From breaking in a new coaching staff to finding a starting quarterback, plenty has changed between last year’s first spring practice and this year’s.
Last year, UCLA had a new coaching staff under head coach Jim Mora, who had recently been hired himself and, thus, was still trying to take charge of his new team. The Bruins were also figuring out who was going to be their starter behind center. Then-junior outside linebacker Anthony Barr was a relative unknown moving over from the offensive side of the field.
One major difference between this year’s first spring practice and last year’s is that rising redshirt junior safety Dietrich Riley is back on the field ready to play. This time last year, Riley was still recovering from a serious neck injury sustained in a game against California on Oct. 29, 2011.
On Tuesday, Riley was back to his old self, roaming the defensive backfield as a starting safety. On the first day of spring practice last year, Riley was working out on a stationary bike and could only watch as his teammates played.
“I was emotionally torn,” Riley said of his return from injury. “There would be moments where I would question myself, especially last year during the first day of spring ball. I will never forget that time. … The coaches, they were trying to set the tone, new staff and everything, and I was just on that bike and watching my team from a distance have fun.”
The first day of spring practice last year provided motivation enough for Riley to make sure his playing career wasn’t over, despite having undergone single-level fusion surgery on his neck in April 2012.
“I’m like this isn’t for me, I have to go out there and play,” Riley added. “I just knew that night in October against Cal wasn’t going to be my last time playing.”
Riley’s return to full speed was a welcome sight for Mora. Riley redshirted last year, playing on the scout team while trying to get back to full health.
“He fit right in today; he wasn’t rusty, he looked fine,” Mora said. “I think the big step for Dietrich is going to be when the contact starts because he has to work his way through that emotionally. It’s different when you start hitting people.”
Tuesday was the first step in showing that Riley is ready to contribute as a starter. For the safety, the 7 a.m. practice couldn’t come soon enough.
“It was tough sleeping last night just thinking about (how) it’s finally here,” said Riley of the first practice. “It’s finally my opportunity to shine and just show these coaches what I’m capable of.”
Let the records fall
Entering last spring, the starting quarterback position remained unsettled as four players battled for the spot that was ultimately awarded to then-redshirt freshman Brett Hundley. Now, Hundley enters spring ball as the unquestioned starter, cemented by a standout freshman campaign in which he set the single-season school record in passing yards and completions.
Still, the offense’s record-setting performance last year wasn’t enough for Hundley’s top target rising redshirt senior wide receiver Shaquelle Evans. As many plays as the Bruins made last year, Evans lamented the plays they didn’t make, something he said the team has in mind as it takes the field for a second spring under the same coaching staff.
“We could’ve blown so many games open; we just missed plays,” said Evans, who added that his personal goal for the year is to set the single-season UCLA receiving record.
“We’re more comfortable with things (now). Last year, we came in not knowing what to expect, not knowing how to work, not knowing what hard work was. And this year, we know,”
Mora agreed with Evans’ sentiment about the players being more comfortable. Added familiarity with the same offense and a clear-cut quarterback is should help move things along this spring, he said.
“The receivers didn’t always (feel comfortable). They had to adjust to four different guys throwing the ball to them, so what you want to do is establish a chemistry on offense,” Mora said.
Lean on me
Last year, the team was in the midst of a quarterback competition while banking on its returning starting running back to open the spring. With all-time leading rusher Johnathan Franklin now gone, the Bruins find themselves in the opposite position, leaning on their returning quarterback while waiting to see who will carry the ball among a crowded backfield.
Rising redshirt junior Jordon James is currently the starter but he’ll need to fend off competition from rising redshirt senior Damien Thigpen, rising redshirt freshman Paul Perkins and rising senior Malcolm Jones, among others.
Running backs coach Steve Broussard said he is excited about the competition between “hungry and excited guys” ready to prove themselves.
“I think it’s always tough to replace a good leader but at the same time it’s encouraging to see guys wanting to step up like (James), Thigpen, really the whole group where guys are just trying to fill in, trying to contribute to the team,” Broussard said.
“It’s always good to see more than one guy that has the confidence and can see the opportunity that’s in front of him.”