It was the first spring practice in full pads Saturday, with hitting but no tackling.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the day was that, since there was a photo shoot on campus, there were dozens of recruits in attendance, even though many didn’t stay for the entire near-three hour practice. But quite a few big names did take in the session.
Probably the second biggest takeaway from Saturday is that the new offense still is, obviously, a work in progress. The timing of the passing game at this point is off and, as Jim Mora said in his post-practice comments, it appears that the players are thinking before doing, and that has to be hurting the execution and timing.
The quarterbacks, then, didn’t have a great day, but it wasn’t what you would call bad, since they are learning a new offense. Josh Rosen is throwing well, but just not completing a great many, being out of sync with the receivers many times. Rosen did look better in 7-on-7s, with more space to make a throw and no pass rush, giving him time to make a decision. The guy who is getting second-team reps is Devon Modster, and he probably struggled the most on the day, having some issues with his accuracy for a good half of practice, overthrowing receivers on deep balls and outs. He seemed to settle in and had a better last hour or so. Matt Lynch, actually, looks to be the most naturally comfortable at this point with the new offense, getting the ball off with less hesitation. Lynch has clearly done some work in the weight room in the off-season, with his upper body looking thicker, and despite his short-armed throwing motion, he has more zip on the ball. Early entrant quarterback Austin Burton has a good throwing motion but, as you might expect, is struggling a little with accuracy on longer throws.
The emphases of the day for the offense was a back-shoulder throw and a play-action boot rollout. Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch took the quarterbacks through it in the early drills and then executed it during the team drills, and it was easily the most successful play of the day. Lynch executed it well and hit tight end Caleb Wilson on a flat route which he turned up field for probably overall the best play of the practice.
The offense has a good dose of play-action, at least from what we’ve seen of it so far, with a majority of the passing plays utilizing it.
The standout offensive player – probably not just Saturday but so far in the first three days of spring – is Caleb Wilson. He has a knack for getting open and catches everything thrown near him.
The tight ends, generally, have looked good. Jordan Wilson stepped in with the ones a few times in certain packages, sometimes with a double-tight package, and he also looked good catching the ball. Michigan transfer Devin Asiasi is working mostly with the 2s, and is clearly a standout. Austin Roberts tweaked his right ankle and sat out the second half of practice. We’ve only actually seen true freshman tight end Jimmy Jaggers catch a couple of balls but he looked completely natural doing it.
Among the receivers, Jordan Lasley and Darren Andrews have been the two making the most plays over three days. Those two easily get open the most among the receivers. Theo Howard sat out about half of practice with an unknown injury. Perhaps among that first tier has also been Stephen Johnson, in his ability to get open. There were a good amount of fly sweeps Saturday, and Andrews and Johnson looked good and explosive. Both redshirt freshman slots Damian Alloway and Demetric Felton have flashed, with Alloway catching a nice ball in traffic and then showing some explosion getting up field. Adewale Omotosho looks very big and athletic, but raw in his pass-catching, while Dymond Lee had a good day, making some tough catches in tight spaces, doing very well with the back-shoulder catch. He has tremendous body control, gains separation, uses every inch of the sideline and does well in the air. He had great hands in high school and it appears he has some of the best hands on the team.
The running backs, to be candid, haven’t really flashed. There hasn’t been one among Sotonye Jamabo, Nate Starks, Bolu Olorunfunmi or Brandon Stephens that has really made a particular play that would stand out. Jamabo looks like he’s running a bit more aggressively. Olorunfunmi probably has made the most plays, and Stephens looks very good physically. Tailback/fullback Jalen Starks hasn’t gotten any carries since he’s sporting a club-like bandage on his right hand. Actually, walk-on running back Kahlil Muhammad made the most of his opportunities on the day.
As is customary, the defense owned the practice on Saturday, particularly the secondary, not just in one-on-ones but in team drills, too. As Mora announced after practice, Johnny Johnson has left the team, will graduate and pursue a graduate transfer season at another program. The open starting cornerback spot, then, went to Denzel Fisher Saturday, and he didn’t disappoint, perhaps having one of his best practices since being at UCLA. He was glued on his receivers in one-on-one, and used his length to poke away passes. Redshirt freshman corner Keyon Riley got some buzz in the off-season and he’s looked good so far this spring, being right there with Fisher for passes defended. It’s also very impressive just how good early entrant Darnay Holmes has been. We thought there’d be a bit of a learning curve in spring, but he’s been very good, using his superior athleticism to stick with receivers, and he has that swagger. It was probably his best day in coverage in one-on-ones, blanketing his receivers and looking more confident in and out of his breaks. He saw a good amount of time at the nickel. He did get beat on a stop-and-go by Darren Andrews, though. Of course, starting corner Nate Meadors looks very good, clearly more confident than he’s been in the past.
