UCLA's 'secret' spring football practices are over. Here are five things we learned
Florida’s Orange and Blue intrasquad spring football game culminated with a walk-off 46-yard field goal that had Gators fans rollicking.
A capacity 54,000 fans watched two-time defending national champion Georgia’s Red and Black shootout. Clemson’s spring game drew 50,000. USC held its game at the Coliseum before 33,427. Even lowly Colorado attracted 47,277 fans eager to check out Deion Sanders and his new-look Buffs.
Meanwhile, a smattering of maybe three dozen fans watched UCLA’s last spring workout Friday, standing forlornly atop a parking structure and peering over a wall onto the field.
Scowling security personnel swiftly admonished anyone that pulled out a phone to shoot a photo or a moment of video. God forbid somebody might be collecting intel for the likes of Coastal Carolina, UCLA’s first opponent in the fall.
Bruins spring football was a no fan, no fun zone. No intrasquad game was played. Two players or assistant coaches selected seemingly at random trotted out for short interviews after each of the 15 practices. Coach Chip Kelly spoke before four of them.
The players and coaches were unfailingly exuberant and polished, well-schooled in saying nothing controversial. They expressed excitement about the direction of a program coming off a successful 9-4 season. They are fitting ambassadors of a world-class university. It seems a shame more of them aren’t allowed to speak publicly more often.
Despite the secrecy and scattershot availability, conclusions can be drawn as spring comes to a close. Here are five takeaways:
Dante Moore and the wow factor
As in, wow, this kid has a really quick release.
And also as in, wow, this kid is really young.
While Dante Moore’s classmates at Detroit King High were enjoying prom and the waning days of their senior year, the most highly rated quarterback recruit in UCLA history was in Westwood grasping the playbook, commanding the huddle, and competing for the starting job, all before his 18th birthday.
“I might be the youngest on the team,” Moore said. “Having a person like Duke Clemens, my center, him telling me to calm down and breathe, and me being in the huddle just conversing about anything I have questions about is great.”
Clemens, a senior and returning starter, enjoys mentoring Moore.
“Him wanting to get better and being all in already as such a young guy, I’m impressed with him,” he said. “He’s just very outgoing. Easy to talk to. I think that’s important for a quarterback, to get to know the guys.”
Perhaps the most intriguing decision Kelly must make in the fall is whether to immediately entrust the offense to Moore or take a safer route and start Ethan Garbers, who spent the last two years as backup to Dorian Thompson-Robinson.
Moore has unlimited upside while Garbers likely would minimize mistakes. Kelly insisted the pecking order of his quarterbacks is furthest from his mind, adding that transfer Collin Schlee and returners Justyn Martin and Chase Griffin are also in the mix.
“There is a progression going on that we are excited about,” Kelly said. “But we have a lot of time before we play our first game. We haven’t had one discussion depth-wise at the quarterback position.”
For his part, Garbers isn’t conceding anything.
“Even last year I was treating it like my team, like I was going to be the starter,” he said. “For any quarterback, that’s how you are going to treat every single day. It’s important to have that mindset because you are one play away, one snap away.”
Moore, who surprisingly pulled his commitment to Oregon when starting quarterback Bo Nix decided to return in 2023, has a fan in tight end Maliki Matavao, who transferred from Oregon.
“He’s unreal,” Matavao said. “I’ve had a lot of quarterbacks throw to me and he’s going to be the next big thing coming out of college. Guarantee it.”
Garbers gets the GoPro
When the quarterbacks meet daily with Gunderson, much of the tutelage is through the lens of Garbers’ GoPro Max 360.
He wears the durable video camera on his helmet during practice, giving everyone in the quarterback room the opportunity to view coverages, receivers and mayhem at the line of scrimmage from his perspective.
Gunderson said Garbers’ GoPro doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the presumptive starter.
