First Practice: The New Era Begins

Even though it began with spring practice, the Karl Dorrell era really got kicked off Wednesday when the 2003 squad practiced for the first time. Here are the first-day bits of news, a rundown of practice and a first look at some of the newcomers...

Karl Dorrell & Crew plunged the UCLA Bruins, freshmen lacing it up first time and all, head first into the deep end of the pool in the first practice of Fall Camp. So much for getting acquainted with introductions such as, "Hi, I'm Maurice Drew, you may have seen me knock Darnell Bing on his @ss…" All right! Knock it off! Line it up, let's go! I think the players will be seeing Eric Bienemy, Jon Embree, Gary DeLoach, et al. in their dreams tonight moving them from one drill to the next at top speed.


Practice had that kind of frenetic, mid-season pace associated with the intense preparations for Saturday's opponent. A pace, it goes without saying, not seen in Westwood for many years. Karl Dorrell transformed the urgency he alluded to in his recent interviews about starting late into a high energy freestyle sprint.


After stretching, the Bruins broke into their respective units in order to get a sweat going by practicing fundamentals. The WRs ran slants and curls, the RBs practiced taking hand-offs from the QBs, etc. It was pretty damn fun, actually, to see the speed of Maurice Drew ripping down the field. Jim "Watty" Watson, erstwhile anchor of Fox Sports Net prep football telecasts, may not have learned that Drew was headed to Westwood until the Shrine Game in late July, but many BROnatics have been counting the days to August 13th since early February.


Shortly thereafter, the Bruins began work on pass offense/defense. On the north field, two QBs would take turns trying to beat a corner and safety with a single WR. On the south field, two QBs worked the short passing game with TEs and backs v. the LBs. (The linemen were off doing linemen stuff at the other end of Spaulding…)


The QBs were asked to come out on fire, hitting corner routes that exploit the "hole" in the cover 2 scheme, slants or deep middles. Suffice it to say, when talent such as the 225-lb. Matt Ware (imagine Larry Atkins playing cornerback…) and Ben Emanuel bracket a receiver over and under, it takes a perfect throw to get a completion.


And wouldn't you know it, the first receiver that raised a chorus of cheers from the BROzos in attendance was none other than freshman Joe Cowan, hot off a dominating Shrine Game performance. First Joe made an over-the-head, "look, ma, just my left-hand!" grab of a deep corner from Brian Callahan on the right side. And then, on another deep corner route to the left side, this time from John Sciarra, Joe soared high with his 6-4 bad self to out-jump the DBs and bring down the stone with a solid two-handed grab.


But to be frank, this drill saw a number of dropped passes. Overall, there were more drops today than in any practice I saw in spring ball. It's not surprising that Matt Slater or Alex Ghebreselassie dropped a few; they probably haven't seen fastballs like this playing down in the minors. It was surprising to see the usually sure-handed Garrett Lepisto drop three balls, and Ryan Smith drop a couple as well. There seemed to be a steady stream of WRs doing push-ups and up-downs in between reps…


Not all the drops were 100% attributable to the WRs, however. There were also a number of passes that were slightly behind the WR, especially on slants and deep middles. This phenomenon was not specific to any one QB; they all were a little off at various times throughout the day. Accuracy and timing got better as the day went on. My sense is that fresh WR legs + first day adrenaline + rare opportunity to perform in front of the oh-so-important media = short-term problems finding the range. No biggie.


Guys that stood out during this drill were Matt "The Hulk" Ware (I spoke with Matt briefly after practice, and his sentiments are, "This year, I'm delivering the damage…") and the new pup, Trey Brown. Trey made a number of good plays on corner routes. After disrupting the WR's release, Trey would continue to deepen and once the WR broke it off, Trey was in position to make a play on the ball. At 185 (and more like 5-9), #19 is a solid brick of a guy with some good scoot. On the offensive side, Idris Moss was notable for his ability to elude the jam off the line and then make the catch after the ball was already well along in flight.


