The UCLA Bruins fired head coach Rick Neuheisel after a 6-7 season. Mike Johnson is serving as the interim coach for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against Illinois December 31st. The turmoil of a coaching change and the loss of four squadmen for this post-season game will likely not detract from a team capable of playing well on a given day.
Their offense revolves around a dual threat quarterback and two highly rated running backs. Junior quarterback Kevin Prince (6'-2", 223) rushed for 455 yards in 110 carries while sharing time with Richard Brehaut, who is ineligible for the bowl game. Prince also completed 112 of 195 passes for 1627 yards and 10 touchdowns with only 7 interceptions. His rushing yardage was most by a UCLA quarterback since 1976.
The two running backs are junior Johnathan Franklin (5'-10", 193), who rushed for 947 yards in 158 carries and scored 6 TDs, and senior Derrick Coleman (5'-11", 240), who carried 143 times for 726 yards and banged for 11 touchdowns. Franklin is 9th on the all-time UCLA rushing list with 2,640 yards. He was on the preseason Maxwell Award and Doak Walker Award watch lists. Coleman was 2nd team All-Pac-12 as a special team standout.
The Bruins enjoyed six games with 200 yards rushing or more. Their top output was 328 against Colorado. The extra threat provided by Prince put great pressure on opposing defenses. He is now 8th on the Bruin career total offense list at 4,805 yards with a year to play.
Senior Nelson Rosario (6'-5", 219) is by far the reception leader with 61 for 1,064 yards this season. On the Biletnikoff Award watch list, Rosario is in the top 5 all-time at UCLA both for receiving yards (2307) and catches (143). He shares time with fellow senior Taylor Embree (6'-3", 207), who is 8th on the all-time school list with 136 receptions and 14th in receiving yards at 1,760.
The other receiver slot is shared between sophomore Shaq Evans (6'-1", 196) and senior Josh Smith (6'-1", 213). Evans has 18 receptions for 280 yards this season. Smith has 80 career kickoff returns, which is 2nd all-time at UCLA. His season total 1,117 return yards is a school record, as are his 48 returns in 2011.
Senior tight end Cory Harkey (6'-4", 270) is used primarily as a blocker, while tall junior Joseph Fauria (6'-8", 252) is the team's second leading receiver with 34 catches for 445 yards and six touchdowns. His exploits caused him to be added midseason to the Mackey Award watch list.
The UCLA offensive line employs weakside and strongside concepts like Illinois. The weakside tackle is junior Jeff Baca (6'-4", 305). The weakside guard is sophomore Greg Capella (6'-3", 292).
Senior center Kai Maiava (6'-1", 318), was on the Rimington Award watch list. Redshirt freshman Wade Yandall (6'-4", 328) is the strongside guard. He replaces Alberto Cid, who is ineligible for the bowl game. Yandall has started three games previously. Strongside tackle is junior Brett Downey (6'-7", 290).
The Bruin defense has struggled at times this year, giving up an average of 32.2 points a game. But the talent is there to give the Illini problems. Junior end Datone Jones (6'-5", 275) was on the Ted Hendricks Award watch list and led the Bruins with 6.5 tackles for loss.
Junior Damien Holmes (6'-3", 270) mans the other side and added 5 tfl. He shares time with sophomore Luta Tepa (6'-3", 260). Senior tackle Nate Chandler (6'-4", 292) is a fixture on the line. The other tackle spot is shared between senior Justin Edison (6'-4", 285) and junior Donovan Carter (6'-2", 295).
Junior middle linebacker Patrick Larimore (6'-3", 250) led the team with 81 tackles. Senior Glenn Love (6'-4", 213) and soph Jordan Zumwalt (6'-4", 236) share the SAM backer.
Senior Sean Westgate (5'-11", 225) was on the Rotary Lombardi Award watch list and grabbed 3 interceptions. But he ended up sharing time with redshirt freshman Eric Kendricks (6'-1", 228), who was named honorable mention Freshman All-American by collegefootballnews.com.
The Bruins have plenty of talent and depth in the secondary. Four players are either/or at boundary corner: junior Aaron Hester (6'-1", 206), junior Andrew Abbott (5'-9", 178), soph Brandon Sermons (6'-0", 180) and junior Randall Carroll (5'-10", 189). Abbott also backs junior Sheldon Price (6'-2", 180) at field corner.
Junior Dalton Hilliard (6'-0", 200) and sophomore Stan McKay (6'-1", 198) both see significant time at strong safety, and redshirt freshman Tevin McDonald (6'-0", 195) is a future star at free safety.
McDonald had three interceptions on the year. He was named first team Freshman All-American by Yahoo Sports and CBSSports.com. He is backed by Hilliard and senior Tony Dye (6'-0", 216), who was on the Lott Impact Trophy, Bednarik Award and Thorpe Award watch lists. Abbott grabbed four interceptions.
Punting is in the capable hands of junior Jeff Locke (6'-1", 214). He boomed his punts for an average of 44.1 yards gross. His net was 38.2, which included downing 9 punts inside the 10 yard line in his last six games. He was also called on to hit a 51 yard field goal.
Senior Tyler Gonzalez (5'-10", 165) has hit 7 of 10 field goals this season, his longest 44 yards. Embree has returned 11 punts 56 yards. Coleman joins Smith receiving kicks.
UCLA and Illinois have numerous similarities. It will boil down to who has the most athletes hungry to win.