Winter Football Practice Review

Winter football practice ended last week, and here are the takeaways. There were many bodies missing, the offense was conservative and many defensive players took advantage of an opportunity to step up...

OFFENSE

Overall, it was a winter/spring practice where there were about 20 players missing on any given day and consistently eight starters on offense and defense.

It's difficult to get a real grasp of where your offensive and defensive units are in terms of development when you're missing so many key personnel. Especially when you're missing your two-year starter at quarterback, and the offense had to be simplified fo practicing without him.

This winter the offense was generally conservative and kept pretty much under wraps.  The UCLA coaches stuck to basics, trying to emphasize some of the fundamental themes of UCLA's west coast offense rather than expanding. 

It was primarily due to UCLA's quarterback situation, with its two-year starter, Drew Olson, sitting out winter practice recovering from knee surgery.  Without him, UCLA had back-up David Koral, and two redshirt freshmen, Ben Olson, and Patrick Cowan.  Olson and Cowan don't have the experience necessary to work with an expanded UCLA offense, and because of that, it was felt that Koral would also benefit from a winter practice that emphasized fundamentals. 

This translated into three weeks of practice where the offense didn't throw the ball down the field often, and didn't employ many wrinkles. It consisted of many short-yardage reps - even moreso that normal for the West Coast offense.

The big suspense of winter practice was, of course, seeing Ben Olson on the Bruin practice field for the first time.

The 6-5, 235-pound quarterback was playing his first real football in three years, after spending two years on a Mormon mission. He said it was the first time he had put on a helmet since 2002.

Rustiness was to be expected.

Olson physically fit the part, looking big, athletic and with a cannon for an arm.

He did indeed, confirm his rustiness. He told us that you just can't anticipate how big of a leap it is when you've been away for so long and then get thrown into something like winter practice. Olson said that, no matter now much he trained by running or lifting weights, it still can't prepare you for it.  He thought his arm held up fine, that he felt good arm strength, even by the end of winter practice.  He did, say, though, that he was still getting his body acclimated to using the muscles and athleticism playing quarterback at this level demands. He noted that sometimes he felt his feet weren't moving as quickly as he wanted them to (and in fact, someone familiar with athletes returning from long periods away, particularly Mormom missions, confirmed that your foot quickness is always the last to come back physically). 

Mentally it was overwhelming for Olson. He committed to UCLA in December, enrolled at the beginning of January and starting cramming on a very thick playbook before starting winter football in mid-February.  UCLA's West Coast offense is very complicated, and it's based on the quarterback making the right decisions from his grasp of the offense and his defensive reads.  It's far too much to expect Olson to have stepped in by winter practice and have an operational command of the offense. It's one thing to study a playbook and it's another to actually execute it on the field when you have big defensive linemen snorting at you.

The UCLA staff tried to keep things fairly simple for Olson in winter practice, to keep him from hitting a wall and being overwhelmed. 

Overall, Olson's arm got good reviews. He did tend to float the ball at times, mostly when rushing throws, since he was hurriedly trying to make decisions often. Despite Olson claiming he physically still has a ways to go, particulary his feet, the coaching staff was pleased with the athleticism Olson showed.

Many close to the program thought Olson made some considerable strides by the end of winter practice, that it was coming far more instinctual for him.  Many of those same people close to the program believe that Olson, after now getting five months to get up to speed, will surprise many by the time fall camp starts next August. They're not anticipating that he'll come in looking like Jon Elway, but winter practice proved that the tools are there and it's just a matter of time before Olson gets comfortable with the offense and is at his optimum physical condition for football. 

David Koral, the senior quarterback, had a very good winter practice.  Koral is hard to peg, since he looks to be at a disadvantage physically, with a pretty narrow body, sloping shoulders and not great arm strength. There are times when it's clear he doesn't have enough arm to make a throw, and has to throw with his shoulder.

But this spring, Koral was the most productive quarterback. Despite his physical and arm limitations, he executed the position the most efficiently, while also surprising some with completing throws that required some arm strength. 

