UCLA training camp is sort of like the shopping list you take with you to the store. Milk. Check. Bread. Check. Big jug of wine. Check. Ok kidding there. That has to be someone else’s shopping list. As we look at the end of open practices for Jim Mora’s 2017 squad, there is a very specific checklist as well.
Josh Rosen’s shoulder is healthy and his arm strength is 100%. Check
The wide receivers have done a slightly better job catching the ball than they did last season. Check.
Devon Modster looks to be a viable backup quarterback getting more reps than last year’s #2. Check.
Freshman defensive end Jaelan Phillips is living up to the hype already and will be a starter. Check.
Freshman defensive back Darnay Holmes is a physical beast and has earned a starting spot. Check.
The offensive line is vastly improved and will keep Rosen upright in 2017.
UCLA Fall Camp
Yes, there is a check missing on that last one. UCLA goes into closed practices starting next week as they begin preparations for the season opener at home on September 3rd against Texas A&M. That means it will be some time before the fans know what Rosen’s season will look like, based on the offensive line.
Last year, a line that was getting used to a new offense installed by then-coordinator Kennedy Polamalu, never got the logistics down. The Bruins were near last in the nation in rushing and Rosen spent much of the passing plays scrambling for his life. Ultimately, it meant a shoulder injury that cost him, and the team, the back half of the season. The line had just as difficult of a time with backup quarterback Mike Fauful. Only tackle Conor McDermott is gone from that line, so the good news for 2017 is that the Bruins return a veteran offensive line. The bad news is these are mostly the same players who struggled most of last season.
Junior Kolton Miller appears to be a lock at left tackle and senior Scott Quessenberry is a certainty at center. Beyond that, there is room for interpretation. Senior Najee Toran is getting most of the work with the starters at left guard. Returning starter Kenny Lacy moved to right tackle at the beginning of camp but seems to have been usurped by Sunny Odogwu, a graduate transfer from Miami. At the end of open camp, it would be safe to say Andre James has the inside track at right guard, but, again, there are two weeks left and the workouts will be closed, so Bruins nation will have to wait for that last critical element. As a group, the line has looked capable in action against a very skilled defensive line. Mora said at Pac 12 Media Days three weeks ago, the health of the offensive line was going to be everything. While the roster is carrying 21 players on the offensive line, Mora said keeping one unit together for as much as possible was going to be the difference this season.
New offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch has to be happy with what he has seen not only from Rosen, but from Modster. Rosen had off-season shoulder surgery but his delivery and strength look to be all the way back. The receivers last year had a stunning number of drops throughout the season, including six touchdown passes in the end zone. To this point, returnees Eldridge Massington, Darren Andrews and Jordan Lasley have shown to be in-sync with Rosen in terms of timing. Much was expected of then-freshman Theo Howard last season and he is still a to-be-determined link in the offense, based upon needing to significantly improve his blocking. Howard left Saturday’s light scrimmage with an apparent ankle injury, the severity of which has yet to be determined.
Beyond Rosen, Modster has taken a firm grasp on the backup spot and has been getting significant time with the “ones” in camp. That is a meaningful departure from last season when Fauful was pushed into emergency starting status after Rosen’s injury, and was admittedly ill-equipped, having gotten such little consequential time with the starters in camp and practice. Modster’s work with the starting receivers is not “Rosen-esque,” but certainly he looks capable enough should he be needed.
The defensive side has fewer question marks at the halfway point of Fall camp. Phillips will be the starting defensive end with Rick Wade on the other side, and Boss Tagaloa and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner on the inside. What freshmen Osa Odighizuwa lacks in experience, he makes up for in obvious skill, so there is needed depth.
The linebacking corps has looked so good in camp that all conference middle linebacker Kenny Young moved to the outside, because it was going to be impossible to keep sophomore Lokeni Toailoa off the field the way he has played the last two weeks. Josh Woods will also start on the outside.
The defensive secondary is experienced with returning regulars, Adarius Pickett, Jaleel Wadood and Nate Meadors. It is, however, the immediate emergence of the freshman Holmes that is getting the attention. His skill was well known when he got to UCLA in January, but his athleticism and understanding of his place on the field have been more evident than even the most optimistic Bruin fan could expect. When you make a break on the ball in seven-on-seven drills and get a clean pick of a Josh Rosen bullet pass, you are going to get on the field quickly.
Perhaps the most influential part of the check list is Fisch, the new offensive coordinator. Mora rolled the dice in 2016, implementing more of a pro-style offense and doing it with Polamalu, who had never been an offensive coordinator in his career. The inconsistency, the lack of production, the lack of cohesion and the 4-8 record tell you all need to know about why Mora worked hard to get Fisch to leave Jim Harbaugh and Michigan for a move to Los Angeles. The reviews on Fisch during camp are that he has the pace of the offense moving quicker and more decisively, that he will be spreading the workload to the deep stable of running backs more and that he has the offensive line working in a more adhesive fashion.
Ah, the offensive line. It all comes back to that. It is reasonable to see where an improved offensive line equals a better running, which equals a more diversified offense with which Rosen will thrive, which equals at least a four-game improvement over last season. It’s all on the check list.