QB Mike Fafaul (Photo by Steve Cheng)

UCLA Fall Camp Review: Five Things to Feel Better About

Aug. 24 -- After we broke down the five things UCLA fans should be worried about with their Bruin team coming out of fall camp, we counter with the five worries that fall camp possibly allayed -- like the back-up quarterback situation, some key personnel returning from injury and the offensive scheme...

http://www.scout.com/college/ucla/story/1697763-fall-camp-review-five-th... In the first of our camp reviews, we went in-depth about the five things we observed that we believed deserved some concern from fall camp.  Like we said in that piece, overall we think the first two weeks of UCLA's fall camp (the two weeks open to the public and the media) were successful but, of course, there are always concerns.  On the flip side,  there were also concerns coming into camp that the last two weeks pretty much put at ease. Of course, you can never say we're completely at ease about these five concerns; it's kind of like whack-a-mole: you whack a few worries but then others crop up.  Nevertheless, these are the ones we've been able to whack as a result of fall camp.

Back Up Quarterback

We've talked quite a bit since last spring about what would happen potentially to the UCLA season if anything happened to Josh Rosen, UCLA's star sophomore quarterback.  Coming off spring practice, we weren't confident in any options.  Redshirt senior and former walk-on Mike Fafaul didn't seem completely up to the task. Yeah, he could come into a series and the entire offense wouldn't break down, but we weren't confident the offense wouldn't miss many beats with him playing any prolonged period of time.  Then there were the two true freshman, Matt Lynch and Devon Modster.  Lynch was enrolled for spring practice and he looked like a typical freshman quarterback in his first practices -- shaky.  

After fall camp there's a different perspective, and it's entirely because of the considerable leap Fafaul made in his knowledge and execution of the new offensive scheme. We can safely say that Fafaul looked good all of fall camp. If we were grading him out, we'd give him an A-, looking both sharp in his decision-making and the accuracy of his throws.  He clearly got into the playbook in the off-season and went over the threshold of familiarity and knowledge of the offense.  His arm, too, was improved.  Remember, we pointed out in spring that Fafaul's arm looked fatigue, unlike ever before (he'd always had good mechanics and thrown a nice ball).  But his arm in the last two weeks was rejuvenated. 

There's always a question of a back-up quarterback getting rattled when he comes into a real game. Fafaul hasn't had almost any game experience, so you'd have to consider that a factor if he does, in fact, have to run UCLA's offense any time this fall in actual games. 

You also have to consider that Fafaul was mostly with the second-string for fall, so he was going up against the second-string UCLA defense.  There is a drop in talent there, but even more pronounced is the drop in the team speed of the second-string unit compared to the first.  So, everything was slowed down a bit for him.  Not profoundly, but probably just a beat, which can make a big difference in quarterback decision-making.

But even so, Fafaul was good enough that, even with those concerns discounted in, we're confident he'd be able to execute the offense at a high enough level that, if he did need to play more than just a couple of series, the UCLA season wouldn't collapse. 

Lynch continued to improve this fall, and was quite a bit better than he was in spring, making more precise throws.  Modster didn't look horrible, especially on throwing a very nice deep ball with touch.  Both, however, would cause some dire concern if they actually had to play this season.  Neither are ready for the big leagues.

This concern being allayed is all about Fafaul.  UCLA has to be deeply grateful that the fifth-year senior stuck around for this season after Jerry Neuheisel left with one more year of eligibility. Nothing against Neuheisel at all, but Fafaul could have done the same thing. With how effective he's been, he probably could have used the graduate transfer exemption and actually started somewhere in D-1.  So, even if Fafaul never sees the field for any significant minutes this season, and of course, nothing against Fafaul, but we hope he doesn't, what he's done clearly in terms of hard work and commitment is really what it's all about in being a student athlete.

Mike Fafaul (Steve Cheng)

The Offensive Scheme

There was absolutely some concern about the new offensive scheme as a result of spring practice.  It looked like there was a good offense in there somewhere, but the lack of knowledge of it by the players and the poor execution and timing made it look pretty messy back in April.  It was especially so coming off watching Noel Mazzone's spread offense for four years since that offense is very basic and isn't hard to master and execute.

The players obviously had a big leap in their collective grasp of new offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu's offense between the last practice of spring and the first one of fall camp. It was night and day.  They had to spend quite a bit of time in their playbooks. We also heard that the offense did quite a bit of work on its calls and timing in the intermittent three months and that work paid off.

