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The UCLA Football Spring Game Taught Us Nothing, and Everything

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UCLA’s Spring Game was rather uneventful, yet lessons can still be learned.

@UCLAFootball

I’m actually not sure why teams continue to play Spring Games.

I mean, I get the reasons behind them. They signify the end of Spring practices (even though UCLA will be holding a player-run practice this week), and give their respective fanbases a reminder that football exists, much in the same way a drug dealer gives an a user a quick hit of their wares (if the analogy makes you queasy, sorry, but addiction is too obvious of a relevant emotion for fans and sports to pass up).

You build fan support with Spring Games, which is helpful if your program is coming off a disappointing season where you limped to the end with a record of, and I’m just going to throw out a completely random record here, 4-8. Also it’s the perfect opportunity to get rid of any surplus athletic gear from your previous supplier before a move in the offseason. Congratulations to everyone who took advantage of those Adidas discounts!

But Spring Games also tend to run headfirst into a little issue called Complete Uselessness.

Let’s consider UCLA’s Spring Game as an example. Anyone looking to glean any major information about the program would have had difficulty doing so. For example:

  • Wanted to get a glimpse of the new offense? Well, it looks eerily similar to last year’s version.
  • Interested to see how the offensive line and wide receivers look with their new coaches? Good luck trying to gain any insight there, as both groups were split up between both Blue and White teams (why they did this with the offensive line in particular, a group that really requires time to gel into a cohesive unit, I’ll never know).
  • How about the defense? Same thing, with starters spread among both teams and plying along second and third-stringers. This isn’t as big of a deal considering how much the defense rotates guys anyway, but you’d have ideally liked to have seen the ones all together on the same side of the field.
  • Oh hey, how did Josh Rosen do? Fine. Not better than last year, but not worse.

So yeah, hard to say there was anything of note that happened on Saturday. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; considering UCLA’s injury history, getting out of the game without a major injury is never a sure thing.

But at the same time, you can’t really say that we learned nothing from this Spring Game. We actually learned a great deal, as long as you looked close enough.

Let’s start with that offense because, if we’re being honest here, that’s the biggest area of concern. UCLA did find itself in the unenviable position of turning over almost the entire offensive coaching staff, who are attempting to revamp an offense that was among the worst at running the ball, couldn’t block with any sort of consistency, and was routinely plagued by dropped passes. Oh yeah, and they have a star quarterback coming off of shoulder surgery. It’s not surprising that, given all that, new OC Jedd Fisch went with an approach of “Last year’s offense, but run competently” for the Spring Game, which should help alleviate some fears from fans while also not giving away much. But on top of that, Jedd Fisch mixed in a solid amount of misdirection plays, including moving pockets, counter runs, and the like, showcasing a level of offensive sophisitication that UCLA fans hadn’t seen in a year (look, I know the prevailing feeling here towards Noel Mazzone, but we can at least agree that his offense at least tried to do something unique, instead of what we got last year). Does it matter that the offense was not very crisp? Probably not! After all, they’re still learning things, while the defense is seasoned and in a system they’re very familiar with. It’s too soon to write the book on Jedd Fisch’s offense, but the early results have been encouraging.

Speaking of offense, let’s talk about Josh Rosen real fast. I wrote up there that Josh looked similar to how he did last year, but that’s not a bad thing; considering the shoulder injury and surgery he suffered, the fact that he’s even at that level right now should be seen as a huge positive. Count me (and apparently a large amount of NFL analysts doing way-too-early mock drafts for 2018) among those who still believe in Josh Rosen as a quarterback. His talent level is still high enough that even average play from him is better than a large majority of quarterbacks. And I will err on the side of caution and say that a lot of Rosen’s issues this Spring seemed to stem more from general rust than anything. To that end, just getting back into something resembling a groove is more important than anything else that Josh Rosen will have done this Spring.

(And as an aside, it will probably help that Rosen now has a coaching staff that seems to remember what Theo Howard was recruited for, and seems to recognize that Jordan Lasley is a current player on the football roster. Seriously, last year Lasley spent the first 6 games like some sort of bizarro closer, finally getting in games late and immediately rattling off big play after big play and Theo Howard barely played through those first 6 games. If anything is going to make Josh Rosen look better this year, it’s going to be having the real-talented receivers on the field more often.)

Switching gears, there was no way we were going to learn anything new about the defense. The staff is the same, and the defensive recruiting has created a situation where there’s little drop-off from losing contributors from previous seasons. So splitting up the starters between the teams made sense.

But while the defense loses another first-rounder (and 4 draft picks total through the first 4 rounds), we did learn there are still stars on the team. Consider:

  • Adarius Pickett continued a super-strong Spring, which isn’t surprising considering the coaching staff finally has no excuses to not let him play all the time. Pickett had an interception in the game, and he’s going to get PAID by some NFL team, maybe as soon as this time next year.
  • Speaking of guys who will be getting paid in the future, Jaelan Phillips had the kind of Spring you see from guys with multiple years of college, not from guys who should realistically be getting ready for high school prom at this time. Phillips looks like he would have been a top NFL prospect in this previous draft, and was consistently making plays in the backfield. Bruin fans should be ready to enjoy watching him for 3 years.
  • Similarly, Darnay Holmes looks ready to start now and be a major contributor out of the gate. UCLA has lacked a true shut-down corner in the Mora era, but Holmes spent the Spring (and the Spring Game) showing hints that he could be that player.
  • The usual suspects also were out and about. Kenny Young, Boss Tagaloa, Rick Wade, and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner all had good Springs, and Young in particular looks ready to step up into the leadership role previously occupied by former linebackers Eric Kendricks and Jayon Brown.

Now, with all of that said, does this look like a way-too-optimistic outlook on how the Spring went? Absolutely. That, more than anything else, is the point of Spring football - to give you a glimpse into the future and to get you to buy in again. There are, of course, questions on whether this team and the UCLA program under Jim Mora have earned that buy-in, but that’s a question for the fall.

You never learn anything of note during the Spring Game, but you do learn to feel hope again. Maybe Spring Games are good for something.