“It’s part of our virtual reality system and we film the reps he takes,” Gunderson said. “Ethan gets a lot of reps, so he gets it on his helmet rather than changing it out. Those reps go into a computer system. We can put it on an Oculus and [everyone] can watch.
“In coaching you always say, ‘Hey, why didn’t you throw this,’ when I’m watching it from 50 feet back or 50 feet high or from the end zone. That’s not the view they see it from.”
UCLA first incorporated the GoPro with Dorian Thompson-Robinson during practices last fall. Moore hasn’t worn one yet but appreciates Garbers’ view.
“Whatever the quarterback sees, that’s what the camera shows,” Moore said. “It helps with our progressions. Really, it’s one of many things we have in the program and in this building that help us get better every day.”
'Thrilled me, filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before.' — Edgar Allen Poe’s 'The Raven'
Bringing schemes and swagger from the Baltimore Ravens, new UCLA defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn is an intense, no-nonsense coach who promotes aggression, emotion and a dose of sleight of hand.
Lynn, son of former Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, has Bruin defensive personnel on the field and the sideline constantly cackling and crowing like, well, an unkindness of ravens.
“The defense as a whole is a little more aggressive, we want to get to the offense behind the chains early,” safety Kamari Ramsey said. “You don’t want to be passive. You want to get the offense behind the sticks, so I like being more aggressive.
In practice — or at least during practice — the aggression has translated into trash talk and a tad more contact than is traditional in intrasquad action. A few offensive players have taken exception — USC transfer receiver Kyle Ford in particular — but Lynn believes a bit of bullying is permissible.
“We want guys playing fast, physical and sound,” he said. “We like to create chaos.”
Making defensive schemes difficult to recognize is a key element.
“The more you can impact the quarterback post-snap and make the offense think, the better,” Lynn said. “So we emphasize disguising alignments.”
Where are all the offensive linemen?
The Bruins offensive line is thin, not a word a coach wants to associate with the hogs up front. Injuries and a tardy transfer kept the projected first unit from training together in the spring.
Clemens, the center, was a constant presence, but three of last year’s starters — guards Jon Gaines II and Antonio Mafi as well as tackle Raiqwon O’Neal — moved on to professional football.
Returning right tackle Garrett DiGiorgio and Purdue transfer guard Spencer Holstege missed several practices with undisclosed injuries before returning for the last two.
A welcome addition will be junior transfer Jake Wiley, who can play guard or tackle. He is one of more than three dozen scholarship players who left Colorado after Sanders became coach.
More reinforcements at tackle are due in the fall: Senior Khadere Kounta, who started 27 of 33 games in three years at Old Dominion, and freshman Tavake Tuikolovatu of Fontana Summit High.
Transfer portal movement
Linebacker Adam Cohen entered the transfer portal during its April window, a move Kelly not only understands but also supports. Cohen appeared in eight games in three seasons, making six tackles, and was the Bruins’ defensive scout team player of the year in 2021.
Cohen completed spring practice with UCLA despite announcing his intention to leave.
“I love Adam, he’s awesome,” Kelly said. “He’s given us everything while he’s been here. ... If they are a Bruin for a day or for four years, they are a Bruin for life. Our job is to help Adam. He wants his degree, that’s the most important part for us. We offer that to everybody. If you go into the portal, that’s great, we will help you get to another spot, that’s part of our responsibility.”
Meanwhile, Kelly is relieved that no one else decided to transfer during the portal window, which closed April 30. He hinted that UCLA might soon bring in new faces from the portal.
“Sometimes in the transfer world kids are promised or told this is how it works, then when they actually see how it works they say, this isn’t how I thought it was going to work,” Kelly said. “We want them to unearth everything. They get to sit in on meetings and see how a coach coaches in a meeting. They get to see how a coach teaches on the field, so there aren’t any unknowns. They get to see what our training table is like, how we meet, how our players interact in a practice session.
“I think it’s really important because part of the recruiting process is it’s our job to educate them about what UCLA is all about.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.