Now that there's an acceptable degree of offensive execution we can actually see the offensive scheme and, we have to say, we like it. The best thing about it is its diversity and versatility.  It can be a Stanford-like power-running game type of offense, but it can be a Mazzone spread offense, too.  So many BRO readers are thinking this is a return to the Karl Dorrell West Coast Offense, but it looks nothing like that. In fact, this offense looks different from snap to snap. Polamalu, in watching so many offensive schemes over his long career, has integrated all kinds of looks into his playbook. It was especially impressive that he clearly copied many of Mazzone's spread concepts and integrated them, too. It not only gave the players the familiarity of the scheme they'd been using but gave Polamalu that option for a spread-like look.

In today's college football, this is probably, conceptually, the offense you need -- to be able to throw any kind of look at any defense and take advantage of their weaknesses. If you go up against a defense that is weak against the run, this offense can morph into a downhill running attack with two tight ends and a 295-pound fullback.  If a defense likes to pack personnel in the box, this offense can spread it out, stretch the field and make them cover from sideline to sideline (and really exploit play-action).  It's what we like the most about the offense: It seems that its intention is to give UCLA the tools to do anything offensively and not be limited by a type of scheme.  Mazzone's scheme, while it was effective, was limited. Heck, it couldn't get a first down on third-and-short because it didn't have a power running game. Even with Rosen clearly not going to opt to run out of the zone read, Mazzone's offense was still using it because most of its running game came from it.

Now, there is a big caveat. Just because we like Polamalu's offensive scheme doesn't mean we like the offense. There arestill  those guys on the field that have to execute it. And there's always the question of whether having such a big playbook is conducive for college players.  There are also those guys on the sideline that have to execute -- that is, get the correct personnel on the field for the right package and get the play called. There were some issues with that in fall camp, and we'd be surprised if we didn't see some timeouts called this season because UCLA couldn't get the right package/personnel lined up in time. 

Overall, after Mazzone's easy-to-use and effective offense for the last four years, there was concern with a shift to Polamalu's, especially since the running backs coach had never fully been an offensive coordinator, where he conceived of the offense and the offensive game plans and called the plays.  Until we see it actually function in a game, we still have to retain some skepticism about it.  But in concept, this offense proved this fall camp to potentially be a very dynamic one, and one that is equipped to do whatever it takes to match up well against any opponent. 

Kennedy Polamalu

Key Personnel Recovering From Season-Ending Injuries

We knew going into the season that the health of defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes and cornerback Fabian Moreau were keys, but after watching them in fall camp we realized just how key.

Vanderdoes and Moreau are really good.

They're probably the two best defensive players on the team (linebacker Jayon Brown would also have to be mentioned in that conversation).  Right now, picturing this defense without these two there would be a considerable drop-off for the defense.  It actually makes us put last season even more in perspective, that the defense was without Vanderdoes, Moreau and Myles Jack.  You can always speculate about what an impact it might have made to have injured players back on the field, but you can never really grasp it until you see it -- and that's what we went through this fall with Vanderdoes and Moreau.

Again, the next-man-up sentiment is great one for morale, but when the next men up are the back-ups to Vanderdoes and Moreau you are bound to have some drop-off.

Both experienced pretty serious injuries that ended their 2015 season, Vanderdoes with an ACL and Moreau with a lisfranc injury (broken bones and joints in the midfoot).  Because of the seriousness of both injuries and that both sat out spring practice, there was some concern about how healthy each would be for this season. 

It's been surprising, then, that both have practiced fully.  Both didn't skip too many reps, and probably the same amount they would have if they weren't injured. 

Neither has looked very rusty, either, and both look to be in the best shape of their careers. 

We also want to mention Johnny Johnson, who was an integral part of UCLA's secondary last season.  He started for most of the year when Moreau, in fact, went down, and was probably UCLA's best cover cornerback for that stretch.  He suffered a neck-related injury, and has always had issues with his shoulders, but he appears to be 100% this fall, and playing effectively. He started out a little slowly in camp, but then came on toward the end. To have his talent and experience as the first cornerback off the bench is really a luxury.

And there's receiver Mossi Johnson, who tore his ACL in the middle of last season. Johnson had an ACL tear as a high school prospect, so there was some uncertainty about his return. But he's been full-go this fall and, while he's looked a little rusty,  he also came on more toward the end of camp, was getting more reps with the 1s and looks like he's poised to be a contributor.  

This doesn't even include the return of starting center Scott Quessenberry, since he returned in time for spring. Quessenberry sat out the entire 2015 season and redshirted after recovering some shoulder surgeries.  Given the state of the offensive line and its playable depth, imagine what it'd be line without the services of Quessenberry. 

The fact that UCLA got through fall camp and none of these key personnel experienced any recurrence of the injuries that kept them out for the 2015 season might be the best news coming out of fall camp. 

