Football is back in Westwood.
But after a long 4 and a half month offseason, a time that featured a complete overhaul of the offensive staff, a solid recruiting class coming together, and Jim Mora climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, it feels good to have UCLA football back, at least for this month.
This week, UCLA continues its spring practices tomorrow morning, Thursday afternoon and Saturday morning. All will be held on campus, as will the “Spring Showcase” on Saturday, April 29th.
A full practice schedule and other info can be found here. All practices are open to the public.
Spring practice is important except when it’s not.
It is important to get guys meaningful reps, and in UCLA’s case, especially on offense, where Jedd Fisch will be the third offensive coordinator in three seasons. He brings with him a dense and complex playbook, so his side of the ball will need all the time they can get to absorb it and learn it before Texas A&M comes to the Rose Bowl.
But spring football isn’t important because, well, it’s still spring.
There are still 146 days until UCLA opens its season, and with summer and fall camps to go through, along with the addition of the non-early-admit freshmen and any potential graduate transfers, UCLA’s depth charts are not set in stone in April.
With all that in mind, here are a few storylines to monitor as UCLA goes through spring ball. While the questions posed won’t be answered now, they are relevant and important questions whose answers will go a long way in determining how the Bruins’ 2017 season will go.
Redrawing the Battle Line
It feels silly to narrow down football to one position, but in UCLA’s case, it’s fair to pin this season’s hopes on the offensive line. Its struggles in 2016 have been well-documented, and out went Adrian Klemm and in stepped in first-time OL coach Hank Fraley to coach up the unit.
For Fraley, the slate is clean. But the pressure is also on to get the line back functional, or else Josh Rosen will be running for his life yet again.
Does a solidified starting 5 emerge this month? Or will a grad transfer or incoming freshman make a run to start?
Who Rides out Wide
UCLA’s offense was an incoherent mess last year, and the wide receiving core played a part in that.
Every receiver had at least one killer drop in every game. It was an epidemic, and Eric Yarber’s rotations were always strange. Only Darren Andrews and Jordan Lasley were consistent, but even they had their share of boneheaded mistakes.
New receivers coach Jimmy Dougherty, like Fraley, has a clean slate, and given that UCLA recruited no new receivers, it will be interesting to monitor the changes throughout the corps.
So far, early indications are that Andrews, Lasley, and Theo Howard are getting the most first-string reps. But will there be an emergent set of starters at the end of spring, or will the receivers-by-committee approach of recent years continue?
A Brand New QB2
Last season, Jim Mora paid the price for not having a scholarship quarterback ready as a backup.
Mike Fafaul performed admirably in an impossible situation. But it was less than ideal to have a 5th-year walk-on close out the season, and it brought to light just how fortunate UCLA had been to have Brett Hundley (and Josh Rosen in 2015) be so durable.
With Matt Lynch and Devon Modster both redshirting as freshmen last season, the stage was set for them to compete to be QB2 behind Rosen this season. Along with early enrollee Austin Burton, UCLA’s quarterback depth finally feels somewhat replenished, and whoever wins the job will be well-suited to be a competent, Pac-12 level caliber quarterback in case Rosen goes down.
New Kids on the Block
Darnay Holmes and Jaelan Phillips are the crown jewels of the 2017 recruiting class.
Both were ranked #1 nationally, from Southern California, and early enrollees. Both are immensely talented, and it’d be no surprise to see both starting on defense come September.
Does Phillips beat out fellow former 5-star Keisean Lucier-South for the starting “razor” defensive end spot to replace Takkarist McKinley? Where does Holmes fit in the secondary rotation with both Fabian Moreau and Marcus Rios gone at corner? Will Holmes get any run as a receiver or returner?
Even after a 4-8 season, UCLA pulled in two otherworldly talented freshmen, and they may very well be integral to UCLA’s success in 2017.
Kicking into High Gear
Of the many disastrous parts of UCLA’s 2016 season, one that got overlooked was the kicking game.
JJ Molson and Austin Kent were recruited to be the next in line of great UCLA kickers and punters respectively. But both struggled mightily - Molson only hit 12 of 20 kicks, Kent averaged under 40 yards a punt - and both lost their jobs to walk-ons at various points throughout the season.
Both Kent and Molson return, as well as the respective walk-ons they lost their jobs to, Stefan Flintoff and Andrew Strauch. Was it just a case of freshmen jitters, or is it something deeper than that? It’s something to keep in mind as spring goes along.
Whatever the case is, and whoever handles kicking for UCLA, a team coming off a 4-8 season needs all three phases of the ball firing at once.
Poor punting and missed field goals make the climb back to national relevance that much harder.