Patrick Cowan, the 6-4 redshirt freshman, again proved this winter camp that he's someone that will not just be a career back-up at UCLA but have a chance to make some considerable contributions.  Cowan didn't have a great deal of fanfare when he came to UCLA, being recruited and signed late, almost seemingly as an afterthought.  Offensive Coordinator Tom Cable had recruited Cowan when he had been at Idaho, and was familiar with him. His first few weeks at camp last August, Cowan didn't look like much, either. But by October or so, he had gotten over the initial butterflies and by the end of the season he was throwing some of the best balls at Spaulding Field. He's obviously tall, and he sees the field well, and has a strong arm. He's accurate and makes good decisions, especially for being so young. He hurt his non-throwing shoulder about midway through winter practice, which limited his reps a bit, and his performance. But Cowan's continued development only makes the upcoming fall camp even more intriguing, providing one more quarterback that is actually a viable option to actually see the field. You'd really love to see Cowan get more development before he does, and get bigger and stronger physically, but his performances at practice have easily been good enough that UCLA coaches will have to consider him come this fall.

Wide receiver is one of the biggest areas of concern for UCLA heading into fall, and while winter practice gave some young receivers a chance to prove themselves, no one really steppped up decisively.  Senior Junior Taylor had a solid winter practice, looking big and physical, and polished in his technique, especially compared to the younger group of receivers. Joe Cowan, who will be a junior next season, was a bit disappointing. Slated to start next season opposite Taylor, it was hoped that winter practice would be a time for Cowan to step up and take command of the open receiver slot. While he didn't by any means have a poor winter practice, he didn't necessarily distinguish himself either. He still appears raw, especially in his pass-catching abilities.  Marcus Everett, who will be a true sophomore, perhaps had the best winter among the non-returning starters. He is a very solid pass-catcher, and continues to show a craftiness in getting open.  Brandon Breazell is someone UCLA needs to step up. Breazell is probably the one receiver with the most big-play potential. He is, though, still very slight, at about 175 pounds, and he still looks like a colt running on the field, with elbows and knees flying everywhere. For not packing too many pounds, he's a pretty tough down-the-field blocker, though.  Breazell just needs to refine his route-running and pass-catching skills, and continue to get stronger so he can hold his routes. 

So, even though Cowan, Everett and Breazell are unproven, they look like vets compared to the rest of the group.  And UCLA needs at least one more receiver to step up and be an option for next fall. Matt Slater, at this point, looks to have the best chance. Slater is one of the fastest players on the team, but hasn't made a dent yet in the receiver rotation due to raw technique and questionable hands.  Ryan Graves, who will be a redshirt freshman, might overcome Slater by next fall. Graves, though, showed this winter practice that he still has a long ways to go himself technique-wise, being one of the favorite whipping boys of receiver coach Dino Babers.  Perhaps getting the title of #1 whipping boy is Alex Ghebreselassie, who has shown flashes, but only intermittently, and still struggles to sustain consistent play and effort.

There is a true opportunity for a newcomer to come in and get in the receiver rotation next season. UCLA coaches believe that Jamil Turner, the 6-3 incoming freshman, will have a definite chance, being a pretty polished receiver for a high school player, with very good hands and hops.  While many think Gavin Ketchum will end up on the defensive side of the ball, there is enough need at wide receiver that he'll get a long look catching the ball first.

One player to watch is definitely the walk-on track sprinter, Matt Willis. The 6-0, 185-pound Willis came out to Spaulding Field halfway through winter practice and tried out for Babers, and was very impressive in his raw talent. He's very quick, with very swift feet, which you might expect from a trackster. But most surprising were how good his hands were.  He has a long ways to go in learning how to play football, having never played it before, but many close to the situation believe Willis has a chance.  If not this coming fall, at least after a redshirt year.

Winter practice also brought another question to the tight end position, with Keith Carter hanging up his cleats as a result of continuing complications from his motorcycle accident two years ago.

The loss of Carter presents UCLA will a tough situation at tight end. After Marcedes Lewis, who is UCLA's second tight end, the one used primarily to block? J.J. Hair is probably the choice through a process of elimination. Hair has always been just serviceable, and he didn't do anything this winter practice to prove otherwise. Senior Matt Raney sat out all of practice due to injury, even though he's not expected to have a big impact next fall anyway.   Among UCLA's incoming freshmen tight ends, Adam Heater, who is 6-4 and 260ish, the one expected to possibly end up an offensive lineman, is probably the most immediate option to be a blocking tight end next season.  Logan Paulsen is about 6-5, but has the body of a basketball player right now and Ryan Moya is closer to the size of a fullback than a tight end.

