Thursday practice notes: ‘Too much dancing’ among running backs

With the departure of all-time leading rusher Johnathan Franklin, UCLA’s tailback competition is wide open. Head coach Jim Mora has said all spring that he expects the Bruins to use a committee next season, but he isn’t happy with the progress so far

“There’s way too much dancing right now,” Mora said. “Our running backs are doing too much of this, like the keyboard of a piano. They need to freakin’ hit it and go. That’s something I’m disappointed in and they’re going to work hard on.”

Jordon James, Paul Perkins and Malcolm Jones have shared carries through camp, but no one has consistently stood out. Redshirt senior Damien Thigpen — third on the team last season with 849 all-purpose yards — is still recovering from a torn ACL, while Steve Manfro is rehabbing after shoulder surgery.

» Thursday’s practice was, Mora said emphatically, the best yet through the first six days of spring camp. However, the spurt of energy did spill over into some minor scuffles throughout the day. The two-hour session concluded with a massive group of players bumping and pushing each other.

“We’ve been banging on each other now for six days, and you can kind of expect that,” Mora said. “As long as it doesn’t get out of hand and it doesn’t turn into a brawl or a fight or somebody throwing haymakers, you’re going to get a little bit of that. That’s part of football.” Continue reading

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Monday night practice notes: Anthony Jefferson shedding injury history

Maybe the wind helped as it whipped passes off course Monday night, making for the worst quarterback performance yet through UCLA’s spring practices. Or maybe this is how Anthony Jefferson was always meant to play.

The rising junior was once a four-star athlete in the class of 2010, a rangy 6-foot-1 specimen pegged by Rivals.com to have “blue chip” size, agility and ball skills. But a variety of ails set him back, from a broken foot his freshman year to back surgery in 2011.

Last season, his eight appearances resulted in just five tackles — four of which came at Washington State. On Monday, however, he looked like a solid rotation player, sticking close to receivers on several routes and using his long frame to break up passes.

“I think that finally, he’s feeling more healthy,” head coach Jim Mora said. “I think finally, AJ is getting back to what he once was physically. I think it’s showing in the way he plays, the confidence he plays with and the plays he’s making on the ball.” Continue reading

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UCLA football spring practice primer

Football’s back! As a reminder, here’s UCLA’s full spring practice schedule. All sessions are open to the public and will last approximately two hours.

Tues. Apr. 2 – 7 a.m.
Thu. Apr. 4 – 7 a.m.
Sat. Apr. 6 – 10:45 a.m.
Mon. Apr. 8 – 6 p.m.
Wed. Apr. 10 – 7 a.m.
Thu. Apr. 11 – 7 a.m.
Sat. Apr. 13 – 10:30 a.m.
Mon. Apr. 15 – 6 p.m.
Wed. Apr. 17 – 7 a.m.
Thu. Apr. 18 – 7 a.m.
Sat. Apr. 20 – 10:30 a.m.
Mon. Apr. 22 – 6 p.m.
Wed. Apr. 24 – 7 a.m.
Thu. Apr. 25 – 7 a.m.
Sat. Apr. 27 – 5 p.m. (Rose Bowl)

A quick primer after the jump. Continue reading

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Jones returning as walk-on, eligibility unclear

Running back Malcolm Jones, who left the Bruins after playing just one game as a junior in 2012, had second thoughts after exploring options to transfer.

After the holiday season, he approached head coach Jim Mora about returning to the team. Mora said he didn’t have a scholarship available for Jones, but would welcome him back as a walk-on.

“Sometimes you get derailed when you’re young,” Mora said. “I don’t think any of us wanted to hold the fact that he left the team against him. We all wanted to give him that second chance because of the type of kid he is and because we believe in someone earning a second chance.” Continue reading

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Thigpen tears ACL, out for season

UCLA backup tailback and kick returner Damien Thigpen tore his ACL against USC, robbing the Bruins of the fastest player of their roster. Thigpen led the team with 17 plays of over 20 yards, and was used all over the field.

