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August 27, 2008

Preseason UCLA Preview

The Bruins have undergone some large scale changes since we saw them last. Rick Neuheisel, an alum and the former head coach at Colorado and Washington, takes over for the overmatched Karl Dorrell. He brings with him a name that every Trojan fan knows: offensive coordinator Norm Chow. Both men have their work cut out for them. Fortunately, Neuheisel was able to convince defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker to stick around in Westwood, and former offensive line coach Bob Palcic returns from the University of Wisconsin. This is the best coaching staff that UCLA has had in decades. Can the new staff have an immediate impact when it comes to wins and losses?

Last Season

2007 began with a bang as the Bruins dispatched Stanford with an offensive explosion. Reality set in the next week in a 27-17 win over BYU, a game in which the offense struggled mightily. Then the wheels fell off in Salt Lake City as the Utah Utes took advantage of multiple Bruin turnovers to pound UCLA by a score of 44-6. The offense bounced back with a great rushing effort in a win over Washington, and the defense came through in Corvallis in a blowout victory. The next week, a barrage of injuries at quarterback turned a certain home victory over winless Notre Dame into an embarrassing two touchdown loss. Of course, the mercurial Bruins followed that shocking defeat with an equally surprising victory over the Cal Golden Bears, as Cal's woes in Pasadena continued.

The injuries took their toll after the win over the Bears. The offense was inept in Pullman, scoring only seven points. The Cougs pulled away late to continue their dominance of UCLA. When QB Patrick Cowan went down early against the Wildcats, Arizona took a big first half lead and held on late to win. The Bruins were forced to start Osaar Rashaan, a converted wide receiver, at quarterback against ASU. The Bruin defense fought valiantly, but eventually wore down in a 24-20 loss. UCLA then proceeded to knock Oregon, who had their own injury problems, out of the Rose Bowl with a 16-0 shutout. UCLA could not keep the good vibrations going at the Coliseum against USC, as the Trojans held the Bruins to 12 rushing yards in a seventeen point win. In the Las Vegas Bowl, the Bruins garnered a rematch with BYU, and this time came out with the short end of the stick after a late field goal that would have won the game was blocked, which triggered a cry-athon from defensive end Bruce Davis. UCLA finished 6-7 overall, 5-4 in conference play.

Quarterback

Neuheisel and Chow have their work cut out for them here, because the position is nothing short of a train wreck. It was a question mark going into the spring, before Cowan went down for the season. Then things got worse in August, when last season's part time starter Ben Olson broke his foot again, which will keep him out of action for a couple of months. Suddenly, JC transfer Kevin Craft is the guy, and he has struggled in the camp. He's a tall kid with decent athletic ability, and he got extensive playing time as a redshirt freshman at San Diego State. He turned in a reasonably good effort there considering his lack of seasoning, and he strikes as the kind of player who could get better as the season goes on. For now though, his play is a major concern.

If it doesn't work out with Craft, UCLA could go to redshirt freshman Chris Forcier, who at this point is more athlete than quarterback. He is known for his legs, and he can make plays with them. The problem is that he just isn't comfortable with the reads yet, and for Chow, that's the most important thing. Everything else comes with practice, including things like arm strength and accuracy. Rashaan got a chance in camp, but I doubt he'll be in the mix. Olson will likely return midseason, but it seems unlikely that UCLA would go to a senior for half the season unless they're firmly in the bowl mix. Right now, Olson looks like one of the bigger busts on the quarterback front in a while. It will be interesting to see if Craft can nail down the position early in the season. Otherwise, we could see Forcier soon.

Wide Receiver/Tight End

The Bruins used to be stocked with playmakers at this position year in and year out. Brandon Breazell gave UCLA a true threat last season, but he is gone, as is Joe Cowan, the team's second leading receiver. Senior Marcus Everett is slated to start on one side, but he truly is nothing special. Dominique Johnson stepped in as a freshman last season and was a solid contributor acting as a hybrid wide out/tight end. He's a big kid who can be a weapon in the red zone. Junior Terrence Austin out of Long Beach Poly has explosive physical ability, but it just hasn't translated on Saturdays in the fall yet. Look for him to emerge if the Bruin offense is successful. The staff also likes what it has seen from true freshmen Taylor Embree and Nelson Rosario, and they should figure into the mix as well.

UCLA is pretty solid at tight end with Logan Paulsen. True freshman Corey Harkey seems to have passed Ryan Moya on the depth chart, which surprised some observers. UCLA does not have great talent when it comes to receiving options, but it is definitely good enough to do some damage if they get good quarterback play.

Running Backs

Kahlil Bell is back, and he will probably get the bulk of the carries at tailback. He is a hardnosed runner who has some speed if he gets out into the open. He would rather run over you then try to juke you, and he seems to have recovered sufficiently from his ACL injury to secure the starting spot. Raymond Carter had his own ACL injury that kept him out of action last season. Before that misfortune, he was the most talented guy in the group. Chane Moline is the short yardage guy, but in my opinion, he is more fullback than tailback, and that's where he should play. Bruin fans had high hopes for freshman Aundre Dean and Milton Knox, but neither has been able to crack the two deep.

