No matter how you look at the UCLA football Spring camp and whatever revelations come from it, the overwhelming topic must be numbers. Between the early signing period in December and the February national signing day, the Bruins got only 19 recruits. To be fair, in 2018, UCLA had one of the youngest teams in the country, so they were always in a position of recruiting for depth versus immediate starting needs in most positions. Still, the recruiting outcome, at least in terms of numbers, was underwhelming to many.
UCLA Football: A Matter Of Numbers
Another number that has garnered much attention is 35. That is the amount of non-matriculated players that have left the program since Chip Kelly took over in December of 2017. To be fair, not all departures are created equal. There were a handful of grad transfers. Anyone who follows the game on a national basis will tell you that grad level student-athletes do not stay put at their original program. They have one last chance to determine their own destination. Nearly all choose to use their last year of eligibility at a school other than where they started. There were a couple early departures for the NFL. And then there were the ones that left altogether either of Kelly’s volition or their own.
No matter the reasons for the departures, and no matter how young the team is, the numbers start to play tricks on you. Thirty-five departures, 19 new signees, returning players, and it all gets you a roster somewhere around 70. That’s roughly the equivalent of some programs that have been on probation and had scholarship reductions in recent years.
So does UCLA get hurt by the numbers this year? The obvious answer is, it depends. There is a wealth of depth at some of the skill positions. Linebacker will be boosted by the return to health of some players, even with some departures. Defensive line should fair well. On the other hand, they are one turned-quarterback-ankle away from having to go to someone who has never thrown a pass in a college game. Imagine that scenario as Oklahoma visits the Rose Bowl in September.
The Bruins are loaded. The return of Joshua Kelley meant everything. They had skill with Kazmeir Allen and Martell Irby returning. Keegan Jones and Jahmon McClendon would have given them depth under any circumstances. But there is no substitute for having a proven 1,000-yard rusher and a leader in the huddle return. Chip Kelly’s biggest challenge here will be spreading the wealth around enough in the carries to keep everyone engaged. There is no evidence that Kelley cannot handle 25 carries per game and still be viable in the fourth quarter.
Again, the cup runneth over. Sure, they lose safety blanket Caleb Wilson, but Theo Howard being back can not be over-stated. He has gone from being routinely in Jim Mora’s dog house to being one of the most reliable receivers in the West. Tuesday at practice he looked very solid, if not spectacular, making all the grabs that were anywhere near catchable. Chase Cota got in a lot of snaps with the “ones” during seven-on-seven drills. His size creates obvious mismatches on the outside if he can maintain his route abilities. Frankly the most impressive receiver of the day was Kyle Phillips, and it in specific drills, not the scrimmaging.
Receiver coach Jimmie Dougherty has two receivers run routes around tackling dummies, almost as a race. As they come around the corner of their respective dummy, the ball is thrown up for grabs between the two receivers. Without fail, Philips was a step quicker to the ball than anyone he was competing against, and in the event of a tie to the ball, he was able to muscle it away with good reach technique and strong hands.
Devin Asiasi and Demetric Felton were also highly prominent in the seven-on-seven drills.
Yes, we jumped around, for a reason. The defensive line was in the backfield routinely in the seven-on-seven drills Tuesday. Take it how you want. The offensive line was getting beat, or the defensive line was that good. Frankly, we are leaning a little more on the latter. Tyler Manoa was a force all morning. He was quick off the ball, and strong through the line. Losing Rick Wade clearly hurts the game experience of the group. There is youthful talent, but it is not a deep group. They are a couple of injuries away from relying on untested reserves.
The strength of the defense. Krys Barnes and Keisean Lucier-South had very effective days Tuesday, particularly against the run game in the scrimmages. It’s also clear that while he is still not cleared to practice, Josh Woods is like another assistant coach out there. You can see him going over what sees from the sidelines with his linebacker teammates. When he is healthy later this year, this has the potential to be an outstanding group with more depth than any other position on the team.
They get mixed marks from Tuesday specifically. Jay Shaw made a great play on the ball in the end zone on what looked like a would-be touchdown pass to Theo Howard. No one got beat deep, but there were plays not made. Some of that is just the nature of the drills. But Adarius Pickett and Nate Meadors are gone. That leaves Quentin Lake and Darnay Holmes as the guys who must perform every game. Elijah Gates and Shaw need to contribute and if Kenny Churchwell can show up, the group could be able to hold its own. Jalen Hurts will test them early, but they miss Justin Herbert and Jacob Eason on the schedule this season, so they catch a little break.
We have grouped them because the success of one is going to directly lead to the success of the other. Dorian Thompson-Robinson looks improved. His release is quicker. His decision-making is more succinct. The proclivity to tuck the ball and run is more appropriate and his long throws are more precise. He looks like a quarterback who has matured the way you are supposed to from your freshman to your sophomore year. But his health is everything to this team.
Austin Burton is fine. He plays like someone who has never taken a snap in a college game, for all the obvious reasons. His reads take longer. His decision making is more methodical. Chase Griffin still is not physically cleared to participate. Even if he were, as we have said repeatedly, having your back-up be exactly one class behind your starter is not ideal in the long run. The lack of a grad transfer of JUCO transfer forces Burton into a backup role he may or may not be ready for.
That means the offensive line becomes critical-point-charlie for the success of the offense. Losing Andre James to the NFL draft is not a significant subtraction. Boss Tagaloa was and will be the critical element of the offensive line. But they margin for health is razor thin. Sean Rhyan and Duke Clemens could be counted on for snaps and they won’t be around until Summer. The line was physical in practice Tuesday and got a good push in the running game more times than not. But the drop off from the “ones” to the “twos” is discernible this early on in camp. The health of the starters translates to the health of Thompson-Robinson, which translates to the health of the season.
There are not a lot of numbers to spare.