Sunday's Practices: Should You Get Optimistic?

Even though it's only been a few practices, and far too premature to draw conclusions, the team has looked good in its first two days of practice. It's clear that, after losing 23 seniors, the talent cupboard is not bare...

Cory Paus looks good, especially so since it's only the first couple of days of practice. He's in good rhythm, looks sharp and is throwing a nice ball.

The three backup quarterbacks alternate between good moments. Matt Moore had a few of those good moments today. He has good confidence in the pocket, can see the field well because of his height and throws very accurately. John Sciarra had a few good throws, but also a couple of wobbles. Drew Olson, when he sets up, throws a good, accurate ball, but struggles a bit throwing on the run.

It looks like the early race for the #2 QB spot is between Sciarra and Olson, as evidenced by the reps the quarterbacks are getting and with what squads.

Among the running backs, it's difficult to see who looks exceptional at this point because of the nature of the drills they're running so far. In the mini-scrimmages, Akil Harris broke a nice run, benefitting from a huge whole. Tyler Ebell made a nice cutback at the line of scrimmage and had plenty of daylight. Jason Harrison is hitting the hole quickly. Manuel White looks quicker.

Pat Norton has done a few nice things, but was slowed by a hit to his head yesterday. J.D. Groves certainly has some long-term promise, looking big and particularly quick.

The offensive line is perhaps, still a big question mark, and it's hard to draw any conclusions so far. In the scrimmages, on running plays, the defense is more often stuffing the running back. And the defensive line is not allowed to rush the quarterback, so you can't determine how well they're pass blocking.

It is fairly easy to determine, though, that the wide receivers could be a major strength of the team. Craig Bragg continues to look good. But Tab Perry probably has his best couple of days of practice in a while. He looks slim and has picked up a step of speed, and is catching balls more consistently. He looks like a confident veteran. He made a major juke of a defensive back and blew by him for a nice over-the-shoulder grab. He also, on a post pattern, was fairly well covered by Joe Hunter. The ball was thrown a little short, and he tipped it over Hunter's head to himself to make the catch. But it doesn't stop there. Ryan Smith has been impressive, making solid catches. Jon Dubravac does look 100% and is making plays. Then, there's also Junior Taylor. He's had a couple of muffs, but also has been impressive. Today, in the afternoon, he ran a hitch-and-go with Matt Ware defending him. Ware bit, but not too much, and then Taylor blew by Ware with some very impressive acceleration. When he has open field, he has the best burst among just about anyone on the team. And it still doesn't stop there. Garrett Lepisto has been solid, and while he's dropped a couple of balls, Josh Roenicke has also made a couple of very nice catches, particulary in traffic. On top of all of this, Marcedes Lewis is taking most of his reps lined up as a wide receiver. He has struggled a little, especially since he's slowed by a hamstring and groin pull, but he's been a load nonetheless for the defensive backs to handle. That's a very deep and talented group of receivers, and they've been probably the highlight of the first couple of days of practice at CLU.

Then, to add to the receivers corps, Mike Seidman is still making big plays. He's showing he's very difficult to cover, even for a safety. Keith Carter has had a couple of grabs and looks quick. J.J. Hair actually made a couple of plays and seemed to look better in the scrimmages than he did in the drills.

Perhaps the most standout moments have come from the defense.

And there isn't enough to be said about Ricky Manning. Manning, who always had a rep as a great hitter and good run defender, has become an excellent cover corner. He has great anticipation and uses his aggressiveness and determination to beat receivers to the spot. Almost 10 inches shorter than Marcedes Lewis, on a couple of reps, he was pushing Lewis out of his route, and manhandling just about every receiver that ran up his sideline. Not only is Manning a very good corner, he is also the true leader of the defense, and the team. This is Ricky Manning's team. He is vocal, shouting encouragement, getting the team hyped, while he gives 100% on every rep, on every wind sprint, and taking the younger players under his wing. There's been a great deal of talk about leadership on this team, from last year to this year, but Manning is truly a leader.

Perhaps the next best corner has been Marcus Cassel. Cassel has had a number of good moments, and is showing very improved cover skills. Matt Clark has had a few good moments also. Joe Hunter is up and down. He'll make a good play, and then make a particularly bad one. It's very obvious the coaches are paying close attention to him, wanting (and needing) him to step up in his senior year.

