Saturday Practice: Thoughts and observations

Miguel Melendez here invading Jon Gold’s blog (username and all). I’ll be filling in for the next few practices bringing you some notes with videos along with complete stories in the paper. If you must know, I’ll be at UCLA on Tuesday and Saturday next week as well. I will say this: next time I plan on parking in residential neighborhood so I can write from campus instead of driving the 50 minutes back home to Pasadena.

QUICK HITS

* Perhaps the biggest news in Saturday’s practice were injuries to linebackers Patrick Larimore (neck) and Aaron Wallace (neck). Larimore walked off the field early and was visibly upset, punching a tackling bag on his way out. There was no immediate update on the injury, though UCLA coach Jim Mora thinks it could be either a concussion or concussion-like symptoms for both Larimore and Wallace. In other news, Brandon Sermons, dressed in street clothes, might sit out the rest of spring camp with a broken bone in his hand that’ll require surgery. But not so fast … “There’s chance he can be back late next week with one of those big (casts) on,” Mora said. “He practiced with it on Tuesday but they felt the best thing to do — because he had some swelling on his hand underneath the cast — they need to cut the cast, and when they cut the cast he wasn’t protected, so we can’t have him out here in that situation.” It’s basically a wait-and-see approach for now.

** Mora said he wasn’t really looking at numbers during the Bruins’ first full scrimmage of spring camp. He said he was looking more at body language and tempo from players. When asked what he thought of the first two drives that resulted in quick touchdown passes from Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut, Mora needed his memory refreshed. So, yes, he was looking for a sense of urgency and reaction from players in situations.

*** The defense recorded three interceptions: Larimore, Eric Kendricks and Ryan Hofmeister. Bad routes? Bad angles? Poor throw? Good step-in from defenders? Mora couldn’t say, adding that he would need to review tape before giving his input. From my view, Hundley’s throw intercepted by Larimore was Larimore being Larimore: good instincts with a nose for the football; Kevin Prince during overtime drills left the ball hanging int he air; and Richard Brehaut came under pressure.

**** No clear front-runner at the quarterback position, but with six practices remaining Mora said the pressure will be more intense as quarterbacks are asked to do more in situation scrimmages. Brett Hundley picked up some rhythm as the scrimmage progressed, connecting with Shaquelle Evans for a touchdown after tripping for a loss. Jerry Neuheisel looked sharp at times connecting several times with Johnathan Franklin and Malcom Jones. Tyler Scott made a nice grab on a high throw for a completion. …. Sheldon Price blocked a field goal attempt during drills.

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Hester and Price find themselves

Aaron Hester speaks in a certain tone when he’s frustrated. He shakes his head and he sighs a big sigh. He is a cornerback. Sorry, the emotions just pour out, uncontrollably, even if that’s not the intention.

This time, there is no sigh.

“I feel like for the first time in a long time, I’m myself again,” he says, loose, confident, smiling.

New defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin has brought along some swagger from up in Washington, where he coached the DBs for three years for Steve Sarkisian. He has breathed new life into Hester and Sheldon Price, UCLA’s long-time starting cornerback duo.

Most importantly, he’s brought press coverage, utilizing every inch of Price’s 6-3 frame and Hester’s 6-2 build.

“This was our plan from the get-go,” Martin said. “They bought right in. I haven’t seen the other way, so it’s hard for me to say the light has switched on for them. From day one, since we started implementing the defense, these guys have had that natural body language, the attitude you want bump-and-run corners to have.”

In a word, swagger, something that has been sorely missing from the duo for quite a while.

Hampered by the passive style of the previous regime, which often called for the cornerbacks to be 8-10 yards off the ball, Price and Hester felt stifled, unnatural. Worse, they felt…quiet. These are cornerbacks to the purest level, chatty, feisty, fiery. Unable to jam, they were unable to jabber, losing their edge. The swagger, gone.
It’s back.

“The confidence we’re playing with is unreal,” Price said. “You can see it in the both of us. We love pressing, we love being in their face, and with Martin behind us in our ears, ‘That wasn’t good enough; you looked him up, but you messed up your feet,’ it’s great. It’s getting our game right.”

Martin isn’t always behind the defensive backs, chirping about their strengths and weaknesses, challenging them, bringing them to their knees.

He brings it directly into their faces, almost crawling into their facemasks to deliver his message. On a staff full of excitable young energy, Martin might just have the most. And what the players love most, they say, is that he can take it as well as he gives it.

“He’s a coach, but he’s one of us, too,” Price said of Martin, who was an all-conference cornerback at Michigan State. “He’s been there. He’s been on that island. He’s young, he relates to us. We have fun with him, calling him Derek Fisher. We love it. He challenges us, gets in our faces every day. We needed him.”

Hester and Price needed to just have a little fun again, to learn how to stop worrying so they could stop the bombs. They both admit: football hasn’t been much fun the last few years.

“I can’t say it was,” Price said. “Look, we’re dog tired out here, about to fall out, and we love it. They’re pushing us. This is what we want. This is what we need. When Aaron said we’re feeling like ourselves, I truly believe that. This is Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price. How we’re supposed to be.”

