Does our defense have a chance to be elite this season?
I don’t know what you want to count as elite, but I think they could be good. I think the move at linebacker was a very smart one as it both solves the problem at Sam, where they were struggling to find a reliable starter, and gets the best players on the field. Remember that the coaches moved DeChaun Holiday from safety to linebacker during last year’s training camp and then he was the No. 1 Sam during spring camp. It was a quick rise that, I think, could be attributed more to the lack of depth at the position than drastic, quick improvement at the new position. (This is not to say he wasn’t improving at the position, because he definitely was.) The starting 11 is extremely talented, as are the backups, but many of the reinforcements are unproven. Until some of the younger players, like Krys Barnes, Breland Brandt, Osa Odighizuwa and Chigozie Nnoruka, get into a game situation, you can’t really know how they’ll respond. But the defense is extremely talented, I think.
What have you seen or heard about the offensive line, during the recent practices, that makes you more or less optimistic about how it will fare this season? Impressions of Sunny Odogwu and also Coach Fraley?
I think if they stay healthy, they’ll be better due to improved coaching with Hank Fraley and a smarter scheme with Jedd Fisch. I think Fraley is a good technician and seems to be a good teacher. It’s also helpful that he was an NFL interior lineman and the interior was where the Bruins had the most concern with question marks at both guard positions. An example of Fraley’s coaching prowess is Josh Wariboko-Alali‘s recent improvement. When we watched him spring 2016 and training camp 2016, he was not very good. He rarely won one-on-ones, was almost always the guilty party when there was a false start, and got very little push during team periods. He still wasn’t spectacular this past spring, but it seems like he’s starting to show improvement now. He’s starting to win or at least tie some one-on-ones. He is playing both guard and center, and practices as the No. 2 center. (Najee Toran will likely be the game-time No. 2 center if necessary.) As Mora said Thursday, the redshirt sophomore is far from perfect, but he’s starting to make a move with good work ethic, attitude and confidence. You credit the player for the tremendous amount of hard work that goes into making improvement, but some of that could also go to Fraley, who found a way to take a one-time four-star prospect and finally get him to make some real progress for the first time in two years.
As for Sunny Odogwu, we really haven’t been able to see him play much. We watched him in the first few days and he was OK. A little rusty, it seemed. He struggled with Jaelan Phillips’ speed around the edge, especially, but showed some good flashes. Now he’s been out or limited for several days. He’s 24 years old carrying a 6-foot-7, 315-pound frame around in a physically crushing sport with a history of injuries. If he stays healthy, he has a chance to make a big impact.
In what ways does this camp practice season stand out — good or bad — from last year’s?
Something that’s stood out to me is that the coaches seem extremely precise this year. They’re paying attention to the smallest things like running to the huddle or running to the sideline. More than once, Jim Mora has called the team out for jogging when it should have been running and he makes the players go back and do it again. He kicks them off the field, calls them back, then kicks them off again because they didn’t get kicked off correctly the first time. While it seems nit-picky and obsessive at times, it might be an indicator of a greater attention to detail. As Tom Bradley always says, if you take care of the little things, the big things will take care of themselves. There are few things smaller than the pace at which players run off the field. Also of note, we have yet to see a nine-on-seven period, which was a staple last year. It also went into slumber during spring practice, so I think it’s just an indication of a changing offensive philosophy from Kennedy Polamalu to Fisch.
Who is likely to make a significant contribution this year, based on practices to date: Jamabo, Nate Starks, Massington, Van Dyke, Kent, and Juarez?
