UCLA kicked off spring practice on Tuesday in Westwood under new head coach Jim L. Mora as the Bruins look to rebound from the disappointing Rick Neuheisel era.
Let's take a look at some of the storylines that will play out over 15 practices as UCLA works toward its final scrimmage on May 5 at the Rose Bowl.
A new era
Mora, the former Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks head coach, wants to instill a newfound toughness and new attitude in Westwood. Under Neuheisel, UCLA was looked upon as a team that could easily be pushed around and, quite frankly, one that would quit when times became tough. There was always enough talent to at least make a minor bowl game, but an attitude adjustment has been a long time coming for the Bruins. With a new coaching staff, new schemes being installed on both sides of the ball, position switches and a strong Class of 2012 on its way this summer, there is a newfound energy in Westwood. And that's a great start for a program that has fallen on hard times.
Once again, there's a quarterback battle
ICONWill Kevin Prince once again win the starting QB job in Westwood?
Neuheisel failed to get steady play at the quarterback position while he was leading the Bruins no matter who was running the offense, whether it was Norm Chow or Mike Johnson. So Mora and new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone will be trying to determine who is the best signal-caller to lead the offense in the fall. The veterans in the competition are Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut, but experience will not matter to Mazzone, who arrives from Arizona State with his version of the spread. Redshirt freshman Brett Hundley was dubbed as the future at the position when he was brought in as an early enrollee last spring, and Bruin fans have been hoping that he would see the field sooner rather than later. Early enrollee T.J. Millweard is also in the mix. Mora has stated that he would prefer to have one established signal-caller because he doesn't feel that any QB will thrive when a rotation is used. Whoever does win the job will be protected by left tackle Xavier Su'a-Filo, who returns from a two-year Mormon mission. Meanwhile, sophomore Jacob Brendel and junior Greg Capella, who predominantly played guard last year, will look to replace Kai Maiava at center. In terms of how the offense will look, expect this version of the spread to feature a lot of swing passes, so running backs Johnathan Franklin and Malcolm Jones will need to work on their pass-catching skills this spring. Jordon James, who had seven receptions for 122 yards last season, will also be in the mix.
As much as the offense struggled last season, the defense was also a big reason why the Bruins finished with a losing record. They failed to stop the run, giving up nearly 200 yards per game on the ground, and they couldn't generate a consistent pass rush. They were also woeful on third downs. The underachieving unit is best personified by end Datone Jones, who has all of the physical tools but hasn't emerged as one of the better defenders in the nation. This is a big season for Jones, especially because a unit that allowed 31.4 points per game in 2011 (the fourth-most in school history) needs leaders. Also, keep an eye on fellow end Brandon Willis, a once highly regarded recruit who has shuttled between UCLA and North Carolina twice. He could finally find his niche in this defense with a strong spring. Mora and new coordinator Lou Spanos want this 3-4 defense to be nasty, which is one of the reasons why strength coach Sal Alosi was hired. The Bruins will hit each other during these 15 spring practices, as Mora wants to develop a new attitude right away.
Several players have changed positions, as is the case at many programs at this time of year. Keep an eye on Anthony Barr, who will switch from the F-back and running back spot after playing 24 games there to outside linebacker. The 6-5, 238-pounder has good speed and was a very good prep linebacker. Dalton Hilliard, meanwhile, will move to running back after playing 28 games at defensive back over the past three years. Hilliard was a very good running back in high school and is adept at catching the ball out of the backfield.
Former backup quarterback Darius Bell will move to Y-back, which is a slot position in this offense. And David Allen will move from linebacker to fullback. With no tight end in the new scheme, Joseph Fauria is now listed at the Y position.
Finally, many of last year's defensive ends will move to outside linebacker in the new 3-4 defense, and some of the defensive tackles will move to nose tackle or defensive end.
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