UCLA football returns to team practices, looks ahead to upcoming fall season
Redshirt senior defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa led UCLA football with 10 tackles for loss in 2019. Odighizuwa also recorded 46 tackles and 3.5 sacks. (Daily Bruin file photo)
By Sam Connon
Oct. 10, 2020 3:50 p.m.
This post was updated Oct. 11 at 9:11 p.m.
The Bruins’ extended time off finally came to a close Friday morning.
UCLA football practiced for the first time as a team – albeit with a 75-player limit – since March after weeks of being restricted to small group workouts. The return to more standard practice 28 days ahead of the season-opener against Colorado was cause for celebration for junior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and he said the energy on the field was palpable.
“Out of all the days of quarantine and (organized team activities) and stuff like that, (Friday) was definitely the day we got the most fired up,” Thompson-Robinson said Friday morning. “Fall camp’s here. We’ve been waiting for this for a while now, so we know when fall camp’s here that means the season’s right around the corner.”
The return to Wasserman Football Center has been a long time coming, with UCLA Athletics initially announcing its “Return to Training” process in June. Two months later, the Pac-12 pushed football to 2021, but the season was moved back to the fall a month after that decision.
The constant back-and-forth didn’t deter the Bruins from staying steady in their offseason workouts, however, and redshirt senior defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa said the team is just where it needs to be four weeks out from game No. 1.
“We came in ready, and we’ve been back for a while now, so that is helping us to be ready to play football,” Odighizuwa said Saturday morning. “It wasn’t looking like we were going to have a season, but we were still working out … and look at us now – we’re in camp, day two.”
The time off did change conditioning routines for many Bruins, including junior defensive lineman Tyler Manoa, who had to find some new training partners back home.
“The last seven months have been crazy, full of ups and downs, but I just tried my best to stay in shape,” Manoa said. “Taking my dogs on runs and walks, I just did my best to try to stay in shape that way. Right now, it’s been a work in progress, for sure.”
Thompson-Robinson said he stayed in shape by flying to Dallas to work with a personal quarterback coach every other week and boxing with his brother Chris Thompson, who is a professional MMA fighter.
While UCLA has had to improvise over the past few months, Pac-12 schools in other states have not had to deal with the same local regulations.
Thompson-Robinson said he didn’t think that put the Bruins at a disadvantage, however.
“We don’t think it’s going to be a challenge at all,” Thompson-Robinson said. “We bonded really well as a team and I think we’re going to be ready in these next four weeks because we’ve been preparing so hard before then. So fall camp seems like it’s a continuation of what we’ve been doing almost.”
Familiar faces, new formations
Darnay Holmes left the secondary, Joshua Kelley is no longer in the backfield, the offensive line lost two starters to the transfer portal and the top four linebackers all graduated.
With so much turnover at nearly every position group, the defensive line stands out as one with the most experience returning to the field in 2020.
That hasn’t changed how they’re preparing for the season, Manoa said.
“We’re just all trying to encourage one another and push each other to our limit, regardless if they’ve been here and had experience or not,” Manoa said. “Everybody’s in there learning and (putting) all those missing parts together, and hopefully get it rolling by the seventh of November.”
The one regular contributor who is no longer on the defensive line is still on the roster, just on the other side of the ball. Junior Atonio Mafi – who played eight games on the defensive line a year ago – made the switch to offensive line in spring camps.
Odighizuwa led UCLA interior linemen in tackles, sacks and tackles for loss in 2019, and he said he is trying to take on an even larger leadership role this fall after a difficult offseason.
“It was hard to organize workouts with guys when we are all back at home – well, impossible,” Odighizuwa said. “We were just making sure we are keeping each other accountable, sending videos of good technique, breaking it down, just trying to encourage people to stay working.”
The team’s most veteran position group has a notable new influence on the coaching staff, with defensive backs coach Brian Norwood leaving Navy to join the team in January. Norwood will also serve as the passing game coordinator and assistant head coach.
Even though defensive line coach Johnny Nansen, defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro and others remained with the program, coach Chip Kelly has decided to implement Norwood’s signature 4-2-5 set. Odighizuwa and Manoa both said the new formation can help them penetrate the backfield more often than they have in the past.
“Each and every day we’re working to get off the ball,” Manoa said. “If we can displace the line of scrimmage, that’s going to help us out up front and just get pressure on the QB.”