1) Will UCLA get an effective enough performance out of the quarterback position?
2) Can the offensive line give the quarterback enough time to be effective?
As I've repeated before like a mantra, UCLA's offense is going to face stacked box after stacked box next season. Probably the season's success will depend on whether the offense can break that stacked box. And the two big questions above are directly related to that issue.
When considering question #1, in relation to spring practice, Cory Paus didn't provide you a clear-cut answer to the question. I don't think it'd be wise to say that Paus looked clearly like he was going to have a big, break-out season. His performance during spring could be characterized by starting out slow, improving, and then looking pretty good by the end. Paus threw the ball very well in the last week of practice and in the final scrimmage.
But in trying to answer both of these questions, both of the issues are interwoven. Is Paus's lack of effectiveness at being able to complete the basic passes last season that could break a stacked box have to do with the offensive line not giving him the time to do it? I think definitely. Both of the issues are so interwoven you can't really answer one individually.
I think Paus will never be Frank Tarkenton, or even Cade McNown. Paus just doesn't have the quickness, mobility, or escapability that gives him a lot of time in the backfield to set up, or to improvise to get time. But, it's also pretty clear that when Paus is provided a decent amount of time in the pocket, he'll be more than effective. If you look back over the last couple of years, Paus had his biggest games when the offensive line gave him the most time. So, it's a matter of two issues that contribute to Paus's inability to get time to throw comfortably: Paus's lack of quickness and mobility, and the offensive line's inability to give him enough time. This spring, those two questions were not answered. Paus did show, though, this spring that he can be very effective when given time to throw, which supports his performances over the last two years. When it comes to his own issue and getting time, I think it's a matter of now realizing that Paus has some considerable limits in his mobility, and at this point it's probably more a matter of an offensive game plan that concentrates more on giving Paus shorter drops, quicker throws, less play-action, and more roll-outs. In spring, it looked very evident that the coaching staff was implementing this. And Paus responded well.
So, when it comes to Paus, spring ball reinforced his immobility, but it also reinforced what the offense has to do to help Paus be as good as he can.
While both of these issues contribute to whether he has enough time to throw effectively and break the stacked box, in spring it started to appear that the offensive line being able to give Paus time was even more of a determining factor of whether Paus can be effective. When Paus had time, he made the pass. When he didn't, well, he didn't.
And it's difficult to assess from spring whether the offensive line has made improvements in protecting Paus. With so many key offensive linemen out for spring, the starting offensive line never really gelled. In my opinion, it seems like so much of this falls on the responsibility of the senior tackles, Bryce Bohlander and Mike Saffer. For one thing, they'll be directly responsible for protecting the quarterback from the outside pass rush. And secondly, they're the leaders of this group as seniors. While during practice there were times when it looked like UCLA's superior defensive line was having its way with Bohlander and Saffer, I've also heard that both are taking the protection of the quarterback personally and want to step up to the challenge of leading the OL.
The rest of the offensive line was really hard to assess, with two key players, John Ream and Shane Lehmann, out for a majority of spring practice, and with the offensive line working in the corner of Spaulding Field for most of spring practice. Eyoseph Efseaff got good reviews for the spring at left guard. Holding up the right guard position alone, in the absense of Lehmann, was Steve Vieira. Vieira, while still making some mistakes, showed great promise. He's physically altered his body as he's matured, and he looks far more aggressive. Without Ream at center, the duties alternated between Paul Mociler and Mike McCloskey, who got generally pretty good grades from the coaches. But it was tough to determine whether those good grades were in compensation for two very inexperienced guys at the position. While it was tough to lose the projected starting center for the spring, it did give Mociler and McCloskey experience at the position, which is always good.
There's also the element of this that the starting line, in spring, sometimes didn't look great because they were going up against UCLA's starting defensive line. It very well could have been a situation where the offensive line wasn't bad, it was just that the defensive line was that good. At times, I'm sure this was the case this spring.
But with the injuries, and the so-so performance from the offensive line in general for spring, the issue of just how good the offensive line will be next season has emerged as the biggest issue next to quarterback on this team. With so much highly-recruited talent, it's time for the OL to live up to expectations. But also, as I said, their success at keeping Paus protected is also closely tied into Paus's ability to execute. No matter how good an offensive line is, it's difficult to block against 8 defensive guys in the box. So, while the offensive line remains a bit of a mystery, the most encouraging thing this spring was that Paus, by the end of practice, looked like he had been given the plays and schemes by the coaches to be more effective, and he had improved in his execution.
