UCLA concluded its fourth practice of the spring on Monday, and it was the team’s second straight practice in full pads.
The practice included some new wrinkles – there was a return of the 9-on-7 period, there was a short “pride alley” sequence and there were also quite a few scuffles for the first time this spring.
One thing remained strikingly consistent with the first three practices, however: The defense dominated.
During the 11-on-11 period, none of the offensive groups were able to muster a single touchdown drive. Josh Rosen struggled with a couple overthrows, and the passes he completed dowfield were in very tight windows. Even when Jedd Fisch tried to catch the defense off balance by running a halfback delayed screen or a fly sweep, the defense was still there to snuff it out.
After practice, Mora admitted the offense still has a long way to go.
“Obviously, you could tell by watching practice, that there’s a lot of learning going on on offense four days in,” Mora said. “And I thought today it caught up to them a little bit just in terms of the volume. But you’re going to have those peaks and valleys, that’s just part of the learning process.”
If there is one bright spot on the offense, it’s left tackle Kolton Miller. He mostly kept Keisean Lucier-South and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner in check during 11-on-11s, and he also held his own against emerging freshman Jaelan Phillips in the one rep he had against him. Moreover, MIller set the edge for the first team’s most productive run play of the day – a stretch play to the left side.
But that’s about where the compliments end for the offense. Rosen wasn’t able to hit on any of his deep passes during 11-on-11s, mostly because of impressive blanket coverage by the defense. By and large, Rosen’s completions on Monday were quick slants and quick out routes that went for fewer than 10 yards.
As for the running game, it only produced about two or three plays that went over 5 yards on the day. Brandon Stephens probably had the most impressive run of practice, breaking to the outside and lowering his shoulder for a 6-yard rush.
Speaking of Stephens, he’s probably been the unheralded star of the running back group thus far in camp. The sophomore has made several nice cuts in open space over the first week, and even showed an aptitude for pass blocking during the 1-on-1s with the linebackers on Monday.
The receivers weren’t particularly impressive in Monday’s practice, but Jordan Lasley had a few nice catches in tight coverage. He also dropped a key pass that would have gone for a first down, and then showed his temper a little bit, getting into a heated confrontation with Denzel Fisher.
Defense shines brightly, shows depth
While the offense scuffled on Monday, the defense must be commended for how well it played throughout practice.
Not only was the group efficient in stopping plays for short yardage, but it also showed a tremendous amount of depth. Players like Rick Wade, Ainuu Taua and Phillips rotated in with the first-team defense on Monday, and they looked just as capable – if not more capable – than the starters. Phillips continues to shine early in spring, picking up two more phantom sacks on Monday, albeit against the second-team offensive line.
As we mentioned above, Phillips was neutralized by first-team left tackle Kolton Miller in the one pass-rushing rep he had against him in 11-on-11s. But it’s encouraging for Phillips that he’s already getting first-team reps this early in his UCLA career.
In the secondary, Darnay Holmes is still seeing a lot of time as the first-team nickel corner, and he’s also getting some reps at the outside cornerback position with the second team. He was tested on the outside by Stephen Johnson, but made a nice pass break-up to force an incompletion.
At the left cornerback spot, Nathan Meadors was steady on Monday, breaking up several of Rosen’s passes to the right side of the field, including a deep shot to the end zone that was intended for Darren Andrews.
Over on the other side of the field, Denzel Fisher looked pretty reliable at the right corner spot. It was only his second practice taking first-team reps at that spot, but he looked comfortable there and didn’t surrender any big plays on Monday. As a matter of fact, the biggest defensive play of the day – an Adarius Pickett interception that ended practice – came on Fisher’s side of the field.
Some notes on the linebackers
Kenny Young flashed in both RB/LB 1-on-1s and during 11-on-11s, breaking through for a nice pass breakup. The senior MIKE linebacker proved no match for Sotonye Jamabo during halfback blocking drills, blowing by Jamabo with ease on more than one occasion.
Mique Juarez looked completely overmatched physically during the RB/LB 1-on-1s portion of Monday’s practice. While other linebackers were mostly winning their pass-rushing reps against the blocking running backs, Juarez was pushed aside on every occasion. Moreover, Juarez didn’t really see any significant reps with the second-team defense during 11-on-11s.
In the OL/DL one-on-ones, the offensive line fared better than it did Saturday. The defensive line still won a good amount, perhaps even more reps than the OL, but it was far more of an even proposition Monday.
Left tackle Kolton Miller was, again, the best offensive lineman, and won every rep we saw, and he went up against probably the DL’s toughest edge rusher at this point, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner Senior center Scott Quessenberry won his share of reps, with most coming against nose tackle Boss Tagaloa. Quessenberry showed great balance and composure in containing Tagaloa on successive reps, one in which Tagaloa tried to win an edge from Quessenberry and then, in the second, when he attempted a bull rush. But Tagaloa bettered Quessenberry on another rep by getting leverage and using his quickness to get under and around Quessenberry.
Guard Najee Toran was solid, beating redshirt freshman Osa Odighizuwa pretty decisively, and then slightly getting an advantage on sophomore defensive tackle Chigozie Nnoruka. Toran had a great rep when he held off Tagaloa who tried to swim by him.
Odighizuwa and Nnoruka are making for a good young tandem inside on the DL. They resemble each other physically, too, at about 6-2 and 300. Odighizuwa used his hands well to get a nice push on redshirt freshman guard Paco Perez, and received some praise from DL coach Angus McClure. Nnoruka, over the course of the four practices, has won a good amount of reps, and looked quick in the DL drills Monday.
Kenny Lacy took reps at guard and tackle, and at both left and right tackle, to mixed results. He lost a rep at right tackle to Matt Dickerson, losing his balance as Dickerson executed a type of jab-step move on him. He then played it just about even with his rep at guard, but then looked the best at left tackle, being able to move left with agility to contain Marcus Moore.
Dickerson beat Toran on one rep by dipping inside and under Toran’s pads.
Andre James, at guard, contained Odighizuwa, and then had one of the best reps of the period at right tackle when he showed very good quickness in keeping Tuioti-Mariner sealed off.
The rep that got the most “oohs” was from redshirt freshman tackle Jake Burton, who got a nice punch in on freshman defensive end Jaelan Phillips, which made Phillips fall back a couple of steps. Keisean Lucier-South got Burton on an edge rush later.
The defensive lineman who was the toughest to keep under wraps Monday – and has had a good spring so far – is Ainuu Taua. He’ll line up at end, three-technique or nose, and his quickness is a challenge at all three spots. He matches up against redshirt freshman guards Perez and Mike Alves and it’s not really a fair fight.