UCLA loses punter Sean Covington, adds Matt Mengel

Heading into what could be a banner season, one of UCLA’s least-contested positions is suddenly unsettled.

Punter Sean Covington is no longer with the program, according to Bruin Report Online. An All-Pac-12 honorable mention as a true freshman, Covington was not listed on the Bruins’ most recent media guide roster at Pac-12 Media Days.

The 6-foot, 218-pound punter averaged 41.9 yards per punt, placing 18 inside the 20-yard line. Paired with a strong coverage unit, he helped UCLA limit opponents to 3.94 yards per punt return — the 16th lowest mark in the country. Covington also shared kickoff duties with kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn, landing 21 touchbacks.

In Covington’s absence, the Bruins have added Matt Mengel out of Long Beach City College. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound player who has drawn rave reviews from punting experts.

Chris Sailer wrote that Mengel has “one of the strongest legs in the nation,” with kickoffs that are already ready for Division I. Kohl’s Kicking praised him as “an impressive combo specialist” who hit five-second hang times on his punts, though his consistency is “solid not spectacular.”

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UCLA post-spring position outlook: Special teams

Spring football is done, and over three months still stand between us and the start of UCLA’s third season under Jim Mora — one that comes with national title aspirations and accompanying media glare. This blog has covered the status of each position group moving forward. Last in the series is …

Special teams

Recently, special teams hasn’t been a major concern for UCLA. Over the last two seasons, the team blocked 12 kicks and punts — an FBS total matched only by Rutgers. Last year, it ranked top-20 in both opponent punt and kick returns; in four of the five years prior, the Bruins ranked outside the top 40 in the former and the top 100 in the latter.

A key difference looms heading into this fall: Jeff Ulbrich is no longer the UCLA special teams coordinator.

Promoted the defensive coordinator, Ulbrich will continue coaching inside linebackers but surrenders lead oversight of the unit that helped extend his own professional career. Outside linebackers will be charged to new assistant Mike Tuiasosopo, who also holds the title of special teams coach. Continue reading

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Spring notes: Defensive back Johnny Johnson leaves practice with wrist injury


– Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone talked about running back Craig Lee, the backup quarterback battle, and a couple of receivers.

– Defensive back Johnny Johnson left practice after injuring his right wrist trying to tackle walk-on receiver Andrew Huusfeldt. Johnson was expected to contribute to the secondary as a true freshman last season, but sat out the year after separating his right shoulder.

Even if his latest injury is serious, UCLA’s secondary should still be in good shape. Arguably the team’s weakest unit two seasons ago, it now balances plenty of depth and talent. The name to watch now is safety Tahaan Goodman, who looks like a completely different player than one that arrived at UCLA last summer. Continue reading

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UCLA’s list of possible concussions swells to seven

Head cases have beset the Bruins this August.

Whether exacerbated by the San Bernardino heat or simply a bit of bad luck, seven UCLA players were sidelined Tuesday with concussion-like symptoms — taking a large chunk of the offensive line.

“I don’t know why we seem to have this rash of head injuries,” Mora said. “I’m not sure how serious all of them are, but we’re going to treat them all as if they’re very serious.”

The line was without redshirt sophomores Kevin McReynolds and Ben Wysocki, as well as true freshmen Alex Redmond, Poasi Moala and John Lopez. Redmond and Wysocki were competing at right guard, while Moala had taken the majority of second-team snaps at right tackle.

The attrition shuffled what was gradually becoming a more stable line. In one first-team iteration, All-American Xavier Su’a-Filo moved from guard to left tackle, while backup center Carl Hulick slid to left guard.

“It kind of affects everything you do,” Mora said. “It affects the development of the depth. It affects our ability to practice the way we’d like to practice. We just have to modify it.”

Added Su’a-Filo: “When we have the luxury of numbers, we can run, one, two, three groups. With these concussions, we’ve just got to take more reps. We’ve got to make do with what we have.”

Defensive Ian Taubler and running back Malcolm Jones are also out with concussion-like symptoms.

OTHER INJURIES

Freshman defensive end Kylie Fitts suffered full-body cramps. Mora said he drank enough water afterward to gain 8.5 pounds. Junior linebacker Eric Kendricks has missed all team activities in fall camp recovering from an ankle procedure. He is expected to play in the Aug. 31 season opener, and may return to practice next week. Continue reading

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Redshirt decisions a ‘delicate deal’ for Jim Mora

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. Continue reading

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Freshman Sean Covington takes first practice punts


SAN BERNARDINO — Early in Friday’s afternoon practice, Sean Covington launched his first punts wearing a UCLA jersey.

There was one that arced high and back, landing some 60 yards away. Another swung short and hooked left. He’s still a freshman, after all.

Ranked one of the top punters in the country, the St. Petersburg, Fla., native was the first member of the 2013 class to fax in his signed letter of intent on Feb. 6. He has the unenviable task of following Jeff Locke, one of the best punters in UCLA history and a recent fifth-round draft pick.

Locke may be the most difficult player to replace for the Bruins, who are trying to better a 9-5 record amidst higher expectations and a tougher schedule. That Covington worked with Locke earlier this summer is a good start. The freshman said the two, roughly 90-minute sessions at UCLA were very productive. For one, they share a dominant foot.

“You don’t see many lefties,” Covington said. “That was a lot, just seeing his form and his steps and just how he drops. You can critique what you do and what you’re not doing, what you need to work on.”

Covington acknowledged the pressure in following a two-time Ray Guy semifinalist and fifth-round draft pick, but said it won’t faze him. Still, there’s a long way for him to go before he can fill Locke’s shoes.

“I think the key with Sean is his operation time,” head coach Jim Mora said. “When you go from Jeff (Locke) and Kevin McDermott, the snapper, they were so efficient from snap to kick. … With Sean, it’s just that operation. That’s so critical. But he has an excellent leg.”

“I don’t know if he’ll be the Jeff Locke that we saw that could pin teams down inside the 10-yard line on a pretty consistent basis. That’s kind of an art.”

» Priest Willis has played cornerback so far in San Bernardino, backing up his status as a top-100 recruit. During his recruitment, however, some thought the 6-foot-2 Arizona native would be better off at safety.

Asked if he was glad Willis fit at corner, Mora began dropping his own credentials.

“I’ve coached defensive backs my whole career,” he said. “I’ve been lucky to been around some — Rod Woodson, he’s a pretty good corner. All-Century player. So I would think that people would trust my judgment when it comes to defensive backs. Continue reading

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