SAN BERNARDINO — Kenny Orjioke is 6-foot-4, 240 pounds. Through the first five camp days in San Bernardino, he has looked like a potential star, a heavy-hitting blur who could top of UCLA’s already impressive pass rush.
As a 17-year-old true freshman, the linebacker played mostly on special teams. He finished with two tackles in five games. Should he have redshirted instead?
“It’s kind of a delicate deal,” head coach Jim Mora said. “You’re always trying to win right now. If you see a guy who can help you, my instinct is to use him.
“But I think you have to be sensitive to the kid. If you’re not going to use him to the extent where you’re really getting something out of him and he’s really getting something out of the experience — you hate to waste that year just to get a few plays.”
Mora wasn’t talking about Orjioke, but it’s a perennial conversation for any college football program: Use a promising youngster immediately and let him learn through experience, or stash him for future dividends? (Orjioke said in spring that not redshirting made him value his remaining seasons more, pushing him to work harder.)
The freshmen who prompted the discussion late Monday morning were Jalen Ortiz and Darren Andrews, two receivers who stand at about 5-foot-9. The pair made their share of plays over the middle Tuesday, with Andrews impressively holding on to a ball as he bounced off defensive back Anthony Jefferson’s tackle attempt.
Both could add speed to special teams, or be saved on the sidelines as they watch and learn.
Another example in this year’s class is 17-year-old defensive tackle Kenneth Clark, a player who could easily fit in the rotation. The question is whether a limited number of plays as the No. 3 nose tackle will benefit more than a redshirt season.
Asked if he’s handling redshirts differently than last year, Mora said no: “I felt like all the freshmen that played (last year) got something out of it.
“I guess if you look back and say, ‘Is there any player that didn’t redshirt, that played, that it was a waste for?’ — I don’t get the feeling that there was.”
BENENOCH CLOSE TO STARTING
UCLA’s starting offensive line isn’t set in stone, but the order is at least wet concrete. Freshman Caleb Benenoch has run almost exclusively with the first-team offense for most of the camp’s first five days. So far, he’s handled the task with aplomb — easily setting himself out as the best of the seven-man freshman haul.
“I’m not saying it’s his position, but we’re trying to force-feed him as much as we can,” Mora said. “The thing about Caleb, he’s strong. He’s really physical with his hands on guys. He’s got a very high football IQ. He really understands the game.”
Added defensive end Keenan Graham: “He’s one of those dudes you don’t want to let get his hands on you. If you do, you might get locked up. He has good feet as well. I’m really impressed.”
The offensive line seems settled elsewhere too, which should help push the sacks allowed down from last year’s 52 — the second-worst mark in the conference. Simon Goines and Torian White have both improved significantly last season and will start as tackles for the season opener. Center Jake Brendel was named to the Freshman All-American team last year. Position coach Adrian Klemm called junior Xavier Su’a-Filo the best guard in the country.
“They work well together now, man,” Graham said. “I’m starting to see them kind of come together. They play as one big — I don’t know what you want to call it, but they’re playing together.”
PUNTS AND RETURNS
Freshman Sean Covington punted six times early in Monday’s first practice, sending five balls roughly 45 to 55 yards away. He did shank one punt out of bounds at around 25 yards, not too bad a rate for a first-year punter.
A number of players cycled through as punt returners, including cornerback Ishmael Adams, running back Damien Thigpen, and receivers Shaq Evans, Devin Fuller and Ahmad Harris.
“I feel a lot more comfortable with our punt return situation than I did last year,” Mora said. “Last year, I had no idea who was going to be back there.”
Freshman Eddie Vanderdoes’ tight back has bothered him for over three weeks and limited him in practice. He had it X-rayed yesterday, but Mora said the five-star defensive end is feeling better. Expected to make an immediate impact on the defensive line, an extended absence could set back his adjustment to the college level.
Defensive end Ian Taubler and offensive linemen Kevin McReynolds and Poasi Moala were held out of practice with possible concussions and will be examined.
Freshman Christian Morris exhibited flu-like symptoms early Monday morning and was moved under a tent in the shade. The four-star tackle from Memphis from entered camp visibly out of shape and is a likely redshirt candidate.