The BRO staff -- Tracy Pierson, Blair Angulo, David Woods and Matt Joye -- took a little time to reflect on the UCLA football team halfway through its spring practice. We added Joye's comments today; they're in italics below.
Biggest Single Impression So Far
Angulo -- UCLA looks like a carbon copy of last spring. Josh Rosen is skilled enough to make the offense formidable, but will he have help from the offensive line and running game? Fans should be cautiously optimistic about the OL making considerable strides this offseason.
Pierson -- There are some things that need to be tweaked and improved, of course. This last week with the offense actually showing some promise that took the mystery -- and deep-seated worry -- about Jedd Fisch's new scheme a bit off the table. What remains on the table is the concern over the offensive line. Every other unit on the team looks either good to very good, but as we know, in college football, you really only get as far as the offensive line will take you.
Woods -- The defense has a chance to be very good, but my concern is that we've yet to see a wire-to-wire elite season from the defense in the Mora era, so counting on suddenly getting to that point this year seems like a stretch. That means that the offense can't just be average if the Bruins want to get back to being a 9-win team and contender in the South -- the offense will actually have to be good. With this offensive line, a lot is going to rest on Jedd Fisch's ability to mitigate weak offensive line play with tempo, misdirection, and perhaps more spread.
Joye -- Jaelan Phillips and Darnay Holmes really look like the real deal. Both Phillips and Holmes have seen time with the 1s and neither has looked out of place there. Holmes has had a few problems defending double-move routes, but other than that he's been pretty solid and looks like he could be a key contributor this year. As for Phillips, he physically looks like he's already in his junior year, and his burst off the edge is very impressive; I could see Phillips having five sacks or more by the end of the season.
Biggest Surprise Player
Pierson -- Redshirt freshman defensive end Marcus Moore has been the complete surprise for me, mostly because there were really no expectations. Last season we never actually saw him practice, since he sat due to his injury when the media could watch practice. He wasn't a highly-sought recruit out of high school, and we didn't hear any buzz about him in the off-season. To then show the capability of not only playing at this level but to have an impact with some high-level quickness was an addition to the depth chart we weren't anticipating. It's almost as if UCLA got a free potential contributor at the defensive end spot. You probably have to give UCLA defensive line coach Angus McClure a great deal of credit for his evaluation of Moore, watching him play at Encino Crespi quite a bit because McClure's son, Hamish, was the quarterback there.
Angulo -- Before he suffered a right shoulder injury on Thursday, converted safety Dechaun Holiday had looked very good at outside linebacker through the first five practices. He's bulked up some and, with his cover ability on the outside, had looked like a player capable of giving the Bruins some good versatility when they aren't in nickel. The injury doesn't appear to be too serious so he should be expected to step right back into that role in the fall as he continues to blossom alongside Kenny Young and Josh Woods in that linebacker group.
Woods -- I really loved what I saw from Andre James on Saturday. He looks much more comfortable at guard than he did at tackle. He plays with a really solid base and shows good balance. I think he's going to contend with Kolton Miller for the title of best offensive lineman this year. Matt Lynch also stood out on Saturday. He's clearly made some strides as a thrower, and I wouldn't be shocked if he has the best understanding of the offense among the quarterbacks.
Joye -- Denzel Fisher had to step into the starting right cornerback spot after Johnny Johnson's departure, and he's really looked like a quality starter through the first seven spring practices. Rarely has Fisher been beat deep, if at all, and he's been really solid with coverage on short/intermediate routes as well. Fisher does tend to be a little bit physical and grabby against receivers – which could lead to penalties in real games – but as of now, he looks like a vastly improved player who won't be a liability at that right cornerback spot.
Biggest Surprise About the Team
Angulo -- Probably that the defense won't see much, if any, drop off from last season, which could be considered a good one. Losing the likes of Takk McKinley, Jayon Brown, Fabian Moreau and Eddie Vanderdoes, among others, is obviously noteworthy, but it looks like UCLA will be able to absorb that with a deep defensive line, emerging linebackers and a strong secondary.
Pierson -- The offense actually got untracked a bit by the second week of practice. Josh Rosen hasn't typically been a good practice player (with the exception of his first spring practice when he was an early entrant in 2015). With him coming off his shoulder surgery also potentially limiting him, and then installing offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch's entirely new offense, with new concepts and verbiage, I felt going into spring that the offense wouldn't really flash throughout the entire month. So when it actually showed some flashes this week, only a week and a half into practice, that was encouraging and surprising. I thought we'd come out of spring practice with a complete question mark about the offense and its capability, but it appears that Fisch might be worthy of his reputation, and the offense looks promising.
