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UCLA football debuts new pro-level coaches in first public spring practice of 2024

UCLA football coach DeShaun Foster (left) and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy (right) stand on Spaulding Field during the Bruins’ first open spring practice of 2024. Bieniemy is one of four former NFL coaches to join Foster’s staff this offseason. (Nicolas Greamo/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Jack Nelson

April 3, 2024 12:10 p.m.

The periodically piercing whistle interrupted the echo of music.

Heat only intensified as the sun beat down upon the turf.

It was a familiar scene from years prior – same setting, same sounds – but the sights were filled with a fleet of new faces.

UCLA football returned to Spaulding Field on Tuesday morning for its first open spring practice. The two-hour session marked the first of 14 slated through early May, complete with a “Friday Night Lights” practice April 19 and a “Spring Showcase” at the Rose Bowl on April 27.

“I think we’re meshing well,” said coach DeShaun Foster, facing the media as a head coach for the first time in a practice setting. “It was a long process to put everybody together, and I think that’s why it took so long, so I could make sure I got the right people in here.”

Spring football in Westwood brought with it an introductory glimpse at the Bruins’ new regime under Foster – the first staff overhaul in seven years.

Foster, who UCLA hired Feb. 12 to succeed former coach Chip Kelly, inherited three assistant coaching vacancies upon accepting the job. Following his hiring late in the offseason coaching carousel, he finalized his staff March 13, and had just under a month before the beginning of spring camp.

He surrounded himself with NFL minds for his maiden head-coaching voyage.

Four of his six new hires come directly from pro-level offenses – offensive coordinator and associate head coach Eric Bieniemy, offensive line coach Juan Castillo, quarterbacks coach Ted White and wide receivers coach Erik Frazier. The former pair hail from the Washington Commanders, while the latter two arrive from the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans, respectively.

Next-level experience was a qualification that Foster said he intentionally sought out, wanting to give his players more resources through professional teaching and development.

“They’ll tell you what it takes and everything and then also bring some NFL schemes to the college level,” said senior wide receiver Logan Loya. “It’s cool that we get to learn it early, get to learn the strategy and everything like that.”

The biggest fish reeled in from the professional pond was Bieniemy, the offensive mastermind behind the Kansas City Chiefs’ 2020 and 2023 Super Bowl victories. He walked the field Tuesday morning in UCLA colors for the first time since 2005, when he was last with the program as its running backs coach.

Bieniemy wasted no time putting his players’ feet to the fire.

While the Bruins experimented with first-stringers and second-stringers in seven-on-seven drills, Bieniemy called out sophomore running back T.J. Harden – UCLA’s second-leading rusher from 2023.

“If you don’t like working, don’t worry about it,” Bieniemy said amid drills. “I’ll find someone else.”

It’s the kind of tough coaching that Foster said fits well within his vision.

“I just love his energy. My first pillar is discipline, and you’re going to hear that out here,” Foster said. “I’m excited about that. He’s getting the guys going, holding them to a standard that they want to be held to.”

Combined with an investment in pro-level coaches is a faith in entrenched ones.

Foster opted to keep Ikaika Malloe, Brian Norwood, Jerry Neuheisel and Kodi Whitfield on staff, having worked alongside each of them for multiple years under Kelly. Roles only changed for Neuheisel – switching from wide receivers to tight ends coach – and Whitfield – adding special teams coordinator to his responsibilities as cornerbacks coach.

Neuheisel desired to call plays, and Foster said a move closer to the running game was made in that very interest. It paved the way for Frazier to step in, someone who worked with NFL Pro Bowlers Julio Jones and A.J. Brown.

“Coach Fraze (Frazier) is awesome,” Loya said. “He comes in with a gorilla mentality – is what we talk about in our room – but it’s super cool to see where he’s come from and what he brings to the table.”

The new staff was plenty visible to onlookers from the nearby parking lot, as a small crowd came and went.

They stood witnessing new leadership – and new opportunity.

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Jack Nelson | Sports senior staff
Nelson is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
Nelson is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
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