Spring Practice Analysis: Offense

Spring practice is one-third done, so it's time to take stock at what's been happening out on Spaulding Field. First, we look at the offense, and it's not tough to recognize what's been the major development on that side of the ball this spring...

Spring practice is one-third over, with the team having completed five of its allotted 15 practices in April, and it's a good time to take stock of what's been happening out on Spaulding Field so far.

Of course, the most significant development is the "experiment" with the Pistol formation, but with the extent that UCLA has used the Pistol (which is 100%), you would have to surmise that it's more than an experiment. It'd be surprising if, come fall, UCLA went back to the pro set. Generally the Pistol has been productive, with the expected kinks to be worked out; it's succeeded, so far, in delivering what UCLA wants out of it, which is to get the offense to play quicker, and to make the running game more explosive and deceptive.

Lining up in a shotgun just four yards behind center, UCLA's quarterback makes the action happen quicker, with quicker hand-offs and throws. The quarterback sometimes will hand off directly to the one lone back, but also will pivot and have the option of faking a hand-off to the tailback and running himself. There are also other running variations that UCLA has touched on so far this spring and, from what we're told, quite a few more to come, but we're unable to share all of the details with you. Suffice it to say UCLA has quite a few more options in running the ball out of the Pistol than it did in the pro set and, perhaps more importantly, the execution is happening quicker, with the tailback getting to the line of scrimmage at least a step quicker.

The passing game isn't much different in terms of its routes and reads. With the QB getting the snap quicker, though, everything is sped up a second, with the ball coming out of the quarterback's hand and getting to the receiver a second quicker. It makes for a quicker-hitting passing game on short routes, like on outs and hitches, or flat routes done by the running backs or H backs.

Probably the biggest change in terms of a position is that of the fullback, or H back, or what we're even calling now a "F-back." UCLA used this in its pro set, but its use is now even more extensive in the Pistol. The fullback never lines up in the I, but sometimes will line up even with the quarterback two or three yards wide. Many times the player will line up in the slot and function mostly as another receiver. It's now a very versatile position, one that can utilize many different players for their unique talents.

Among the quarterbacks, Kevin Prince has looked good so far in spring, hitting the ground running in the Pistol. Having experienced some injuries last season, especially as a result of him running the ball, it's a bit worrisome that the Pistol calls for the QB to run the ball quite a bit more often, but Prince, now at a sturdier 230 pounds, seems more capable of withstanding the pounding. Prince's arm, also, appears to be a bit stronger, able to make deeper throws more easily.

Richard Brehaut has been okay in the five practices, definitely having the athleticism that lends itself well to the Pistol, but he hasn't been able to make all the throws as capably as Prince.

There definitely is a feeling at Spaulding that Prince has taken over the spot completely and made it his own.

Nick Crissman, who has been through a long process of recovering from shoulder injury, has had some moments, but has struggled some. Walk-on Clayton Tunney has shown to have a strong arm, but lacks great athleticism.

Derrick Coleman has loosely been designated as the #1 running back, and he's had a solid five days, but the smaller, swifter guys – Johnathan Franklin and Milton Knox – have had better moments. Among the three, actually, Knox has probably had more standout runs in the scrimmaging. It makes for a good competition before it gets turned up even another notch when Jordon James and Malcolm Jones arrive in spring. Rick Neuheisel said he very well could move Franklin to cornerback if he ends up buried in the depth chart at running back, since there is a belief that Franklin would be among the team's best cornerbacks and Neuheisel wants to get him on the field.

The tailback that has probably benefitted the most from the move to the Pistol is Damien Thigpen, and it's kind of misleading to even call him a tailback now. Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow is moving Thigpen all over the field, with the explosively fast, 5-10 athlete lining up and getting the ball in his hands at various spots. Another objective of the Pistol is to get the ball into the hands of playmakers in space, and Chow is definitely attempting to do that with Thigpen.

Probably the other guy who is in the same category with Thigpen in terms of Chow trying to utilize him more is Morrell Presley, who has been playing that H-back spot. Presley has had a good five days of practice, showing far better intensity and concentration in catching passes. It's clear, too, that he's putting in the effort to do what Chow wants of him, being far more attentive and focused in practice.

