There was an air of familiarity at the UCLA Spring Scrimmage Saturday. Quarterback Josh Rosen was back under center after missing the last seven games of the 2016 season with a shoulder injury. There was a deep stable of running backs struggling to find any running room up the middle behind an offensive line still trying to master the fundamentals of a pro-style offense. There were receivers with bad cases of “the drops.” And then there was Jim Mora who predictably decided to be unpredictable the last two weeks of camp.
Originally there was not going to be a Spring scrimmage, so much as a glorified practice with a meet and greet for the fans afterwards, as they did in 2016. That made sense since one of the keys to the Spring was keeping Rosen standing upright. Then the plan changed to a live scrimmage. It morphed one more time into a live scrimmage with even the quarterbacks being live. Before anyone thinks Rosen was ever in jeopardy, either by coach’s mandates or by the wisdom of the defense, Rosen was untouched the entire half he played.
In front of a few thousand people at Drake Stadium on the UCLA campus, the white team, led by backup quarterback Devin Modster beat Rosen’s blue team 17-10.
UCLA Spring Scrimmage Notes
Rosen went 14 of 18 for 83 yards with one touchdown pass and one interception, while playing just one half. He was plagued by receivers dropping the ball as repeatedly happened in the 2016 season. Eldridge Massington got the most attention because he was dropping throws that were right in his hands, (perhaps the problem), but seven different receivers dropped highly catchable balls throughout the day.
The running back depth chart is deep and getting significant carries for Soso Jamabo, Bolu Olorunfunmi, Jalen Starks and Nate Starks is going to be a challenge for the almost entirely new offensive coaching staff. Mora had Jamabo, last year’s starter, on Rosen’s blue team with Olorunfunmi on Modster’s white team. Reminiscent of last year’s sqaud that finished second to last in the country in rushing, there was not a lot of room to run up the gut. The offensive line is still not making it to the second level of blocks up the middle. What was different though was both teams having significant success on running to the corners. The offensive line showed vast improvement blocking to the edges. Olorunfunmi had 14 carries for 88 yards including a 46 yard touchdown run. It seems likely that running back by committee is going to be the way the season starts. All four deserve carries.
Both offenses took on different looks under new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch. Both Rosen and Modster, as well as other backups Matt Lynch and Austin Burton took significantly more snaps under center than they did last season in Kennedy Polamalu’s attempted pro-style offense.
Just go ahead and put freshman Darnay Holmes as the kick return man right now, Coach. Holmes, an early enrollee at UCLA, showed great patience, field vision and bursts of speed. He is a 30 yard+ threat for every return, which UCLA has not had consistently for a couple of years now.
Speaking of early enrollee freshmen, Jaelan Phillips is a football beast. There is a reason he was one of the most coveted recruits in the country. While true freshman frequently cannot be counted on right away, being at camp all Spring gives Phillips an edge, and quite frankly he made a few plays that had fans and coaches alike looking to the scoreboard right away to see the replay. Watching a 6-5, 265 defensive end start from the near hash mark and chase down a quarterback (Burton), on the far sideline for the sack is going to get you on the field for a lot of snaps right away.
The backup quarterback spot seems unresolved and that is a good thing. Last season, Mora took a lot of heat for not having a backup ready when Rosen went down with his season-ending shoulder injury. Mike Fafaul gave a good effort but the former walk on, who had thrown fewer than 20 college passes in his life was ill prepared for the task ahead. Right now, there is a case to be made for Modster and one to be made for Lynch, both redshirt freshmen. Modster showed a more precise arm, while Lynch showed more mobility and a penchant for keeping plays alive when the line scheme breaks down.
It is usually hard to judge the defense in these scrimmages. They are handcuffed so as not to hurt anyone on the other side of the ball. That having been noted, defensive back Adarius Pickett made his presence known with the interception of Rosen and being in on plays throughout the day.
Coming off a 4-8 season that started with high expectations that went south even before Rosen’s injury, UCLA is feeling the routine upbeat emotions of Spring. Fisch’s influence on the offense is apparent already, the learning curve is still to be mastered, but it is a veteran group on offense. If the young defense can perform with a hint of the athleticism it showed Saturday, there may be cause for a little more pep in the Bruin step.