Practice Analysis, Spring Game Preview

After 12 practices this spring, here's an analysis of the development of UCLA's football team -- what are the key factors that need to improve particulary, and what are a number of factors to watch for in Saturday's Spring Game, like pass protection...

Heading into the Spring Game Saturday at the Rose Bowl, here are a few things to look for when watching the game.  

Coach Rick Neuheisel implied that he could name a starter at quarterback after Saturday.  

Or he could also wait until fall.

At this point, whether he actually utters the name or not, it's pretty clear that Kevin Prince, the redshirt freshman, is far and away the leader for the spot.

How Prince performs Saturday will probably not affect his status as the frontrunner much, but a good performance would certainly go a long way in allaying the fears of the coaching staff about the position.

The two biggest issues for the UCLA football program, right now, are the quarterback position and the offensive line – and more specifically, pass protection.

It's not coincidental that the two factors that play off each other; if you get one of those factors to be effective, more than likely the other one will be, too.

At this point, UCLA hasn't experienced effectiveness in either aspect for quite a while. Last football season both the quarterback position and the pass protection were mediocre to poor, which was the main reason the offense struggled for most of the season.

So far this spring, there hasn't been much evidence to suggest anything has changed.

Prince does show more promise than Kevin Craft. Even if Craft has a few good series in practice, there are still throws that he can't make that Prince can.  There are also certain throws that both can make, but Prince's ball is thrown better and a bit more accurately.  

Prince has seemingly looked arm-tired recently.  Perhaps the strain of three straight weeks taking most of the #1 snaps has taken its toll.  

A good performance by Prince Saturday, obviously, would be a big boost to the program.

Kevin Craft hasn't shown much development beyond what he was last season. True freshman Richard Brehaut has come a considerable way from his first couple of days of spring practice. Compared to other quarterbacks experiencing their first practices, Brehaut has done exceptionally well. But he's still far behind Prince in terms of execution, arm strength and knowledge of the offense. He does have superior mobility, though.

Nick Crissman has sat out practice recently, still recovering from the lingering issues of his shoulder surgery.   It's unknown if he'll be ready by fall, but he's ahead of schedule, given the severity of the labrum tear.  It would be good if Crissman could, at least, be the viable #4 quarterback next fall, since it doesn't look like UCLA will have any other quarterbacks (see Osaar Rasshan and Chris Forcier below).

What really could nudge that along is a better performance in pass protection.  While the offensive line made some advances in terms of run blocking as last season progressed, and looks to have improved in that area this spring, pass protection is still a major issue.   It's  hard to put your finger on what's at the core of the issue, but generally it's mult-layered. Not only is it something that the offensive line is struggling with, the running backs generally haven't been stellar in pass blocking either.  

It's difficult for Prince and/or Craft to be consistently effective when the have a defensive lineman in their face within two seconds.

Now, of course, when considering Saturday's performance, you have to factor in that the defense is very familiar with the offense and its scheme, so it will be more effective in generally defending against its own offense. But even if you factor that in, the pass protection this spring hasn't been good.  

So Saturday, look to see if the quarterbacks are getting a little more time to operate.

There is an asterisk by anything concerning the offensive line, however.  Starting center Kai Maiava is out with an ankle injury, and his back-up, veteran Jake Dean is also sidelined with an ankle. Ryan Taylor, the JC transfer who has been at UCLA for about three weeks, will be with the ones at center.  Now, while the coaches think Taylor has a chance to be a very good offensive lineman, it's awfully difficult to anchor an offensive line when you've only been practicing with them for a few weeks.   Jeff Baca, the projected starter at either tackle or guard, is the back-up center for Saturday.   Nick Ekbatani, also, might get time at center.

It's not only a shame that Maiava had to sit out the last week and a half, but the word is that the coaches were very pleased with the performance of Dean during the spring.  The coaches like his intellect at the center position.

With so many OLs out for Saturday (including Mike Harris and Darius Savage, who have been out all spring), it gives someone like Brandon Bennett a chance to earn some respect.   Bennett is probably low on the totem pole in terms of scholarship OLs.  Shannon Tevaga has had a good spring, according to the coaches.  They think he could have a chance to be among the top ten OLs next fall.  

At running back, the penciled-in starter, Christian Ramirez, will get some snaps, despite sitting out a good portion of spring with a hamstring strain.   Ramirez looks to have a squeeze on the starting spot for next season, being the type of big back that Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow likes.   It appears that Johnathan Franklin is making a run at the #2 spot, challenging Derrick Coleman.   How they do Saturday could determine the pecking order going into fall practice. More than likely, however, Coleman, because of his experience last season, will retain the #2 spot, but Franklin has positioned himself this spring to make a run at it next fall. Franklin is interesting – he's the fastest tailback on the roster, and  he has good instincts, while, at 5-10, you might expect him to have a little more shake.

The spot for the #4 tailback in the backfield hierarchy is an interesting one.  All three of Raymond Carter, Milton Know and Aundre Dean have had moments this spring.  Knox is tough to tackle at 5-7, and has the shake, but he's behind in terms of assignment knowledge and pass blocking.  Dean looks impressively physically, but appears a bit stiff at times.  Carter has looked far better than he did a year ago, perhaps finally getting fully recovered from the knee injury.  Thursday in practice he had a burst through a hole and up the sideline that was very impressive.  

It will be interesting to see if all three of these guys are still at UCLA come next fall. How they do Saturday could determine where they fall on the depth chart, and determine whether any of them consider transferring.

With Trevor Theriot out for the scrimmage, the fullback duties go to Chane Moline and Tobi Umodu.  Umodu has gotten a lot of opportunity this spring, but hasn't seemed to seize it.  

