Dang. One day without a football practice and I'm beginning to shake. But the Bruins won't get together in San Bernardino for another three months. So here's my therapy for a gentler withdrawal: some partly reasoned thoughts on the Bruins 2015 Spring Camp and what sort of things I read between the lines.
I thought about publishing it as "5 important points to take from U.C.L.A. Spring Football" but then that sounded a bit too much like a crappy Bleacher Report article, where each item attaches to a photo that doesn't pertain to the point and the text adds some vague and usually inaccurate data to go with it.
I can do better than that. I came up with 10.
These observations are based on the daily video interviews from Ed Lewis at Bruin Sports Report, the daily practice notes from Jack Wang, the articles in the OC Register and the LA Times and Bruin Report Online, and from eyewitness reports from uclaluv and JoeBruin15 who attended several practices in person. All my thoughts come from open content and my overactive analysis and a lot of years of living Bruin Football and some good old fashioned pure speculation.
And I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments or in the fan posts if you have a lot to say.
So takes this for what it's worth. Here are some things I think I learned from U.C.L.A.'s 2015 Spring Camp...
1. Getting through Spring Camp healthy was huge.
Very few players who started Spring healthy missed any significant time over the three weeks. Only a couple receivers didn't finish on the field at the Spring Showcase, and we are deep at that position. The Bruins lesser depth in the past was further exacerbated by some key injuries in the spring sessions in previous years, but that wasn't a problem in 2015. Whether this is really a reflection of better strength and conditioning under Coach Sal Alosi (the players would say this) or whether the Bruins treated each other better at practice (see #2 below, and Coach Mora mentioned this), the fact that the team will head into preseason camp in August with a healthy roster ready to contribute can only be a good thing.
2. This team has a more mature mindset than in previous years
It's Mora's 4th year in Westwood. The team is filled with his recruits and now the upperclassmen are in tune with the system. In the final week of spring practices, Mora even said the team was practicing like professionals. There are more leaders on both sides of the ball than ever before, and you could hear it and see it in the post practice interviews with the players. Gone were the chippy fights and late hits in practice. The kids knew what the coaching staff expected and how to get it done, and they executed. Mora looked very happy with the practices, and only once during spring he said the team had a lull, but once they were called on it they fixed it on their own. That's a sign of a team that can, and wants to, handle its business. And no one went over any walls.
Whether this improved maturity is reflected in things like fewer penalties and more attention to assignments remains to be seen. Those areas have to be fixed if the Bruins want to go from being a good 10 win team to a Championship team, but they looked like they were taking the right steps the last 3 weeks.
3. We're going to be more of a running team this year.
Our best and most proven player on offense is Paul Perkins and he merely led the conference in rushing last year. Behind him, Nate Starks looks just as good, and Craig Lee may finally be good enough with assignments to let his big time talent get on the field. Some will say Brett Hundley's arm and running ability last year kept defenses from focusing on our running backs, and that's true to a degree, though Brett wasn't as much of a running threat through the early and middle season as we expected, and Perkins was still racking up yards. With a better O Line (see #6), a new QB coming on board (see #9), and a whole year under RB Coach Kennedy Polamalu (see #10), expect to see the offense trust in its running game early in the season.
4. Jordan Lasley is going to be the breakout player this fall.
The Bruins have a lot of very very good receivers, but there's one who I think can be amazing. Jordan Lasley was electric last year as a redshirt on the scout team, so there is no doubt about his talent. The knock on him has been his attitude and his occasional preference to beat up the defense after the play rather than beat the defense on the field during it. But with WR Coach Yarber riding him, that attitude seems to have been redirected to making big plays, and that one handed grab down the sidelines at the Showcase, coming just a couple plays after a tough drop in tight coverage, shows what his combo of skill and intensity can do. The Bruins have lacked that big time game breaker on the outside in recent years. I think Lasley can be that guy, especially if the Bruins QB (see #9) thinks so, too.
5. The kicking game still worries me some.
I think all the senior starters appeared for interviews after practice this spring, except Ka'imi Fairbairn. Maybe it's just a matter of devoting interview time to position players. Or maybe it's just keeping the kicker protected. Fairbairn has had a relatively rocky career for a program used to consistency like Kai Forbath and Justin Medlock. Ka'imi has certainly improved throughout his three years and he's pretty money inside 40 yards, but he still has a bend in his kicks that just hasn't gotten straightened out over his career. That kind of thing is hard on accuracy when the ball's in the air for a long time, which is what those last minute game deciding kicks tend to be. To be a championship team, you need to have championship caliber play at every position. We're good at the FG spot. I don't know if we're great. Spring bore this out.
6. The Offensive Line is going to be better.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me 3 or 4 times, I'm a total sucker.
But here I go again...the O Line is gonna get be better this fall.
It's not a huge limb to climb out on. I wrote in last year's preseason preview that the Bruins were returning their most experienced and most talented line and they could make up for the loss of Xavier Su'a-Filo with their depth and with the urgency to correct their obvious problems in pass protection. Then they went out and gave up a Pac-12 worst 41 sacks on the year, including 10 against Utah in the game that ultimately kept us out of the Pac-12 Championship game.