Carter's loss is a tough one, not only from a blocking standpoint, but also in terms of depth. After Lewis, there isn't much workable talent at the position. If something were to happen to Lewis next season, the option of using the tight end extensively within UCLA's offense would greatly diminish.

Lewis was injured during practice, requiring stitches in his mouth after he was cut in his gums.  He wore a red, no-hit jersey for the second half of winter practice, and during the scrimmages the offense didn't go to him much, mostly because of his injury status. The coaches assure us it's not an indication of how much Lewis will be used next fall, maintaining that Lewis will be a huge focal point of the passing attack.

The offensive line generally had a good showing for winter practice.  UCLA is actually building some depth on the OL, so if there are a couple of guys injured it doesn't degrade to mostly walk-ons taking snaps with the 1s.

UCLA did practice without likely contributors Robert Chai and Chris Joseph, and lost starting strongside guard Shannon Tevaga to a broken thumb halfway through. 

The weakside of the line looks to be fairly set and stable.  Ed Blanton nursed a few minor injuries during winter practice, but he got generally good reviews at weakside tackle, appearing to have improved his athleticism and quickness. Robert Cleary will be a senior and he is the likely candidate to start at weakside guard. With Chai not practicing, it would take a true come-from-behind effort in fall for Chai to overtake Cleary, with Cleary having a solid winter.  It's good to know that UCLA has its best offensive lineman, Mike McCloskey, at center and there haven't been any complications from his health issues a year ago.

At weakside tackle, true sophomore Brian Abraham stepped into the vacant starting spot and generally received good reviews for practice.  He's  smart kid who works hard, with talent. He's considered still pretty raw in his blocking technique, something that has been emphasized to him as his main focus of work in the off-season. He's up to about 285 and has said he'd like to come back at close to 300 by fall, gaining just muscle. He has a great frame and could easily add the weight, looking still fairly lean at 285. 

Without Tevaga at weakside guard, the position became a kind of revolving door for winter practice. Various bodies were given looks there.  Scott Glicksberg, the redshirt freshman who played mostly defensive line on the scout team last season, probably helped himself the most, earning a real shot to make the two-deep that actually could play.  Another that the coaches have been impressed with was Noah Sutherland, the other converted defensive lineman. Both a fairly lean 275ish,  tt will be interesting to see how these two guys look after five months of weight room training with Doc Kreis.  

This winter Aaron Meyer was given a look as the back-up center, and possibly the heir apparent to McCloskey, but the reports weren't favorable.  He'll still have a chance there, but it looks like he'll plug back in to the line at a guard position, probably at the weakside spot.  P.J. Irvin had some chances working with the 1s this winter. He's improved his body, having leaned down some, but he still doesn't appear to have a chance to be a real factor in the offensive line anytime soon.  Marc Villafuerte sat out winter practice with an injury. He has also leaned down some and will go back to trying to make the two-deep at guard in fall.

Tony Lee is backing up Blanton at weakside tackle and had the coaches noticing his advancements this spring. He, among all of the young OLs, probably made the biggest strides, looking quite a bit physically bigger and aggressive and quick at the position. He still has fairly thin ankles and calves, and needs to improve his lower body strength.

The coaches like Chris Joseph quite a bit. Joseph has gotten bigger, approaching 6-5, and thicker, probably 280ish now, having come into the program at about 265. Still recovering from his knee surgery, he was running well at winter practice.  He'll probably first get the shot at inheriting the center position from McCloskey in fall. 

Freshmen offensive linemen Aleksey Lanis and Justin Brown will enroll at UCLA for spring quarter and immediately start working out.  Lanis is physically ready to step in and make the two-deep, while some say he could compete with Abraham for the starting strongside tackle position.  Brown having an immediate impact is more of a longshot. Brown has the makings of a good OL down the line, with a good frame, good lower body and good athleticism, but he needs to drastically improve his upper body strength.  That's what he'll be looking to do during spring quarter.

