The universal opinion out on the Intramural Field on Saturday was that this was maybe the best and more interesting practice of the spring.
Some of that was just the format for the practice; instead of a significant number of 1-on-1s, UCLA went to much more 11-on-11, which allowed for some real opportunity to evaluate.
But more of it was that, as has been the case for much of this week, the offense actually held its own, and perhaps even found some vulnerabilities in what has been a pretty stout defense all spring.
UCLA's offensive attack for most of practice was predicated largely on stretch runs, counters, and misdirection in the running game, and then a good amount of quick slants and quick throws in the passing game. For a large portion of the practice, it worked really, really well. We saw more big plays in the first few minutes of team drills than we'd probably seen in full practices over the first week of camp. It's interesting to speculate whether the injury to Dechaun Holiday (a subluxation of his shoulder) is perhaps making UCLA a little slower to the edge, In any case, UCLA got some big plays to the outside, especially from Brandon Stephens, who had one really nice 25 yard run that he bounced out in the first part of team drills. Sotonye Jamabo also had a nice touchdown on a pitch out of the backfield that was well-blocked by Jordan Lasley.
It wasn't just the running game that looked good, though. UCLA also connected more in the passing game than it has with any consistency through most of spring. There are still some major kinks to work out in the screen game (the wide receiver and tight end blocking has been very iffy, and it was again today), but UCLA found some room over the middle. Caleb Wilson continues to have a nice camp, and he caught basically everything that was thrown his way, except for a Hail Mary that Adarius Pickett picked off the tip in the back of the end zone. Eldridge Massington also had a big day, building on what has been a really good week for him.
Josh Rosen had a pretty solid day, but Matt Lynch actually stood out the most among the quarterbacks. His motion is still short-armed, but the ball gets where it needs to be with speed and accuracy. He had a really nice throw on the move for a touchdown to Massington, and more or less every throw he made was on the money. Even the one pick he threw was a good throw, but it looked like the receiver stopped his route short a little bit. His understanding of the offense might be the best of the quarterbacks, just judging from their performance on the field. Devon Modster didn't have a bad day, but Lynch was clearly a cut above. Looking at Austin Burton, he has a decent motion and good athleticism, but he'll need to work on his strength and drive power as his throws don't get a whole lot of juice.
Rosen had a mostly good day, like we said, but he also threw a horrible pick-six off of his back foot across his body that was just not a mistake a junior should make. He really won't be able to make those kinds of mistakes in this offense, since the margin for error is going to be pretty slim.
What was probably most encouraging for the offense was that the offensive line actually had an OK day. Andre James has really emerged as perhaps the best of the bunch, and he more than held his own in team and during 1-on-1s. He handled Ainuu Taua three times in a row during 1-on-1s, and looked really good doing it. He has a great base, and shows tremendous balance. The move to guard really looks to be working out for him. Kolton Miller also looked good during both team and individuals, and Najee Toran has put on good weight and looks like he's improved iin pass protection. The big issues for us are, really, seeing what Scott Quessenberry can do in terms of translating practice performance to the playing field in the fall, and whether Kenny Lacy can find a comfort level at right tackle. He struggled quite a bit on Saturday. If they can shore up that side of the line, the starting five could be average, which would be a large step up from last year. No matter what, though, it's going to be a really thin group, and expectations for them should be kept pretty low.
Defensively, Jaelan Phillips more or less split reps with Keisean Lucier-South, and might have even gotten more with the 1s than KLS. Phillips and KLS both had a nice practice, going against a combination of Lacy and Mike Alves, who took some reps at tackle for the first time we can remember this spring. Phillips is such an impressive guy to look at, because he's probably 265 pounds or so, but looks like he could gain another 15 or 20 with no trouble or loss of athleticism. Anyway, he's a freak, and really impressive to see in person. Lucier-South even had a good practice, but Phillips outshined him. Rick Wade also stood out as having a nice day, working mostly with the 2s against the second-string offensive line. He had a couple of near-sacks and a strip fumble.
Josh Woods and Kenny Young both made some nice plays, but the linebackers seemed to get beat a little bit by all of the misdirection from the offense in the running game. Losing Holiday's speed on the edge hurt there, but it also looked like there was some overpursuit, especially on the counters and pitches UCLA trotted out more. The offense was clearly trying some new things, with the first empty backfield shotgun look we can remember of the spring, and perhaps that was messing with the defense a little.
Adarius Pickett is clearly emerging as a playmaker in the secondary, and at this point, he is one of our picks for the breakout player this year. He had two interceptions today, and just looked so impressive jumping routes and making plays at safety. Practice doesn't even show off his best trait, either, which is that he can be such a thumper. Darnay Holmes also had a nice practice -- he had one play where he had perfect blanket coverage on Theo Howard, but Howard still made the catch down the sideline around Holmes' back. Howard had a few nice plays, but he's still with the second-string with Massington's emergence.
As a general thing, it's encouraging that the offense looked pretty good, but as always with these things, it's sort of zero-sum: the offense looking good on plays to the edge might indicate that UCLA lacks great speed to the edge on defense without Holiday. To its credit, the defense shut the outside stuff down more toward the end of practice. All told, though, it was a fun practice, and probably the best one of the spring.
*Alex Van Dyke had a good day, catching everything that was thrown his way and looking good doing it.
*Josh Wariboko-Alali still has a ways to go to be a significant contributor; he's still lunging around in pass protection, and will need to play with more discipline.
*Jalen Starks got some looks at both tailback and fullback and looked pretty good. His club looked a little smaller today and he worked in more with the team.
*Mique Juarez looks simmer than he did at the start of spring, but he still has some work to do to get where he needs to be. If we had to guess, we'd say he looks about 265 right now. To his credit, he still moves better than you'd think for that size, but getting into the 250 range by the start of fall camp has to be a priority.
Click here for: Recruits at Practice.