Thursday's session was probably the best all-around practice by a UCLA football team in recent memory. It wasn't flashy, but it was very fundamentally good, with the offense looking effective and efficient and the defense making some big plays.
Quarterback Josh Rosen had a good day -- not incredible, but good. So it says quite a bit that UCLA had such a good practice with its star quarterback not being an extreme standout on the day.
What did stand out was the execution of the offense. After putting in a new scheme in spring and it being pretty bumpy there in April, and then having its ups and downs so far to begin fall camp, Thursday was a practice of consistent execution.
The offensive scheme, first, is a very diverse one. It works over center, out of a spread, and it throws and runs out of both. It used double tight ends or four receivers. It uses a power running game while also a zone read. And it actually utlizes roll-outs, which is a long-lost offensive element at UCLA.
There's, of course, a question if this team can pull off this offense in a real game. It's pretty complicated, as Jim Mora confirmed in his post-practice comments Thursday. It could be challenging just to get the right personnel and packages on the field during a series since it attempts to do so much.
But, because it was a move-the-ball session Thursday, with the team doing quite a bit of 11-on-11s with referees, in just spider pads (smaller shoulder pads) and shorts, we got to see a great deal of the offense in all of its diversity.
Rosen did have probably his best period of fall camp in one 11-on-11 where he masterfully moved the offense down the field with short, efficient throws. He was far more accurate Thursday than he's been so far this week, and his timing was quite a bit better. This offense is so much about timing, as quarterbacks coach Marques Tuiasosopo emphasizes throughout any practice, and today it seemed that Rosen had timing and synchronicity with his receivers group. Usually in a typical practice, even before last spring in the Noel Mazzone offense, it would be lucky of Rosen -- or any quarterback -- completed a majority of his throws, mostly because the offense was facing a defense that was very familiar with the scheme. But Rosen completed close to 60% of his throws in team today, and was perfect in one series. It included a roll-out and a dump-off to tight end Austin Roberts, a perfect throw on a crossing route to another tight end, Nate Iese, a perfectly place ball on a dig route to Kenny Walker, and then a quick out to fullback Cameron Griffin. There were some nice runs mixed in there, too. The offense does all this from both under center and from shotgun, and it runs or throws out of both formations. It, in fact, used some zone read out of the gun, but then really dug in with a double-tight formation that creating a good push for the running backs to get a good start.
Rosen's body language was different; it was clear he was much more pleased with the receivers and their routes, and his ability to find them.
The default offensive line-up today was Roberts and Iese at tight end, with Walker and Eldridge Massington at receiver. That started just about every series. But then the offensive playcalling got creative as it moved in different packages.
Perhaps what made it such a good-execution day is that #2 quarterback Mike Fafaul did very well. He has become very efficient in his role, and looks extremely comfortable with the new offense. If we had to compare we'd even say that Fafau had a better, more consistent day than Rosen -- again. It's clear he thrives in the new offense and has it mastered. Rosen tends to hesitate sometimes while Fafaul executes confidently.
We've heard that the team really benefitted by the off-season in digesting and getting familiar with the offense, and it certainly showed Thursday. Everyone looked to be on the same page.
Freshman QB Devon Modster probably didn't get as many reps today, and fourth-string Matt Lynch might have gotten a few more than in the past few days. Both did just okay, mostly because they were working behind the second- and third-string offensive line, which didn't give them a great amount of time to operate.
It was Rosen and Fafaul taking most of the day's reps.
Iese had a very good day, not only having more balls thrown his way, but looking the most natural he ever has catching them. The offense was really working the underneath routes, and Iese benefitted.
While Ishmael Adams made his usual plays, and Walker continues his consistency, big receiver Alex Van Dyke was very effective crossing over the middle, and used his big hands to reel in some balls.
