Report on the First Day in Pads

The UCLA football team donned pads for the first time this spring on Saturday, and even though the hitting was restricted, you could feel the increased energy. Practice definitely feels differently, with just the increased size and athleticism of the team changing how they appear on the field...

There was another good-sized crowd on hand at Spaulding Field Saturday, which is really an indication of what kind of excitement Rick Neuheisel has generated about the program – especially when you go 4-8 the previous season.

Overall, spring practice – even though there have only been three and just one in pads – has a much different feel to it, even different than Neuheisel's practice last spring. There's a marked difference in energy, from the coaching staff and the players, to the fans in the stands.

The first day in pads you could feel the anticipation of players wanting to hit, even though they didn't much beyond thudding. There was a one-on-one line drill at the beginning of practice where all of the invited guests – the ones with name tags – crowded around in a circle to watch.

The different feel, too, could be that UCLA's offensive linemen look particularly bigger physically, which makes their presence on the field quite a bit more imposing.

Saturday, there was a little change – perhaps an experiment – with the first-string offensive line. Micah Kia was inserted at right guard in place of Nick Ekbatani. So, across the front, going from left to right was Sean Sheller, Jeff Baca, Kai Maiava, Kia, and Nate Chandler. Ekbatani plugged in at the second-string right tackle spot. The 2s were, left to right, Brett Downey, Sonny Tevaga, Jake Dean, Ryan Taylor and Ekbatani.

While, of course, the defensive line had its moments in the 11-on-11 when it worked the offensive line, the OL appears more physical and athletic than in any time in recent years. Again, this is only after three spring practices, but the difference is marked. Adding a returned Sheller and a bulked up Nate Chandler, and then Maiava at center and year-older Back at guard, is an athletic and physical upgrade.

Taylor is one to watch. We've heard that the coaches are impressed with him, and he physically lives up to the part, being at least 6-3 and all of 300, well-put-together pounds. It will be interesting, once he gets down the assignments and understands fundamentally what offensive line coach Bob Palcic wants, if he'll be challenging for a starting spot by next fall – or even by the end of the spring.

Then there are also the two mammoths standing on the sidelines in shorts watching – tackle Mike Harris and guard Darius Savage.

Add in the incoming recruits and UCLA actually has the making of size, physicality, athleticism, talent and potential depth at offensive line. Despite that many are focused on the effectiveness of the quarterback situation, the offensive line is probably, still, the unit on the team that UCLA needs to upgrade considerably from a season ago. If the 2009 O-line is improved, the quarterback situation will follow.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Prince continues to get first-string reps, and he's generally been impressive. In the throwing drills and one-on-ones he's performing well. He, of course, has tended to struggle some in the 7-on-7s and 11-on-11s, but there have been positive signs. Regardless of the drill, he's a much more accurate passer. He has very good accuracy throwing short, and then his long throws border on beauty. He is, as we said, struggling a bit to find an open receiver in the scrimmage situations, which can be just as much a receiver issue as a quarterback issue. He had a number of balls batted down Saturday, which is scarily reminiscent of last season. He found his receivers more and his tight ends less Saturday, actually just missing by maybe a few inches on two crossing routes to Morrell Presley. But he hit Terrence Austin on one crossing route, when Prince had to look off for a moment before looking to his blind side and finding Austin with a perfectly-thrown ball. Prince, too, is being rolled out quite a bit, and his accuracy is good even though the ball he's throwing on the run is a bit fluttery.

Brehaut is getting better, looking more confident throwing the ball, which you would expect after his first couple of college practices. The arm strength is definitely there, while he'll tend to lose control of his throws – but actually, less often than most of the true freshman quarterbacks we've seen in their first few days of practice.

Craft, as we said, looks about the same. He threw a couple of nice completions Saturday, showing some good touch and placement.

The receivers look good. There is a sense that there is a constant onslaught of young guys since there is always Nelson Rosario, Antwon Moutra or Jerry Johnson in on a rep. Moutra had a good outing in the 1-on-1s, catching a very well-throwing ball on a sideline go route from Prince in stride. Rosario did almost the mirror-image on the opposite side of the field, on a mirror-image throw from Prince. Brehaut threw a nice post to Moutra. Presley probably had the catch of the day when he laid out and caught a 40-yarder at the goal line.

You might get tired of hearing about what a mismatch Presley is going to present to opposing defenses. Or maybe not. As we wrote before, Norm Chow is lining him up all over the field, trying to take advantage of his size and athleticism.

The defensive backs are noticeably challenged by the talent at wide receiver. Alterraun Verner is, of course, tough to beat in coverage. The freshman corner, Aaron Hester, is a physical freak at the position, and he has great quickness and agility for his size. Hester jumped a route for a pick in the 1-on-1s. He, along with other DBs, are going through the grabsies, though – grabbing a receiver when they have a step on them. Safety Glenn Love, at 6-4, looks huge, and it appears he's starting to ramp up and play at the right speed of the game.

The DBs are talking trash with the receivers, with Rahim Moore taunting Presley after a break-up.

The running backs are a deep group. While we thought all last season that Derrick Coleman was destined to play fullback, he's starting to dissuade us. He's not only big as a tank at tailback, but he's looking far more explosive and quick than he did last season. Raymond Carter, also, is looking better than he ever has, showing a very good burst through the hole. He had a catch out of the backfield where, after one juke, he jetted up the sideline with no one able to catch him. Aundre Dean, like we've said, looks like he has an NFL body and also looks quicker, and Milton Knox is showing the shiftiness that makes him hard to find in a crowd.

Christian Ramirez dressed, but didn't participate, still nursing a hamstring. He's expected back Monday.

Defensively, it's a bit more difficult to determine how the players are doing, especially on the DL. Of course, Brian Price stands out, exhibiting that quickness in going around his blocker. Saturday, redshirt freshman defensive end Damien Holmes stepped up and made a couple of plays, getting a couple of virtual sacks in the 11-on-11s and batting down a pass.

The linebackers look to be UCLA's defensive strength. Reggie Carter, physically, looks like he should be in the NFL now. And if you're talking about physical development, sophomore strongside linebacker Akeem Ayers looks almost unrecognizable from a season ago. In the 11-on-11, Coleman caught a screen and turned up field when he was popped by Ayers.

Punter Jeff Locke is following in the tradition of UCLA punters. That is, he had a true freshman season where he was shanking punts all over the practice field, but now, going into his sophomore season, is getting off some boomers. He's actually ahead of Aaron Perez's turn-around schedule. Locke, still, has his share of shanks, but there are far more 45+-yarders than there were last year in practice.

Verner is the #2 at punt returner at this point, behind Austin.

There were about 40 recruits in attendance. Here's a list of the most prominent.


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