Winter practice definitely showed that running back is a position of strength. Junior Maurice Drew looked as explosive as ever, and Chris Markey looked better and even more confident.  What was most encouraging was the play of sophomore Derrick Williams and the discovery of walk-on Ryen Carew.  Losing Manuel White to graduation, and Jason Harrison to transfer made depth at tailback a concern.  While Williams isn't by any means a big-impact kind of back, he definitely showed this spring that he is at least solid and useable.  With it being his first college practices, Carew looked very impressive. He did make some neophyte mistakes, but for being away from football for a year and coming into a situation like winter camp at UCLA, he was very impressive. He has a great body, and showed good quickness and instincts. 

Despite both Harrison's and UCLA's denials, the rumors persist that Harrison wants to return to UCLA. If he did, he would most likely return as a fullback.

Michael Pitre, UCLA's starting fullback, missed winter practice. In his absense, Jimmy Stephens got many reps, and generally looked solid. Stephens has good up-field quickness and is a steady pass receiver.  Kahlil Bell, the freshman coming in this fall, will be needed for depth at the position in his first year. 

The offense does need to develop some players at various positions - namely the two open OL starting spots and at receiver.  The offensive line is the biggest issue at this point, though. UCLA desperately needs to keep the success on the offensive line continue seamlessly into next season. 

Then, of course, there is the quarterback position. It's truly impossible to foresee how it will shake out next fall since there are far too many variables - the two most prominent being Drew Olson's status and Ben Olson's development.  Many who know these kinds of things are skeptical that Drew would be able to return 100% by August, despite the news that his recovery is ahead of schedule at this point.  And Ben's development is impossible to predict. He could very well still be improving imcrementally next fall and not be ready to take over the offense, or he could have one of those sudden rushes when it all comes together and make a leap ahead.  What happens between Olson, Olson, Koral and Cowan, though, next fall is truly the most critical aspect of determining how it goes next season. 

DEFENSE

There were more developments on defense during winter practice, probably because there were more opportunities for development. UCLA was missing four projected starters on defense, and lost one more when defensive tackle C.J. Niusulu was suspended indefinitely (which really means he was more or less kicked off the team). Losing so many bodies created a vacuum, one where many young players attempted to step in and make names for themselves.

There were also some tweaks to the defense that were some of the biggest developments seen on Spaulding Field this winter. Defensive Coordinator Larry Kerr wants his defensive backs to be more aggressive and press receivers, while also playing more man than zone.  It clearly was the case this winter, with defensive backs giving little or no cushion and bumping receivers at the line. If this approach holds up by this fall and UCLA's  defense actually employs it more often it'd be an aggressive departure from many years of a more passive cover approach.

Perhaps it was the new philosophy of pressing receivers, but the young secondary certainly responded. Among the units on the team, the young defensive backs probably had the biggest step-up moments of winter practice. 

Without projected starting safeties Jarrad Page (baseball) and Chris Horton (foot injury), combined with the youth at cornerback, it was definitely a group of youngsters among the defensive backs. Despite the youth and the inexperience, you probably had one of the best spring/winter practice performances turned in by a UCLA defensive backfield in years.  Maybe it's because the young corners are all vying to win a starting spot, they were playing very loosely and aggressively all winter, seemingly with nothing to lose. 

Trey Brown, who started for half of last season, certainly didn't do anything this winter that would make you feel he wouldn't be the leading candidate to start next fall. Despite a stocky body, he has surprising quickness. He is probably the most physical among the cornerbacks.  Michael Norris, the true sophomore who was a great gunner on special teams last season, will probably be one of the finalists to start at the other open corner position. He's still learning the fundamentals, but he has very good stop-and-start quickness, which makes him close on balls well.  Norris was also being utilized as the nickel back in the five-back set. Rodney Van is probably the wild card here. Being the tallest at 6-1ish, he would give UCLA the taller cornerback option that every defense seems to need these days to offset the taller receiver trend.  He made probably more mistakes than Brown or Norris this winter, but probably had a few bigger plays than Norris.  A very pleasant surprise was also the play of redshirt freshman Byron Velega, who showed he could be physical at the line but be good in coverage. The coaches wanted to move Mil'Von James to safety, but he insisted on staying at cornerback. While he doesn't have the quickness of the others, he displayed good toughness throughout winter.  There is then always senior Marcus Cassel, who started half of the season a year ago and would also provide that bigger cornerback.  Cassel still was about the same as he always has been, up and down, having some good moments right after a considerable breakdown.