Another question that was hard to answer from spring was whether any of the younger offensive linemen will be ready by next fall to provide real backup minutes. Matt Mosebar looked good in his quickness at one tackle position, but still green. Ed Blanton looked like he still has a ways to go. Robert Cleary, at guard backing up Efseaff, generally looked good, with good technique and fundamentals. Physically he's gotten much bigger and it's still a matter of him getting even bigger and stronger. It was hard to determine how Collin Barker did for the spring. We've now heard that he'll undergo a minor operation on his foot that will help him with his mobility.
It would take something almost other-wordly for one of the incoming freshmen OLs to get into the two-deep rotation next fall. But perhaps the best candidate would be Robert Chai possibly at center, if he comes in and shows a remarkably advanced grasp of the position.
When we're talking about depth on the team, the thinnest position by far is at quarterback. After Paus there is only redshirt freshman John Sciarra. Sciarra had a very busy spring, getting a lot of reps, particularly after the redshirt quarterback Scott Schmitz hung it up. Sciarra made strides in spring and improved over the course of the month. He came in throwing a much better ball than fall, and it kept improving during spring. He showed good mobility and athleticism, and threw well in the drills. But his inexperience showed in the scrimmages for the month. When under pressure, the decision-making, which is based primarily on knowing the offense, wasn't there. You could see a marked improvement in this also during spring practice, but it's evident that Sciarra is still a ways away from being able to play quarterback for UCLA. But the most encouraging thing was that there is now some definite hope that Sciarra has the potential to do it. Sciarra now looks good enough that, ideally, he'd be able to possibly offer some limited backup this year and next, and then be ready to compete for the starting position by his redshirt junior year. The problem is that, given that only Paus is ahead of him on the depth chart at the present, that scheduled might be rushed a bit. If Paus is injured next season, Sciarra will have to be an option the coaches consider.
But overall, Sciarra's performance during the spring was encouraging. For the long term, it now looks like he has a chance to be a viable option at quarterback down the line.
It does, though, still open up a door for one of the two true freshmen, Drew Olson or Matt Moore, to step in and become Paus's first backup next fall. It will be incredibly interesting to see how Olson and Moore look in August, in comparison to Sciarra. Really, neither Olson or Moore are the perfect guy to come in to a situation where UCLA needs a true freshman to be ready to play. Olson has the most experience, and is probably more advanced in his quarterbacking knowledge. Moore, on the other hand, has the pure arm strength that you want, withouth the experience. Put them together, and there's your answer. The question will be whether Olson has the arm strength as a true freshman, or whether Moore has the savviness and knowledge of the position. If either does, there is your backup quarterback for next season.
But if either, or both, show they can make up for what they seemingly lack, it's still a daunting task for a true freshman to run the UCLA offense. A former quarterback called it "impossible." So, pray that Cory Paus remains healthy. And pray that, if one of these two youngsters actually does have to play major minutes at quarterback, that some kind of divine intervention gives them the unique ability of a Cade McNown or Tommy Maddox (even though it was his redshirt freshman year) to step up to the challenge.
One of the other big questions of spring was depth at wide receiver. With Ryan Smith out for spring practice, and then Craig Bragg sitting for half of it, the receiver ranks looked thin. But Smith is doing well from ankle surgery and is expected to be 100%. There was no reason for Bragg, after getting nicked up, to continue in spring, risking further injury, especially when the position is thin to begin with. But with those two lining up with the wide receivers again, the ranks will look quite a bit better. Tab Perry, despite coming off serious injuries at the end of last season, was a trooper this spring. He did battle the dropsies, but the word is that he's fired up, working hard and very focused. Physically he looks very imposing on the field and has a chance to be big-time next season. The go-to guy, though, has become Bragg. He proved it in the first couple of weeks of spring practice. And not only is he the go-to guy, but he's the big-play threat as well. Smith, even if he doesn't improve from last season at all, which is doubtful, is a very strong third receiver.
So, among the top three, UCLA looks good. It's after those top three where things get a little worrisome. You need five receivers in your rotation – five receivers that see minutes. But you also need quality depth because receivers tend to get hurt pretty readily. The performance of Junior Taylor during spring went a long way to allaying some of those worries. He started out pretty rusty, but then got more polished and looked very good. He runs very, very well, and is deceptively fast since he looks like he's gliding. After his spring performance, he's earmarked for #4 receiver. You'd love the #5 receiver slot to be filled by often-injured veteran Jon Dubravac. But he was again hampered by injury this spring. If he could step up in fall, and stay healthy, it would be a huge plus. Jacques Lazarus is one of the big mysteries of the team. He definitely passes the eye-ball test, but looks unfocused and undisciplined on the field. Hopefully, in the future, he'll bear down and become the player it looks like he could. But there is also a trio of promising walk ons that I think the coaching staff is now confident enough in to play. Garrett Lepisto, a junior, is at the top of that list. Lepisto got time last season, and looked better this spring. The defensive backs gave a big thumbs up when talking about him. Russell Thomas, who has moved from wide receiver to defensive back and now back to wide receiver for his senior year, showed some nice things. He struggled a little catching the ball, but he has the size and quickness to provide backup minutes next year. And long term, former walk on quarterback Josh Roenicke, who will only be a redshirt freshman next year. Roenicke showed great explosion in spring, with ample enough quickness to play the position. He alternated between having a week where he caught the ball well, to another week where he didn't. But he showed that he potentially is a long term candidate to get minutes at wide receiver.