I almost want to say none of the above. I think they’ll all end up making roughty equal, relatively small impacts. Both Soso Jamabo and Nate Starks need to stay healthy. They struggled with injuries last year and have continued to struggle with them in training camp. The coaches do really love Jamabo and will continue to use him for certain plays that accentuate his speed on the edge. Starks is likely the best pass-blocking back and that skill is extremely important for the Bruins. Eldridge Massington and Alex Van Dyke both give Rosen a helpful big body to throw to, but they need to be more consistent. Mique Juarez is coming along well, but still has a ways to go. He flashes sometimes. He’ll get into the backfield or come up in run support and you can see the confidence growing. But he’s not moving as well as he did in high school right now, and that’s hampering him in pass coverage. He’s still got about seven or eight pounds to lose, according to linebackers coach Scott White. I think Juarez will get some run on special teams though at the very least, and when his conditioning and weight get to where they are supposed to be, he may even work into the defensive rotation late in games. Austin Kent is still competing for the starting punting position and that competition is absolutely wide open. It’s not wide open in the way coaches say it’s wide open when they really know who they want. Stefan Flintoft usually goes first in punting period, which is typically an indication that he’s in the lead, but results-wise, they’re pretty even.
How impressive is Josh Rosen? Above the hype? Below?
Depends on what your level of hype is. It seems like everyone has their own opinion about Josh Rosen. I think he’s quite talented and I’ve always thought that. But when you watch him every day in practice, you quickly remember that he’s human because it’s impossible to be perfect on 500 straight snaps in practice. I’m not shocked when he makes a simple mistake anymore. (When it’s an egregious mistake in a game is a different story.) He’s got the arm, he’s got the brain, and while people seem to believe he’s not a threat with his legs at all, it’s not like he’s completely rooted to the ground either. If he needs to scramble, he’ll do it and you just hope he does it safely. His perception might be damaged because he hasn’t won all that much, but his teammates and coaches have to do with that as well. He’ll get the glory and he’ll get the blame because of who he is and what position he plays, but he’s not the only one contributing to wins or losses.
What does the starting lineup look like on offense and defense?
There’s some shifting on the offensive line, where there are a lot of freshmen getting snaps during training camp, but they will absolutely not play in a game unless there are catastrophic injuries. Toran is likely the No. 2 center, but Wariboko-Alali might also get in there if he’s really needed. The running back order behind Olorunfunmi is kind of a four-way tie with Jalen Starks, Nate Starks, Soso Jamabo and Brandon Stephens, depending on health and down-and-distance.
On defense, there’s a lot of mixing and matching so the starting lineup is less important than the strength of the entire group. There’s position flexibility everywhere so it can be hard to put guys into certain places.
Octavius Spencer comes in on nickel situations, replacing Lokeni Toailoa, but Spencer will sometimes play nickel and other times go to safety for Wadood, who will then switch to nickel. In nickel, Josh Woods goes to the weak side and Kenny Young returns to middle linebacker. Juarez practices at No. 2 Mike, but I don’t anticipate him playing there this year during a game. Because of the nature of the Pac-12, teams play a ton of nickel so Toailoa will naturally get some rest that way, which lessens the need for a true backup middle linebacker.
Who will be returning punts/kickoffs?
I think it’ll be Darnay Holmes on punts and Damian Alloway on kickoffs. The team spent the first eight days of practice working on punt returns with Holmes, Alloway, Jordan Lasley and Darren Andrews getting chances. Thursday was the team’s first time doing kickoffs so there is less to go off right now, but Alloway got the first crack at it.
Do the players like the new Under Armour gear (not just jerseys)?
I’ve heard they’re pleased with it overall and they haven’t had any problems. A lot of the gear is designed with performance in mind, so instead of a normal cotton T-shirt, for example, it’s a special moisture-wicking T-shirt, which can make for a more comfortable experience while working out or lifting weights.
How is the competition at kicker going?
Currently there’s no competition at kicker as J.J. Molson is the only place kicker in camp. Due to limited numbers allowed in camp, some walk-ons don’t make it in, and in this case, Andrew Strauch was one of the odd men out. Molson’s been OK overall, I think. He’s been solid from within the 40, but any longer can be a little dicey. He has the leg for long-distance kicks (he got one from 55 on Wednesday) but just needs the consistency. Mora said Molson’s gotten a lot of mentoring from Morten Andersen, one of Mora’s former players in the NFL and a recent Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, and the sophomore has learned a lot in the offseason. Coaches say he’s more mature, focused and calm.
