Overall, we think UCLA's fall camp has been successful. Most of the time the defense dominates fall practice, because the D is usually ahead of the offense and it's just easier to defend against an offense you know. Given that, we think UCLA's offense has looked pretty good, especially with it being a new scheme and they're still in the process of installing it. If it's possible to have both units look good, UCLA has pulled it off, since we've also been impressed with the developments of UCLA's defense and its personnel.
But, of course, as with any college football team, there are concerns, and we have ours about this Bruin team. Perhaps it's the fact that we're so close to it that we're unnecessarily micro-analyzing, but in our effort here at BRO to always be transparent, these are the five issues we are concerned about coming out of fall camp.
Offensive Line Depth
We’ve been sounding the alarm for months that UCLA is probably a couple of injuries on the offensive line away from the offense not being able to do what it wants to do. When Kenny Lacy went down in practice Wednesday with a left knee injury, panic legitimately set in. The fact that the MRI came back negative and he’s expected back in practice soon was a big “phew,” but this only again illuminated and emphasized UCLA’s scary lack of depth on the OL. Najee Toran stepped in for Lacy Thursday, and this is no slight against him; in fact, we thought Toran earned a starting spot coming out of spring practice. But it puts it in perspective – we’re talking about players that haven’t really distinguished themselves as worthy of being strong starters in the Pac—12, and they’re actually so key to UCLA’s season. Lacy has been inconsistent, and Toran and the other starting guard, Poasi Moala, are absolute question marks given their history. And those are guys at the top of the offensive guard depth chart. After that, it drops to players that, given their performances in practice, aren’t prepared to play at this level.
One silver lining of Lacy’s injury: It takes him off the field and away from harm. He can’t get injured in his dorm room in San Bernardino (well, it’s less likely). Perhaps, given UCLA’s situation on the offensive line, all the starters should take off the rest of fall camp to minimize a devastating injury. We’re only half-facetious. Extreme situations call for extreme measures. And given how this team overall is set up talent-and depth-wise (and schedule-wise) to have a good season, it’d be tragic if that was undermined by an OL injury in fall camp. You’d rather take the risk that the starters might not be quite as well-drilled before the first game than the risk of an injury to Conor McDermott, Kolton Miller or Scott Quessenberry. Quessenberry mildly limped off from a drill this week, and practice on-lookers (probably mostly BROs) gasped in horror.
The next-man-up theory is a cute sentiment, except when the next man up might not be able to play at this level, creates a weakness in your OL which undercuts its performance and, thus, undercuts the offense and then that ripples to the defense. Given what we’ve seen in fall camp so far from the back-up offensive linemen, we think UCLA would be able to tolerate one injury to a guard, but not two, and probably not an injury to either the tackle or center positions. Either scenario could cause that ripple effect.
Out of some desperation we’re hoping that true freshman Paco Perez actually provides one more body of playable depth when he returns from his knee injury recovery. Reports from off-season summer workouts were that he had that capability.
Josh Rosen Has Been Shaky
Yep, we’ll say it: Josh Rosen hasn’t been spectacular in fall camp. He hasn’t been bad, by any means, but he hasn’t exactly been the thing on fire in San Bernardino these days either. He’s been good in stretches, but then also, well, shaky in others. The issues have involved both decision-making and accuracy. We recognize that there is so much that goes into a play when a quarterback holds a ball a long time. It might not be entirely his fault. Receivers might not be getting open or even running their precise routes, and the timing of the passing game could be off. But even taking that into consideration, how much Rosen has held the ball longer than needed has to at least be slightly attributed to Rosen, too. It appears he’s just not seeing the field that well so far in fall camp. There have also been some ill-advised throws – like yesterday, in a backed-up situation within his own 10-yard line, he stepped up in the pocket and threw a sidearm dump-off to a running back that hit an offensive player in the back (it then bounced off the player and into the hands of tight end Giovanni Gentosi, luckily). That’s just not something you should attempt within your own 10-yard line. Accuracy-wise, he’s been really sharp at times, but has been inaccurate at others, sometimes on very basic throws, commonly throwing behind a receiver or leading receivers too far on easy out routes. It definitely has improved as fall camp has progressed, with Rosen shaking off the rust, but at this point in camp, there is still some rust.
We have been noticing, though, that Rosen is more effective when he has the receivers most effective at getting open in the pattern – Ishmael Adams, Darren Andrews and Nate Iese. The more those three are lined up with him the better he’s looked.