The incoming freshmen receivers are Antwuan Smith and Idris Moss. Both will get plenty of opportunity to get into the five-receiver rotation. If either are as close to as good as Junior Taylor, the coaches won't hesitate to not redshirt either of them. And personally, after years of UCLA generally getting bigger receivers, it's exciting that the incoming freshmen will be two guys who are quicker than they are big.
Speaking of big receivers, Marcedes Lewis will also more than likely be used at wide receiver. There's a real opportunity for Lewis to step in next fall and get a lot of time at wide receiver. He's quick enough, and definitely athletic enough. He won't redshirt and will be utilized by UCLA in many ways – at tight end, wideout, and possibly even as a rush defensive end (which would be very exciting since he's a scary-quick DE).
Where Lewis gets used on offense could depend on if UCLA fills confident it has enough talent and depth at tight end. Mike Seidman was the star of spring practice. He looked physically great, caught just about everything thrown to him and looked like he's ready to break out. Seidman was also ecstatic how much they threw to him this spring. What could move Lewis to get more time at wide receiver is if Keith Carter will be good enough to be the backup tight end. In spring practice, he gave every indication he is. Blane Kezirian was hurt for some of practice, but he looks like he's making strides to be able provide some minutes at the position, particularly in blocking situations. Saia Makakaufaki struggled in spring, which is understandable, given that he's been a defensive linemen for the last three years. But he'll also help to sastisfy the need for the blocking tight end role, too.
At running back, the spring was most encouraging. It showed that UCLA has many options and great depth at the position. Perhaps the one slightly disappointing factor was that Akil Harris didn't step up and show that he's capable of clearly being the #1 guy. But Harris looks capable enough to be a solid option at the position. The spring seemed to prove again that Manuel White is the every-down guy. He looks frightening coming through a hole, and moves a pile five yards with the best of them. The combo of he and Harris is a good one-two punch, if White is doing most of the punching. But the spring also showed that UCLA's youth at the postion have some nice potential. Wendell Mathis looks like a potential game breaker. He's explosive, quick and bursts through a hole very well. Jason Harrison is intriguing also, with great moves and craftiness. He isn't particularly fast, but his moves are so deceptive he gets yardage. Tyler Ebell will line up at tailback, as well as in the slot, but it looks like mostly in situations where he can get the ball in the open field, rather than off-guard running plays. Ebell, when given room, has proven he's a game breaker. Kenny Pritchett, as a senior, will probably be behind these guys.
It will be fun, and a luxury, to see just how good incoming tailback Glenn Ohaeri is. He is physically very developed, so it's not a matter like it was with Mathis, Harrison or Ebell last season where they needed to develop physically. So, it will be interesting to see how he fits into this equation. He was definitely not given the accolades he deserved in high school, and might end up being better than many of the local high school running backs in his year.
Pat Norton looks like he's alleviated the question at fullback. Norton is one of the best all-around football players on the team: tough, mean, and loves to play football. Manuel White will also get reps there, which gives him another opportunty to get on the field, and get a quicker tailback on the field with him. Ray Cassaday will probably only be used in mop-up situations. But between Norton and White, the fullback position looks like its very secure. Incoming freshman J.D. Groves is probably talented enough to move ahead of Cassady in the depth chart, but it's still doubtful that even doing that would keep him from redshirting.
Special teams has givens, and some questions. Given is Chris Griffith as the place kicker and Nate Fikse as the punter. Those are two great givens to have, and it seems like UCLA has had them since the ‘80s. The questions are at longsnapper and at punt returner. Rusty Williams, before he was hurt, was the easy favorite to be the new longsnapper, and it appeared the coaches had confidence that he could do the job well. At punt returner, UCLA looked for someone to step up this spring and no one particularly did. The guy UCLA wants to do it is Tyler Ebell, but he struggled to catch the ball this spring. The best guy for the job right now is Craig Bragg, but given how precious a commodity he is at wide receiver, you'd rather he didn't do it. Ricky Manning is still a fallback option. Kick-off return will see a combo of either Akil Harris, Matt Clark, and Tab Perry. Backup punter Chris Kluwe looked like he got more consistent this spring, but also looks like he still needs to work on his drop, and how long it takes him to get off his punts.