Who will be the starting running back?
Bolu Olorunfunmi is the first choice. For starters, he’s the only scholarship running back who has participated in every practice so far. Other than that, I think his new, leaner physique is paying dividends. He looks faster and more agile than the bruising back he was last year. He can still law down a hit — just ask Jaleel Wadood, who was on the receiving end of an Olorunfunmi hit earlier this week in practice — but he’s starting to expand his running skill-set.
What other freshman are standing out? Also, what player has regressed/struggled?
Besides Phillips and Holmes, I’ve been really impressed with the young crop of defensive backs, especially Mo Osling III, Jay Shaw and Quentin Lake. They’re always near the ball, making plays and grabbing interceptions. Shaw started off a little slowly, but came on really strong in recent days. Lake started well, fell off when the team put the pads on, but is starting to rise a little bit now. Osling has been solid throughout. He’s long and lean. He’ll probably need to put on some weight throughout his career, but he has pretty strong technique already.
Adarius Pickett had a sensational spring and was making plays nearly every day, but he’s been a little quieter this training camp. He called his camp so far “pretty decent,” but said he’s focusing on trying to be a leader and get everyone working together well. Lasley has had some flashes, but after how he ended last year, you would hope that he would be more consistent.
My biggest concern at spring camp was 1) offensive line, 2) quarterback, 3) receivers. Based on what you’ve seen in fall should it still be that way or should it change?
I agree with offensive line. You’re always going to be worried about the offensive line because of the injury history and lack of depth in recent years.
Are you worried about the backup quarterback? Or are you worried about Rosen not being good after the surgery? Or are you worried for Rosen having to play behind that offensive line? I wouldn’t worry about Rosen not being good. No one paid attention to this in the Bleacher Report story because all the talk was about his school comments, but Rosen said the surgery was minor and didn’t even include repair. So that’s not an issue. I would be worried for him because he has to play behind a questionable offensive line, but that goes back to your first, very valid worry. Having to worry about an inexperienced backup quarterback is somewhat valid, especially after what happened last year, but UCLA will only reach that point if the offensive line fails again, so we’re back at the first worry.
It makes sense to be concerned about the receivers, but I think the new coaching staff is good because it gives players a clean slate. Everyone is even in the eyes of Jimmie Dougherty because he has no preconceived notions about what a player can do and what he can’t. I think that’s finally allowed Christian Pabico rise over Massington and Van Dyke, for example. You can still worry about the drops, but the top three right now in my mind, Darren Andrews, Theo Howard and Pabico, don’t really have long histories with drops anyway.
Will the offense be able to run/block/catch?
I’m not a fortune teller so I don’t know for sure if they will execute on Game Day, but I could imagine why the offense might be more successful. I believe Fisch’s system is intelligently put together to really maximize his players’ skills. This isn’t how Polamalu said that his scheme fit the players when it absolutely did not. The system is creative and can deemphasize the troublesome offensive line with misdirections and bootlegs. We’ll have to wait to see how it shakes out on Game Day.
Any other walk-on flashing other than Pabico?
Josh Kelley is quite talented, but he’s expected to redshirt this year. He’s a true junior transfer from UC Davis, so he has three years to play two seasons. He’s shifty in the open field with great patience. I think Flintoft is still technically a walk-on and he’s in a legitimate competition with Kent for the punting job. Flintoft, I felt, excelled more on consistency than big, booming punts last year, but he’s launched a few really long punts during training camp, so he’s shown that he has the leg. But both of the punters really need to get the consistency down.
When are the coaches going to face facts and acquiesce to keeping not one but two running backs in the backfield for pass protection this season?
