The intensity of the workouts is picking up. And for UCLA, most importantly, the yellow/limited work jerseys are coming off key players. UCLA’s camp is close to closing and game prep for next week’s opener at Cincinnati will be starting very soon.
The biggest news is that starting running back Joshua Kelley got to take off the yellow jersey. Wednesday he put in real work for the first time all camp. The thousand-yard rusher from last year is a critical piece to stability on the offense as a senior. That is especially true with the Bruins youth coming at starting quarterback. Starting defensive back/kick returner Darnay Holmes also returned to full speed workouts Wednesday. Receiver Theo Howard still has the yellow jersey on because he still has a cast on his hand, but is also still working out at full speed, including learning to catch with one hand. Alec Anderson, coming off out-patient knee surgery last week, is working out on the exercise bike and his status is still to-be-determined. The only player ruled out due to injury is linebacker Tyree Thompson who had foot surgery a couple of weeks ago.
So, the team has gotten healthier in what feels like a matter of mere hours. Pre-game prep starts in less than 48 hours. And the increased pep in the step of the players has been noticeable at the end of training camp.
Head coach Chip Kelly is already in mid-season form, though. He is not looking too far ahead, like even to the next day. When asked about his season goals, Kelly relied on what has been his process for some time now. “We’re in a micro operation now once the season starts, and you do it on a day to day basis, so it was kind of how can we be better today than they were yesterday. And pick your head up sometime in December and see if the season as a whole was a positive. You know, there’s going to be ups and downs and how you respond to the downs is really the important part.”
The lack of yellow jerseys did not escape the coach, though. “Really impressed with the health of the team. You know, I have never had this many, probably in my career, this many kids healthy all through camp.”
As we previously noted, the health and stability of the offensive line is going to mean everything to this year’s team. That puts a bright spotlight on offensive line coach Justin Frye. He was promoted to offensive coordinator during the off-season, while maintaining his job as line coach. Kelly said, “His ability to communicate and relate to players is outstanding. And he’s meticulous in his work ethic in terms of making sure his presentations are what our players need to hear. He is really in tune to their learning styles.”
Kelly credits Frye’s ability to relate to the players with being significant in getting the most out of them. “Whether he is teaching a kinesthetic learner, whether it’s teaching an auditory, depending on who the individual is a real key sense of how you approach guys, you know, so you can’t do it all to everybody, because everybody learns differently. So, I think he’s really in tune to the learning styles of each individual players position.”
Frye’s offensive line has a lot of snaps together. That, with their health, should be a decisive factor in the unit’s potential for success this season. Kelly never likes the “M” word, (momentum), but continuity is one he will grab on to. “Chris Murray started at center for us last year in the opening game and he had never played center before in his life. So, you know, you’re talking about a real unknown he competed and did an unbelievable job. And he has played next to Boss (Tagaloa) for eight games so that is a positive. And Mike Alves played next to Boss for eight games, so that’s a positive. Jake Burton has played next to Chris for eight games, but really 12, because they all played 12.” Now it is a matter of whether it is Anderson or freshman Sean Rhyan filling out that fifth spot next Thursday.
Even with Thompson, (injury), and Keisean Lucier-South, (academics), missing from the linebacking corps, UCLA is deep enough to compete across the board with Cincinnati, a team that went 11-2 last season. They also defeated Virginia Tech in the Military Bowl. The Bearcats return seven starters on defense and eight on offense. That includes junior running back Michael Warren II. He was 12th in the nation with 1,329 yards in 2018 and 4th with 19 rushing touchdowns.
But that is for Kelly and the team to focus on beginning Saturday. For one more day of camp, it is about holding the yellow jerseys at bay, and as Kelly puts it, having a better day today than you had yesterday.
The Pasquale Impact
UCLA is un-retiring the number 36 from its football archives. The number was shelved following the death of wide receiver Nick Pasquale in 2013. Kelly decided to reward a player each year who best embodies what Pasquale was as a teammate and a friend. That player will get the #36 for the season.
In a ceremony at training camp earlier this week, senior walk-on wide receiver Ethan Fernea was given the number for the upcoming season. Pasquale’s family was at the practice for the event.
Current graduate assistant Jerry Neuheisel was a teammate of Pasquale’s. Kelly says that the former backup quarterback called Pasquale the best teammate he ever played with. Kelly added that without fail everyone considered Fernea a great teammate. That will be part of the consideration for awarding the jersey number every year going forward. “There’s a lot of talented people who play sports, but I think it’s the lasting memory of your character that I think always stands out with players and that really resonated with all of us.”
Fernea says he wants to represent the number, the family and the late player. “I think it really just motivates me to really try to bring positive energy every day and try to be the best teammate I can be. Everything I have heard about Nick Pasquale, he sounded like an incredible man and an incredible teammate. I think it represents a little bit more than what you do on the field. It’s more about how you are in the locker room and as a teammate, so to get that honor, it’s really humbling.”
Fernea got to spend some time with Pasquale’s family this week. The family told him they would be watching for him this season and wished him luck.