Temperatures exceeded 90 degrees on the blazing hot turf field at Wasserman Football Center on Thursday morning, giving the Bruins’ latest spring session a true preseason August vibe.
Instead, it was early April, and UCLA football was running its fifth of 15 spring practices. Things got a little sloppy on both sides of the ball amid the heat, but there was still somewhat of a buzz midway through the second week of team training.
It looked like there was a group of kids from the Rose City Boyz, a sports mentorship nonprofit program, who were given field access to the entirety of practice Thursday morning. They were running up and down the sidelines and had some fun interactions with the players, giving some Bruins hi-fives and chatting them up between reps.
A quick recruiting note too – class of 2023 edge rusher Collins Acheampong was being guided around the practice field Thursday morning. The Bruins were the first school to offer Acheampong earlier this offseason, and he made them one of his eight semifinalists Monday night. The prospect looks every inch of 6-foot-8, and would be a fun addition for next year’s spring ball group if that path is in the cards.
In terms of what lies ahead for the 2022 season, which is admittedly also five months away, special teams were once again the focus early on.
There were some rapid fire field goals on the south field, followed by punt drills on the north field. Safety Jelani Warren blocked two punts from Ari Libenson, who appears to be the starting punter at the moment.
The media was given an up-close look at an inside linebackers sled drill run by newly-hired position coach Ken Norton Jr. The former All-American and Super Bowl champion was sharing some direct guidance and tough love – at one point asking linebacker Kain Medrano why he was playing patty cake with the sled at one point – but it looked altogether like a successful drill.
One thing that did stand out, however, was just how many bodies were missing from that inside linebackers group. Ale Kaho has been injured since the starting of spring camp, and JonJon Vaughns hasn’t been present due to his commitment to UCLA baseball.
Jeremiah Trojan was seen in the area of injured players, as was Kobey Fitzgerald, and there was no sign of Caleb Johnson anywhere. Adding incoming freshman Jalen Woods, who did not enroll early and will not be on campus until the summer, the Bruins appear to be down six inside linebackers at the moment.
Medrano, Darius Muasau and Damian Sellers were the top linebackers in team drills, with Shea Pitts and Jake Newman getting reps with the 2s and 3s.
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Medrano almost got an interception off a drop by running back Zach Charbonnet in 7-on-7s, but it just went through his gloves.
There was some 1-on-1 action early on as well – cornerback John Humphrey broke up a deep ball to receiver Matt Sykes, then cornerback Devin Kirkwood had two pass breakups on his first two reps. Receiver Jake Bobo beat cornerback Azizi Hearn, and it was receiver Josiah Norwood who won his first two reps, getting free on a slant and a deep route.
Norwood and Logan Loya switched off as the slot and outside receivers with the 2s during 7-on-7s, while Kazmeir Allen and Kam Brown held down those roles with the 1s for most of the day. Michael Ezeike had a strong day as the top tight end, but early enrollee Carsen Ryan got some time with the 1s as well.
Receiver Bradley Schlom, who spent most of last fall injured, had a nice leaping 25-yard grab over the middle, earning a big reaction from his teammates on the sidelines.
Alex Johnson stepped up as the second-string nickel, with Mo Osling III staying at safety for most of the day, and he impressed in the role. Johnson jumped a pass on the left side of the goal line that quarterback Ethan Garbers had lofted towards Norwood, and he picked it off for one of his many big plays on the day.
Thompson-Robinson had found Allen on the same route for a touchdown just a few plays earlier, as Allen really seems to have settled in as a true, reliable receiver instead of just a gadget guy.
As the practice dragged on, the offensive line – especially the tackles – started getting beat more and more. In the last two sessions of 11-on-11, nearly every dropback ended in a pressure or sack.
Gabriel and Grayson Murphy remained disruptive, as did Carl Jones and Choe Bryant-Strother. Osling had a nice punch out on Charbonnet, and Humphrey nearly picked off Thompson-Robinson in the end zone.
Perhaps the only offensive highlight of the final few rounds of team drills was a diving catch by Titus Mokiao-Atimalala off a pass down the ride side by quarterback Chase Griffin. Mokiao-Atimalala left his feet and just barely extended past cornerback Isaiah Newcombe, and he was swarmed by rowdy teammates as they jogged off the field following the play.
That energy, coming at the tail end of a two-hour practice under the scorching SoCal sun, was a nice change of pace at the one-third mark of spring ball. For as shorthanded as UCLA may be at linebacker or defensive back, the team as a whole still seems to be pushing pretty hard to get in all the work they can this month.
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