Thanks for your questions, friends. Since UCLA ended its fall camp with a surprise cancellation on Sunday, here’s a leftover story about how the team thought camp went in Westwood compared to San Bernardino.
Also, here are my 5 lessons from training camp
How does Josh Rosen look going into the season, compared to right before his freshman and sophomore campaigns?
I wasn’t covering the team for Josh Rosen’s freshman season, so I can’t speak on that. He obviously did well enough to win the starting job. If we’re just comparing this year to last year, I think he’s looked better. Rosen was always more of a gamer than a practicer. That’s not to say he doesn’t try in practice, but he usually shines the brightest when the game day lights come on. It’s more of his natural habitat. But this year, he had a few days in practice when he looked like he was in game mode, especially between Aug. 9-12. He was impressive during those days not only for the precision with which he was throwing the ball, but because he was coming off a terrible day on Aug. 8. I remember that practice because Scott Quessenberry gathered all the offensive players together on the sideline and cussed them all out between drives once. The offense scored only one touchdown during the two-hour, 35-minute practice that was dedicated almost entirely to team periods. Rosen’s ability to bounce back after the bad practice was impressive to me and then for him to continue on the right path was even more encouraging for the team.
Is Michael Alves for real? What’s your expected starting 5 offensive line against Texas A&M? Against Cal?
Is Michael Alves going to wreck everyone in his path and pave the way for a 1,000-yard rusher? Probably not. Can he effective when playing in between Andre James and Scott Quessenberry? Sure. He’s young, so he still needs seasoning, but he’s probably the most consistent option UCLA has at that guard position between Poasi Moala and Kenny Lacy. Offensive line coch Hank Fraley said during spring that he sees James more as a guard than a tackle, but also values his versatility, which is why the coach moved James back to right tackle to make room for Alves at guard. The starting offensive line at the end of training camp was, from left to right, Kolton Miller, Najee Toran, Quessenberry, Alves and James. I wouldn’t expect it to change too much in the next two weeks, barring injury. As for Cal, that’s way too far out to predict. If everything went perfectly, it would be the exact same as Texas A&M, but you just don’t know what mysteries the season holds.
How is Brandon Stephens looking? How does he figure into the RB rotation?
Brandon Stephens had a very strong start to training camp, but came down with a mysterious injury that limited him for about a week. He didn’t seem to regain his prior form upon his return. Coming out of spring camp, I thought he was probably the second option at running back, inching ahead of Soso Jamabo, but Jamabo, who missed a few days of practice due to back tightness, put together some strong performances during the latter days of training camp and even got a few drives with the No. 1 offense. I think Bolu Olorunfunmi is the leader for the running back spot, followed by Jamabo. Stephens, Nate Starks and Jalen Starks are a three-headed choice for the third spot, depending on the situation.
Will there be a running game to take the heat off Rosen?
I don’t know how effective the running game will be, but the Bruins are sure going to try to get one going. Jedd Fisch will try to manufacture a running game from essentially the same ingredients that failed last year with creative play-calling and interesting personnel packages. I think UCLA has a chance to be much better than last year in the running game because the system is more suited to the personnel. Whether the execution comes out on game day is another matter that we will just have to wait for.
How do you see our receiver depth chart shaking out, in terms of who sees significant playing time barring injury?
I think there are different tiers. The top tier is, in no particular order, Darren Andrews, Theo Howard and Christian Pabico. They’re the most consistent pass catchers. Jordan Lasley is on the next tier by himself. He certainly can be included on the top rung in terms of talent, but he can run a little hot with his emotions, and as a result, his performance on the field suffers sometimes. The next group would be Eldridge Massington and Alex Van Dyke. I expect them to play, especially in certain situations when their height creates an advantage for the offense, but they both struggled with catching the ball. We know how important that quality is. The next group is Audie Omotosho and Demetric Felton, two redshirt freshmen who have flashed a few good moments, but likely need a little more time to develop. Omotosho is big, but also very speedy. He could add more strength in the coming years. Felton is diminutive and fast. The bottom rung would probably be Damian Alloway and Dymond Lee. Alloway’s best bet to get on the field is in the return game, where I think he’ll be returning kickoffs. Lee made the change from quarterback to receiver during spring and doesn’t get much run in team periods.
What is the status of the injuries with Soso Jamabo? Will he be redshirting this year?
Soso Jamabo missed a few days of training camp with back tightness. He returned and had a strong finish to training camp. Unless he gets hurt again an unrelated, serious injury, I don’t expect him to redshirt.
How does the offensive line look? Is it ready for the start of the season?