But this time, really, this time, it's different! This is the healthiest and most experienced O Line in Mora's tenure. The unit has 129 career starts among 7 different players. Jake Brendel is a 4 year starter in the middle and the accepted leader. The return of Conor McDermott to left tackle has been huge (literally and figuratively) and he spent his spring shutting down the Bruin DL. Caleb Benenoch is a decent right tackle if Simon Goines can't earn the spot back. The opportunity for the unit to spend a whole spring together healthy (see #1 above) should really pay dividends in cohesiveness and communication, and the depth should spare the coaching staff from rearranging the entire front when someone goes down. Even Noel Mazzone said that he liked what he was seeing from the line this spring. It seems the absence of Coach Adrian Klemm (see #10) did not hurt the development of the unit much, if at all. And with an expected reliance on the run (see #3) while breaking in a new QB (see #9), things look promising for a good year on the OL. Again.
7. The defense is gonna be a beast.
The Bruins return 9 starters and should be able to plug the holes left by Eric Kendricks and Owamagbe Odighizuwa who are about to become NFL players. Myles Jack may get the headlines, but Kenny Young is poised to be Mister Reliable at ILB, allowing Jack to go hero mode with his incredible athleticism. It's telling that the Bruin QB's wouldn't throw anywhere near Jack in the Showcase. They know better. Opposing QBs will learn the hard way. Eddie Vanderdoes and Kenneth Clark were frequently dominant on the D Line last year and they're a year better and stronger, and they will be playing for NFL careers of their own, too. The secondary is so deep that Ishmael Adams, the starter at corner the last two years will probably get passed by Marcus Rios. Randall Goforth has 2 healthy shoulders. Given a new defensive philosophy which should take better advantage of individual talents (see #8 and #10) instead of strict reliance on gap assignments, this should be a more consistent unit and should make more big plays.
8. I'm ok with Tom Bradley being the DC.
Like it or not, you can't disprove a negative, so past associations always follow us forward and old questions will always remain. While some Bruin fans are understandably suspicious of Bradley's potential connection to the horrible Penn State events, nothing officially stuck to Bradley himself. The school, desperate to move beyond the scandal, even hired him as interim head coach. Unlike another coach on campus whose actions and comments are well documented, I think you can reasonably give Bradley the benefit of the doubt. With that in mind, I'll entertain a discussion on his coaching merits, and those seem to be very impressive. The defenses at Penn State speak for themselves, so much so that that's where we're ripping the LinebackerU moniker. Bradley's comments after practices this spring showed a very patient and thoughtful approach to his new gig, and I like how he is trying to build a defense with the current parts rather than force a system onto players that might not fit. It shows a humble and practical approach to his task. He also adds a unique piece to our recruiting assets going forward. Just watch. Time will tell, but I'm optimistic about our defense in the fall.
9. Ok, I'll say it. Josh Rosen is gonna be the QB.
The biggest question going into spring practice in March will remain the biggest question going into preseason camp in August. Unless you want to just take my partly-substantiated guess and rest easily in the meantime.
Brett Hundley was a unique talent and a leader and he will be impossible to replace, but Rosen offers the most upside in his stead. He is the most complete QB of the 4 who got reps in Spring. He proved to be the best passer on the team by a long way and he is a more than adequate runner. He also slid better in the Showcase than Hundley ever did in his career. Rosen already has sufficient command of the offense, having played in a similar system in high school, and he will only get more comfortable with the Bruins' version in the next 4 months. Mora and staff have shown no qualms in starting a true freshman in the past, and Hundley's first snap came on Mora's first offensive play, so things shouldn't be different for Rosen. The coaches are playing mum, but the players on the team talk about him like he already has the keys.
If there were any justice in this world (and there isn't) Jerry Neuheisel would get a chance, but he's merely a solid and reliable player and the Bruins need a championship caliber QB. Asiantii Woulard has more gifts than little Neu and only his inexperience at the position kept him from the backup before. Those two will battle for that spot. But Rosen has those gifts to go along with the understanding and poise and and decision making processes to be a playmaker. That's why he'll be starting against Virginia.
10. The Bruins 2015 season will be a product of the coaching.
The Bruins return 19 of 22 starters from a 10 win and #10 ranked team, so the roster looks set. Oregon and Washington are replaced on the schedule with their respective state schools, so the schedule looks set. Southern Cal still has seven win Sark. The only thing that can reliably beat the Bruins this fall is the Bruins. Or namely, their coaching.
The players are bigger. The talent is better. The roster is deeper. The one area that hasn't reliably improved for U.C.L.A. is the coaching. Now, the addition of Kennedy Polamalu has been fantastic (see #3). I also think Bradely is an upgrade at DC (see #8). But this is otherwise the same staff we saw last year when we criticized Noel Mazzone's predictable offense and play calling, and Taylor Mazzone's ability to develop Hundley (and Wouldard) as much as he could, and Ulbrich's vanilla defense and lack of pressure, and Mora's general conservative mentality and failure to go for the throat. Once again, if this staff can take the same sort of leap we are seeing from the players and steps up by being more creative with schemes and play calling and more aggressive with 4th down decisions and defensive calls and come out every game with an attitude and preparation that eliminates dumb mistakes and selfish penalties and brings our best game for 60 whole minutes, then we should be in for a very fun ride in 2015.
That's what I learned from U.C.L.A. Spring Football 2015.
And, pun intended, hope springs eternal.