The receiver situation has been interesting this spring.  True sophomore Nelson Rosario has truly emerged as a real potential star; besides veteran Terrence Austin, he's been probably the only one who has consistently been able to get separation from their defender, an issue that the coaches are very concerned about.  Rosario has seemed to become a favorite target of Prince over spring.  

Senior Gavin Ketchum has had a solid spring.  On Thursday, while working as a "coach," by the way, threw to the receivers and had a very good, natural throwing arm.

Of course,  Taylor Embree  is out with a shoulder issue.  He does look physically bigger this spring, however.

But after those guys, it becomes a bit unknown.  Antwon Moutra, the sophomore, looks like he's ahead of the rest. He's had good moments this spring, but looks like he's also struggled a bit to get separation.  Jerry Johnson hasn't quite lived up to expectations – yet. He's big and athletic, but still raw, and his effort level has been questioned at times.  He has, though, seemed to put in a better effort the last week, laying out for balls more in the last few practices than he ever has.  

Dominique Johnson is a bit of an enigma.  He doesn't appear to be putting in much of an effort, and that doesn't lend itself well when you're not exactly a lightning-quick receiver.  Johnson's stock has slipped some this spring.

Freshman Morrell Presley had three drops in practice Thursday.  He's still concentrating on getting his assignments down, which they say is distracting him from more of the technical aspects of the game – like catching the ball.  Despite what he does Saturday, it's going to be interesting to see him in August when he has four more months studying the playbook and being able to get in the  weight room. His weight room time has been limited by the wrist injury since coming to UCLA in winter quarter.

The coaches like Osaar Rasshan at receiver.  Not that he's going to jump in a be in the top three rotation, but he's putting in a good effort and going after balls hard.  It'd be smart of Chris Forcier to make the final decision to abandon the quarterback position and be a receiver.  While having never played the position, he showed flashes this spring, especially when he got the ball in his hand out in space.  He exhibited not only that great speed, but quick cuts.  

At tight end, watch to see how the 280-pound Nate Chandler does at the position. In practice, since making the switch back to tight end from offensive tackle, he's done pretty well.  He's very agile for his size running routes, and he's hung onto the ball well.  Cory Harkey has had a bit of a quiet spring.  Jeff Miller has been about the same. Of course, Logan Paulsen and Ryan Moya are out.

When watching the defense Saturday, if you want to have some considerable fun, isolate on Brian Price.  He's a disruptive influence on just about every down.  

If you want to have more fun, isolate on sophomore defensive end Datone Jones. He's had an excellent spring, and has looked like a budding star.   On the other side of the line, veteran Korey Bosworth has had another good showing this spring and is one of the most unsung players on the team.    

Redshirt freshman DE Damien Holmes had a good spring up until the shoulder issue that has sidelined him for a while.  He's questionable for Saturday.  Reginald Stokes has been surpassed by Jones.   Also, if you're wondering who that tall and fairly athletic #44 is lining up at defensive end, that's walk-on Ian Davis, the little brother of Bruce Davis. The coaches like him and think he has a chance.

The linebackers have been stellar all spring.  Reggie Carter looks like a pro, Akeem Ayers looks like a future pro, and Kyle Bosworth has been outstanding.  It very well might be UCLA's best three starting linebackers in a while.  Watch Ayers especially Saturday; physically he looks quite a bit different, carrying 250+ pounds, while packing a big punch as a hitter.

Developing depth at linebacker will be the issue in fall.  Donovan Carter, the redshirt freshman stronside linebacker, has gotten good reviews this spring and could leapfrog Mike Schmitt.  There has also been some discussion that if Carter continues to get bigger (he's currently at 255 pounds, he might grow into a defensive tackle).   Steve Sloan has had a solid spring at back-up middle linebacker, while Patrick Larimore has been fairly quiet.   Sean Westgate has been out for a bit, and is uncertain for Saturday.

Greg Capella and Xavier Sua-Filo.

Probably the unit that has been the most pleasant surprise so far this spring has been the defensive secondary.  The coaches are pleased with the development of many of the younger players. They've grown confident in Aaron Hester, who looks like he nailed down the open cornerback spot this spring.  He has had a tendency to hold receivers, and makes mistakes sometimes, but the quickness he has to go along with his size is exceptional.   UCLA has gotten a gift in the form of walk-on cornerback Andrew Abbott; last season, the staff liked him, and now they love him. If UCLA had a scholarship available for next fall, he'd get it.   Sometime he will be a scholarship player at UCLA.  Currently, if the defensive coaches were pressed, they'd probably say that Abbott has moved ahead of Courtney Viney, who actually had a solid spring himself.   Also encouraging was the performance of another walk-on corner, Lowell Rose, who, at 6-0 and about 190, has done well this spring using his size in coverage.  Don't think he's going to compete as a starter, but Rose, as a redshirt freshman, has a chance to make the depth chart down the line.  

And, of course, Alterraun Verner has had a stellar spring.  

At safety, the coaches have been very pleased with the development of their youngsters.  Glenn Love has gotten very good reviews, stepping in at the strong safety spot.  He looks huge out there at 6-4 and 215.  Rahim Moore has continued to improve at the free safety spot, improving his coverage skills. The coaches also have been very happy with Tony Dye and E.J. WoodsAaron Ware has been slowed by some nicks, but the word is he's playing his best ball.

On special teams, punter Jeff Locke has been one of the best developents of the spring. He struggled last season in practice, but he's been booming them in spring practice.  

At practice Thursday were three committed recruits from the class of 2009 – cornerback Marlon Pollard, and offensive linemen Xavier Sua-Filo and Greg Capella.

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