LOS ANGELES—You watch the UCLA spring game and you see the same old crummy offense, unable to do much with the passing game and you want to pull out your hair.
But you have to remember it’s only the spring game.
You think about how coach Rick Neuheisel revamped the coaching staff, bringing in Mike Johnson as offensive coordinator, Jim Mastro as run game coordinator and naming himself as quarterbacks coach and you wonder why the product on the field looks so much like the anemic offense employed by the Bruins last season.
But you have to remember that this staff has had less than a month to work with these players.
UCLA’s offense sputtered for most of the spring game Saturday at Drake Stadium, producing only two touchdowns and a field goal in 14 drives and one of those touchdowns and the field goal were aided by some creative refereeing.
But even though the 185 combined passing yards is only slightly better than that 141 the Bruins averaged last season, there were definitely signs that this is not the same old offense.
The Bruins were taking shots down field. They ran screens and swing passes. They found different ways to try and get the ball to their playmakers. Four quarterbacks—Richard Brehaut, Nick Crissman, Brett Hundley and Maxwell Schuh, attempted 45 passes during the 80-play scrimmage.
Last season, UCLA averaged 26.5 pass attempts per game, so clearly there is an effort to change things. Now, the task at hand is to get the players to execute just a bit better.
“You’d like to see more of a finished product, but you’ve also got a goal of getting everybody chance to play so you’re never going to look like a finished product,” Neuheisel said. “Hopefully we can continue to develop as we get closer to the fall and deciding who our depth is so we can clean up some of the execution that might have been a little bit shoddy tonight.”
The offense still has a long way to go, but at least it’s headed in the right direction. Last year at this time, everyone was so excited about the Pistol and how it was going to revamp the running game. It did, but at the same time it sapped the passing attack.
Saturday, however, the Bruins showed glimpses of becoming a balanced offense and throwing more often did not seem to detract from the running attack. Seven UCLA players carried 35 times for 179 yards—a stout 5.1 average.
Johnathan Franklin showed why he is still the No. 1 back, breaking off a 39-yard run on the second offensive possession to set up a three-yard scoring pass from Richard Brehaut to Nelson Rosario. Franklin had 50 yards in four carries. Jordon James, a standout this spring, also had several nice runs and finished with 45 yards in seven carries.
But still, this could not be characterized as an offensive success. Neuheisel overturned a call and gave Randall Carroll and 20-yard reception after referees ruled it incomplete. That set up a 30-yard field goal. Later, Brett Hundley appeared to be sacked twice inside the 25 yard line, including on a 16-yard touchdown pass to Malcolm Jones. But sacks were at the discretion of the officials because quarterbacks were not allowed to be hit and nobody whistled Hundley down either time so the score stood.
Aside from those aided scores and Rosario’s nice leaping catch for a touchdown early on, the defense had the upper hand, bringing pressure and confusing the offense with stunts.
The offense didn’t help itself with plenty of missed blocks, bad reads, poorly thrown passes and quarterback sacks sprinkled throughout each possession. Brehaut missed badly on consecutive fade passes to Taylor Embree to end one drive. Hundley missed badly on three consecutive passes to end another.
“I was not pleased with or happy with the way we operated today offensively,” Johnson said. “I don’t think we were sharp as a group. I don’t think we threw the ball well, I don’t think we caught the ball well.”
Most disappointing for Johnson was that the offense had shown signs of sharpness during practice. He’s preached playing with a heightened sense of urgency and increased tempo, but found those things to be missing during the spring game.
“A lot of the habits that we’ve had kind of crept back in today because when you get under pressure you go back to doing what you have always done,” he said. “I don’t think we operated with the tempo we’ve been practicing with. There was some walking around on the field, there was some things that we hadn’t shown that we hadn’t been doing this spring.”
Injuries on the offensive line contributed to some of the errors. Projected starters Kai Maiava, Sean Sheller and Jeff Baca all sat out with injuries leaving the Bruins with a dearth of inexperienced linemen who haven’t quite got a grip on the offense.
“It could have been a lot better,” Brehaut said. “It was a little bit sloppy. We had a lot of guys forgetting what they’re doing out there. The lights come on and guys get a little rattled so we’ve got to fix that up and make sure that next time we come out in a game situation we’re ready to go.”
Luckily for the Bruins, they have time to get those things squared away. Johnson said he intends to give the quarterbacks a blueprint for summer throwing that will help develop timing and crispness.
“We have to throw the ball better than we did today,” he said. “We have not had the time in the time I’ve been here to develop the muscle memory and the timing in the passing game.”
Johnson said he was “comfortable, but not happy,” with what he saw during the spring game after having only 15 practices to work with his unit. Neuheisel was satisfied with the overall philosophy of the offensive scheme, but not the execution.
Luckily for both of them, it’s only the spring game.
“We don’t play a game in April,” Johnson said. “It’s a process…We have a long time to go. We have summer and training camp where we’re going to get another 1000 reps. I think we’ll be there by the time we play our first game.”