At about the 45 minute mark of practice, the Bruins went into 7-on-7 drills. One thing that was notable about this drill was that there were no deep balls thrown. I think there was a conscious decision to save the QBs' arms. Counting today, the Bruins are scheduled to practice 15 days in a row. That's a lot of throwing for the QBs in the days ahead. Don't be surprised if arms appear a little dead at some point.


As expected, Craig Bragg, Junior Taylor and Marcedes Lewis took the first reps in 7-on-7. Drew Olson was the QB, and Tyler Ebell and Manuel White were in the backfield. The D consisted of Matt Clark and Jarrad Page joining BE2 and The Hulk in the secondary. Brandon Chillar, Justin London and Spencer Havner were the LBs. At times, Keith Short mixed in as the nickel back. Nnamdi Ohaeri was not present due to testing for a heart murmur, but he is expected back around the 18th.


The Bruins appear to have much greater depth at the skill positions than they did in the late ‘90s. Not having attended Miami, Texas, USC, OU or Ohio State practices in person, it is hard to tell how well UCLA's talent matches up to those schools, end to end. But as one observer pointed out, there is much less drop-off in ability moving down the depth chart on this year's team than there was in, say, 1999 or 2000.


During 7-on-7, the QBs continued to work the ball to the RBs and the TEs, as seen during spring ball. Manster White is particularly impressive as a pass catcher -- he never seems to drop a ball, and when he is in the open field, his size, his subtle moves, his motor and his desire to knock you out all present significant challenges to DBs attempting to bring him down. Another guy who had a great day catching the ball was Marc Lewis. I don't think Bruin fans will see entire games in 2003 where the TEs not only have no receptions on the day, but they don't even have a pass thrown their way…unlike 2002.


Speaking of TEs, Keith Carter was out today rehabbing his hip. Word is that Keith is looking forward to a mid-season debut. More work needs to be done to strengthen the muscles in his hip.

After 7-on-7, UCLA, in only helmets and their cool, new practice jerseys, actually had a little team scrimmage. There was no tackling, but the D moved to the ball and touched/thumped the ball carrier. Running plays were limited to a handful (shake off the cobwebs, but avoid risk of unnecessary injury), so the short passing game was emphasized, especially waggle action to TEs and FBs. One eye-opening play saw Maurice Drew catch a pass off of waggle action, turn it up the hashmark of the field, and then (with his low pad level, ahem) pop Kevin Brant on the chin as he closed on the ballcarrier. You can take the kid out of the never-lost-a-FB-game environment, but you can't take the…


Since Rodney Leisle was not present due to family matters, Asi Faoa got the chance to play some DT at the 3 technique (i.e., nose-up on the strong side guard) during the team drill. At 6-4 and 275, with outstanding quickness for penetration via slanting, Asi could be an intriguing option. Mat Ball stayed at LDE when Asi was in at LDT.


My viewpoint from the bleachers was from the D's perspective, so it was easy to see the young bloods on the defensive line. And unlike prior UCLA recruiting classes, there seem to be an unusually large number of true frosh with the physical maturity to look like they belong on Day One.


For example, RDE Junior Lemau'u, at a legitimate 6-5 and 240 (which seems understated), didn't give an inch mano a mano with LT Steve Vieira. Junior is a thick, powerful athlete who doesn't seemed fazed by the step up to college ball at all. If given the chance, he'll hold his own come game time.


Bruce Davis (#57) is another legitimate 6-4 and and possibly 230 lb player. He, too, is a well-proportioned, explosive-looking athlete. Bruce worked solely at DE today, as far as I could see.


Kevin Brown (#92) looks to be very comparable to where CJ Niusulu was last year as a DT. Recall that CJ created an early buzz, then had a knee problem, but played very well v. Oregon, AZ, etc. until an appendectomy ended his season. At a legit 285, Brown wasn't driven back today, albeit they weren't in full pads.