The safeties have been a little bit of a surprise. Last year, the coaches were waiting for the lights to go on for Jibril Raymo and Ben Emanuel. If the first couple of days of practice are an indication, it looks like the lights are on. Raymo has been probably the second-biggest standout in the secondary. He's been great in coverage, and quick to the ball. He laid out three times in the two practices today to knock down passes. He had Marcedes Lewis in coverage, Lewis caught the ball, but Raymo continued to wrestle with him until he took the ball away. He's also been very good in run support, slicing through holes to cut off runners. Emanuel has been almost as good. He's active, around the ball, and has made some nice knock downs and smothered some receivers in coverage. He had one particularly good coverage on Mike Seidman where he beat Seidman to the ball on a little slant pattern and knocked it down, showing good quickness on his break. Now, this is all surprising since, at the same time, Matt Ware seems to be struggling a bit. A coach said that he believes Ware is still getting into football shape after spending a great deal of the summer playing minor league baseball, and while again getting used to another new position. Jarrad Page has also been very good. He's made some youthful mistakes, but looks quick in coverage and run support. He is easily 6-1 now and probably closer to 6-2 (he stood next to Justin London and looked like he had London by at least a half inch).

The linebackers generally are looking good. Marcus Reese looks very comfortable at middle linebacker, and very good in slicing through to stop a running back. Brandon Chillar is one of the quickest guys on the team. I don't think it's too much to expect big things from him this season. Spencer Havner also brings great quickness to the weakside backer position, and has made some very nice plays. He's about 225 right now, but still looks on the thin side. If he could carry 10 more pounds, which it looks like he easily could, and still retain his quickness, he has a chance to be very good. And he's only a redshirt freshman.

What's also been encouraging among the linebackers has been the projected backups. Patrick Pierre-Louis has shown some very nice quickness and runs very well. He's also rocked out and in great shape. He laid a helmet-jarring hit on Tyler Ebell in the scrimmage. Then Justin London has been probably the most consistently good freshmen in the first couple of days of practice. You wouldn't want to make comparisons to Robert Thomas, but when he darts through a sweep and gets to the running back behind the line of scrimmage it looks very Thomas-esque. He looks like a born leader at middle linebacker also. Kirby Joseph has great size for the SAM backer, but very good quickness. He also works hard and has a great motor. Then there's also Wesley Walker, who has shown a great burst in the scrimmages. I think, just from the first couple of days of practice, you can expect Justin London to be seeing some playing time as a true freshman, at least. Also, James Jessen, the walk-on former volleyball player, has a real chance at the SAM. He's only a redshirt freshman, but has very good quickness and athleticism.

The defensive line, for another year, looks to be the strength of the defense and the team. In the scrimmage, they stuff just about every running play. Rod Leisle isn't even playing, but the tackles, Sean Phillips and Steve Morgan, have impressed. Ryan Boschetti is so good he'll probably play this year – even though you'd love to redshirt him and save him for two more years. And C.J. Niusulu has a chance to possibly make the two-deep as a true freshman. He is the most advanced of the freshmen defensive linemen, is physically up to the task, and plays so low to the ground he's hard to move.

Defensive end looks like it could be another strong suit. Asi Faoa has slimmed down and has continued to improve his quickness. In the morning practice, they did a punt-rushing drill. Even among DBs and RBs, Faoa might have been the quickest off the line and to the ball. It's going to be hard for Mat Ball or Rusty Williams to keep Faoa out of the starting lineup. Dave Ball looks stronger, as does Mat. Rusty Williams showed some good things in the scrimmages. True freshman Kevin Harbour, while he'll almost assuredly redshirt, has also showed some good things.

It might be hard to find a better kicking/putting duo in the nation than Chris Griffith and Nate Fikse. And Chris Kluwe, the big-footed back-up punter, has begun to settle down and get more consistent. In the punt drill, Fikse and Kluwe were averaging about 60 yards a punt. It must be a little intimidating for true freshman Justin Medlock to get in there and punt after those two.

Again, it's only been a couple of practices, but the team looks at least as good as it did after a couple of days of practice last season. The skill positions on offense, in particular, look like they're in more advanced form than the same stage last season. It's very apparent, also, how, compared to other years when the Bruins weren't picked to finish very high, the roster has quite a bit of talent. The cupboard is definitely not bare. You wouldn't want to raise expectations this early, but this team has a good deal of talent.

Also, it has to be mentioned how many fans attended practice Sunday. In the afternoon session, there was probably close to 500 people in attendance. In the morning practice, probably 250 attended. Maybe UCLA should add an "A" to the "CLU" on the hill overlooking campus, shuffle the letters a bit, and then move the Westwood campus out to Thousand Oaks…

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