Spring practice begins: Tuesday, April 3.
Spring game: Saturday, May 5.
Returning starters: Seven on offense, eight on defense and one specialist.
LOS ANGELES -- Energy always runs high for spring practice. Though programs are limited to just 15 of them, they represent a chance to put on the pads, get on the field and do something more than just run laps or lift weights during the offseason.
The tempo and energy-level at UCLA's first spring practice on Tuesday was noticeable and a few notches higher than previous years. It's understandable given the enthusiasm of new head coach Jim Mora and his staff but also evident in the stands on one end of Spaulding Field, filled with powder blue-wearing fans who bypassed the beaches and nearby Diddy Riese cookie shop to catch a glimpse of the new-look Bruins. While the talent level on the field is still not where it has to be if the team wants to be competitive in the
“We're excited to get going,'' Mora said. "We're excited to see what we have here, and to get started on building this program into what we think it should be."
For the staff, this spring is not so much about installing the offense or defense - though they certainly will do that - but about teaching fundamentals. If you've looked at where UCLA's recruiting classes have been ranked over the past several years and where they've finished in the Pac-12 standings, you'll quickly realize the issues in Westwood stem not from lack of talent but from talent development. A return to basics is in many ways the only way the team can take a step forward.
"We’ve got a million miles to go to be the football team that we will become, we need to become and desire to become," said Mora.
The boyish enthusiasm from the head coach about his first practice in college since his a year at Washington in 1984 hides the fact that there are plenty of things that need to be sorted out before fall camp. The freshman class will be leaned on heavily in 2012 but plenty of current players will have to be penciled in on the depth chart by the time the spring game comes around next month. Every position is there for the taking and that was evident when Xavier Su'a-Filo took first team reps at left tackle and looked like the best offensive lineman on the field. Normally that would be an encouraging sign except for the fact that he just returned from a two-year mission and hasn't put on pads in two years.
“I don’t want anyone to feel comfortable, that’s for sure,'' Mora said. “You want to create an environment where there is competition because that’s going to make everybody better.''
"We're trying to create a competitive environment," offensive line coach Adrian Klemm added. "You don't want to have freshmen coming in and starting, you want to have an environment where you can give them a year or two to learn. If some of these guys don't earn it, some of those freshmen will come in and play. I told these guys that they have to use the spring to get a leg up."
Wide receiver Devin Lucien and tight end Joseph Fauria impressed with several nice plays on the first day for the Bruins and could develop into a pair of solid contributors in the passing game. The quarterback position will naturally be the position battle that gets the most attention and the coaching staff made it clear that no pecking order will be established among the signal-callers Kevin Prince, Richard Brehaut, Brett Hundley, Jerry Neuheisel and early enrollee T.J. Millweard. Prince looked sharp in the first practice and might be the favorite given that he has the most playing time under his belt but many are keeping an eye on Hundley, a dual-threat who has the training wheels off after being redshirted.
"It's amazing, they're great coaches and it's very fast-paced," Hundley said. "I think the redshirt year helped but now it's time to play. This offense is nice and it's fun running it so I just have to go out there and compete and win the job. That's my goal. This year I feel really comfortable with what I'm doing and I know what I'm doing."
Still, despite the optimism that comes with every spring practice, there's still not a good sense as to how this program will fare under Mora. The recruiting success on Signing Day helped energize the fan base some but that doesn't cover up the fact that his college coaching experience is essentially nil. Secondary coach Demetrice Martin escaped a firing in Seattle and was not exactly known for turning out a quality defensive backfield. Klemm is well-regarded as a recruiter but is still a fresh face in coaching at his first BCS-level job. The players? Well, there are a handful of good ones but the depth at multiple positions is still concerning. And nothing is more indicative of the level of support that football has at the school than 80-yard long Spaulding Field sitting in the shadows of a multi-million dollar renovation of Pauley Pavillion next door.
But, for a practice at least, hope springs eternal at UCLA and that's a welcome sight to many in Westwood.