Jebiaus Brown sat out winter due to injury.

It is a bit scary that there isn't really a veteran, proven cornerback returning to the team next season, at a position where experience is critical.  But winter practice was good in reassuring the coaches that at least there is some talent to work with at cornerback, and not just inexperience. 

Robert Kibble and Aaron Ware will come in and take their shot at cornerback in fall, but it's expected both will redshirt, given the youthful depth already at the position.

At safety, with the absense of Page and Horton, other players took advantage of the opportunity.  For most of practice, both Eric McNeal and Dennis Keyes worked at strong safety, with walk-on Charlie Shuh putting in most of the reps with the 1s at free safety. But in the last week, McNeal was moved to free to play alongside Keyes, and their athleticism and aggressiveness was great to see playing alongside each other. Keyes had one of the best practices of any young player on the team, being quick to the ball and a big hitter. McNeal almost matched him. 

It's really encouraging to then think that these two are probably the second stringers behind Page and Horton. Page isn't having a great season playing with the UCLA baseball team, and you'd have to think he's leaning toward returning to play football in fall. Horton, as we remember, was a great-looking young player with aggressiveness and hitting ability himself.  The safeties are in good hands, especially with one of UCLA's best incoming prospects in Shawn Oatis arriving in fall, and with probably UCLA's most under-rated recruit in Bret Lockett.

The linebacking group kept the fans in the Spaulding Field stands busy with their roster sheets.  You kept hearing things like, "Who's #35? Or #57?"

UCLA had its three projected starters, middle linebacker Justin London, inside linebacker Spencer Havner and outside backer Wesley Walker, all sit out winter practice due to injury. London is expected to get off crutches in the next couple of weeks, and he says he'll be cleared to work out by May.  Havner will be ready by early summer himself, and could probably lose the few pounds he gained while re-habbing the shoulder that was operated on.  Walker is expected to be fully healthy within a month.

Without them, other players got a chance to make a name for themselves. And ironically it was really a player moved from another position who distinguished himself at linebacker. Bruce Davis, the defensive end, played a little linebacker early in winter practice just because they needed bodies. He had dabbled there during the season last year in practice. But this winter he was so good the coaches now believe outside linebacker is his permanent position. Once he got in the swing, Davis was using his quickness and strength to make plays all over the field.  It truly is one of the best developments of winter practice since UCLA was desperate for more bodies at the thin linebacker positions that can actually play. 

Aaron Whittington, before he went out with a nasty infection to his foot, was showing signs of making strides. He's still fairly thin, and it will be interesting to see if he comes back close to 225 next fall. He also had jumped over to the inside backer spot behind Havner.  At middle linebacker, Dan Nelson spent most of the winter in a red, no-hit jersey due to a broken clavicle suffered last year.  Fred Holmes didn't practice due to complications from a deep bone bruise in his thigh. Apparently it hasn't healed correctly. 

The walkons that also got chances were Jamel Greer, the sophomore inside linebacker, and Mark Cordell, the 5-11, 235-pound freshman from Oaks Christian High School, along with Air Force transfer Christian Taylor. Taylor, being beset by UCLA Linebacker Injury Syndrome, of course, was injured during winter and missed most of it.  While all three are just walk-on caliber, given UCLA's lack of linebacking depth it was good that all of them got so many reps this winter.

After the three starters, you'll have Whittington and, thank God, Davis, and possibly Nelson.  Then the incoming freshmen will have a chance to make the two-deep, with the best chance probably being Reggie Carter at middle linebacker.

Overall at linebacker, given the situation with so many players out, it was a good winter practice. Since the position was such a concern, just merely due to the fact that Bruce Davis emerged as a viable option at linebacker makes the winter a success.

The defensive line also held some excitement this winter practice. It was another unit where some players stepped up and distinguished themselves.

First, perhaps the biggest change of winter came on the defensive line with the departure of d-line coach Don Johnson and the hiring of Thurmond Moore. Moore has quickly tried to establish a pass-rushing mentality to the defensive line, emphasizing more one-on-one moves and getting up the field than just merely filling gaps.  The word is that it has had a considerable impact on the d-linemen.