Woods -- For me, it's probably the lack of overall edge speed on the defense. Josh Woods gives them some athleticism at outside linebacker, but I don't think they have anybody with the speed of Jayon Brown on the edge (perhaps Holiday, but he was hurt this weekend). Who's going to be the bell cow on defense to clean up tackles the way Brown and Eric Kendricks before him did? That's probably my big question for the defense at this point.
Joye -- Two tight ends – Devin Asiasi and Caleb Wilson – have really been the most reliable pass-catchers for the Bruins all spring, outside of maybe Darren Andrews. This is surprising mainly because the tight ends really didn't play a very big role in UCLA's offense last year. Now, in spring camp, the tight ends seem to be accounting for a majority of Josh Rosen's targets, and they are mostly converting on them. Asiasi and Wilson have caught basically everything thrown their way, and Jordan Wilson has been reliable as well. We haven't seen very much of Austin Roberts – who has sat out the last three practices with an undisclosed injury – but the sterling performances from the Wilsons and Asiasi definitely make the tight end group a big surprise.
Biggest Disappointment Overall
Pierson -- That's a tricky issue because it implies that there were some expectations that weren't met. Going into spring, I wasn't expecting much from the offensive line or the running game after last season, for instance, so those units haven't been disappointing. I'd say overall I'm disappointed that there haven't been some young offensive players step up and show that they're ready to take over the lead roles at their respective positions. We still have two weeks of spring practice remaining, but I'd like to see the likes of Jalen Starks, Brandon Stephens, Theo Howard, Stephen Johnson, Demetric Felton, Adewale Omotosho and Damian Alloway have some big moments and big days in the remaining eight practices. I'm not including receiver Dymond Lee, who converted from quarterback to receiver, because he has had a few moments when he flashed. We'll give Starks and Howard a pass at this point since they were hurt through a portion of the first seven practices. But UCLA's offense, like any offense, is going to need some playmakers, and I don't see them yet really.
Angulo - It's early, obviously, but the run game has been too up and down. There are some flashes of promise and it appears that having a full-time running backs coach this spring has allowed for more instruction, but no one has taken a hold of that starting spot.
Joye -- The defense has, as a whole, been great, but starting edge rusher Keisean Lucier-South has not been that disruptive pass-rushing that you would expect him to be at this point in his career. The former five-star is going into his third year with the program, and has had a significant amount of time to add weight to his once-slim frame, but he still doesn't seem to have emerged. Last year at this time, UCLA's first-team edge rusher – Takkarist McKinley – was consistently dominating the starting offensive line, surging through for phantom sacks time and time again during 11-on-11s. We haven't seen anywhere near that level of productivity from KLS.
Josh Rosen's Status
Angulo -- Rosen looked normal from Day 1 and he has shown no limitations, putting good zip on passes and making throws of all lengths. A big part of the spring was to see how Rosen would adapt to his third offensive coordinator and, so far, it's looked like he has a good understanding of what is being asked of him.
Pierson -- On one hand, you have to give him credit for looking like he wasn't injured at all, stepping into spring practice without any perceptible difference from his offseason recovery from shoulder surgery. On the other hand, it's time Rosen really took that next step and became a legitimate top-level college quarterback. No more throwing across his body off his back foot. We know that Rosen hasn't consistently been a good practice player, but it's getting to the point he needs to be. Of course, the offensive line is a key to any college football team, but Rosen is the biggest key to UCLA's team next season. In spring so far, after the first week, he looked a bit sketchy, out of sync on his throws and a bit under water in learning the offense. This last week he looked much better so we're hoping the progress continues for the next two weeks.
Woods -- He looked OK on Saturday, and more comfortable than he did last year in spring in Kennedy Polamalu's offense. He certainly doesn't look hurt. His timing didn't look perfect, though, and there's obvious room for improvement there. This is a put-up year for Rosen, and it's going to be interesting to see whether he can bounce back from what was already looking like a sub-par year last year before the injury.
Joye -- One of the main concerns with Rosen going into spring camp was: How has he recovered from his shoulder surgery? From a passing-strength standpoint, it looks like Rosen is pretty much back to normal (he threw a 50+ yard Hail Mary with ease in Saturday's practice). But the more concerning thing right now is just his timing with his receivers, particularly on those deep passes. Over the course of the first seven practices, Rosen has completed probably fewer than five passes of 20+ yards, and he's had multiple attempts. Granted, Rosen has been under duress behind an offensive line that has frequently takeb a beating, but the lack of 15- to 20-yard passes is definitely a concern for the Bruins if they want to have a dynamic offense.