It’s hard to judge the offensive line for sure during practice because it’s not always 100 percent live and you can only see each play once. There’s no slow motion and if you’re watching the offensive line, you don’t know what happened with the ball. The unit has shown some promise at times. I respect Hank Fraley for being willing to try a new combination with Michael Alves at right guard, which changed the team’s previous plan. I don’t think it’s ready for the start of the season because there’s still two weeks to go and it doesn’t have to be right now.
What is our most likely go-to play in a third-down situation where we need to convert? Where have we consistently been seeing offensive success?
The actual play would have to depend on the time, score and distance of the third-down. But if it’s a passing play, I think Josh Rosen would want to go to Darren Andrews or, if he can, Caleb Wilson. He had the best chemistry with those two during training camp and he clearly trusts them as pass catchers. A short-yardage run would probably go to Bolu Olorunfunmi or Jalen Starks or maybe Giovanni Gentosi as the fullback.
It’s hard to judge offensive success during practices without watching the film because you only get to see each play once in real time and they’re not going full speed with live tackling. You’re constantly playing a guessing game of “would the defender gotten the tackle on that play?” It’s tricky. So I can’t honestly answer the second question.
How is Mique Juarez looking this year in terms of seeing the field? Has he been practicing with the first team defense?
Like I wrote in the previous Q&A, I don’t expect to see Mique Juarez much on defense this year, at least until his strength and conditioning get up to where they’re supposed to be. He’ll figure into special teams for sure and may work his way into the defensive rotation later in the season if he continues to progress. He’s just not moving as well as he once did in pass coverage because he was still carrying a few extra pounds. He made a few good plays in runs support. Also as was written in the previous Q&A, Juarez practices as the No. 2 mike linebacker, but I don’t expect him to get too much run at that position in a game situation because UCLA is able to rest starting mike linebacker Lokeni Toailoa when the team plays nickel, thus lessening the need for a true backup at that position.
What is the status on Mossi Johnson?
Mossi Johnson had a pretty good camp at safety, but worked mostly with the No. 3 defense. There was a stretch of about four or five days in the middle of training camp when it seemed that Johnson got at least one interception a day. He worked his way into the second group in the later days of camp and still made some plays. UCLA has a lot of playable depth at all levels of the defense, including defensive back. Johnson’s ability to get on to the field will depend on how deep into the rotation defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin wants to go on any given game day. If there’s one game when UCLA is playing a lot of nickel, which puts safety Octavius Spencer on the field as the fifth DB, then Johnson could get some time as a backup because I see him as a third-stringer who is not far off the second group.
Keisean Lucier-South and Breland Brandt seemed to be lost in the linebacker shuffle. Do they have a package that incorporates them into the defense?
Keisean Lucier-South plays defensive end and he gets on the field regularly as the No. 2 razor, which is Takkarist McKinley’s old position. They had some interesting packages that had him at outside linebacker when he dropped back in coverage in a modified version of the nickel, but I think that will be a rare look. Breland Brandt is the No. 2 sam linebacker. He played there consistently during training camp and looked good as a blitzer when the defense wanted to bring extra pressure. It’s possible that he’ll play this season on defense, depending on how deep linebackers coach Scott White wants to go into this rotation.
Is DeChaun Holiday going to be able to play this year?
I’m not sure. DeChaun Holiday didn’t make any appearances on the field during training camp and was never even seen on the stationary bikes. He probably has a long way to go with his shoulder recovery. And once he gets the shoulder up to speed, he needs to get into football shape.
Does Coach Fisch seem happy in LA? Do you think he sticks around and does not go back to the NFL quickly?
I think Jedd Fisch is a happy person in general and he finds joy where ever he is, as long as he’s around football. I don’t know where he’ll end up next, whether it’s the NFL or another college, but if he does well at UCLA during the next two years (the length of his contract), I don’t know if he’ll be around for too long. He’s a climber. He’s wants to be a head coach, as he’s said many times, including last March to the Detroit News. Teams are always looking for the next young, bright head coach and he’s going to keep looking for positions in that will help him get there. (Bless his family for constantly moving with him while he crisscrosses the country for coaching, also.)
It seems that you and fellow reporters don’t ask the players to compare previous position coaches to their new ones, but have you overheard any of the players making comparisons? Do you think the players feel that all the coaching changes were positive ones? Do you feel that all the changes were positive?
We asked those questions during spring, but players are never going to throw their former coaches under the bus publicly. They’ve expressed respect and gratitude for their former coaches and what they were able to do for them at UCLA, but also excitement about the new staff. They point out the new staff’s attention to detail, especially Jedd Fisch’s, and the group’s positivity.
