UCLA practiced in shoulder pads Wednesday for the first time this fall camp, leading to more physicality and several big hits from a defense that again looked to be a step ahead of the offense.
Yet the ramped up aggression meant more contact and that produced a few worrisome moments for head coach Jim Mora and his staff, particularly when defensive end Takkarist McKinley walked off the field during the 11-on-11 portion holding his shoulder. It didn't turn out to be serious, though, as McKinley returned to participate. Deon Hollins also walked off gingerly after being rolled up on in a big pile, but waved off position coach Angus McClure and stayed in. The players weren't in full pads, but tackling seemed to be allowed for the most part.
It was the defense's best practice so far, highlighted by a handful of forced turnovers that were returned the other way for touchdowns. True freshman Brandon Burton continued his impressive start to camp, creeping into the box in run support before stripping Nate Starks and allowing Dechaun Holiday to snag the ball out of mid air on his way to the end zone.
Randall Goforth, too, had a nice practice, particularly in run support. Early on during the 9-on-7 portion, he met the much stronger Bolu Olorunfunmi in a wide gap and didn't back down. Goforth also got some work at nickelback, with Tahaan Goodman taking over free safety duties with the first-team defense.
Goodman, in fact, sparked the first real scuffle of camp when he leveled true freshman running back Jalen Starks off the edge with an assist from Mique Juarez. The offense, namely wide receiver Alex Van Dyke, took exception and then McKinley stepped in, creating a mosh pit of sorts before it was broken up. The defensive backs were flying all over looking for contact throughout the afternoon, anticipating what's to come when the team moves to full-pads in practice.
Will Lockett and Adarius Pickett also recovered fumbles and returned them for touchdowns.
Eddie Vanderdoes and Eli Ankou had some good moments against the run, plugging gaps and pushing back blockers to eliminate running lanes. They were particularly stout near the goal line, allowing linebackers to attack gaps untouched. Vanderdoes also got some looks at nose tackle in the nickel package.
Josh Rosen bounced back from a rather lackluster showing Tuesday morning, with his throws looking more crisp and on target, and his footwork in sync with his release. He made a tremendous throw to tight end Caleb Wilson in 7-on-7 that went for a touchdown and also connected with another tight end, Austin Roberts, on a flag route in drills that drew praise from coach Marques Tuiasosopo. Rosen had better timing in 11-on-11, too, and found Kenny Walker, Eldridge Massington and Van Dyke on throws up the middle that would have been first downs.
Mike Fafaul had another good day fitting throws into tight windows in the red zone and also putting the necessary touch to lead his receivers to open space. An incompletion might have been the best-thrown ball of the afternoon session, as Fafaul baited two defenders to find a streaking Jordan Lasley over the top, but the ball was dropped. Matt Lynch continues to show improvement and was rewarded with his first reps on the third team, splitting those with Devon Modster.
At receiver, Van Dyke has struggled to catch the ball out in front of him this week, but he was better Wednesday. He bodied up Colin Samuel on a slant route and used his size to easily win the ball. It could be a real weapon inside the 20. Walker had an impressive post route against Octavius Spencer and has really progressed in that aspect of his game along with showing more reliable hands. Mossi Johnson looks to be back at full speed and could be an X-factor in the competition for reps.
Soso Jamabo earned a bulk of the first-team reps at running back and did well in between the tackles. He's gotten stronger and it shows. Nate Starks looks more and more comfortable waiting for lanes to develop, and had a big gain down the left sideline after absorbing contact.
Kenny Young was back working with the first-unit defense at middle linebacker. They would appear to be the favorites to start at their respective positions.
True freshman wide receiver Theo Howard was out but did conditioning work off to the side along with Paco Perez (knee).
J.J. Molson made three of four field-goal attempts, with his lone miss coming from about 40 yards out. Walk-on Andrew Strauch made two of his four attempts.
Junior college commit Ronald Rudd, a three-star offensive tackle, made it out to watch practice.