Friday, May 4, 2012
Five things to watch: UCLA spring scrimmage
By Peter Yoon
One thing Jim Mora will be watching Saturday is how his players adapt to a different environment.
LOS ANGELES -- UCLA's spring football practice session will end Saturday with the annual spring scrimmage game at the Rose Bowl. The action begins at 5 p.m.
With a new coaching staff and positional battles across the board, there will be plenty of newness on the field, so here are a few pointers on what to look for during the game:
1. THE QUARTERBACKS They have been the most-watched players since the beginning of spring practice, so why should the spring finale be any different?
Coach Jim Mora and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone have yet to pick a starter for next season, and you have to figure performance in this scrimmage will be a large portion of each quarterback's grade when it comes to making a call.
Mora would not divulge how the reps would be divided among the quarterbacks, but you have to guess Brett Hundley, Richard Brehaut and Kevin Prince will get the bulk. Prince has been hampered by a sore shoulder over the last two weeks, so he could be limited.
The keys to determining who plays best go beyond who is able to complete passes. The coaches are looking for command of the offense and good decision making as well as play-making ability.
"There are a lot of decisions that need to be made by the quarterback in this offense," Mazzone said. "Before the snap, at the snap, after the snap. You’re looking for how guys make those decisions under fire. And you are looking for a guy who can make those decisions then make the throws that need to be made. And you want a guy who can create plays when there’s no plays there to be made."
2. THE TEMPO The high-paced offense has been one of the hot topics all spring and the Bruins will put it on full display Saturday. They are running a no-huddle offense with the plays coming in from the sideline and the quarterbacks calling them from behind center.
After each play the offense scrambles to the line and resets to do it all over. This is a far cry from the methodical, clock grinding Pistol offense UCLA ran the last two seasons, so it will be a change for the players to play at this accelerated pace for the first time in game-like conditions.
Also worth noting is whether or not the defense can keep pace. The Bruis struggled mightily last season against high-paced teams such as Houston, Arizona and Oregon. The Bruins defense seemed lost early in the spring,but has come on strong over the last couple of weeks so it will be interesting to see which unit deals best with the high pace.
3. THE NERVES It's one thing to learn a new system in the comfort of Spaulding Field with only a couple of hundred people watching, but its another to transfer that knowledge to a game-like environment.
UCLA players will take a bus to the Rose Bowl, change in the locker room, go through pre-game warmups and play in front of an expected crowd of a couple thousand. It will be an emotional surge for players who haven't had to get up for game conditions in four months and it will be the first time they will do so on Mora's watch. Mora said he'll be taking notes.
"I want to see how they react to a different environment," Mora said. "I want to see how they react to a 120 yard field. I want to see how they react to more fans, the noise, having to get on a bus and travel, being in a different locker room, having a different uniform on, a little bit more urgency or excitement in the air. That’s what good teams do is no matter what environment they go in to, they react quickly and they don’t wait to get started. I want to see if we can do that."
4. THE OTHER POSITION BATTLES Most of the focus is on the quarterbacks, but there are serious competitions going on all over the field.
Defensive line, running back and wide receiver are positions that have a great deal of depth and running back Johnathan Franklin is the only truly established No. 1 guy at any of those positions.
Franklin, however, is getting pushed by camp breakout star Steven Manfro as well as Jordon James. Malcolm Jones has also had a pretty good camp, so it will be interesting to see how Mazzone and running backs coach Steve Broussard use that stable of players.
At receiver, things are wide open after Nelson Rosario and Taylor Embree graduated. They were the two leading wide receivers for UCLA in each of the past three seasons, so there are suddenly a lot of targets up for grabs. Jerry Johnson, Shaquelle Evans and Devin Lucien figure to get most of them, but Joseph Fauria, a tight end last season, and Darius Bell, a quarterback last year, are now playing a hybrid receiver position called the "Y" and are also competing for catches.
The defensive line is the deepest position on the team with Datone Jones, Cassius Marsh, Owamagbe Odighizuwa, Donovan Carter, Iuta Tepa, Brandon Tuialapupu and Seali'i Epenesa all bringing significant playing experience and Brandon Willis joining the fold after sitting out last season because of transfer rules.
5. THE X FACTOR Xavier Su'a-Filo is back in action for the first time since the 2009 season after returning from a Mormon Mission. A 13-game starter as a freshman, he was considered UCLA's top offensive linemen before he left, but acknowledges that he's still been shaking off the rust this spring.
"I’m still trying to get a few things down, but it’s starting to come back," Su'a-Filo said. "I’m still working on my technique. I’d be lying if I said it was anywhere near where I want to be or need it to be."
Getting in game conditions is just the next step for Sua'-Filo in regaining the form that made him an honorable mention All Pac-10 selection as a freshman.
I’m not the same person I was two years ago. I’m more of a man instead of a boy, so it’s just a matter of getting my technique back and getting back my awareness of the game and the more I go up against some of these guys I'm going up against, the better it will be for me."
Su'a-Filo, slated to start at left tackle, is a crucial component for a unit that has struggled at times over the last two seasons. This spring, a lack of depth has hurt the offensive line as Greg Capella, Chris Ward and Wade Yandall--starters at times last season--have all missed significant time with injuries.