At 6-4 and 215, William Snead (#48) looks like a great athlete with tremendous upside as a DE. He's very graceful and fluid when moving in drills, with very broad shoulders. While a lot of (bad) things would have to happen for William to see significant PT this year, he seems to be one whom will benefit immensely from the off-season development program Doc Kreis is famous for. I would also put Aaron Whittington in that category (Whittington, though, does look more like a safety than a defensive end). Noah Sutherland did look good physically, with square shoulders and a good frame.


Three other true frosh DBs who appear physically mature and un-intimidated out there are Dennis Keyes, Chris Horton and Mil'Von James. Keyes and Horton are listed at 6-2, though that might be an inch too generous. All three are listed at around 190, which seems accurate. All three performed well in passing and scrimmage drills.


Making depth chart decisions won't be easy for the coaching staff, because there isn't much separating #1 from #4 from the visual perspective.


On the offensive side, the newbies I noticed were fewer. Cowan and Drew had good days. Matt Slater and Alex G got welcomed to D1A football. Matt has the wheels to play, he needs to work on using his body to get open and on catching every pass. Alex G needs a year to physically mature some more. Michael Pitre is listed at 6-1 but is closer to 5-11. He's powerfully built, with a large lower body, but probably needs a year to tighten and strengthen his 240 lb body overall.


I had a chance to speak with Coach Bieniemy, who was engaged in conversation a few feet away. I yelled, "Hey, recruiting machine!" After a few minutes of small talk, EB pointed out that Derrick Williams had am impressive first day, too. Judging from the glint in his eye, it's easy to tell that EB likes the stable of horses he gets to coach this year.


To wrap up the day, the Bruins engaged in some conditioning. A group of Bruins, but not the whole team, began running a series of 100 yard sprints, while the rest of the team looked on. The group appeared to consist of the faster players (backs, LBs, some DL, etc.) It seemed the entire group needed to finish the 100 yards in 13 or 15 seconds, judging by the countdown the coaches were giving, and then they jogged back to the start without stopping. Matt Moore was consistently the #1 finisher, and Brandon Chillar was consistently #2. See, another benefit of being a QB: while the WRs and RBs sprint 40 yards or so on every rep, the QB gets back in line and saves himself for end-of-practice sprints! LOL…;)


When the faster player group was finished, the remaining group ran their sprints width-wise across the field.


Final thought on conditioning: most players seem to be very close to top physical condition. While the exertion level was high today, no one was seriously sucking wind. Granted, the weather was pretty accommodating with the temp in the 75 to 80 range. But the Bruins appear to be well ahead of teams like [link=]'bama[/link].


Thirty minutes after practice ended, Craig Bragg was still catching balls off the machine, moving closer and closer to the machine to simulate snagging bullets. This, after he did some one-on-one work with Brian Callahan on routes.


More Random Notes:


-- The new practice jerseys for the defense are the same color as the home jerseys, which was confirmed by head equipment manager Mike McBride.  Both the offense and defense have a smaller version of the new block letters that we'll see on the new game jerseys.


-- It was very good to see the team in a consistent blue – in "Bruin blue".  The combination of that blue with the gold is a very impressive and distinctive look.


-- The jersey's for the quarterbacks are still red by now have a blue and white shoulder flare, which makes them look like Archie Manning clones from Ole Miss.


-- For a first day, the quarterbacks looked fairly sharp, throwing strong, tight balls. Usually first practice sees quite a few ducks, but the QBs looked to be in at least mid-fall camp form.  Drew Olson has gotten bigger and thicker, weighing 216 pounds, and, even though it was just a first day, his throwing motion looks to have tightened up, which has improved his ball.  He looks all-around like a more mature college quarterback. 


-- Idris Moss left practice at just about the mid-way point, apparently experiencing some sickness. 


-- Some recruits in attendance: committed DL Brigham Harwell, committed DB Daniel Drayton, QB Nate Longshore, TE Dale Thompson, and JR QB Osaar Rashaan, Pomona Garey.

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