Among the receivers, Josh Smith was easily the standout in the first few practices before he suffered a PCL tear. He'll be out for the rest of spring, and it's undetermined whether he'll undergo surgery. Most of the time with a PCL surgery isn't required. It's a shame since Smith was showing the flash, quickness, athleticism and play-making ability that we saw while he was redshirting last season.

Nelson Rosario has had perhaps his best five days of practice, with a clear-cut improvement in his effort and focus. He's never going to be a speed burner, but his size and pass-catching ability make him a very difficult match-up, especially when he's playing with the intensity he has so far in spring practice. He's responsible for some of the best catches since spring began. Again, we'll retain some skepticism, but the improvement in Rosario is encouraging.

Another encouraging development is the seeming maturation of both Jerry Johnson and Antwoun Moutra. Johnson has been good, looking big and quick running routes and reliable catching passes, and Moutra has been far more effective and reliable.

Taylor Embree has been his consistent self.

Redshirt freshman Ricky Marvray has easily made his mark so far in practice, definitely in the rotation, even before Smith went down. He's small, but he has a good ability to get open and is aggressive in going after the ball.

Still a bit of a wild card is Randall Carroll. He, at times, can take your breath away with his speed, using it with an uncannily easy ability to get behind his defender. But he has also dropped a number of balls.

Overall, though, the receivers group has done an exceptional job this spring, particularly in dropping very few balls.

Tight end Cory Harkey has looked more polished in his pass-catching ability. One of the biggest curiosities of the spring was to really get a much better look at towering Joseph Fauria, but he's been sidelined for most of the five practices. Walk-on Kevin McDermott, who will step into the long-snapping duties once Christian Yount leaves after this season, has done admirably filling in. Connor Bradford has moved to tight end, but we haven't seen him catch a pass in a scrimmage.

The offensive line has been a case of many moving parts and experimenting. The big question is the left tackle spot, with the departure of Xavier Su'a-Filo on his Mormon mission. When looking out on spring practice, and watching the new scheme, you'd have to say that you'd probably give the offense a pretty good chance of being successful next fall if Su'a-Filo were there. Without him, though, there are worries. Former walk-on Brett Downey was given the first shot at the spot, and now fifth-year senior Sean Sheller has been getting most of the reps there. Redshirt freshman Nik Abele, who was thought to have a real chance to compete, is out for the rest of spring practice with a stinger, and there is some uncertainty about the extent of his injury.

Micah Kia, the fifth-year senior, has been in a red jersey and unable to participate in team drills, but it's expected he'll step into the starting spot at left tackle this fall once he's cleared for full contact. Right now it looks like the coaches are trying to find the best back-up for Kia at left tackle, but no one has really stepped up. That's key since Kia is injury prone, with a history of a bad back also.

Jeff Baca has the left guard spot nailed down. Stan Hasiak has been working with the second-string at the spot, coming back after being re-instated to the program following a suspension over poor behavior. Hasiak has improved physically, getting leaner, and has looked exceptional. It might be one of those welcomed challenges for OL coach Bob Palcic to find Hasiak a spot among his top five linemen.

At center, Kai Maiava has been out with a sore right shoulder, so center duties have gone to second-stringer Ryan Taylor. Greg Capella has then taken over with the 2s at center, and has struggled with the snap.

Eddie Williams is returning after his foot injury, spending the first couple of days mostly with the twos, but then was reinstated at the starting right guard position.

Mike Harris, for the most part, has been getting the time at first-string right tackle.

But overall, there has been a lot of experimenting going on. Downey has gotten a look at right tackle. Sheller has gotten a look just about everywhere but center. Taylor has played both guard positions and center. True freshman Wade Yandall has had a try at guard and right tackle. For coming into spring fresh out of high school the word is that the coaches are very impressed with him.

Darius Savage has been on the sideline but not suited up for practice. He's expected to be a back-up at guard.

After five practices and a lot of mixing and matching, it appears the starters for fall will be Kia at left tackle, Baca at left guard, Maiava at center, Williams at right guard and Harris at right tackle. Hasiak will probably be the sixth guy, and the first off the bench at the guard spots. He could even push for starting minutes at those spots by September. Downey, too, could push Harris at right tackle. And expect Sheller to be a guy that definitely numbers among the top nine, along with Taylor.

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