Eddie Vanderdoes (Steve Cheng, BRO)

Replacing Paul Perkins' Production

Perkins left UCLA as its third all-time leading rusher with 3,491 yards (behind Johnathan Frankin's 4,403 and Gaston Green's 3,731), and was the Pac-12 rushing champion in 2014, totaling the second-most yards in a season by a UCLA running back, 1575 (second to Franklin's 1,734 in 2012).  If he had stayed for his senior year instead of jumping to the NFL as a redshirt junior he would have smashed UCLA's records and become the #1 leading rusher in UCLA history. 

That's not an easy thing to replace. UCLA rushed for a total of 2,300 yards last season, 177 yards per game and 5 yards per carry.

Here's the thing, though. The three tailbacks that return were responsible for 948 of those yards and averaged 6.2 yards per carry. It stands to reason that those three tailback -- Sotonye JamaboNate Starks and Bolu Olorunfunmi -- would be able to duplicate the 2,300 yards UCLA produced in 2015 if they just got more carries.

There are some things to consider, though, mostly that it's a long season and sustaining productivity as a tailback over the course of 13 games takes its toll.  It's quite a bit easier to come in to a game as the second- or third-stringer, often times when the defense has been softened up and you're fresh, and get 6 yards per carry as opposed to carrying the complete burden of the position.  

Plus, while there is quite a bit of talent among the three, we still haven't necessarily seen the same level of consistent talent of Paul Perkins.  If you go back and watch some highlights of his from the 2015 season, there are some seriously spectacular carries. He was capable of the spectacular run, but also the grind-it-out run, in which he would break tackles in the box to get those three yards the offense needed for a first down.  There is some question of whether any one of the three have that level of talent.

But the three have shown a good degree of it.  Jamabo has improved since last season, having gotten bigger, stronger and more decisive. Starks is incrementally better, and stronger.  Olorunfunmi, if you go by spring and fall practice, might have made the biggest jump, combining more explosiveness with his power, perhaps being slowed by nagging injuries last season. 

Then throw in Jalen Starks, the freshman bruiser of a tailback, who is 6-2 and 250, and freshman Brandon Stephens, who looked very good in fall camp, and that's a pretty deep squad. 

It will also help that UCLA's offense now has the option of going to a power running game.  It could really benefit Jamabo, who looks like the designated starter by getting by far the most reps with the 1s in the last two weeks.  It might be the thing he needs to get confidence in starting a game, going up against a fresh defense and having to sustain so much effort, toughness and stamina over the course of 3 1/2 hours.  

Overall, having watched the three veterans, and seeing how well they've done in the new scheme, we're pretty confident that UCLA's running game is going to be a strength, and at least match last year's 2,300 yards.  

Tight Ends

It seemed like not long ago it was a case of UCLA changing its offensive scheme to one that featured tight ends prominently, and it seeming like UCLA had no tight ends.

Now it's a whole new world of tight ends.

It's not necessarily that UCLA has a depth chart of future NFL players at the position, but fall camp at least allayed most of the concerns about playable personnel at the position, both this season and in the future.  

We're hoping that how much Nate Iese was used in this fall camp is close to a realistic reflection of how much he'll get used this season.  In fall camp he was easily among the quarterbacks' favorite targets.  He's physically a very impressive player, at about 6-3 and 250 with very good athleticism, and his pass-catching has smoothed out.  

Then there's the Y-type tight end, Austin Roberts, whose size and speed make him look like a weapon, with some question of whether he can consistently catch the ball. Still, with how much he was used in fall camp, and how he flashed on occasion, he's going to get a shot at proving it this season.  

But we knew about Iese and Roberts, and anticipated they'd be about as good as they were in fall camp.

Going into fall camp here was, then, a big mystery after those two. UCLA's new offense clearly needs a good amount of bodies at tight end, and Iese and Roberts weren't enough to cut it.  

So it was a semi-revelation that both Caleb Wilson and Jordan Wilson proved over the last couple of weeks that they could step in and play, and at least be serviceable.  Caleb Wilson, a former USC walk-on that is now a redshirt freshman scholarship player at UCLA, was better than expected catching the ball. True freshman Jordan Wilson showed up to UCLA this summer at 6-5 and at least 245, well-built, and has shown ability with pass-catching, too. Both are a little raw in their route running, and have to refine their blocking skills some.  But maybe since expectation were pretty low, the two Wilson have been a very pleasant surprise, being components of the offense just about every day in fall camp. 

Walk-on Giovanni Gentosi, too, had a solid fall camp, and is going to play. 

So, going from a considerable question mark when it comes to playable depth to a solid depth chart at a position that is clearly going to be used extensively was one of the best personnel developments of fall practice. 

Caleb Wilson (Photo: Steve Cheng)

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