We have to wonder, too, if the Rosen hype is a bit premature and has possibly affected his fall camp performance. We’ll admit it here at BRO, we’ve indulged in the Rosen hype. But we are a UCLA site and should be prone to those kinds of things. But when he made the cover of Sports Illustrated last week, it made us think: What has Rosen done to warrant this? He had a good freshman season, not spectacular, but good. The SI article is about a player that hasn’t really done enough yet to warrant being on the cover of SI. Is there a possibility that the Rosen Hype is affecting Rosen the Player? We have to ask the question, because his shakiness in camp and the Hype has coincided. Rosen in the article does admit that he has a “superiority complex.” It’s well-known (and addressed in the article) that Rosen can sometimes believe he’s already really good, and we’re hoping that hasn’t actually affected his focus on his development.
There are a couple of on-the-other-hands here to consider, though.
On the other hand, it might be good that Rosen is struggling some in camp. It might knock down his ego a peg and make him realize he actually needs to work to be as good as he can be.
On the other hand #2: Rosen looked pretty shaky last year in fall camp. If you remember, there was a serious competition between him and Jerry Neuheisel for the starting spot, and some genuine conversation that Neuheisel was winning the spot in fall camp. Then, Rosen was named the starter and came out with a stunningly fantastic game in the season-opener against Virginia. Rosen showed last year that he’s a gamer, that he generally played better throughout the season in games than he ever looked in fall camp, so take some solace from that.
Losing your three top receivers from a year ago – Jordan Payton, Thomas Duarte and Devin Fuller – is quite a bit to replace. What particularly made Payton and Duarte so good is that you knew that, if you threw them the ball, there was a very good chance they were going to catch it. If you sent Payton out on a 10-yard curl or dig route to get a first down, if the ball was thrown accurately there was a very high probability you’d get your first down.
UCLA has been in search of that go-to guy since spring and it has yet to really come up with him.
The traditional go-to guy is a bigger, physical receiver, like Payton or Duarte, who can body up and shield a defender and is strong enough to hold onto the ball under pressure. In an obvious third-down passing situation, too, when the quarterback’s going to get pressure, ideally you’d like a big target, and a guy who has a big catch window.
So you when trying to replace Payton/Duarte, you naturally look for the bigger receivers still on UCLA’s roster. The most obvious one is Eldridge Massington, a redshirt junior with plenty of experience. The short curl route where a receiver shields against a defender, however, isn’t Massington’s strength. While he’s straight-ahead fast, he’s not short-area quick, unlike Payton, so short routes aren’t naturally his forte. And his pass-catching isn’t high-end.
Alex Van Dyke fits the physical mold. He might not be short-area quick, but he is very big and when he turns his back on a defender it’s difficult to defend him. His hands, though, have been unreliable. He has shown incremental improvement in fall camp catching the ball.
Jordan Lasley is the other wide-out who is at least 6-1, and he’s inconsistent in his route running and pass-catching. He’s improved, even through fall camp.
F-type receiver Austin Roberts is another candidate, and he’s looked very good and a complete mismatch in the slot with his size and speed. But his hands have been questionable at times.
So, really, at this point in time, there isn’t anyone we see who can step in and be a Jordan Payton type.
Hopefully UCLA will come to terms with this, and realize that, in crunch time when you need a first down this season, the go-to guy might not be the traditional 6-2 type, but someone else. It might have to rely on the guys that simply get open the easiest – and that’s Andrews and Adams. Andrews and Adams are the best at getting separation on their defender on the roster, even in 3-10-yard situations. Adams’ hands aren’t excellent, but Andrews is probably the most reliable pass-catcher on the team.
The guy we think UCLA is going to rely on, also, is fullback-turned-tight-end Iese. He’s 6-4 and 235, and a physical load with good short-area quickness, and he’s been getting open on flat and slip routes as well as some curls in practice. And he’s been far more comfortable and reliable catching passes. He’s not Payton, by any means, but he’s improved. Among UCLA’s big receivers, he’s easily been the most productive.
We know that in the last couple of fall camps it always appeared UCLA was going to get Iese more involved in the offense, but that was former offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone then neglecting him during the season. New offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu emphasizes the tight end in his offense so we think how much Iese’s been used this fall isn’t an aberration this time.
Stopping the Run
Because last season’s UCLA team was 97th in the country in rushing defense (allowed 198 yards per game), and was run over by Nebraska in the Foster Farms Bowl (the Cornhuskers gained 326 yards on the ground), one of the biggest off-season priorities the program emphasized was improving its run defense. It switched to a 4-3 in hopes of doing that, and it beefed up its players.