The offense was well-rounded with the running game looking very potent. There were some good holes, particularly up the middle. While Soso Jamabo, Nate Starks and Bolu Olorunfunmi got their usual amount of time and looked effective, huge freshman tailback Jalen Starks, who now wears a tailback jersey number (32), got more opportunities, and took advantage. There was no tackling on the day, nothing more than thudding, and it's difficult sometimes to know during a thud practice if a ball carrier would actually stay on his feet. We can safely say, though, that Starks would have stayed on his feet quite a bit if it had been live tackling. Tacklers actually do bounce off him.
One of the most imposing packages the offense has is with 255-pound Starks at tailback being led by 290-pound fullback Ainuu Taua in an offset I. That package punished some defenders today.
The other freshman, Brandon Stephens, got a good amount of reps, too, and deserves them. He looks like he needs to put on 20 pounds, but he has a great natural instinct at finding a hole with a great change of pace.
Perhaps the biggest and best news: With refs, and going through over 120 plays, there were only 2 false starts, and none from the first-string, and both were from back-up tight ends.
Perhaps the biggest worry to take away from the practice is, as we've said before, the depth at offensive line. The second-string offensive line includes two walk-ons -- with Cristian Garcia at left tackle, Najee Toran at left guard, Markus Boyer at center, Josh Wariboko-Alali at right guard and Andre James at right tackle. While the staring OL can play with the starting DL, the second-string OL is dramatically over-matched by UCLA's second string defensive line.
That led to the defense collecting a good amount of virtual sacks Thursday, the most coming from Deon Hollins and Keisean Lucier-South -- going against the 2s and 3s mostly.
Perhaps the biggest personnel move on defense was freshman DT Boss Tagaloa getting some time with the 1s and 2s and generally looking like he held his own.
There is such good depth at DL, and so many different types of bodies and talent. Take Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, who is used as a defensive end or a three-technique in different situations, and Tuioti-Mariner got his share of touches on quarterbacks Thursday.
Takkarist McKinley got his requisite penetration. He pushed left tackle Conor McDermott back into Rosen to disrupt one play.
What's interesting is that, in the DL drills, when they're essentially doing a 20-yard shuttle, there are, of course, the quicker guys like Hollins and Lucier-South who are the quickest. But right behind them are the bigger DEs Matt Dickerson and Rick Wade.
Among the linebackers, Isaako Savaiinaea was the #1 middle linebacker for the day. The linebackers had a decent day, with Jayon Brown making a few standout plays like he did in spring, getting a couple of tackles for loss. Like the DL, there's a great depth of talent, with the coaches mixing and matching. Josh Woods at one point lined up at middle linebacker in the nickel. Mique Juarez works most of the time at that rush linebacker spot on the edge.
Despite the passing game being effective, it was a good day for the secondary, especially in 7-on-7 where they blanketed receivers. Senior cornerback Fabian Moreau again had a good day, as did senior corner Marcus Rios. Perhaps the DB who flashed the most was safety Adarius Pickett, who probably led the team in break-ups for the session. Jaleel Wadood also had his share of break-ups, while Nate Meadors and Octavius Spencer both made some great breaks on the ball.
On special teams, J.J. Molson went 3-for-5 in distances from 32 to 48 yards. And Andrew Strauch went 2-for-4 from the same distances. Also, Stefan Flintoft joined practice today as a punter. You'll remember that Flintoft punted during the spring.
Receiver Theo Howard worked on the side with the conditioning staff, still nursing a mild hamstring. Receiver Darren Andrews also joined him toward the beginning of practice, while his injury is unknown.
Freshman offensive lineman Paco Perez isn't expected to practice until after San Bernardino, according to Mora.
With it being the last day before full pads, the players are getting itchy to hit. There was a dust-up at the end of practice between freshman LB Lokeni Toailoa and center Markus Boyer, with Toailoa taking roundhouse swings at Boyer. The referees threw out Toailoa, so he left the field. Mora, who got into some players on both the offensive and defensive sidelines during the practice, brought the team together after Toailoa was sent off, and practice ended.