Offense, Defense Are Impressive

Not to get UCLA fans overly excited, but UCLA had perhaps its best practice on Spaulding Field in some time Wednesday. Not only did the offense complete a very high percentage of passes, the defense did its part in making plays throughout the afternoon...

Despite Head Coach Rick Neuheisel's measured words in the post-practice interview, Wednesday's practice was one of the best on Spaulding Field in recent memory.

The offense definitely had a good day, completing a high percentage of passes. But it wasn't just a matter of the offense having a good day – the defense also didn't slouch by any means. Many times it was a matter of good routes being run, with good coverage, with a very good, accurate ball being thrown.

It's difficult not to recognize that the offense had a very good day. There have been practices in the last couple of years when 70% of the balls thrown go incomplete. Wednesday it seemed that about 70% were completed. And it wasn't just short completions, but mid-range and long throws, too.

It started with the quarterbacks. It might be the first time in many years – if ever – I could say that all four quarterbacks had good to very good days. Starter Kevin Prince definitely had his best day of the first three days of practice, throwing confidently, hitting receivers in stride, and having pinpoint accuracy on short throws. It's very impressive how Richard Brehaut is doing. Remember, he's a true freshman and, even though he's benefitting from coming to school early and participating in spring practice, you still have to appreciate his efficiency as a true freshman. He mechanically is very sound, looking polished in his throwing motion, and is also very accurate in his short and mid-range throws. Kevin Craft had one of his more efficient days, completing a high-percentage of passes. Freshman Nick Crissman had a very good day, given it's just his third practice since recovering from a serious labrum tear in his shoulder. Observers point out his awkward throwing motion, but if you just watch the ball, you'll see a high-percentage of very well-thrown and well-placed balls.

The quarterbacks' efficiency might have something to do with the fact that the offense ran out of a shotgun for a good deal of practice Wednesday. With quarterbacks these days coming up through the high school ranks executing mostly from the shotgun formation, it's no wonder that most college quarterbacks look far more comfortable in it than a pro set. That's not to say that the quarterbacks didn't do well from under center Wednesday, since they did. But it's certainly not a coincidence that the practice in which UCLA ran its offense out of the shotgun was one of its most prolific in quite a while.

Not only did UCLA throw out of the shotgun, but it ran the ball out of the formation. There were direct hand-offs, delays, pitches and shovel passes out of the gun.

It was also the first time that you could say that the quarterbacks had a decent amount of time to make their throws. That was, of course, due in part to operating out of the shotgun, but it seemed that the offensive lines, collectively, did better in protecting the quarterback. Might it also be that offensive linemen, too, are far more familiar with pass blocking out of shotgun formation?

It was the first day of practice in shoulder pads (still with shorts), and there was some considerable thudding. But the offensive lines seemed to hold up pretty well.

Eddie Williams made his debut working with the first-string offensive line, at right guard, where Nick Ekbatani had been. So, the first string offensive line consisted of Jeff Baca, a true sophomore, at right tackle; Williams, a JC transfer; Kai Maiava, who hasn't played a down in almost two years, at center; and two freshmen on the left side – Stan Hasiak at left guard and Xavier Su'a-Filo at left tackle.

It would certainly be a bold move if this ended up the starting offensive line. Heck, it's a bold move that the UCLA coaches have instituted this as the first-string offensive line in fall camp. It would certainly indicate that UCLA is going with talent over experience – and that they feel inexperienced talent will give them more of a chance of winning now than less talented players with experience.

Ekbatani, actually, fell all the way down to the 3s Wednesday. The second string OL was Brett Downey at right tackle, Jake Dean at right guard, Ryan Taylor at center, Sean Sheller at left guard and Brandon Bennett at left tackle.

Another youngster working in with the first string was receiver Randall Carroll, who took his turn Wednesday after Ricky Marvray had his chance Tuesday. Carroll certainly didn't disappoint, completing some impressive plays. A number of times in the 1-on-1s he got behind a defensive back very quickly, and seemingly not a top speed. And he caught every catchable ball thrown at him.

It was generally a very good day for the receivers. Starters Taylor Embree and Terrence Austin had a number of very good receptions. Austin had a couple where he caught the ball over the middle and after a few jitterbug moves found himself in open field. Embree, as has been repeated time and time again, caught everything thrown at him.

In the 7-on-7s, receiver Gavin Ketchum laid out to make a very good catch, and Neuheisel said, "Stay on your feet, Gavin." I guess with success comes some almost unreasonable expectations, too.

Nelson Rosario had his best day at practice yet. Wednesday he showed some physicality, bumping his defender and being aggressive in wrestling away a couple of balls.

The running back group was very impressive. Starter Christian Ramirez looks big and quick.

Derrick Coleman looks like a different player. Physically it's sometimes difficult to recognize him on the field compared to last season, having trimmed down. Charles Chiccoa said, "Coleman's looking a bit like DeShaun Foster now." But he doesn't run as upright. He's shown a newfound explosiveness, and he is a load. He was popping people all day. Toward the end of practice, he hit Alterraun Verner so hard that the star cornerback had to take a few plays off to get his wind back. Two plays later, Coleman, on a flair, bowled over two defenders on his way down the sideline.

Milton Knox had another very good day, breaking a couple of runs, looking very swift and shifty through the holes.

Again, the offense didn't achieve this because the defense had a bad day. The defense, generally, had a very good day, making some big plays and generally looking very good in run stuffing and pass coverage. Brian Price took advantage of going up against inexperienced Williams, stuffing ball carriers at the line of scrimmage on a number of plays. Aaron Hester, the redshirt freshman cornerback, was consistently good in coverage, on one play he popped Morrell Presley after a reception and the ball fell into the hands of a fellow defensive back.

Jayson Allmond didn't have shoulder pads on, being one day behind the NCAA acclimatization process, but he still worked through drills with the first-string. His size and ability to move is certainly intriguing at fullback.

Since there was now some hitting going on, freshman safety Dalton Hilliard and freshman walk-on defensive lineman Ryan Shott were in red, no-hit jerseys.

Freshman Nik Abele must be getting dizzy. He was back in a white, offensive jersey Wednesday. Neuheisel said, after seeing him on offense and defense, the coaches think they'll give him his first extended shot as an offensive tackle.

Freshman Alex Mascarenas is working as a safety, not cornerback.

Anthony Jefferson, the wide receiver/defensive back from Los Angeles Cathedral, made his second appearance at a practice so far this week. Anthony Barr, the running back/athlete from Los Angeles Loyola, was there with a Loyola contingent, which included Jerry Neuheisel. Barr looks to be about 6-3 and more like a linebacker than a running back.

Also in attendance were UCLA Head Basketball Coach Ben Howland, and J'mison Morgan.

Photos from Wednesday

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