We’re not saying this won’t solve the rushing-defense problem, it’s just that after fall camp we think it’s still a mystery and a worry.
UCLA’s new 4-3 alignment, actually, isn’t much different than the 3-4, since, in the old 3-4, the hybrid linebacker/defensive end, Deon Hollins, almost always functioned as a defensive end. The primary difference is that now, instead of Hollins being part of the base defense and in on just about every down, UCLA switched to Matt Dickerson as its defensive end in its base defense and will have a bigger player at the position on most rushing downs. So UCLA switched out the 6-0, 225-pound Hollins for the 6-4, 295-pound Dickerson. Hopefully that alone will bolster the run defense.
The difference could be if UCLA commits to not only physically bigger players but more of them in the box than it did last season. Last season, UCLA had the best pass defense in the conference with one of the worst run defenses. The type of defense it played was geared to primarily defend against a big play, particularly not allowing a big pass play over the top of the defense. But by doing that, and stretching its secondary, it created a spaced-out and undermanned scrimmage box, and opposing offenses, especially those that ran the ball well, exploited it. Just subbing in Dickerson for Hollins probably isn’t going to do the trick, but tightening up the box, and keeping an extra linebacker/safety in it will also help.
It also helps to get more negative-yard plays, and to do that you generally have to bring more pressure to the line of scrimmage, too.
We’ve seen some of this in fall camp, but not necessarily a big shift to it. The defense pretty much looks the same, except for personnel changes.
In terms of those personnel changes, too, it was pretty obvious that it would greatly benefit the run defense by utilizing bigger and stronger safeties who could come up and be more effective against the run. While bigger-hitting safeties Tahaan Goodman and Adarius Pickett have been getting more time in fall camp, the two diminutive safeties, Randall Goforth and Jaleel Wadood remain the starters.
The run defense overall does look improved from a year ago. But in fall camp it’s always difficult to draw any conclusions when the defensive unit goes up against the same offensive unit every day. Is the run defense really good, or is it just that the rushing offense isn’t? There have been some times in fall camp when the offense has been able to run effectively between the tackles, perhaps a little too effectively.
Eli Ankou is the new starting nose tackle, and he’s replacing a first-round NFL pick in Kenny Clark. Ankou was solid in replacing the out-for-the-year Eddie Vanderdoes last season, but that was on a defense that was, again, 97th in the country for rushing defense. So, there’s a question of whether the combination of Ankou and Vanderdoes will be much better on the interior than Ankou and Clark were a year ago.
Defensive end Takkarist McKinley looks like a beast in fall camp, especially in pass rush, but can he improve on his less-than-stellar run defense from a year ago?
The DL has certainly beefed up, with McKinley at 265, Dickerson at 295, and the two tackles, Vanderdoes and Ankou, both at 325.
But being better against the run isn’t going to be just about bigger bodies, but UCLA committing to more bodies in the box, and risking giving up the big play.
One big potential difference from last season: If UCLA plays tactically the same way on defense, which was more bend-and-not-break, it will match with UCLA's new offensive scheme better. It never made sense to have a hurry-up, no-huddle offense that would sometimes have quick drives, and then a bend-and-not-break defense. The defense would get tired, naturally, and the offense would have a two-minute drive and hand back the field to the fatigued defense. That only served to wear down the defense even more. If UCLA's new offensive scheme stays on the field longer that will be more consistent with the defensive philosophy UCLA has employed under Mora, and help the defense be fresher and more effective.
Are the Safeties Big Enough?
Like we said above, the size of UCLA’s starting safeties was an issue last year. Wadood and Goforth are good football players, but being about 5-9 and 5-10 and both under 190, they got physically beaten sometimes, especially against the run. In fall camp, they both have been steady, but neither have really been making an inordinate amount of big plays. They look, actually, about the same as they did last year. Goodman, who is the bigger safety type at 6-2 and 205, has improved, and he looks to be the guy off the bench when UCLA goes to a nickel. Having always been a big hitter, hopefully Goodman will take on the role of run stopper and head hunter. Pickett, too, is bigger, at 5-11 and 202, and also packs a punch. He also has been very good in coverage in fall camp, and has, in fact, made some big plays. We think it’d be a good sign – one that UCLA is really trying to become more physical -- if Pickett sees the field more often.
... we have the Five Reasons to Make You Feel Better out of fall camp, and so many more camp reviews and season previews on the way...