Me personally, I think the new staff is a breath of fresh air, especially for the receivers and offensive line. Eric Yarber and Adrian Klemm had been here since the beginning of the Jim Mora era and maybe it was just getting a little stale. I respect that both Jimmie Dougherty and Hank Fraley came into spring practice and fall camp, looked at their units with fresh eyes and made changes. Dougherty looked at Christian Pabico and didn’t see just a walk-on, but saw him for what he is: a consistent receiver who catches the ball all the time. Dougherty wasn’t scared to put a walk-on with the starters, elevating him over seniors like Eldridge Massington or Alex Van Dyke. Michael Alves admitted that the offensive line had a pretty solid starting unit for most of training camp, but Fraley was willing to mix it up to put his best players together.
Can you rank each unit compared to their ability and expected performance from last year – weaker, same, stronger?
I would say all the units on the offense are in for at least some improvement, assuming every one stays healthy. The bar is so low for all of them anyway that they can only go up from last year. But also, I think the coaches, especially Jedd Fisch, have put them in a better situation with a better, more flexible system.
On defense, I think the defensive line will be about the same. It’s the deepest position on the team, but losing Eddie Vanderdoes and Eli Ankou in the middle are big deficits. Boss Tagloa got valuable playing time last year, but he is still young. The sophomore hasn’t blossomed fully yet. He could still improve when it comes to his pass rush, but he’s pretty good when it comes to eating up space in the run game. I’m interested to see how Osa Odighizuwa will perform during the season. He was definitely a standout in camp with the No. 2 defense and got some time with the ones, but wasn’t as destructive against the No. 1 offense. The linebackers I think can be the better. The position shuffle was smart. It was a creative solution to the sam linebacker problem as the coaching staff harnessed the position versatility it preaches so often. The defensive backs will at least stay the same and might be in for an upgrade. Darnay Holmes was the best true freshman in camp. He was consistent throughout and by the end of it all, he wasn’t giving up any catches in team periods. He’s definitely a talent. Adarius Pickett is an improvement over Randall Goforth for his hitting ability, which allows him to offer better run support.
Did any players graduate this summer? Is there any possibility of players transferring before the first game?
All redshirt seniors graduated last year, including Eldridge Massington, Darren Andrews, Kenny Lacy and Scott Quessenberry. Adarius Pickett and Mossi Johnson also walked in graduation. I don’t anticipate any of them transferring.
Why was UCLA’s running game was so disastrously bad last season?
It was a case of trying to fit a square peg in a circular hole. The scheme wasn’t the right fit. The offensive line was clearly not recruited for or trained to execute an offense like Kennedy Polamalu’s. The gap between Polamalu’s offense and Noel Mazzone’s was too large to bridge within one year. Also, the running backs were young and injured. Each of them carried some knocks throughout the season, especially Nate Starks, who is the group’s elder statesman. Even when the offensive line opened up holes, which they did at times, like during the Stanford game, the running backs missed them. That’s just inexperience. Polamalu would normally have been able to coach that out of them, but he admitted that sometimes he struggled with juggling his responsibilities as a play-calling offensive coordinator and running backs coach. There were a lot of things that just went wrong at the same time.
Based on practices do they seem poised for a 9-win season (with bowl game)?
I wrote in the previous Q&A that I have this team as a seven-win team, then a bowl game. If it wins against Texas A&M, then it could be eight. Bowl games are all about matchups and attitude, so if those are in the right place come December, then you can push nine games. But that’s too many ifs for me. You’ll just have to wait and see. I also have no idea what the other teams look like because I only watch UCLA’s practices, so I can’t say if the Bruins are better than anyone else, which is what is required to win a game.
When are you going to become a regular on a podcast? Or start making your own video updates where you chat with another beat reporter about what you saw?
I’ve thought about starting a podcast, but there’s already a lot of work to be done on a daily basis with the blog and the newspaper (which I hope you all subscribe to — thanks in advance). I would like to do one in the future, but this is only my second year on the UCLA beat and I’m still working out some kinks. I don’t mind going on podcasts when people ask me to, though. I do, however, hate the inevitable part when they ask me to make a prediction for the game or the season. I hate making predictions. I think they’re useless.
As a company, the Southern California News Group is always looking for a chance to do more videos, but when it comes to getting two reporters in the same place to be on a video together, it can be tough because of the demanding football season schedules. And I’m also our only UCLA beat reporter and I don’t really like talking into a camera by myself.