The junior had sat out UCLA’s win over Washington State with a sprained knee, but was thought to be fully healthy heading into the game against USC.

“We’ve got to move on,” said head coach Jim Mora. “Someone or a combination of people have to step in.”

The biggest hole he leaves is on special teams. Thigpen took 14 of UCLA’s 30 kick returns this year, amassing 376 yards with a long of 55. Devin Fuller returned four kickoffs for 56 yards on Saturday, while Roosevelt Davis returned one for 21 yards. Competition is still open moving forward, but no one on the roster has Thigpen’s gamebreaker potential.

His absence also opens up backfield touches behind tailback Johnathan Franklin, most of which will likely be absorbed by Jordon James. Thigpen had 50 carries to James’ 52 this year, but was averaging 5.2 yards per carry to James’ 3.8.

Mora has made a point of keeping Franklin fresh for the fourth quarter all season, but UCLA now has only two tailbacks with more than 16 carries on the season.

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Thigpen Featured

Even though, like an idiot, I forgot to write where Damien Thigpen went to high school – Stonewall Jackson High in Manassas, VA – I thought this was a pretty good story. Thigpen and his pops seem like very grounded, intelligent people.

Thigpen

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Neuheisel On:

On Tuesday’s practice:
“It was a pretty good practice; like all install days, they have their rough spots. For the most part, I felt the guys showed good focuses and are mindful on the level of their opponents.”

On using Damien Thigpen immediately:
“He’s got that kind of gamebreaking ability. We have to find ways to give him chances. I could tell you how, but then I’d have to kill you.”

On Courtney Viney:
“The guy just finds ways to make plays. He’s not the biggest guy in the world, but you can’t tell him that. That’s why small people can play this game, because they don’t know they’re small and won’t buy into the thought they are. Courtney was ‘Johnny on the Spot’ the other night, and we needed him.”

On blasting crowd noise over the speakers later in practice:
“Gotta get time to talk things through as you learn the plan. I expect that we can settle them down here shortly. We’ve done that before around here. It wasn’t a completely novel idea. But human nature is, when you’re trying to concentrate and you learning new things, you want quiet. It’s like being in an automobile when you’re lost; first thing you do is turn off the radio.”

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Neuheisel On:

On his thoughts, post-scrimmage:
“It was a good scrimmage; when you get to play 60 plays and you’re eight days away from a game, and you get to thud with tired legs, it is good. I saw what I needed to see. I think the guys realized we’re not game-ready yet. I think that’s a call to arms over the weekend while they get a little rest.
“I like where we are.”

On what he wanted to see from the scrimmage:
“With so many young players, it’s about how to go inside and come back out and be ready to play. Again, we started slow as an offense. We have to learn that you don’t get a feel-out practice in games. Guys now have more of an understanding.”

On the running the first-team offense against the second-team defense and vice versa:
“We tried to get some looks we may see. It was some portion of game planning. We didn’t want our first defense not running their defense.”

On Damien Thigpen and Morrell Presley impressing him the most:
“He’s proved he’s an exciting football player. We’ll find ways to get him into the game plan. And Morrell Presley did some good things.”

On Kevin Prince’s performance:
“There were a couple balls I think he could’ve let go if. His anticipation skills I still thing can grow. But I thought he managed the game well. I was disappointed that he tried to force that screen and had that turnover.”

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Neuheisel On:

On Christian Ramirez’s injury:
“Ankles are iffy things, especially when they get into that definition of high ankle. Those things take a little longer to heal.”

On Saturday’s scrimmage:
“As is always the case when you watch a game tape, it’s never quite as good as you thought it was and it’s not as bad. Kevin Prince, I went home thinking inconsistent and a long way to go, and I watched the tape and it wasn’t nearly that case. I saw a lot of good things. He was unfortunate a couple times, a couple balls he wished he could have back.”

On Damien Thigpen’s chances of playing this season, rather than redshirting:
“I’m leaning toward using him. He’s an impact player. (We’ll use him) any way we can use him.”

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