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Post-practice update

* It’s hard to really describe UCLA’s Thursday practice. It was chock full of interceptions and snafus, yet Jim Mora seemed very pleased after practice, seemingly satisfied as the team has moved away from most of the tempo-intensive work and has focused on simply manning a full offense and defense.

* With so many players out – more than 20 currently sidelined – it’s hard to get a good feel for what the Bruins have, and the coaches seem to know it. They’re not exactly in survival mode, but the edge and tenacity of the first few practices – along with a lot of the tackling – has waned.

* Another rather perplexing day out of the quarterbacks. Pretty much the same across the board – fine throw, fine throw, fine throw, whaaaaaa? Each of the top four quarterbacks threw somewhat dumbfounding interceptions, but each also had a rebound throw or two that looked great. Still nothing sorted out.

* The throw of the day was a gorgeous pass from Brett Hundley with perfect timing to a diving Steven Manfro. Hundley threw the pass right as Manfro made his cut, something he struggled with last season.

* Decent amount of focus on the special teams today, with Jordon James looking very natural. If he can hold onto the ball, he should be pretty good back there.

* The offensive line is still trying to find a successful match, and it’s wearing on the coaches. Guys aren’t really living up to their end of the bargain in terms of energy and ferocity in pass protection, and the defensive line had a really nice day.

* Aramide Olaniyan had a really good practice, showing off his tremendous speed.

* Wade Yandall (neck stiffness) missed practice, but Jerry Johnson returned.

* Lastly, on a truly bummer note, Mora informed the media that walk-on defensive back Librado Barocio suffered a torn ACL. I haven’t written nearly as much about Baracio as I would’ve liked so far, because he truly is one of the good kids on the team. Always – always – the last one off the field last season and through camp this year, and I mean always. I made this point in the Lew and Gold Report with BSR’s Ed Lewis tonight – losing him affects everyone on the defense, as his dogged determination had an absolute trickle-down effect. No one wants to get outplayed, outhustled, outmanned by an undersized walk-on. Tough break for a good kid.

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Great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar column

Check out this great column from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar about the differences between his college experience and, presumably, Shabazz Muhammad’s. Interesting take from a guy who has a unique vantage point. Especially loved this part:

“When I left high school, I could not play professionally in the NBA. It had a rule that prohibited me from playing until after the year that I would have graduated from college. For me to have played pro ball I would have had to play overseas or for the Harlem Globetrotters (which I never seriously considered, because college was my goal). I chose to go to UCLA, which had just won back-to-back NCAA championships. The rules of the NCAA stated that freshmen were ineligible to play varsity. My freshman team was very good, so good that we beat the varsity team in the season-opening freshman-varsity game. So to begin the 1965-66 season, the Bruins varsity was No. 1 in the country but No. 2 on campus. Coach John Wooden had an embarrassment of riches.”

Here it is

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What we know and what we don’t know

Midway through UCLA’s first spring ball under Jim Mora, lets take a look at what we know and what we don’t know…

* We know that the Bruins are going to be a make the playmakers happy…

As I wrote in Tuesday’s post-practice wrap-up, the UCLA offense has a big lead over the defense so far, for myriad reasons. One big one? Noel Mazzone’s offense rewards those who can provide a spark, something that’s been sorely missing for a long time. When is the last time UCLA had a real home-run hitter, or even a change-of-pace guy who could be counted on to bust a big run?
With more of a spread look, the playmakers are getting the ball quicker, and early indications are that they certainly know what to do with it. Guys who have been pretty much overlooked – Jordon James, Ricky Marvray, Steven Manfro, Damien Thigpen, etc. – have had new life breathed into them.

* We don’t know who’s going to get the playmakers the ball…

I had an interesting debate yesterday with another writer about all the quarterbacks kind of muddled together in the same category. True, but the general play is better than it has been the past couple springs, that’s for sure. Richard Brehaut has been the most consistent passer, Kevin Prince still has the foremost respect of his teammates and coaches and Brett Hundley has made some big strides this spring, ironically by taking shorter strides in his delivery, and Jerry Neuheisel has been surprisingly effective.
Still, the competition is nowhere near over, and I’m not so sure it will be by the end of spring, unless one guy really starts distancing himself. Way too close to call.

* We know that UCLA’s offensive line is going to be a cause for concern, probably all year

Fact is, the Bruins are not nearly as far along as they need to be up front. Temporary stop-gaps have been terribly inconsistent, and the overall youth of the unit has been on display, as bad snaps, false starts and a general sense of panic sets in at times. Xavier Su’a-Filo is coming along well for a guy who missed two years and Jeff Baca has been a steady senior presence.
But who else? Greg Capella has been hurt, Brett Downey has been pushed around and a rotating cast at guard has not done much to solidify things. You get the sense that Adrian Klemm is pretty frustrated with the play right about now, and he really sounds like he intends to test out some of his true freshman come the fall.

