That leaves us the remaining skill positions on offense.
One of the biggest curiosities of fall camp is easily Christian Ramirez (JR, 6-2, 222), because, even though he's going to be a redshirt junior, we simply haven't seen him much. He started out his UCLA career at safety, but then moved to tailback in the fall of 2007. In that season, he carried the ball 19 times and you can vaguely remember that he looked big and quick – a straight-ahead slasher type. There was that one 24-yard touchdown run. But then he suffered a concussion. In spring practice of 2008, he looked good – a bit bigger, stronger and more confident – but then he became ineligible for the 2008 season due to academic issues. Last spring, the Bruin community was hoping to get its firsts real extended look at Ramirez, the heir apparent to the UCLA starting tailback role, but he had just a few reps before sitting out the majority of spring with a hamstring injury.
Does Christian Ramirez really exist? All kidding aside, does he have the talent and durability to be UCLA's #1 tailback for 2009? The general feeling is that the UCLA coaching staff is almost as curious to see Ramirez as UCLA fans. He's been handed the starting spot because of mostly what he showed in spring 2008, but now he has to prove it over the course of a taxing fall camp. Then, beyond fall camp, can he sustain it and stay healthy through the season?
If he falters, the first option behind him is Derrick Coleman (SO, 6-0, 235), the true sophomore, who ran for 284 yards on 53 carries in 2008. That doesn't sound like much, but it makes for a 5.4 yard-per-carry average, which is remarkable in an offense that averaged only 2.6 per carry.
Coleman is a big dude, and looks like a fullback, and that might eventually be his ultimate destination down the line. Last season as a true freshman he had some flashes where he ran well, showed some burst for his size. Sometimes he looked a bit slow hitting holes, and he definitely doesn't have that game-breaker speed. But from what we've heard, you can expect to see a significant jump in improvement from Coleman between his freshman and sophomore seasons, as you do with most college players. He's had a year in the program, which means he now knows the scheme and he's in much better shape – stronger and quicker. In spring, Coleman did look quicker through a hole. The UCLA staff wants to see what Coleman would be like running behind an offensive line that can actually open some decent holes since he had to gain just about all of that 5.4 yards per carry last season on his own.
Behind Ramirez, Coleman provides a good second option; he's a guy who the coaches are confident can be durable game after game in the Pac-10. Between the two of them, that's some pretty big bodies pounding on defenses and UCLA will have its workhorse, every-down back.
Then, switching up the pace and style are Johnathan Franklin (R-FR, 5-10, 201) and Milton Knox (R-FR, 5-8, 202). Both are smaller, shiftier types that counter the straight-ahead style of Ramirez and Coleman.
Franklin immediately impressed the coaches when he came to UCLA last season as a true freshman. He spent a year on the scout team getting stronger, and actually won the award for the outstanding scout team player for 2008. Last spring, he was pretty impressive, displaying quickness in scampering through holes, but also showing that he was quite a bit stronger and able to run tackle-to-tackle. He's the fastest among the returning tailbacks with good finishing speed.
Knox is the shifty one, with such a low center of gravity and seemingly rotating hips that allow him to skip by would-be tacklers. He also, though, is very strong and can run over tacklers. After last spring's battle among the tailbacks for depth chart supremacy, Knox emerged fourth, mostly because he still needed to master other aspects of the position, like pass coverage blocking assignments.
The sentiment is that all four – Ramirez, Coleman, Franklin and Knox – will get a decent amount of reps this fall. Given how it's very difficult for tailbacks to stay healthy playing college football, all four are expected to play major minutes this season. While the hierarchy is somewhat established going into fall camp, it's nowhere set in stone. Without a returning starter at the position, playing time is wide open. It's not even a case of taking fall camp to establish who gets the reps; the coaching staff, from what we hear, wants to see who can actually get it done during the games, so this hierarchy is definitely changeable.
Another change of pace will be freshman Damien Thigpen (FR, 5-8, 170). That change of pace being extreme speed. Thigpen, in the off-season, was timed at 4.28 in the 40 on notoriously slow Spaulding Field. There was a skid mark left on the artificial turf and the smell of burning plastic.
Thigpen's speed might be something the UCLA coaches just can't pass up in using this season. Whether he actually takes a handoff as a tailback, or is used split out wide or in the slot, it will be interesting to see what Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow might envision for Thigpen. You can probably bet on UCLA at least experimenting with some end-arounds for Thigpen in fall camp.
