Pasadena, Calif—While the offense didn't offer any surprises in Saturday’s UCLA spring football game, the defense showed much improvement.
The play of the secondary was a huge surprise. With so much youth, mistakes were expected. But the unit—as well as the linebackers—performed well. Inside linebacker Stan McKay, who showed excellent pass defense skills, was a particular standout, making four tackles and intercepting a Paul Fafaul pass.
There were some momentary lapses of judgment by the cornerbacks. But for the most part, they played tight coverage and showed excellent instincts.
The front seven basically shut down the interior, rarely allowing a running back to make headway between the tackles. Inside linebacker Taylor Lagace was especially effective against the run. Where the defense needs to improve is defending the edge and backside, specifically against the swing pass. Jordon James galloped 39 yards on a swing pass and Paul Perkins gained 25 yards on another.
After the game, defensive coordinator Lou Spanos said the defense needs to focus on edge containment.
"It's a process of all three groups," Spanos said. "The defensive linemen have to do a better job rushing. The secondary did a good job the majority of the snaps, but we have to detail and work on some of our techniques for the outside."
The game itself, dubbed the Spring Showcase, was played in front of an announced crowd of 20,000 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. It consisted of two distinct halves. The first half consisted of non-tackle scrimmaged plays, red-zone (non-tackle) plays and a few one-on-one drills between receivers and defensive backs. The second half was a controlled 62-play scrimmage.
On offense, the reviews were mixed. Head coach Jim Mora still hasn't found that go-to running back. Of the backs who may be used in Mora’s running-back-by-committee approach, Jordon James, who had five carries for 20 yards and two touchdowns, and Malcolm Jones, who had three carries for 14 yards, were the most productive.
There are no such questions at quarterback. Brett Hundley looked ready to go. He's a lot bigger (230 pounds and eight percent body fat) and appeared much more confident in the pocket, completing 16-of-23 passes for 116 yards and one touchdown.
"I think I've progressed a lot," Hundley said. "It's more focusing on the little details —coverages and all that stuff—it's the little, minor details."
"This offense has no limit to what we can do," he added.
One thing that was noticeable on the sidelines was how much more chiseled the players look. They all look like elite 5-star athletes. Spanos noted that "they're getting bigger and stronger from last year to this year."
Defensive tackle Ellis McCarthy, however, is about 30 pounds lighter from 2012.
"We're going to put him in the best position," Spanos said. "Our defensive line is very versatile, so they can play in the sub-packaging as end and tackle, and in other packages they can play end and nose [tackle]. Ellis did all of those. We'll see where he fits."
The linebackers excelled as well. Look for Anthony Barr to be a preseason candidate on every major defensive award list, as well as the Heisman.
More from Pasadena Star News' Jack Wang:
UCLA head coach Jim Mora thinks linebacker Anthony Barr deserves a shot at football's preeminent award, and he's not shy about telling anyone and everyone.
"Absolutely. It should start," Mora said Thursday. "UCLA needs to promote him and I'm going to promote him, and he needs to go out and promote himself by going out and playing great and helping his team win."
So what does Barr need to do to win the Heisman? "Win football games," Barr said. He also said winning the Heisman, an award that has eluded defensive players since Charles Woodson won in 1997, is not a personal goal of his.
"Personal statistics, that's not really important," Barr said. "I think if we win football games as a team, then all the personal accolades will come after that."
UCLA looks like it is in excellent shape to defend its Pac-12 South title. There are questions to be answered, such as who will back up Hundley. Jerry Neuheisel (6-of-7, 106 yards) looked much better this spring, but still struggles with accuracy. T.J. Millweard (5-of-7 for 60 yards and a touchdown), showed flashes of brilliance but badly underthrew a wide-open receiver on a deep go route.
Which unit needs the most improvement this fall?
Special teams gets an incomplete due to punting woes. Justin Moreno had a horrible day, averaging 31 yards a punt, including two shanked efforts. The good news is that Sean Covington arrives later this year.
UCLA fans have to be happy with the way the team looked on Saturday. The Bruins look well- conditioned, very fast and very athletic. There is more intensity and more physicality on the field.
But most importantly, UCLA football is getting a lot more support from the fans and, yes, its own athletic department. Mora offered to pay for the students' $7 bus ride to the Rose Bowl for Saturday's Spring Showcase, but the athletic department stepped in and covered the costs, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Progress can be slow, but it is still being made.
NOTES: Linebacker Marcus Rios will be out six months or more due to a fungal infection in his sinuses, according to the L.A. Times' Chris Foster:
“It started as a sinus infection last October,” Rios said. “Then they found the fungus infection behind my eye and beneath my brain.”
Rios said that “it’s very rare. Only 12 people have ever had it and eight of them have died. Two others recovered and then died later.”
Rios spent much of the offseason in and out of hospitals. He is currently taking antibiotics through a peripherally inserted central catheter, or PICC, line in his arm.
Defensive end Datone Jones and running back Johnathan Franklin, former Bruins recently selected by the Green Bay Packers in the 2013 NFL draft, were in attendance, and fans cheered wildly as their on-the-field interviews were featured on the Rose Bowl's video board.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first hand.