UCLA Football: 6 Players with the Most to Gain in Spring Football
UCLA embarks on the first steps of a highly anticipated season next month with the opening of spring practice. Coming off the program's first 10-win finish in eight years and with the most returning starters in the Pac-12 Conference, the Bruins are drawing plenty of national attention.
Outlets including Sports Illustrated have UCLA tabbed in the top 10 of the preseason rankings. Meeting uncharacteristically high expectations requires players who have not contributed in the past to mature into prominent roles and role players to develop into stars.
The upcoming series of 15 practices allotted by the NCAA is a prime opportunity for those who will help carry the Bruins in a competitive conference race to emerge.
OL Caleb Benenoch
Injuries last season to Simon Goines and Torian White threw Caleb Benenoch squarely into the offensive line mix as a true freshman. He dealt with growing pains starting at tackle, occasionally failing to contain speedier rushers off the edges and sometimes drawing costly penalty flags. He was ejected in the first quarter of UCLA's 35-14 win over rival USC last November.
With a season of experience and maturity to his credit, Benenoch can develop into a cornerstone of an offensive line that should be one of the Bruins' strengths after a 2013 when line play was one of their greater concerns.
Of course, the line's improvement is partially the result of greater depth, which it gets from a returning Goines and the addition of Miami transfer Malcolm Bunche. And with depth comes competition.
Goines is a tackle, and Bunche's father, Curtis, made it clear to The Miami Herald that his son intends to play tackle for the Bruins as well.
Benenoch must use the spring to solidify himself as a starting tackle, particularly with Goines recovering from leg surgery per Chris Foster of the Los Angeles Times.
RB Craig Lee
After qualifying late in the summer, 4-star 2013 recruit Craig Lee redshirted his freshman season. UCLA cycled through a number of running backs while Lee was on the sidelines, including linebacker Myles Jack, who got a bulk of the carries in the final month.
The merry-go-round offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone operated in the backfield continues into the offseason via a multiple-participant competition for the No. 1 spot.
Jordon James returns from an injury-plagued 2013. After rushing for more than 100 yards in his first three games after replacing All-American Johnathan Franklin, James would seemingly be the front-runner for the starting nod. However, he missed six games during Pac-12 play and was limited to 27 combined carries in his final three appearances.
Paul Perkins came on strong late in the season, though is better suited to complement the primary ball-carrier as a change-of-pace back.
Lee has the frame and skill set to become a reliable feature back and can play himself to the front of the pack with an impressive spring.
DT Ellis McCarthy
Shedding pounds resulted in defensive lineman Ellis McCarthy adding tackles in 2013.
The 5-star 2012 recruit struggled to acclimate to the college game as a 350-pound freshman, but leaned down in the offseason. The result was a year that culminated with him being named the program's Most Improved Player.
Riding the positive momentum of a strong 2013, McCarthy can use this offseason to become a dual run-clogging and blitzing threat in the same vein as Arizona State's Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton.
McCarthy told reporters last fall that his goal is to trim down to 295 pounds. If McCarthy's production continues to increase as his weight decreases, the junior-to-be is in for a monster 2014.
LB Kenny Orjioke
Mora compared Kenny Orjioke favorably to departing All-American outside linebacker Anthony Barr during the Bruins' 2013 preseason camp, telling the Daily Bruin Orjioke was one player who "fits the same kind of profile."
At 6'4", 240 pounds, Orjioke certainly has a frame reminiscent of Barr.
While duplicating Barr's outstanding performance in two seasons as one of the nation's most fearsome pass-rushers may be unlikely, Orjioke can be a vital piece to the Bruins defense by wreaking even half as much havoc as Barr.
Orjioke certainly caused some damage in his reserve opportunities last season and on special teams, blocking a kick, forcing a fumble and recording two sacks.
The upcoming month is Orjioke's chance to show he can consistently make such plays as the primary pass-rusher at outside linebacker.
WR Jordan Payton
The upcoming season is Jordan Payton's opportunity to live up to the fanfare that came with his recruitment in 2012.
Payton, then a 4-star prospect from Westlake Village, Calif., verbally committed to Pac-12 counterparts USC, Cal and Washington before landing at UCLA.
It's no wonder he was a coveted recruit throughout the conference. Per MaxPreps.com, he caught a remarkable 43 touchdowns in high school.
He was a reliable part of the Bruins passing game last season—his 38 catches were the third most among all receivers—but he scored just one touchdown. The departure of leading receiver Shaquelle Evans is an opening for Payton to become the touchdown-producing standout he was in high school.
LB Zach Whitley
Replacing standout veteran linebackers Barr and Jordan Zumwalt might require a newcomer's touch.
Mora said in his national signing day press conference that he sees the potential for four linebacker signees to make an impact in their first year with the program, via UCLABruins.com:
We put together an amazing class of linebackers: Kenny Young...Zach Whitley, coming in from Houston, who was originally committed to an SEC team [Alabama]...Those are two of the top guys nationally. Dwight Williams...Cameron Griffin. Those four guys are going to help us immediately.
Whitley will dive right in during spring practice. The 4-star North Shore Houston recruit is the only early enrollee among the group and a talented prospect who could compete for some of the playing time freed with Zumwalt's departure at inside linebacker.