Spring Practice Review: Offense

The dust has settled at Spaulding Field, so here's a review of what transpired in April for spring practice -- all the players who made advances, those that didn't, the installment of a new system, update on injuries and more. First, the offense...

With the dust having settled from spring practice in April, it's a good time to look back and perhaps draw some conclusions as to what we saw on Spaulding Field.

Obviously, the biggest development for the program in spring practice was the "experiment" of the Pistol, or the "Revolver," as Rick Neuheisel kept referring to it.

Overall, and simplified, the Revolver was installed for spring to give UCLA a better chance at an effective running game. If you talk to any of the coaches, they would say the passing game isn't that different than what UCLA's offense was doing before, but the running game is fundamentally different. The Revolver is intended to 1) get the tailback the ball closer to the line of scrimmage, 2) utilize more deception in the running game, and use mulitiple ball carriers, and 3) and perhaps the most important, utilize zone blocking instead of the man-on-man blocking of UCLA's previous offensive scheme.

The zone blocking is more effective when, to be candid, an offensive line doesn't have as much talent per man. With some personnel losses on the OL, including the loss of Xavier Su'a-Filo to his Mormon mission, UCLA's offensive line isn't as talented for next season as you might have projected. The zone blocking scheme, however, worked generally very well during spring, with it resulting in big holes for UCLA's ball carriers to run through. The offensive linemen were pleased with it, making their assignments easier in the scheme of the zone, and the running backs were also pleased, providing them more opportunity to find holes on their own. If any development of the spring was most significant for the offense it was the effectiveness of the new zone blocking scheme within the Revolver.

It probably wasn't a coincidence that Derrick Coleman, the junior-to-be tailback, perhaps was the offensive MVP of the spring. He has said in interviews that he's a downhill runner, and the Revolver gives him a better opportunity to run downhill, which, essentially, is saying the zone blocking is providing more of a push and more holes for him to rumble through. He started out slowly at the beginning of spring, but the coaches challenged him, as he admitted, and the light seemed to turn on. Rather than the tentative style we've seen from him in the past, he was exploding through holes, which makes him far more dangerous when a 6-0, 235-pounder is doing that.

Johnathan Franklin and Milton Knox, also had good springs. Knox looked more comfortable, more like a veteran who knows what he's doing. Franklin's big objective was to hang on to the ball after a fumbling issue last season, and he succeeded.

But the big news out of the tailback spot was definitely the emergence of Coleman. It's a question of whether it will translate into games next fall, since we've seen these kind of flashes from Coleman in practice in the past. But this spring there definitely were more consistent flashes.

Damien Thigpen, the sophomore-to-be speedster, was experimented with a bit this spring, at tailback and the H-back spot. It's pretty clear that he's going to be a specialist in the offense, with packages designed for him at certain positions to utilize his speed in space.

As we mentioned, the offensive line, with a few hits at personnel, wasn't as talented in spring and as you might have expected 2 ½ years into the Neuheisel era. The loss of Su'a-Filo is a huge blow, and then to not have the guy who is projected to start in his place at left tackle, senior Micah Kia, for all of spring practice, created a hole and a ripple effect. We've learned, though, that Kia is now fully recovered from the knee injury and surgery that kept him out of last season and spring practice, and has been fully cleared.

The other personnel blow was the injury to Nik Abele, the redshirt freshman offensive tackle whom the coaches have been very high on since his arrival last fall. Abele experienced a stinger in his neck about a week into spring and sat out the rest of the way. There was some talk around the program that the neck injury could be serious and could jeopardize his football career. We haven't heard if that's true, but there also isn't any kind of new development in his condition since spring practice.

Perhaps the other biggest development on the offensive line was the emergence of Ryan Taylor as the starting center, winning the spot over last year's starter, Kai Maiava. Maiava had some injury issues in spring, but even after he returned from them Taylor had won the spot. Maiava, after spring, still had issues with a knee sprain, but is expected to be fully recovered by August. The word was, though, that Taylor's hard work and discipline has won out over Maiava's lack of it, and his academic inconsistency. The word is that Maiava might have gotten the message, so it should make for a very heated battle for the starting center spot in August.

Eddie Williams returned from his season-ending injury to regain his starting right guard spot.

So, the starting OL is established as Kia at left tackle, Jeff Baca at left guard, either Taylor or Maiava at center, Eddie Williams at right guard and Mike Harris at right tackle.

Another good OL development was the emergence of Sean Sheller, the fifth-year senior who has been through many transitions while at UCLA, as perhaps UCLA's first option off the bench at OL. He was the guy who worked mostly with the ones at left tackle since Kia wasn't cleared.

