Gold: 5 thoughts on UCLA as Bruins wrap up spring ball -- without a spring game
LOS ANGELES — The UCLA football team wraps up its final of 15 spring practices on Friday without a traditional spring game, with the ever-eccentric Chip Kelly continuing to eschew modern convention in order for what he calls another “teaching day.”
Some coaches look at the spring showcase as fan and recruiting outreach. Some want to provide their players an early game-like situation, no matter how ineffectual it may be. Some are trying to break in new players at crucial new positions and want to give them some pressure under the lights.
After COVID-19 wreaked havoc on college football practice scheduling and necessitated some changes in 2020-21, the Bruins have gone without a traditional spring game for several years now. Last year, their spring showcase was just a glorified spring practice. This year, Kelly did away with the façade once and for all.
“We haven’t had a spring game for a couple years,” he said in mid-April. “We do so much situational work — we have referees here for 5 days — so we do all of that situational work with a lot of red-zone work, 3rd-down work. Everything for us is about trying to get better. Spring for all for us is about how do you get really better at it? We learned through the COVID process, when we had that spring and a similar schedule, and we felt like it was the best thing for us — maximizing our teaching days. You get 34 days to get 15 practices in, and we’re going to use them all.”
Last year, with a veteran-laden squad led by 2023 NFL Draft picks Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Zach Charbonnet, it was perhaps understandable if Kelly didn’t see much value in the bright lights. This year, despite breaking in a new starting quarterback and running back, Kelly still didn’t.
“Spring for us is to teach and get them ready for the fall. To us, it’s (about) how many situational things can you get into? Sometimes in the spring game, you don’t get to express those things. The ball may not get into the red zone, or a coming out situation. We think we’re getting more work the way we’re doing it right now. It’s benefitted us the last 2 years.”
You can’t argue with that. After going 10-21 his first two seasons, UCLA is 17-8 the past 2 seasons under Kelly.
Here are some thoughts on what I would have looked for, had UCLA opted for a spring game …
Who controls the quarterback competition?
One of the country’s most intriguing positional battles looks like it won’t be decided until mid-August, if not later. The merry-go-round to replace Dorian Thompson-Robinson has no clear-cut winner.
Does Kelly go for system experience in Ethan Garbers, who backed up DTR?
Does he go for game experience in former Kent State starter Collin Schlee?
Does he go for raw talent in 5-star true freshman Dante Moore?
Third-year quarterbacks coach Ryan Gunderson made it clear that none of his primary options have distanced himself, and that they have bigger things to worry about than each other.
“I just don’t think anybody is good enough or playing consistently well enough on a day-to-day basis to where you can worry about competing against somebody else,” Gunderson said. “They’ve all got individual stuff to worry about. We’ll cross that road when we get to it. It’s not a competition in that sense.”
For Schlee and Moore, Gunderson acknowledged that the learning curve is steep.
“It’s big,” he said. “This is totally different for both of them in totally different ways. You see it more so with them. They have bigger leaps and bounds and setbacks and gains. It’s a little bit of a roller-coaster because it is so new.”
And who is he throwing to?
UCLA’s offensive losses go further than just their star backfield of DTR and Charbonnet.
The Bruins also lost their top 2 receivers in Jake Bobo and Kazmeir Allen, who combined for more than 1,200 yards.
Kelly looked for some quick salves in the transfer portal, and he didn’t have to look far to get them, bringing in former Cal wideout J. Michael Sturdivant and former USC target Kyle Ford.
Along with returning leading receiver Kam Brown, the Bruins have talent at the position, even if it is rather untested. Sturdivant was one of the few bright spots on the Cal offense last year, catching 65 passes for 755 yards and 7 scores, but he is still young.
“The more playmakers you can have on the field, that makes everybody’s job easier,” Brown told reporters earlier this week, according to the Orange County Register’s Haley Sawyer. “It’ll make my job easier, their job easier, everybody and to work collectively as a unit and get everybody on the same page is something that every football player loves.”
Can veteran stars lead a defensive uptick?
One of the fun things about spring ball is watching seasoned veterans still somehow find another gear, and UCLA saw that this spring with linebacker Darius Muasau and defensive end Laiatu Latu. Latu, whose career was resurrected last year after transferring from Washington following a significant injury, had 10.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles last year.
Latu could pick up the mantle from USC edge Tuli Tuipulotu as the league’s best pass-rusher this year, with another all-conference first-team hopeful in Muasau. The former Hawaii stud had 91 tackles, 2 interceptions, 1 sack and 1 fumble for the Bruins last year in his first season in Westwood.
Who stands out up front?
Lost in the noise of UCLA having to replace core pieces like DTR and Charbonnet are the holes left up front by offensive lineman and fellow draft picks Jon Gaines and Atonio Mafi.
Not helping the cause have been injuries to several potential starters, including tackles Spencer Holstege and Noah Pulealii and guard Garrett DiGiorgio.
Their absence has opened it up for other players to get some additional run, which might not be a bad thing, as the Bruins need to build depth on the line.
“They’re all working real hard to get back quickly,” Kelly said of his missing linemen in late-April. “They’re doing a really good job on the rehab aspect of things. The good thing is it provides more reps for other guys. I think everybody is taking advantage of their opportunities when they get them. You can see guys like Jaylen Jeffers and Bruno Fina who are really progressing.”
Does the defense deliver an energy change?
I can’t think of a more fascinating culture change among Pac-12 coordinator transitions than UCLA going from Bill McGovern — who first served as Penn’s freshman coach in 1985 — to D’Anton Lynn, who was born in 1989.
Lynn has brought a youthful exuberance to his new role as a first-time defensive coordinator, and the Bruins need it. The former Baltimore Ravens safeties coach is tasked with improving a defense that allowed 29.0 points and 403.8 yards per game last year. Baltimore surrendered just 18.5 points per game, third in the NFL.