Back-Up Quarterback Status
Angulo -- The battle between Devon Modster and Matt Lynch is much closer than expected, with Lynch making up some ground through the first two weeks of spring. I'd still give the edge to Modster, who's a bit steadier in his mechanics and more consistent overall, but Lynch has certainly flashed some tools that could make him an intriguing player in a couple years.
Pierson -- It appears that Lynch has made some strides, looking physically bigger and probably the most comfortable in the new offense, at least intially, than any other quarterback. Modster looks a bit more refined, but has struggled some. It's a premature call, but at this point it appears that Lynch is the No. 2 quarterback.
Woods -- I liked Lynch a lot on Saturday. He has a funky motion, but the ball gets there with speed and accuracy, and he, again, appears to have the best understanding of the offense among the quarterbacks. Modster didn't have a great practice, and I actually thought Lynch got more zip on his throws.
Joye -- Neither Devon Modster nor Matt Lynch have done a fantastic job during spring practice, but Modster has shown more big-play flashes. Not only does Modster have more mobility than Lynch, but he also has the ability to complete a deep pass into tight coverage every once in a while. Overall, it looks like Modster has a higher ceiling right now, even though he has thrown a few ill-advised passes during spring so far.
State of the Offensive Line
Angulo -- New OL coach Hank Fraley appears to have brought a new approach, with more teaching and a seemingly calmer demeanor, and that's translated well with the returning players. I think the move by Andre James from right tackle to left guard is a pivotal one that should make that side of the line good enough to keep Rosen on his feet. But the right side, with new right tackle Kenny Lacy, should still be considered a concern.
Pierson -- It appears that UCLA is solid in at least three spots on the offensive line, Kolton Miller, Scott Quessenberry and Andre James. Guard Najee Toran is probably not clearly in that upper tier, but he's 1B at this point, and probably worthy of starting. UCLA then needs to find a solid fifth starter and some playable depth. Kenny Lacy has been working mostly at right tackle and he's been inconsistent, but we haven't seen anyone else capable of being a starter on the Pac-12 level at this at this stage of their development. Jim Mora indicated that UCLA could get one or two OL graduate transfers by next fall, and getting one or two more OLs that are good enough to start on the offensive line could be the difference in the season.
Woods -- I think there's a good chance that James and Miller are both pretty good this year, but it's a crapshoot after that. The accolades Quessenberry has received and rep he has as a really good player has never really translated to the field for me, so the jury is out at center. Najee Toran looks a bit better than he did last year, and has clearly added weight, but I don't know that you can say he's even an average Pac-12 level guard yet. And then at right tackle, Kenny Lacy really struggled on Saturday and the word is that that's been the norm. As I said before spring, Lacy's development is key here -- if he can find some comfort at tackle, that'll go a long way toward making this starting five closer to average, but right now, it's a major concern.
Joye -- The offensive line was a complete trainwreck over the first three of four practices of the spring. Not only did the unit continue to struggle with run blocking, but it also couldn't provide Rosen with adequate time to throw. The excuses for this are, of course, a new offense with a lot of new schemes. For example, UCLA didn't run a lot of outside zone runs (stretch runs) last year, but now they're running quite a few under Fisch. Over the last three practices, it looks like the offensive line has improved with run blocking, as the offense has been able to produce more big plays. But the right side of the line – with Najee Toran and right guard and Kenny Lacy at right tackle – still appears to be a little iffy. Lacy has frequently been beaten by defensive end Jacob Tuioti-Mariner off the right edge so far during spring camp.
Newcomer Review (Phillips, Holmes, Jaggers and Burton)
Angulo -- Jaelan Phillips and Darnay Holmes look like instant starters, while Jimmy Jaggers and Austin Burton could use some seasoning. Phillips has been a menace off the edge and appears to have already surpassed Keisean Lucier-South in some packages. Holmes is the starting nickel and has also gotten looks at corner with the first-team, as well as handling punt return duties. Jaggers has several players in front of him at tight end but hasn't looked overwhelmed by the step up in competition. Burton struggled through his second week and looks to be a couple years away from factoring into the competition.