Kia, by the way, looks physically massive.

Former walk-on Brett Downey had a shot with the starters, but seemed to fade a bit during spring. Greg Capella, the redshirt freshman, attempted a stint at center, but struggled with the shotgun snap of the Revolver. Wade Yandall, who graduated early from Carson High School to participate in spring practice, got work at all three line spots, and the coaches were generally pleased with how he did given that he was truly a high school senior.

Then there was the return of Stan Hasiak from suspension, due to disruptive behavior, and, ironically, it was Hasiak who broke up a number of fights at practice. Hasiak looked better physically, and looked like he'd be a good back-up option at either guard spot.

Darius Savage, the senior-to-be guard, sat out all of practice but is expected to be okay in time for August.

There were some very positive developments among UCLA's group of receivers, and one disappointment. Josh Smith, the transfer from Colorado who had been ripping it up in practice since last fall, injured his knee about a week into spring practice. Seeing him plug into the first-string offense was one of the most anticipated events of spring, so it was very disappointing when he went down. The word is that he's progressing well, and should begin running again in the next few weeks, and it's anticipated he'll be recovered by August.

But other than that, it was all mostly positive for UCLA's receivers. Randall Carroll, the sophomore speedster, had a standout spring, looking like he is definitely developing into the deep threat he should be with his world-class speed. Morrell Presley, the TE/H-Back/Receiver, also clearly took a step forward in April, looking far more consistent and focused, catching just about everything thrown his way.

And while he was injured for a good portion of spring, Notre Dame transfer Joseph Fauria clearly showed that he could be a force at tight end.

There was also the further development of Jerry Johnson and Antwon Moutra. Johnson, in particular, looked improved, running better routes and creating space. Redshirt freshman Ricky Marvray also lived up to expectations for the spring of being another very worthy option at receiver.

Then, there was also the more consistent version of Nelson Rosario that we saw all of spring. In the past he had looked lackadaisical in his approach in practice (and in the games), but it appeared to be a different Rosario in April, a focused one, and he made some all-world catches with his height and length. Taylor Embree was his usual consistent self.

The other prominent tight end, Cory Harkey, had a good spring, looking more polished than he had in his first two seasons.

The Revolver relegated the fullback to quite a lesser role. Very rarely does a fullback line up in the backfield next to the quarterback. The position has now become kind of a mix between a fullback and a tight end, or H-back, and UCLA looks to be using different players to fulfill the role. Because of that, redshirt freshman Jayson Allmond moved to tailback, to be the short-yardage power back. It's thought that it could also be the beginning of Allmond being switched to the defensive side of the ball. Thigpen, as we said, was used as the H-back, as was Presley, and then Christian Ramirez, toward the end of practice, was given a look at the spot, and generally got good reviews from the coaches. It is, really, a good position for him, being able to catch passes out in space or in the slot, and taking an occasional pitch.

Among the quarterbacks, it was clear that Kevin Prince left no doubt he was the #1 guy. He looked bigger and faster, and threw an improved ball during all of spring. Overall, he looked more confident.

Richard Brehaut was up and down, starting a bit slow and then finishing mostly up. In the last week of practice he threw some of the best balls, with some beautiful deep throws. There is still some talk that he's struggling with reads and decisions, and it was a bit evident during the spring.

It was glaringly evident this spring that the QB spot is thin. Nick Crissman came back from his long-lingering injury, and actually did okay, showing some good arm strength and the ability to make a play. But he's still a long ways off from being a viable option in a game, which leaves UCLA with only two playable options in Prince and Brehaut. It's why the potential of Darius Bell, the quarterback from City College of San Francisco, would be a pretty significant addition. Not only for depth, but because Bell's dual-threat capability would lend itself well to the Revolver. If he were good enough, too, UCLA might attempt to redshirt Brehaut to get some separation between him and Prince.

Perhaps the biggest worry of using the Revolver is how the quarterback runs out of it, with UCLA not being very deep at quarterback – and Prince having a history of injuries, especially as a direct result of running the ball.

The performance of the quarterbacks – and the offense – in the Spring Game was a bit over-emphasized. The offense didn't look particularly good, and it's natural to remember the last day, especially the Spring Game, and take that as your impression of spring practice. But the Revolver, throughout Spring, was pretty much a successful experiment. Again, its intention was to improve UCLA's running game, which is clearly appeared to do.

Neuheisel has said that they could go back to some pro sets in fall, but right now we're hearing the intention is to stay almost entirely with the Revolver – for that one main reason: to improve the running game.

A review of the defense for spring practice is coming soon…

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