Perhaps the d-lineman who distinguished himself the most during winter was junior defensive end Justin Hickman.  Hickman, physically, looked a bit rounder, but he probably was the most effective defensive lineman in winter, pressuring the quarterback consistently and showing good lateral speed in getting to running backs.  A close second was probably defensive tackle Kevin Brown. Brown had bulked up, and started a bit slow in the first couple of days of practice, but then came on strong in the last couple of weeks. In the interior, he was very tough to block, being able to shed his blocker easily with his quickness and leverage.

Moving to the three-technique tackle spot that was held by Niusulu was former defensive end Brigham Harwell. Harwell has some of the most talent on the defensive line, and it's always been speculated that he could move inside. He's 6-1, and 270ish right now, but intends to come back in August even bigger. Once Harwell settled in, he showed what his quickness could bring to the interior this winter, being able to beat blockers off the snap. 

At the other defensive end position, Kyle Morgan started winter practice as the starter, but was overtaken by William Snead in the last week of practice.  Snead really showed some blossoming this winter, having gotten a bit bigger (up to about 240), while using his speed and quickness on the edge.  Being demoted also seemed to inspire Morgan in the last week of winter, with improved played coming from him. 

Defensive end Kevin Harbour returned to full practice after sitting out since last spring practice due to knee surgery.  He looked like he is still a bit out of shape and a step slow, but played better toward the end of winter practice. 

The coaches were expecting Nikola Dragovic, another defensive end, to have a big winter practice, but he was set back by injury, missing about half of the workouts.  Dragovic had come on toward the end of last season as a good pass rusher and the coaches hoped he'd build on that in winter.

The defensive line, despite being a year older than last season, is still on the young side. Inside the back-ups are Chris Johnson, the true sophomore, and Nathaniel Skaggs, a redshirt freshman.  Johnson made one of the most dramatic physical changes since last season, slimming down and adding muscle.  The coaches love Skaggs, who has a good motor, and feel he's got a big upside, especially if he continues to get stronger and bigger. He has a narrow waist, and it will be interesting to see if he continues to in fact get bigger by August.

Kenneth Lombard still hasn't participated in practice, sitting out due to a shoulder injury. He was recently granted a redshirt year, despite having played early last season, so he'll return as a redshirt freshman. His body has improved, with him gaining muscle and losing the baby fat, but he still looks undersized and not very athletic.

Incoming freshman Jess Ward might be physically developed enough to actually have a shot at the two-deep this fall.

The defensive line has taken some blows in the last year or so, losing many players to graduation and some leaving the program. Losing Niusulu is another blow. He had been suspended a few times before for missing a meeting, or showing up late, and the incidents mounted.  He also had lost some of the effectiveness he showed early in his career due to continuing issues with his knees. 

While the defensive line looked good, and most of the time dominated the line of scrimmage in practice, you have to remind yourself that so did last year's defensive line last spring.  It's the nature of winter practice - that the defense is always further along and is more effective than the offense, mostly because they're familiar with their own offense. 

UCLA will again be young upfront next season. If the guys who emerged as the starters do in fact start, they will be two juniors and two sophomores on the front four, and only one senior in the front four two-deep. 

The emergence of Hickman, Brown, Harwell and Snead this winter practice was encouraging, especially with the pass-rush philosophy of Thurmond Moore, but they're still young and fairly unproven.  Getting bigger and stronger by August will be key for Harwell and Snead.

Overall, the defense had a good winter practice, with opportunities arising from so many players being out, and some individuals taking advantage of those opportunities.  The fact that the young cornerbacks showed that there is talent at the position was perhaps the most promising sign for the defense this winter.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Easily the biggest issue on special teams is replacing punter Chris Kluwe with redshirt freshman Aaron Perez. Perez had an inconsistent winter, just about shanking a ball for every one he punted well. During the course of one practice, keeping track of his punts, he averaged about 36 yards per punt.  There has been talk that he struggles in his drop. If Perez doesn't make strides by August you probably can expect place-kicker Justin Medlock to also take over the punting duties, since Medlock is a decent punter and more consistent.

Maurice Drew will be the #1 punt returner. Marcus Everett, Ryan Graves, and Brandon Breazell got tryouts as his back-up throughout winter. Returning kickoffs will be Drew and Chris Markey.


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