juarez, the top-rated linebacker in the 2016 class, scored over 60 touchdowns as a senior last season but said he would focus on learning the defense this summer before even thinking about getting carries on offense, for which...

5. A go-to receiver needs to emerge in Fall Camp. That question mark wasn’t answered this spring, creating some level of concern about how the Bruins will replace the production of Jordan Payton, Thomas Duarte and Devin Fuller. The integration of true tight ends into the system could give the likes of Nate Iese and Austin Roberts the opportunity to establish a connection with Rosen this summer, but the pressure to step up would appear to be on veterans Eldridge Massington, Kenny Walker and Alex Van Dyke.

Massington really stood out the last two weeks of spring, looking more and more motivated to be the leader the group desperately needs. Walker has improved tremendously as well, particularly with his awareness and pass catching, and looks like Rosen’s No. 1 option on the deep ball. Van Dyke fits the possession-type mold, used on crossing routes to move the chains against smaller corners and in the red zone where he has the advantage in length. And then there is true freshman Theo Howard, who displayed some play-making ability with the second unit throughout spring. Those are all the obvious candidates, or maybe it falls on a former defender because...

6. The Ishmael Adams Experiment showed promise. We knew the former cornerback had tremendous ability with the ball in his hands from his time as kick returner, but he did enough at receiver this spring (and there’s enough need at the position) that he’ll stick there at least heading into the season. Rosen said Adams has had to get acclimated to catching throws that are intended for him, so if he can harness that difference this summer, there is some serious potential for him to fill the Fuller role and really push Darren Andrews for snaps in the slot. Adams isn’t too fluid as a route runner, but he showed a good feel for finding soft spots in coverage and piling up yards after the catch, at least when he wasn’t being chased down by...

7. Outside linebacker Jayon Brown, the heart and soul of the defense. Coordinator Tom Bradley estimated that Brown got by far the most reps this spring and the veteran certainly made his presence felt.

Jayon Brown

Whether it was getting to the quarterback on blitzes, tracking down ball carriers off the edge, stuffing runs inside or dropping back into coverage, Brown did a bit of everything to prove his worth while the two other linebacker spots remain unsettled. Brown would have been the most valuable player this spring, but a guy named...

8. Takkarist McKinley shined in the new defensive front. The transition from a 3-4 base to a 4-3 was rather seamless for the junior college product, as McKinley lived in the backfield throughout the spring. Early on in spring it was oftentimes difficult to gauge whether the pass protection was horrid or if McKinley was that good, but as practices went along, it became increasingly clear that it was the latter. McKinley was a force off the edge with his speed and appeared more powerful at the point of attack, pushing tackles back and sustaining pressure. He was so disruptive and put an end to a lot of UCLA drives, forcing Mora to repeatedly trot out a special teams unit that showed...

9. J.J. Molson is ready. The departure of reigning Lou Groza Award winner Ka'imi Fairbairn would be a bigger concern if not for the steady Molson, the freshman kicker who showed a powerful, accurate leg from the moment he stepped onto the Intramural Field.

Fairbairn made 16 of 22 field goal attempts as a freshman in 2012, but missed five of seven from more than 35 yards out. Given what he showed in spring, it would be completely shocking if Molson had the same problem in his first year. The Canadian export shouldn’t be an unknown for this team but there is still plenty to be determined with the other freshmen coming in, another indication that...

10. This could be the biggest summer period in the Sal Alosi era. Several players made strides since the bowl game in December, but this offseason is a crucial one for a team looking to be more physical. The offensive line in particular could use some growth especially in the second unit, which could be integral to build playable depth. UCLA will need to get stronger to keep Rosen off his back. The likes of Keisean Lucier-South, Rick Wade and Josh Woods, too, appear to be on the cusp and could each pack on a bit more bulk to be ready for camp. And then there are those returning from injury, including Eddie Vanderdoes, Fabian Moreau, Mossi Johnson and Johnny Johnson, all of whom would instantly boost a roster that appears to be in transition.


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