I wouldn’t hold my breath for the day a coach puts in two running backs to block on every passing play. If you put everyone in the blocking scheme, who will catch the ball and how will they get open unless it’s an all-out blitz and no one is in the defensive backfield? It seems like it might work in theory for a play or two, but opposing teams adjust. It doesn’t really make sense to have such a limited personnel package. You have to expect that a single running back can handle some blocking on his own. That’s the job requirement. There are also tight ends to block, and, depending on the package and play call, a fullback might even get in there. The offense allows for other ways to protect Rosen with misdirections that get the defense flowing away from the play also. And sometimes, defenses just make really good plays.
Do you think it would be wise to require all universities to have the same standard for SAT and ACT scores for acceptance? This would be a standard requirement for all athletic scholarships.
All universities would have the same standards for athletes? Like Stanford and Alabama would have the same admission standards for all athletes? I don’t think that would be a good idea at all. If you mean that the academic standards for athletes and normal students would be the same at any one school, I think that might be wise but I really don’t have a strong opinion on it either way.
I noticed no real grass anymore on Spaulding. I thought one of the fields had real grass throughout the years. What do you think? Do you think it’ll affect our players when we play on real grass?
Although I was not around for the pre-Wasserman Football Center Spaulding Field, I was told that there was one grass field and one turf field and I thought that was cool, but I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. You just get the equipment staff to hook you up with a different cleat and keep running. I think the grass/turf difference is understated in football. If it was soccer, which I covered before UCLA, it would be a whole different story.
With the sacks Rosen is taking in practice, in your opinion, does he have the opportunity to avoid some of them by throwing the ball away?
A few of them are coverage sacks and in a real game, he’ll probably throw those away. But I think most of them are just really good plays by the defensive line.
Does Tom Bradley attribute the inability to stop Joe Williams last year to (a) key personnel being limited by injuries, (b) misalignment of the safeties or other scheme issues, or (c) players repeatedly failing to execute assignments? Was it a combination of all three or something else? What was learned from that embarrassment?
It was a good game plan from Utah and UCLA’s inability to adjust quickly, which we talked about at that time. The Utes undid UCLA with a single, repeated counter play executed to perfection. Their offensive line was also one of the best in the conference last year. UCLA’s defense was fast and aggressive last year and Utah was able to exploit those strengths by getting the Bruins to commit one way then flow the other, pinning the defenders on the wrong side of blocks. It was almost a year ago, it’s likely not something the Bruins think about right now and might not even be something they think much about this year even when they face Utah again because Joe Williams and most of that starting offensive line is gone.
Have you decided on the starter opposite of Nate Meadors? If yes, who? If not what do you need to see in order to pull the trigger?
I don’t decide on who gets to start, but I think the coaches will eventually decide on Holmes because that’s how the team has been lining up since Day 4 of camp. During the first three days of practice, Denzel Fisher was with the No. 1 defense, but Holmes Holmes came on strong. I don’t see him giving up that spot right now. Perhaps he’s a little undersized, but he makes up for it with athleticism and competitiveness. I think he’s quite good, especially at such a young age.
What would be considered a successful year for the UCLA football team?
I think they’re good for seven wins and a low-tier bowl game. I could also see them going for eight games, especially if they get a win against Texas A&M in the season opener. Anything more would be extremely successful, in my opinion, but the measure of success for other people may be different from mine.
Do you personally enjoy watching from the parking structure more from the field level?
There are advantages to both, but with the extremely limited viewing area on the field, it’s nearly impossible to see one of the fields, so the parking structure is definitely the better option. Sometimes being on the field is helpful, though, because you can hear what players and coaches are talking about. Most of it’s not that note-worthy, but it adds fun color to the team and it allows you to better understand the team’s personality. I often feel that understanding the personality of a team/the players/the coaches is just as important as knowing the game if you’re going to be a successful beat writer.