Midway through UCLA’s fall camp, here are the five things the Bruins must resolve immediately:
1) The kicking game
After a mediocre spring with Jeff Locke sidelined, the UCLA coaching staff was in panic mode regarding the kicking game. Now they’re in full-on Defcon One (thanks, Dallas Bruin). Kip Smith has looked nothing like a former No. 1 recruit, not just missing kicks but doing so with real fundamental flaws. Joe Roberts has been OK, and perhaps more impressive because he was a walk-on, but he hasn’t been the model of consistency. And the coaching staff realizes that adding PAT and FG duties to punting and kickoff responsibilities for Jeff Locke might be too much to ask. For a position that hasn’t just been locked up for four years, but seemingly for years before that, the Bruins really have their work cut out for them.
2) The starting quarterback
You thought that’d be first priority, huh? Well, with the way both Richard Brehaut and Kevin Prince are playing, and the resulting increased fluidity in the passing game, there’s reason for optimism and perhaps less pressure. Neither player has been perfect, but both have pushed each other to be better, and you’re looking at two very, very different quarterbacks who will give the coaching staff some interesting options. They play the position SO differently – Brehaut a more classic passer, Prince more able to mix in the running game – that they’re really not making this an easy decision for the coaching staff. Prince’s issues throwing the ball could be blamed on rust after really being curtailed for almost a year, but if things don’t get better in that department, he could fall behind Brehaut. Brehaut, on the other hand, still needs to improve his zone reads and not take sacks, but he’s put together three very impressive days in a row when stacking practices is crucial.
3) The offensive guard spot
Greg Capella has probably been the biggest surprise in fall camp just from an out-of-nowhere department, but it’s not as if the offensive line has looked fantastic. If Capella is the guy with Baca sidelined, then another week with him in the starting unit will pay massive dividends in terms of cohesiveness and confidence. If Albert Cid is flashing enough, well then he needs to move up soon, so he can maximize the two Cs. Chris Ward has looked good and Sean Sheller looks improved in pass protection, so really if either Capella or Cid can hold the fort until Baca returns, then you have the makings of a passable line.
4) What exactly is the F?
With Anthony Barr and Damien Thigpen out, Jordon James has been on display, and it’s been a marquee show. Last year I was extremely high on James and even said he might be the best back on campus with the ball in his hands. Problem is, that’s only half the battle, and F-back requires advanced blocking skills. Does James have those? Not yet, and perhaps not ever, given his frame. He is an absolutely electric player – his cuts and rhythmic moves are at a plus-plus level – but unless he takes massive leaps in the blocking department, I can’t see him as a starting F-back. That is, if the position requires that much blocking. The key is to either involve Barr more in the offense when he returns, thus making defenses account for both of them (and Thigpen), or to lessen the blocking responsibilities of the position. Rick Neuheisel said the team couldn’t tip its hand on every play by going back and forth between Barr and James, but he also said James in the blocking department was taking “baby steps.” Going forward, as we’re clear he NEEDS to be on the field, it might take some philosophical changes on the part of the coaching staff.
5) The Con Game
I saved the most important, the most ethereal discussion for last.
UCLA is playing with higher confidence than last season – a result of player returns, simple maturation, and two new fire-breathing coaches and coaching staffs – but the Bruins are absolutely not all the way there yet. Some might dismiss some of what Mike Johnson says about confidence as “coach-speak,” but I’ve never met a coach who understands the value of that one trait as much as Johnson does. Maybe only in basketball among all the other sports does confidence factor into the equation, but even that is more a personal confidence – I am GOING to make this shot – as opposed to the confidence I’m talking about. The confidence at hand here is more a confidence in trusting the system and the boys around you to lift you up when you’re down.
Confidence on a football field is what makes good teams great. It can’t make a good player great, but it can make an entire team. Lacking confidence, on the other team, can make an average team bad. Last season, obviously, was a prime example. The players had zero confidence in themselves, even after a 3-2 start, and that was reflected in practice habits, focus, accountability and ultimately, the win-loss column.
Why does Oregon turn 3- and 4-star recruits into a national title contender? Absolute CERTAINTY among ALL players that what they are doing is right. How does Boise State do the same? TCU? These aren’t world-beaters, here. It’s not as if the Broncos or Horned Frogs on-field success has translated in the recruiting department. TCU could beat Texas four straight years and the Longhorns would win the recruiting battle every time. So why then? Confidence.
As of now, UCLA is still developing it. Some guys are jogging to the line instead of sprinting there. Some guys let a dropped ball turn them into Eeyore, shoulders slumped, face drooped. Some defensive players miss an assignment and then go into a funk. The quarterbacks are not immune to it, too, letting bad plays sometimes carry over.
Ultimately, I do think Johnson wins out, or at least he plays the guys who do have that confidence. To watch Johnathan Franklin on the field right now, you’d absolutely think he was Herschel Walker. Kid STRUTS right now, he oozes swagger. And that’s from a HUMBLE kid. That’s what confidence does for you. Devin Lucien has it, Shaq Evans has it, Joseph Fauria has it. Nelson Rosario sometimes has it. Randall Carroll had it and is now fighting for it back.
But forget what you see now – if the Bruins go to Houston and don’t just handle business in the win column, but look crisp in doing so, you’re going to see a big jump between weeks one and two.