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Five takeaways from the midpoint of UCLA spring football practice

DeShaun Foster is halfway through his first spring practice as UCLA's head coach.
(Icon Sportswire / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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He roams the practice field he once ruled, accommodating a malleable cast of characters.

UCLA’s football-launching machine is on the fritz? DeShaun Foster flips balls into the air so his punt returners don’t waste any time in spring practice.

A herd of recruits want to visit? Foster lingers to greet every one, the smiles genuine, the handshakes firm.

Reporters want answers? Foster provides transparent injury updates, gives specifics about his plans, explains his thinking.

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It almost feels as if the Bruins’ new football coach wants to give everyone the key to his team. Just don’t be fooled into thinking the lock will open for anyone else.

UCLA football coach DeShaun Foster is hoping to recruit talent via the NCAA transfer portal to bolster several position groups that are lacking depth.

April 13, 2024

Lest he leave any doubt about who’s in charge, Foster provided a firm reminder when asked about his level of ownership in what’s going on.

“I mean, this is my team, there’s no question about that,” Foster said, “so there’s no putting my stamp on it; what we do is what I want, you know?”

The former star running back is unquestionably the leading man once more at his alma mater.

Here are five takeaways from the midpoint of spring practice:

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Another homecoming

UCLA associate head coach and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy talks to players at spring practice.
UCLA associate head coach and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy at spring practice.
(Jan Kim Lim / UCLA Athletics)

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Foster isn’t the only member of his staff who’s seeking a second successful act with the Bruins.

New offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy is back after nearly two decades away, announcing his return with a variety of high-volume expletives on the practice field Tuesday.

As quick to praise as he is to criticize, Bieniemy also shouted out running back T.J. Harden and the offensive line after a big gain.

“Good job!” Bieniemy yelled. “Good job!”

What’s known about Bieniemy’s West Coast offense so far is that it will feature a fullback as well as a diverse array of plays called by a coach returning to his roots.

“It feels good,” said Bieniemy, who once starred at running back for Bishop Amat High, “to be back home.”

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A star is born?

Mr. Jones and me
We’re gonna be big stars

T.J. Harden could be forgiven for reciting Counting Crows lyrics, given the potential for fame alongside fellow running back Keegan Jones. Foster called his top two running backs “1A, 1B” given what he considered their interchangeable talents.

But Jones has clearly looked more explosive than his counterpart through the first handful of spring practices after being relegated to just a handful of carries last season after then-coach Chip Kelly moved Jones to wide receiver. Understandably, Jones then entered the transfer portal only for Foster to lure him back to Westwood.

“That was one of my No. 1 priorities when I came back,” Foster said, alluding to his return to UCLA after a brief departure to become the Las Vegas Raiders’ running backs coach, “to make sure I can get Keegan Jones. You know, being as dynamic as he is with the ball in his hand, you need players like that. I’m just fortunate that he was able to come back.”

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QB2 looks first-rate

UCLA quarterback Ethan Garbers celebrates his team's win against Boise State at The LA Bowl last season.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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Ethan Garbers has taken every snap with the first-team offense, and there’s little doubt that he will be the Bruins’ starting quarterback against Hawaii in the season opener barring the addition of a talented veteran through the transfer portal.

Any fears about having a quality backup have been erased as well, based on the rapid improvement of Garbers’ understudy. Redshirt freshman Justyn Martin has looked like a future star, given the improved touch on his passes, not to mention his mobility and sharp decision making through the first 2? weeks of spring practice.

Just as impressive has been Martin’s willingness to linger in meeting rooms in search of an edge.

“He’s constantly trying to get knowledge,” Foster said. “He’s a very smart kid. He loves the game, that’s why he works so hard at it. So I’m just glad he’s here and playing well.”

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Let’s stay together

There were no roster defections when the transfer portal opened this week, signaling that perhaps Foster can focus on filling existing holes on the roster without new ones emerging.

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“I don’t think we have too many guys unhappy or anything like that and I have an open door,” Foster said. “So come talk to me if you’re upset about something, you want to know about where [you are on the depth chart], just anything, just come talk to me and we can figure it out from there.”

Quarterback Collin Schlee and edge rusher Choe Bryant-Strother had previously informed Foster they were seeking new schools. But the Bruins were able to retain Jones and guard Spencer Holstege after they had entered the transfer portal during the winter.

Foster said he had “a few” scholarships available to go to transfers after identifying offensive and defensive line, defensive back, tight end and possibly quarterback and running back as positions he would like to bolster.

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Worries persist

While spring is a time of unbridled optimism — for many years, every team has fancied itself as the one that would end the Bruins’ epic Rose Bowl drought — there are some clear holes on this roster.

UCLA defensive coordinator Ikaika Malloe is honoring his boss’ emphasis on competition as he works to rebuild the Bruins’ defense after key departures.

April 11, 2024

Even with explosive linebacker Oluwafemi Olaedjo dabbling as an edge rusher, the team’s pass rush is unproven. A year after yielding one sack after another, the offensive line has continued to sputter. UCLA is down to two tight ends on its spring roster after a slew of injuries.

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The team could also use another quarterback and running back.

Foster needs to address these talent deficiencies through the transfer portal if the Bruins have any hope of contending for a bowl game in his first season.

“I’m just excited to see if these guys can step up and play,” Foster said when asked about his defensive backs, though he might as well have been speaking about his entire roster, “and if not then we’ll be able to address that in the portal.”

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