Meanwhile, nearby Spaulding Field was empty as I arrived half an hour early for "work." The artificial turf practice field looked eager for action, sparkling under flawless summer skies.. I sprinted (okay, I jogged), over to the west endzone like a kid to imagine doing my game-winnng touchdown bump-and-grind while the Rose Bowl crowd roared and Trojan fans slumped in disbelief at my deadly moves.
I woke from my triumphant reveries to the sounds of a smoking jazz quartet easing into a smouldering rendition of "Spooky." Slowly, players from both squads arrived to loosen up and jaw, like typically feisty jocks. I sat down to jot a few notes and reflect on the crazy mixture of hopes, fears and butterflies fluttering in the pit of my guts as what promises to be a pivotal 2007 season rapidly draws near.
If one phrase resonates the loudest heading into Karl Dorrell's 4th season, I'd guess it might be some variation of "turn the corner." If not know...when? 20 starters return from a disappointing 7-6 team, which many believe was capable of more. So howzabout 2007? What are the true team strengths, the glaring weaknesses, the God's-honest, straight up realistic chances for this experienced team?
Most sharpies feel that the defense, (in their second year under highly regarded Defensive Coordinator, DeWayne Walker), will be among the Pac 10s best. While not necessarily the most physically gifted D from top to bottom, for the most part UCLA played outstanding team defense in DWalk's first year. With added strength, maturity and familiarity with the system, naturally they only stand to improve.
But being a UCLA football fan often includes the frustrating annual ritual of (to be perfectly Frank) kicking ass on one side of the rock and sucking on the other. One of these years surely UCLA will put it all together on both sides of the stone. If not now... when? Bottom line, in order to turn that proverbial corner and become a nationally respected, BCS-caliber team, UCLA must improve offensively this season.
The key question marks: Can Ben Olson fulfill his tremendous potential? Can the OL gel under a new coach quickly enough to provide ample protection for Ben to get comfortable and create space for Chris Markey & Co. to move the sticks? Can UCLA's often-maligned skill guys make enough big plays to put points on the board, not only to keep pace with the defense, but actually dominate a game if neccessary?
Obviously not even BROstradamus himself can possibly answer all these burning questions based on a few 7-on-7s. Only when they tee it up for reals in September will Bruinistas know what lies in ahead. While Big Uglies don't run in 7on-7, I've kept my peepers peeled closely on the skill players. I can honestly report considerable improvement from last week.
On a more sober note, several key starters did not participate Thursday in the 7-on-7 against Compton Community College.. Here's where roster depth begins to show. Chris Horton & Dennis Keyes left safety duties entirely up to Aaron Ware, Brett Lockett, Christian Ramirez.and the two Matts: Matt Slater & Matt Culver. Chane Moline, Kahlil Bell and Ryen Carew didn't run. But Chris Markey looked fully recovered from his stress fracture and Raymond Carter got jiggy.
Marcus Everett, Brandon Breazell, and Osaar Rasshan were all present, but DNP in the 7-on-7 drills, leaving others to step up and show that maybe UCLA does have a few WRs who can play and a QB or two capable of slinging some serious stone.
Compton went 25 of 53, which is a low completion percentage for a 7-on-7, completing one touchdown, in five offensive series consisting of just about ten plays each. UCLA had two interceptions, one by redshirt linebacker Tobi Umodu on a tip from Moochie, and another by incoming freshman linebacker Akeem Ayers.
UCLA's offense went 26 of 40, with three TDs: Ben Olson threw the first to Gavin Ketchum for a 15-yarder; Patrick Cowan threw a 10-yard bullet to tight end Adam Heater; and MacLeod Bethel-Thompson threw a 20-yarder over the middle to Joe Cowan. Bethel Thompson threw one interception.
As anyone who has attended a live sporting event well knows, there is no real capturing the up close and personal essence of a live event. Even TV falls short. So as a writer, constricted by the limits of my medium, I can't hope to accurately convey the smack and warmth of camraderie, the sweat-soaked intensity of competition, the interplay between savvy vets and cubs, eager for sage advice from elders and team leaders.
Still, allow me to share a few stray afterthoughts. While the stats and raw numbers certainly tell some of the tale, they rarely tell all of it. Such is the case here. For starters Compton has some players.. I spoke to two of them who have flirted with Pac 10 offers. I've heard wild tales of recent SC teams getting carved up by and worked by JC QBs and WRs. So UCLA's overall performance was impressive Thursday.
Not to good too overboard, given that this is just one 7-on-7 against a JC, but all 4 QBs looked vastly improved. Freshman Chris Forcier looked infinitely more comfortable. As he told me, he was just guessing and slinging last week, but he has a better feel and grasp now. I can't imagine many programs have walk-on QBs the caliber of Bethel-Thomspon. Mac-Beth has shown in 4 consecutive practices that he can flat-out throw. Patrick Cowan was en fuego Thursday. Ben Olson looked as good as I've seen him.
Defensively, the safeties Aaron Ware, Brett Lockett and Christian Ramirez all played well under the fierce glare of "Coach" Chris Horton. Ware and Lockett have each bulked up physically and seemingly mentally in terms of grasping assignments. The usual suspects at corner all played well. At linebacker, Christian Taylor and Reggie Carter have been impressive. Tobi Omodu is a rock with surprising quicks. Akeem Ayers has excellent agility for his size.
As for the WRs, if yesterday was any indication look out for Joe Cowan this season. It's freaky to see all 6-4, 220 of him confidently making plays in his new blonde do, remembering a shy, skinny high school junior I met at a UCLA camp light years ago. Converted quarterback Osaar Rasshan also looks like he definitely has a chance to contribute at wide receiver. Dominque Johnson is clearly emerging as a target. Hw'a tall, rangy, smooth athlete with serious hops and a strong set of paws Think redzone weapon here.
Some are concerned about UCLA's tailbacks lacking explosion. Again, it was only a 7-on-7 against JC competition, but If UCLA can pass the ball like they did Thursday, then Markey, Bell, Moline, etal will be fine. As for Raymond Carter. The kidtook all of one play to impress, scooping up a low toss ala Ozzie Smith, whirling, juking & instantly hitting warp speed for some major YAC.
Carter reminds you of a young Wendell Tyler, whom I watched practice, play and met socially on several occasions back in the day. I mentioened to Carter that I'd seen enough of him to know he could run, but didn't know he could catch the ball like that. He arched his eyebrows, shot a megawatt smile and said confidently, "Oh, I can catch." I'm guessing this young man might get some touches sooner than later this season.
After practice, tight end Logan Paulsen stuck around to get in some extra work. He is a emerging as a true team leader. Invariably, he's the first to show at practice with the rope ladder and lead the TEs through footwork drills. He led the entire offense in push-up drills after they'd turned the stone over on one series. He roared the loudest approval when Brett Lockeet smacked a Compton player in retaliation for an earlier rude hit.
Ben Olson tossed a solid extra credit half-hour worth of rock to the Milkman, Marcus Everett; the Blade, Brandon Breazell; and the newly-converted, still-learning but rapidly-improving exceptionaly-gifted Osaar Rasshan. As a smiling and sweat-soaked Ben Olson said after practice, "Osaar.will be just fine once he gets his pass patterns down". Ben threw beautifully. There were nifty grabs galore and I counted 1 drop.
Let's just say that the last two persons to exit the Spaulding FIeld gates in the golden glow of a vintage summer postcard sunset, Logan Paulsen and yours truly, both seemed extremely satisfied.
We have all seen sure signs of progress before...