At fullback, UCLA has perhaps the most experience at the position it could ever hope to have, with veterans Chane Moline (SR, 6-1,247) and Trevor Theriot (SR, 6-0, 235). Moline and Theriot have both been starters at the position in the past, with Moline taking over in 2008 when Theriot missed most of the season with a knee injury. Generally, the story here is Moline is the more skilled guy – the guy Chow will use for mis-matches coming out of the backfield; while Theriot is the better blocker. They make for potentially a very potent combination. Moline, also, could be used in a single back set at times in certain situations.
Tobi Umodu (JR, 5-11, 236) is third on the depth chart going into fall camp. Umodu is a decent blocker but hasn't shown the capability of executing the skill side of the position, especially struggling to catch passes, which is what the UCLA fullback does most.
True freshman Jayson Allmond (FR, 6-0, 266) is very intriguing. He's a huge kid, looking more like a defensive tackle than a fullback, and there is some thought that he actually might end up on the defensive line. For now, the UCLA coaches want to see if he can develop as a fullback. He's very nimble for being 266 pounds and actually has relatively soft hands. He's probably destined to redshirt this season, unless Moline and/or Theriot are hit by injuries.
UCLA could be its deepest and most talented at wide receiver this season than it's been in quite some time. It has experience, talent, size and speed.
Terrence Austin (SR, 5-11, 172) had 53 catches last season, in an offense that didn't complete many passes. In fact, he came to close to being responsible for ¼ of all the passes caught by UCLA last season. Austin isn't greatly fast, but he has very good quickness, particularly off the line, and he really blossomed into a guy who could find the seams in opposing defenses well.
Establishing himself as the second starter last season was Taylor Embree (SO, 6-3, 205). He set a school record for receptions as a true freshman (40), receptions in a game (6 against Oregon), receiving yards in a season (531), and receiving yards in a game (90 at Cal). Pretty impressive if Embree were a much-heralded recruit out of high school, but it makes it all the more impressive that he came to UCLA in the spring of 2008 as almost an after-thought. As soon as he arrived, he showed great hands, being able to catch anything in his area, and that translated into the games last season. He sat out spring practice due to a shoulder injury but is cleared to go this fall, looking quite a bit bigger physically.
Gavin Ketchum (SR, 6-5, 211) is a fifth-year senior who brings a great deal of experience to the position. The coaches are expecting a big year from Ketchum, wanting him to show that he can do it consistently in fall camp. He came to UCLA a pretty scrawny 6-5, but he's got some guns on him now, and his added strength has started to pay off in being able to stay on his route and to go up and get a ball.
There are then a crew of youngsters ready to break out. Among the three freshmen from last season who had the biggest impact was Nelson Rosario (SO, 6-5, 211), who flashed some talent last season and last spring. Rosario is a great athlete – picture an athletic basketball small forward playing wide receiver. The knock on him is that he has to be more physical and aggressive, that he sometimes is a bit too finesse, and that's what the coaches want to see out of him this fall. But there isn't a better receiver around for fades in the corner of the endzone, with Rosario's combination of hops, length and hands.
Antwon Moutra (SO, 6-2, 188) is a prototypical wide receiver, with good size, speed and pass-catching ability. He was a bit raw in his approach last season, but the word is that Moutra has worked hard in the off-season and is someone to watch this fall.
Jerry Johnson (R-FR, 6-4, 204) is another guy who fits the physical parameters of an elite receiver. Johnson was particularly raw a year ago, in just about every aspect of the position, as well as his ability to sustain effort and focus. But it's a common issue with true freshman. Watch to see this fall if Johnson stays focused throughout camp; if he does, the feeling is that he could definitely get into the receiver rotation because of his talent.
There are two incoming freshmen that UCLA expects to make an immediate impact.
Randall Carroll (FR, 5-10, 184) has the fastest 100 meter time of any California high schooler in the last 17 years (10.30). He won the 2008 CIF state track championship in both the 100 and the 200. Watching him in the summer 7-on-7s, it's phenomenal to see the explosion off the line, and how swiftly he can get behind a receiver. At Pac-10 Media Day, UCLA linebacker Reggie Carter said that, in guarding him in the 7-on-7s, he would think he was right with him, then when the ball was thrown, seemingly over-thrown by 10 yards, he'd look and see that Carroll had blown by him and easily ran under the pass. Now, of course, Carroll still has a ways to go in terms of being a receiver – being able to run routes and catch balls are things you need to do well, too. But the speed is something that gives UCLA's receiving group a different dimension. It's believed that Carroll won't redshirt and UCLA will make every effort to utilize that speed in its offense this season. Even if Carroll isn't catching post routes for touchdowns, he can be very effective in stretching the field and making the defense have to honor his ability to get behind coverage. Carroll is definitely a new toy for Chow to play with.
