UCLA spring practice five things to watch: Can anyone challenge Ethan Garbers?

Pasadena, CA - September 02: UCLA Bruins quarterback Ethan Garbers.

UCLA football under Chip Kelly felt like a boardroom meeting, full of analytics and stuffy presentations and half-baked justifications for inadequate results.

In the early going under DeShaun Foster, it feels like a family reunion. Everyone’s dropping by, catching up and enjoying themselves.

It’s fun again to be Bruin.

More somber times could await — have you seen next season’s schedule that includes road games against Louisiana State, Penn State and Washington? — but the feel-good vibes should extend at least through spring practice.

Foster has brought back a spring game at the Rose Bowl — clear your calendars for April 27 — while rekindling excitement in what it means to play for his alma mater. Here are five things to watch as the Bruins open spring practice Tuesday:

Is Ethan Garbers the guy?

UCLA quarterback Ethan Garbers signals a first down during a win over Colorado in October.

Excitement turned into disappointment after the Bruins entered last season with what they believed were three strong candidates to start at quarterback.

They picked veteran Ethan Garbers, pivoted to true freshman Dante Moore after one game and then went back to Garbers once it was clear Moore was not ready for the job. By the time it was clear that Garbers gave them the best chance to win in the Pac-12, it was too late.

A year later, there should be no such uncertainty.

Barring injury or some other unforeseen development, Garbers will be UCLA’s starting quarterback in his final college season. His steady play, toughness and newfound running ability are just what the Bruins need to succeed in their first Big Ten season.

Senior Collin Schlee can continue to take occasional snaps as a change-of-pace running quarterback, with redshirt sophomore Justyn Martin and sixth-year senior Chase Griffin serving as the other top backups.

Read more: 'I want to have fun while playing football.' UCLA's DeShaun Foster details plans

Can the Bruins protect their quarterbacks?

DeShaun Foster stands on the sideline during a game in October 2018.
DeShaun Foster stands on the sideline during a game in October 2018. One of Foster's priorities will be finding ways to protect his quarterbacks against Big Ten defenses. (Jordon Kelly / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It’s hard to stay in games, let alone complete passes, when you’re always running to avoid ending up flat on your back.

That was the challenge facing UCLA’s quarterbacks last season given their struggling offensive line. The Bruins gave up 42 sacks, ranking No. 113 among major college teams.

Every starter except center Duke Clemens is expected back, meaning there could be some improvement on the horizon. New offensive line coach Juan Castillo also will presumably open up the competition so that the returners who didn’t play much and the newcomers have an opportunity to earn meaningful roles.

Things certainly can’t get much worse.

Read more: Analysis: After years of quiet quitting, Chip Kelly admits he didn't want to be at UCLA

Who steps in at RB2?

Keegan Jones carries the ball against Washington State in October.

Carson Steele’s departure for the NFL draft opens a spot alongside TJ Harden for a top running mate.

How about Keegan Jones in 2024? Anthony Adkins? True freshman Cameron Jones?

Keegan Jones already has covered some considerable ground in the offseason after entering the transfer portal only to run a reverse back to Westwood. The Bruins welcomed his return considering his speed and ability to catch passes out of the backfield.

Jones was underutilized in Kelly’s final season given his team-high average of 10.9 yards per carry and two touchdowns in just 14 attempts.

Adkins was more of a short-yardage back who got several carries out of the T-formation and averaged a respectable 5.9 yards per try.

Cameron Jones brings a blend of speed and durability that could make him an attractive option in his first season out of St. John Bosco. Deshun Murrell may also be poised for a breakthrough if he can recover from the injuries that have sidelined him in recent seasons.

Read more: Once fearing his NFL dream was over, Laiatu Latu soaks in a 'surreal as hell' UCLA pro day

Can the ‘D’ avoid a major dropoff?

UCLA linebacker Joquarri Price, right, tackles Washington's Giles Jackson during a game in October 2021.

UCLA’s defense could be living on the edge without Laiatu Latu and twins Grayson and Gabriel Murphy.

Those three edge rushers combined for 26 sacks last season while making things considerably easier for every player around them.

Their departures mean that new defensive coordinator Ikaika Malloe must find some production out of far less heralded players. Candidates to provide the necessary quarterback pressure include Choe Bryant-Strother, Joquarri Price and a host of newcomers.

The interior defensive line should be a strength with starters Jay Toia and Keanu Williams back. The linebacking corps is deep and experienced with Kain Medrano, Oluwafemi Oladejo, JonJon Vaughns and possibly Ale Kaho all returning.

Read more: Analysis: Five things new coach DeShaun Foster must do to win at UCLA

There’s some serious turnover in the secondary, where cornerback Jaylin Davies is the only full-time starter returning. Cornerback Devin Kirkwood will be seeking more consistency after an up-and-down season that resulted in a demotion to a reserve role.

The starting safety spots are up for grabs, with Notre Dame transfer Ramon Henderson and Oregon transfer Bryan Addison both strong candidates to take those roles provided that Addison is granted a rare seventh season of eligibility.

Georgia Tech transfer K.J. Wallace and redshirt junior D.J. Justice will likely be the top nickel backs.

Can he make the leap from Division III?

One of the most intriguing story lines to follow will be that of Luke Schuermann.

After becoming one of the top players in Johns Hopkins history, the defensive lineman will try to make the unusual jump from Division III to the Big Ten.

He piled up an absurd 62.5 tackles for loss and 34.5 sacks in three seasons at a school known more for producing doctors, writers and President Woodrow Wilson. Can that translate to significant production at the school that has produced scores of NFL players in addition to all of its famous alumni in other fields?

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.