At fullback, Trevor Theriot looks like he will retain the starting job as the primary lead blocker. He is not much of a receiving threat though. Moline will get his licks in at FB as well. UCLA has more than enough talent at running back to be productive on the ground, but that goal, along with the aspiration of solid quarterback play, really count on the major question for this team.

Offensive Line

Dorrell didn't do Neuheisel or Chow any favors with the way that he recruited offensive linemen. Now the chickens are coming home to roost. Senior center Micah Reed has some starting experience, but he played guard last season, and hee won't be on anyone's preseason all conference lists. Micah Kia was the starting left tackle last season, but he suffered through a baptism by fire in 2007, and a broken hand could keep him out of the season opener. If he can't go, Brandon Bennett will slide into the spot, and he's as green as the jersey on a losing Notre Dame team. Right tackle Sean Sheller was expected to start, but injuries sustained in a car accident have shelved him for the year. So top tight end recruit Nate Chandler has switched positions, and if he goes down, Nick Ekbatani could shuffle to that spot. Either way, the starting right tackle will be undersized b y Pac-10 standards.

Sophomore Sonny Tevaga will be the right guard, and he's yet another guy who hasn't played at all and is now being asked to start. Ekbatani will likely start at left guard. There is absolutely no depth along the line due to injuries, and the Bruins have had to move guys from the other side of the ball just to have enough to practice. In the scrimmages, the defense had their way with the OL. Will that continue during the regular season?

Defensive Line

There will be a lot of pressure on Walker and his defense to keep things under control while the young offense finds it way. On the defensive line, there is good news and bad news. At tackle, the Bruins are outstanding, with the best tandem pair in the conference. Veteran Brigham Harwell gives the Bruins quickness and production on one side, and Brian Price played exceedingly well in five starts as a freshman despite not even being eligible till midseason. Running up the gut against those two guys won't be easy. If either one of them goes down though, UCLA doesn't have anyone comparable on the roster. Chase Moline and Jerzy Siewierski are experienced, but they are stop gap players.

Things are very murky at end. At this point, Tom Blake and Korey Bosworthare starters. That's not going to scare anyone. Neither of them crack 260 pounds, and Bosworth is only 6-1. Look for freshman Datone Jones to get into the starting line-up sooner rather than later. He is far more talented than either of the starters. It is crucial that the Bruins get production from their ends, because the departed Bruce Davis and Justin Hickman were playmakers for the team. They were the engine of the offense.

Linebacker

UCLA does have some experience and depth here. Reggie Carter returns to his Mike linebacker spot after an injury put him out late last season. He's a very good athlete who is still learning the instinctive parts of the position. Strong side guy John Hale has made multiple starts in his career and can play any LB spot. He didn't contribute much last season though as the Bruins had several capable players. Kyle Bosworth beat out the departed Aaron Whittington for the weakside job last year, and he was productive. Akeem Ayers is a young guy that the staff likes a lot, as is Steve Sloan. Still, UCLA lacks a game breaker here, but that is masked by the gambling nature of Walker's defense.

Secondary

The Bruins had an excellent back four last season, but three of them are gone, including first team all conference strong safety Chris Horton. At this point, the headliner is Alterraun Verner, who is an excellent cover corner. He has the potential to be the best in the Pac-10. The other side is a problem. Veteran Michael Norris appears to have the edge on the other side, but I've never been a big fan of his. He is passive, a bad trait for a CB. Courtney Viney is pushing, but Viney is listed at 5-8, and is shorter than that. Talented freshman Rahim Moore could wiggle his way into the CB rotation, but right now he is the team's starting strong safety, and his future looks bright. Brett Lockett was the starter before being suspended for the opener. Aaron Ware finally gets his chance at free safety, and is hoping to follow his brother Matt to the NFL. This group will be tested a lot in a blitzing defense. It's crucial that the corner position opposite Verner solidifies itself quickly.

Special Teams

UCLA has been outstanding in this area of the game in recent years, and 2008 should be no exception. Kai Forbath was excellent at kicker in his freshman season. After an ugly 2005, Aaron Perez has turned himself into an all conference caliber punter. The Bruins will miss the dynamic kickoff returns of Matt Slater, but Austin should fill in nicely, as he did a great job on punt returns last season. The coverage teams were pretty good as well. UCLA also blocked three kicks last season. With most of the group returning, UCLA should again have top flight special teams.

Outlook

This is not going to be an easy year for UCLA. It reminds me a little of the 2001 USC team, expect that team had a clear cut starter at QB in Carson Palmer. The offensive line situation is scary right now, and if the Bruins can't block, they won't have a good offense, just as SC didn't in 2001. That team relied on a young defense to keep them in the hunt, and after a slow start, the group rebounded to make a bowl game. For the Bruins, it will be easier to start fast than to end fast. UCLA does start with Tennessee in Pasadena, and then a trip to Provo for a third match-up with BYU. But then after that, winnable home games against Arizona, Fresno State and Washington State clear the way for a decent first half of 2008. The problem: UCLA travels to Eugene, Berkeley, and Tempe. Ouch. UCLA has been competitive against the Trojans at the Rose Bowl, but it will still be a huge task to beat a heavily favored SC team. My th ought process at this point is that UCLA fans should look forward to 2009. Neuheisel will need time to build an offensive line and groom a quarterback. At this point, a minor bowl would be a good accomplishment for this team.

Questions, comments, or info? Contact me at tvenegas@comcast.net


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