Pierson -- Most true freshman quarterbacks, when they first step on the field, look pretty bad. Burton, at the very least, has shown a good throwing motion. He hit a little wall after a few practices, and he's struggled to throw more than 25 yards down the field, with his arm strength just not being there yet. We're not drawing any conclusions, but given his level of evaluation out of high school, we're a bit encouraged that Burton could possibly be a contributor at UCLA.
Woods -- Phillips is going to start and be a stud in year one. He just has all the physical tools, has violent hands, and is just so advanced that it's going to be hard to keep him from making an impact. Holmes looked very good from what I saw on Saturday, and I would think he'll have a good chance of starting in what will end up largely a nickel defense. Jaggers hasn't gotten significantly bigger since high school, so our much discussed evaluation that he might end up at offensive tackle doesn't look like it'll come to fruition. I liked Burton's mechanics, but he needs to put in some strength work in his lower body to get some more drive power on his throws.
Top Three Strengths of the Team
Angulo -- 1. Defensive line is deep and versatile, allowing Angus McClure to try several combinations in different looks. 2. Secondary has some key playmakers, with Adarius Pickett looking like a future All-Pac-12 type this spring. 3. Rosen, when given time to throw, has proven to be one of the better quarterback talents in the nation and that should always give UCLA's offense a chance.
Woods -- 1. The secondary looks like it shouldn't have too much of a dropoff from last year, and Pickett might be the best player on the defense. 2. The edge rush should also not have too much of a dropoff from last year, with Phillips stepping in for Takkarist McKinley and Keisean Lucier-South looking like he's made some strides. 3. The offense is no longer coordinated by Kennedy Polamalu?
Joye -- 1. Defensive line. 2. Safeties 3. Tight ends
Jedd Fisch's Offense
Angulo -- The early reviews have been good, with the offense making noticeable strides the last week of practices. The run game has seen some changes in emphasizing outside zone more and also featuring stretch plays that open the door for bootlegs. The receivers are still grasping the precise route concepts, but again, if Rosen is allowed to scan the field, he'll more often than not make defenders pay.
Woods -- It's so hard to judge based on practice. How often have we seen plays, formations, and all sorts of things that never show up in the Rose Bowl? It looked versatile, with UCLA going to a lot more spread stuff on Saturday, but I'm not willing to say it's going to be versatile come the fall. I'm done judging coordinators off of practice.
Joye -- As we discussed in our pre-camp preview of Jedd Fisch's past schemes, this offense contains a bevy of outside running plays, or outside zones. Working off of those outside zones are play-action bootleg plays that do a good job of moving the pocket and possibly taking the pressure off a suspect offensive line unit.
Who's the Best Running Back So Far
Angulo -- Bolu Olorunfunmi takes the cake here. He's been assertive, strong in between the tackles but also smart enough to break outside when he's had to. Sotonye Jamabo has looked rejuvenated in a way, but still struggles to pick up the tough yardage inside.
Joye -- Olorunfunmi and Stephens have definitely flashed more than Soso Jamabo or Nate Starks so far. Stephens has shown a Jamaal Charles-like ability to evade tackles with his quick feet, while Olorunfunmi has been by far the best with running between the tackles. Jamabo has not matched Olorunfunmi's ability to run to the inside, and he also hasn't matched the quickness of Stephens on outside runs. Moreover, Jamabo has really struggled in RB/LB 1-on-1 blocking drills, with Kenny Young bursting by him with frequency. Nate Starks, meanwhile, has received fewer first-team reps than we thought he'd get, and in the reps he's gotten haven't really been too special.
Players Having Best Spring Practices
-- Tight end Caleb Wilson: Impressive pass catcher, does well to get open up the middle against linebackers.
-- Safety Adarius Pickett: Always around the football, plays with fire and flies around with a purpose.
-- Defensive end Jacob Tuioti-Mariner: Embracing a leadership role on the defensive line, strong hands allow him to shed blocks and get into the backfield, still stout in run support
-- Kicker J.J. Molson: Has been stellar kicking the ball, missing only a couple field goals through the first two weeks
-- Offensive Tackle Kolton Miller: Reliable pass blocker at left tackle, still working to improve in on run plays but doing well to seal the edge so far
-- Cornerback Denzel Fisher: He's stepped into the starting cornerback role and has consistently made plays, good enough to fend off five-star Darnay Holmes
-- WR/S Mossi Johnson: He's played both this spring, and in one drill actually jumped between the two positions. He's worked at just safety the last few practices and has made play after play
Joye -- 1. Devin Asiasi 2. Nate Meadors 3. Caleb Wilson 4. Kenny Young 5. Jacob Tuioti-Mariner / Mossi Johnson