Two weeks into the Jim Mora era, the team is beginning to take more shape. Coach Mora talked a lot about a "culture change" and "tempo" from the date he was hired, but the extent those buzzwords have been emphasized throughout the first two weeks of practice is impressive. As reported in the Daily Bruin,
Breaks have been hard to come by for the first two weeks of UCLA's spring practices, with the new staff pushing the players to work harder and faster than before.
"It's really different but with how things have gone in the past, something had to change," senior quarterback Richard Brehaut said.
"It's a good different though, I love it. All the guys are starting to buy into it and believe it and that's what it's going to take for us to get better."
We know talk is cheap, especially during Spring practice, but Coach Mora appears to be on the right track. He landed an impressive recruiting class in a short time, he immediately disciplined players and preached accountability, and now he is following through with his aggressive approach.Of course, some habits are hard to break. As was the case with last Saturday's practice, yesterday's practice suffered from a slow period after beginning with an exciting Oklahoma drill. We learned last week that Coach Mora doesn't accept shoddy effort, and he was able to round the team into shape again.
On the depth chart front, it does appear that some of our predictions are coming to fruition. Last month, we thought Jordon James would get looks at the F and that is precisely where he has spent the majority of his time. Noel Mazzone likes to use his backs in the passing game to get his playmakers in space. As we stated last month, and which was echoed by Chris Foster in his post practice post, last season, our receivers caught as many balls as ASU's starting running bac 24k-. ASU's starting F caught 60 more.
Nestor discussed Steven Manfro's impressive camp to date in the last practice report, but yet another running back is making unexpected strides. Dalton Hilliard has been impressive this Spring, showing good burst and running ability. Coach Mazzone is taking notice:
"The last couple of days, I have liked him," Mazzone said. "He is showing toughness, running with the pads low, and he has good outside speed. I feel we have a good group of running backs. That is one area where I'm really excited about the talent pool."
The star of yesterday's practice was neither Manfro nor Hilliard, however. Oft injured Jerry Johnson put on a show.
The little-used, oft-injured, much-maligned, almost-forgotten redshirt senior wide receiver reintroduced himself to the UCLA faithful by climbing an imaginary ladder again and again and again.
During one-on-one drills with defensive backs into the end zone facing the crowd, Johnson brought the fans to their feet by getting his off the ground. On one pass to the corner, Johnson jumped what "felt like 20 feet" and snagged the pass with one hand, corralling it in for one of his many touchdowns in the drill.
After practice, Coach Yarber had some nice things to say about Johnson:
"He hasn't played a lot and he doesn't have a lot of experience, but the things he brings to the table you can't teach. He has great speed, and what's exceptional about him is his quickness for his size. He's very, very quick, very fast, very strong. He goes up and attacks the ball. I think the sky is the limit."
Coach Yarber didn't limit his praise to Johnson, however:
"All these guys I once recruited, so I knew they were pretty good coming out of high school. I knew Shaq Evans was good. I knew Devin Lucien was good. Jerry Johnson I recruited also. Those guys had skill in high school, and I think they need a little know-how. They have some talent, and hopefully I can give them a little know-how and tools to put in their tool box."
It's refreshing to hear that Coach Yarber likes one of our more questionable positions on the field. After two years in the Pistol, our depth chart looked a little thin for Mazzone's offense. Part of the reason may be the fierce competition for the new roles.
"There is no favoritism. the best guy is going to play. Even though they are competing with each other, they pull for each other. They're bring the best out of each other. One person sees another guy doing well, he wants to top him. They have a good competitive nature."
Of course, you can't mention the wideouts without talking about Devin Lucien. By all accounts, he is becoming the leader of the position. While many of us wanted to see him on the field last season, Lucien did not waste the year.
"He's a very good player and at a young age he's showing a lot of maturity. He can be one of the better receivers to come out of UCLA, but right now is just the beginning and he knows it. He has a long way to go, but the thing about Devin is he wants to be great. He does all the little things. Takes great notes in meetings, works extra after practice, always picking my brain. He wants to be great and that's a great starting point for me."
Once again, the quarterbacks split the reps.
Six practices in, there doesn't appear to have been much separation in the quarterback competition. Saturday, though, was a step forward for the group, as there was a general uptick in accuracy. Richard Brehaut and Brett Hundley stood out, as did Jerry Neuheisel, who's having a really nice spring.
On the injury front, Wade Yandall returned, while Joseph Fauria (hamstring), Greg Capella (calf), Johnathan Franklin (knee), Andrew Abbott (knee), Ricky Marvray (back), Darius Bell (quad), Jerry Rice (shoulder) and John Young missed practice. Practice resumes on Tuesday.