* We don’t know who’s going to bring the pain

Last year, by unanimous account, the defensive line absolutely dominated the offensive line. Datone Jones looked almost like Deacon Jones for much of the preseason, simply annihilating his man. Damien Holmes was a beast off the edge and Cassius Marsh got great push up front. Then we found out how bad the UCLA offensive line was, and all those grand expectations went out the window for the D-line.
Through seven spring practices, the Bruins haven’t gotten a tremendous amount of pressure on the quarterback, and it remains to be seen who’s going to be the big pass-rusher this year. Jones, back for his redshirt senior year, has been almost an afterthought this spring. Marsh has looked pretty good, as has Seali’i Epenesa and Brandon Willis at defensive tackle, but their ability to rush takes a backseat in the 3-4. Aramide Olaniyan has been pretty much working exclusively at backup linebacker, and Damien Holmes switch to linebacker has taken away some of his impact. Perhaps the inclusion of Ellis McCarthy will help turn things up, but what’s abundantly clear is that UCLA needs to improve on its No. 112 sack ranking from last season.

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Post-practice update

* UCLA’s Tuesday practice didn’t seem to have the tempo or intensity of the past couple weeks, but that appeared to be by design. A lot of instruction and coaching going on with a lot of team drills, and the coaches seemed to be relatively pleased with the results.

* Mora said the team is scrimmaging on Saturday.

* With Jake Brendel and Tre Hale struggling with the snaps, Jeff Baca got more time at center on Tuesday. Baca is such a steady presence at this point that Adrian Klemm already knows he can be a temporary fix without setting anything back. Of course, Greg Capella’s return is paramount, but Klemm also really lauded incoming freshman Carl Hulick.

* Torian White saw a lot of time at right tackle with the ones and looked pretty good doing it. He is not ready physically, but he has a ton of potential. If he is ready to contribute by fall, that’s a big coup for Adrian Klemm.

* Good overall performance by the running back crew on Tuesday, particularly on a three-play stretch during team drills featuring live tackling. On three consecutive plays, Jordon James, Steven Manfro and Dalton Hilliard had nice touchdown runs, either trucking or juking defenders.

* Nothing particularly significant on the quarterback front. Still too close to call, and the reps reflect that. Saturday’s scrimmage will be a good indication of the next couple weeks.

* Linebacker Eric Kendricks is having a nice spring and had a big interception during drills. His continuing progress in coverage is going to pay big dividends.

* Bumps and Bruises:
Senior wide receiver Jerry Johnson (quad) and junior Damien Thigpen joined an ever-growing cast of injured players, which numbers over 20. … Junior cornerback Brandon Sermons practiced on Tuesday with his hand wrapped in a cast. … Senior cornerback Aaron Hester practiced in a red jersey after suffering concussion-like symptoms.

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Catching up with Eric Yarber

UCLA Wide Receiver Coach Eric Yarber

On Jerry Johnson:
“He hasn’t played a lot and he doesn’t have a lot of experience, but the things he brings to the table you can’t teach. He has great speed, and what’s exceptional about him is his quickness for his size. He’s very, very quick, very fast, very strong. He goes up and attacks the ball. I think the sky is the limit.”

On the production of the unit compared to his expectations:
“All these guys I once recruited, so I knew they were pretty good coming out of high school. I knew Shaq Evans was good. I knew Devin Lucien was good. Jerry Johnson I recruited also. Those guys had skill in high school, and I think they need a little know-how. They have some talent, and hopefully I can give them a little know-how and tools to put in their tool box.”

On where he comes into play:
“I just try to get these guys to be the best that they can be. You don’t have to be the best that somebody else is; be the best person you can be. That’s what I’m trying to bring out. I think they’re starting to buy in. They’re giving the effort I want. I believe in them, and I let them know that they’re good people and good players and they have to have confidence in their abilities. If they don’t, nobody will. it starts with me.”

On the competition for spots:
“There is no favoritism. the best guy is going to play. Even though they are competing with each other, they pull for each other. They’re bring the best out of each other. One person sees another guy doing well, he wants to top him. They have a good competitive nature.”

On cockiness versus confidence at the wideout position:
“I think its…athletic arrogance. It’s not cockiness. It’s confidence in your abilities. Sometimes you have a diva tag, but I don’t want them to have that diva tag. I talk to them about speaking softly and carrying a big stick. Some of them are getting that little attitude right now. I don’t like that diva tag. I want them to play fast, physical and agressive and I want them to make and finish plays. I harp on that. Anybody can go out there and make a simple catch. I want you to compete to the end and make the tough catch. Make the quarterback look good. I want you to put your best foot forward and I’m not going to settle for less.”

On Devin Lucien:
“He’s a very good player and at a young age he’s showing a lot of maturity. He can be one of the better receivers to come out of UCLA, but right now is just the beginning and he knows it. He has a long way to go, but the thing about Devin is he wants to be great. He does all the little things. Takes great notes in meetings, works extra after practice, always picking my brain. He wants to be great and that’s a great starting point for me.”

(Catching up with Eric Yarber…get it? Catching up? Catch? OK.)

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