June 23, 2024

If there was a College Football Playoff for the offseason, DeShaun Foster would have his team in contention.

Name an aspect of program-building — assembling a staff, getting buy-in from players, recruiting, engaging fans, soliciting name, image and likeness dollars — and UCLA’s new coach has nailed it in his first months on the job.

Foster has rejuvenated the fan base, not to mention a roster that has mostly remained intact because of its belief in its coach. He’s courted donors in a way that his predecessor was unwilling to do. He’s aggressively pursued high school recruits in addition to transfers, who had formed the core of the team in recent years. He’s built a buzz around a faded brand that hasn’t gone to a major bowl game in a quarter of a century.

Can these early wins vault the Bruins to success in their inaugural Big Ten season? Impossible to say. But it’s apparent that Foster will take on challenges as fearlessly as he did defenders when he starred at running back for his alma mater’s last Rose Bowl team.

Here are four takeaways from UCLA’s first spring practice under Foster:

A dynamic offense

UCLA’s offense put up plenty of points under Chip Kelly but often had a stubbornly predictable feel, particularly on fourth downs and short-yardage situations.

What the Bruins have shown in their first weeks under new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy is a more versatile approach that appears to emphasize protecting the quarterback. Among the plays the team ran were a variety of screen passes and rollouts that minimized the possibility of sacks while getting the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quickly.

Barring the arrival of a veteran quarterback, Ethan Garbers has clearly established himself as the one who will take the season’s first snap. He’s found a reliable rhythm throwing to Titus Mokiao-Atimalala, Logan Loya and Rico Flores Jr.

Keegan Jones is pushing T.J. Harden for the designation as the top running back, showing more explosiveness and pass-catching ability out of the backfield. The offensive line is in flux with at least three transfers yet to arrive on campus. The hope is they can solidify what was the team’s biggest weakness a year ago.

An electric vibe

There was sometimes yelling, leaping and cheering before the first practice drill.

It was all part of one-on-one competitions Foster instituted to get his players in the mood for football. The entire team would gather around the combatants to take sides, with the winner swarmed by joyous teammates.

Another tradition was unveiled with the debut of Friday Night Lights, an evening football practice with a festive feel that drew a few thousand fans, donors and recruits.

Foster also brought the spring showcase back to the Rose Bowl for the first time in nearly a decade, fans given the opportunity to greet players with the revival of the Bruin Walk from a parking lot into the stadium.

That’s not to say Foster was more focused on fun than football.

“My No. 1 thing each practice is how hard are we competing?” Foster said. “Are these guys really leaving it out there on the field? Are they trying to get better daily?”

Real go-getters

Some days there were more high school recruits than fans watching practice, a sign of renewed interest in the team among local prospects.

Earlier this spring, Foster estimated that the team had hosted more than 2,000 recruits. A few gave verbal commitments immediately after the end of the Friday Night Lights event.

“It was so good that people wanted to jump in the boat,” Foster said, “so I was pretty impressed.”

Foster and his staff have appeared to trumpet commitments with simultaneous video tweets featuring the school and Southern California hot spots.

Those videos have gotten significant airtime considering the Bruins’ ability to land five transfers since the portal opened last month, providing an infusion of veterans at positions of need. Tackle Reuben Unije (formerly of Houston and Louisville) and interior offensive lineman Alani Makihele (Nevada Las Vegas) could start immediately and tight end Bryce Pierre (Arizona State) could get plenty of playing time alongside returners Moliki Matavao and Jack Pederson. Punter Brody Richter (Northern Arizona) and long snapper Travis Drosos (South Alabama) are the latest transfers to commit.

A few holes left

The team is so thin at edge rusher that it’s regularly used linebacker Oluwafemi Oladejo in that spot, capitalizing on his combination of speed and power. More help will arrive once Miami transfer Collins Acheampong recovers from an injury and Johns Hopkins transfer Luke Schuermann gets on campus for fall training camp.

The Bruins also lost two offensive linemen — Bruno Fina and Benjamin Roy Jr. — to the transfer portal, nearly offsetting any gains in depth. They could certainly use a few more proven players at the position.

Earlier this spring, the Bruins had as many tight end coaches (one) as they had available scholarship players at the position after injuries to Pederson and Hudson Habermehl. They could use at least one more tight end besides Pierre given Bieniemy’s apparent fondness for plays that incorporate two tight ends.

Other positions of need include defensive back, running back and quarterback.

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