The freshman who actually might make a bigger impact is Ricky Marvray (FR, 5-11, 187). Marvray has been getting rave reviews at the 7-on-7s, not only showing great route-running ability and hands, but better-than-expected speed. The casual consensus from the players at the 7-on-7s is that Marvray won't redshirt – that he's that good.
There is also a walk-on from the track team, Coleman Edmund (JR, 6-0, 198). Edmund has been participating in the 7-on-7s, and has impressed everyone, including the guys trying to defend him. He has good size, well-built for a track guy, and, of course, has very good speed. When we saw him, he looked surprisingly comfortable catching the ball. Of course, you can't expect Edmund to have an immediate impact this season, but it will definitely be interesting to watch his progress this fall.
If you're going to assert that UCLA's wide receiver group has good talent, you'd have to say the tight end spot is completely loaded. There hasn't been a time in the last decade when UCLA had so much talent at the position.
Ryan Moya (SR, 6-3, 243) and Logan Paulsen (SR, 6-6, 264) have to be one of the most potent 1-2 tight end combinations in the nation. They're not getting much hype because they both spent time on the injured list, with Paulsen missing the entire 2008 season. They are a great combination, with Paulsen being the big guy who presents tough match-ups for smaller linebackers and defensive backs, and Moya the smaller, swifter one that is a tough match-up for bigger linebackers. You get them on the field, sometimes together, and opposing defenses aren't always going to have the personnel to match up.
Moya, who is coming off a second-team All-Pac-10 season, is better utilized as a H-back type or the tight end in motion.
Paulsen, one of the team's leaders and voted a captain for the 2009 season by his teammates, is the guy who UCLA will send over the middle to catch balls in the seams. The thought is that he's been very under-utilized during his UCLA career, going through multiple offensive coordinators and a former offensive scheme that didn't seem to recognize the tight end much at times. We have yet to see how Chow will use Paulsen, since he sat out all of last season after being injured in the first game, but the thought of giving Chow another big, athletic target is an exciting one.
You could easily say that having just Moya and Paulsen would be enough to assert that UCLA's tight end spot is looking good for the 2009 season. But we're just getting started.
After a solid campaign as a true freshman, Cory Harkey (SO, 6-5, 254) looks like he's changed in the off-season. For one thing, he looks taller, but he also looks more cut, and quicker. Last season he struggled sometimes in his pass-catching technique but he looks a lot smoother now. Harkey is thought to be a future all Pac-10 level player, and a potential pro.
There is then Morrell Presley (FR, 6-4, 219), the 2009 prospect who enrolled at UCLA early to participate in spring practice. Presley was the #1-ranked tight end in the country for 2009, and UCLA stole him from USC, once being verbally committed to the Trojans.
Presley is a walking mismatch. He possesses 4.5 speed, which is uncanny for a tight end, or actually any player his size. So, combine that size and speed and put him in the slot, say, where a slower linebacker has to cover him and you have a great mismatch. Line him up out wide and get a smaller defensive back on him – mismatch. Presley, because of his uniqueness, will be lined up all over the field, and really can't be called a tight end in the truest sense. He'll look more like a wide receiver at times. But no matter what you want to call him, he's a weapon.
In spring he experienced some dropsies, which is to be expected from a kid not familiar with the scheme being thrust into spring practice. Having so much going on in his head in terms of his assignments, it's understandable that he could lose focus in catching the ball. Watch this fall to see if he's been cured of the dropsies, as his assignments become second nature.
There is also Nate Chandler (SO, 6-5, 270), who has gone back and forth from tight end to offensive tackle too many times to chronicle. He ended spring practice at tight end and is going into fall camp a tight end, so that's the most consistency he's had in a long time. Chandler came to UCLA as a tight end, but then looked more like an OT because of his burgeoning size. It's easy to assert that he could be one of the better blocking tight ends around, but he could also lull you into thinking he's only there to block since he has good hands.
Jeff Miller (JR, 6-5, 240) is another who has been moved around from position to position over his UCLA career, but has now settled into tight end. Miller is a good blocking tight end who can also slip off the line and catch a ball when you need him to.
Overall, it's not a stretch to say that UCLA has probably the most talent at running back, tight end and receiver it's had in many years. There were a few years there when UCLA didn't have an NFL-level talent at any of those positions, now you can conservatively say there might be three or four. And the positions are not only talented, but deep, with some exciting young players who the coaches are expecting to have break-out seasons.
It's all a matter of the UCLA offensive line providing holes and enough time for the quarterback to get the ball in the hands of the skill guys.