On Thursday, Mossi Johnson alternated between safety and receiver, even during the same drill, switching blue and white No. 21 jerseys. On Saturday he was solely a safety and he had a pretty big day. He had a few passes defended with some knock-downs and a nice pick in one-on-ones. Mora said after practice that Johnson is someone they want to get on the field any way they can, and it could very well be at safety.
Besides consistently good play from the starting safeties, Adarius Pickett and Jaleel Wadood, Octavius Spencer had a good showing, jumping some routes in the one-on-ones and getting a tackle for loss in 11-on-11.
As we said, it was a day when the defensive backs, for the most part, shut down the receivers, in one-on-one and team drills.
The linebackers were solid Saturday, with a great deal of mixing and matching at all the positions. The 1s are Kenny Young at the Mike, Josh Woods at the Will and DeChaun Holiday at the Sam, but by the second team period so many other linebackers were mixing in with the 1s and 2s in various combinations. Holiday and Woods form a nice athletic duo alongside veteran Young.
Krys Barnes has been impressive, in both the linebacker drills and team, playing the Sam (and we think we saw him at the Mike). Lokeni Toailoa has looked so good it’s going to be hard to keep in him off the field. Perhaps the most impressive thing he did was win his 40-yard heat. Breland Brandt continues to impress physically, getting most of the reps with the 2s at the Sam. Mique Juarez is mostly playing Sam with the 3s, but we saw him take a rep at the Mike at least once. While he’s still pretty thick, he still has quickness. Brandon Burton, the converted safety, has plugged in at the Will, and looked comfortable and instinctual. UCLA only uses two linebackers most of the time (in the nickel), and coach Scott White is giving just about everyone a chance to prove themselves.
The starting DL and OL remained the same through the third practice. The defensive line is Keisean Lucier-South and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner at the ends and Boss Tagaloa and Matt Dickerson inside. But early enrollee Jaelan Phillips had another very strong day Saturday, with a couple of tackles for loss and a virtual sack in team drills. Phillips recovered a fumble in 9-on-7, immediately stiff armed the running back and broke free for what would have been an easy score. There was quite a bit of mixing and matching on the DL, too, and at one point Phillips and Lucier-South were the two DEs with the ones.
Tuioti-Mariner and Dickerson were the two standout defenders in OL vs DL battles. JTM has turned into this team's steadiest defensive lineman and he made it difficult on UCLA’s best offensive lineman, left tackle Kolton Miller, using his hands well to shed the block and gain ground. Dickerson, meanwhile, is a tough draw for offensive linemen given his strength and ability to maintain leverage through contact.
The second-string DL is, most of the time, Rick Wade and Phillips at the DE spots, and Nick Terry and Ainuu Taua at the tackle positions.
Najee Toran did step in and take some snaps at center with the 2s. It appears coach Hank Fraley is looking for his best option at back-up center.
Besides getting beat by Tuioti-Mariner that one time, Miller fared well in his other reps in 1-on-1a. He's a towering presence at left tackle, longer than Conor McDermott and a bit more athletic. His footwork makes it difficult for ends to get around him.
Jake Burton, after his move to offensive tackle from defensive end, continued to show promise. He turned in good reps against Jaelan Phillips, pushing the early enrollee back a couple times and not allowing defenders to offset his arms. He's obviously just at the beginning stages of his development, but there is a good foundation there.
Andre James continued to impress, taking some reps at right tackle during one-on-ones and again performing well. His versatility should be a major asset for new offensive line coach Hank Fraley, and his improvement as a run blocker could be the solution at a left guard spot that had some big issues last season.
Something to note: It’s a whole new world in terms of personnel just from a few years ago. In spring practice, UCLA used to struggle to have enough players to field one 11-on-11. On Saturday they were conducting two 11-on-11 sessions on the two side-by-side fields.
The starting punt returner at this stage is Darren Andrews, with Jordan Lasley, Damien Alloway and Darnay Holmes getting chances.
Stefan Flintoft absolutely boomed his punts. That punter competition with Austin kent doesn't appear to be close at the moment.
It was a swirling, windy day, which didn’t make for a good one for the kickers. Sophomore Andrew Strauch has probably been the most consistent in kicker drills, and he hit his two field goals against the wind. J.J. Molson hit one of his two, and walk-on Crawford Pierson missed his two.
For a list of the recruits that attended practice, go here.