"Outside of USC, all of their toughest games are at home," Brandon Huffman of BruinReportOnline.com said. "They play Cal at home, Notre Dame at home, Arizona and Arizona State at home and BYU at home. The only game I can see them being the underdog in is USC."
Karl Dorrell enters his fifth season at UCLA, where he has led the Bruins to four-straight bowl games and a 29-21 record during his tenure, including a 7-6 record in 2006. Ten of those wins came two seasons ago, and there have been plenty of ups and downs since Dorrell was hired away from the Denver Broncos. The win over the Trojans last year cooled the hot seat Dorrell was on, and probably led to the contract extension (through 2011) he signed back in February. But Huffman said Dorrell is not totally in the clear heading into the 2007 campaign, after an embarrassing 44-27 loss to Florida State in the Emerald Bowl.
Expectations are very high with thoughts of a National Championship this year.
"It's kind of one of those feelings that this is Dorrell's best chance to make a national impact," Huffman said. "He has 20 returning starters back, 10 on each side of the ball. The feeling is now or never for him. The consistency issues keep coming up with him."
With this many returning starters, there will be plenty of people on the field in UCLA powder blue home uniforms that remember the devastating last-minute, 20-17 defeat to Notre Dame, in South Bend last year.
"They kind of used that game as a rallying cry against USC, when USC was driving the last minute," Huffman said. UCLA knocked off its rival 13-9, eliminating the Trojans from consideration to play in the National Championship game. "They were saying remember Notre Dame, remember Notre Dame. That loss was one of the most painful losses that UCLA has had over the last 10 years, other than Miami in 1998."
***Offense: The only offensive coach that Dorrell has brought back from last year is running backs coach Dino Babers. Jay Norvell, who spent the last three seasons at Nebraska as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, will handle the same duties for UCLA. Dorell has given all the control to him. This unit ranked just 71st nationally last season (330 yards per game) in total offense, and was very inconsistent in moving the football.
According to Huffman, the offense has looked pretty bland in three of Dorrell's first four seasons at his alma mater. With the new staff working under him, he is hoping for change, and saw signs during the spring.
"There was improvement since the fall, but still consistency issues," Huffman said. "They lost their top-two running backs in the spring, and it was a patch-work offense with some key receivers also out with injury. One of the biggest changes Norvell has brought is traditionally, UCLA had been going strong-side and weak-side on the offensive line. This year they're going with a strict right tackle, left tackle, right guard, left guard, center. There won't be strong-side weak-side formations, just left-side, right-side."
There also won't be a quarterback controversy with two guys having played a lot last fall.
Junior quarterback Ben Olson (79-of-124, 822 yards, 5 TDs, 5 INTs) missed eight games of the season last year with injury. Junior Pat Cowan (145-of-276, 1,782 yards, 11 TDs, 9 INTs) started in his place, and both played average overall at best. Instead of there being a quarterback derby heading into the fall, Dorrell has already named Olson the starter.
"I think it was a matter of new offensive coordinator Jay Norvell favoring Olson more because of the way he fits into the west-coast offense. Cowan is going to kill you with his legs, but was inconsistent with his passing during the year. Olson is more of a pocket guy. Though he is not going to beat you with his feet, he is probably stronger in the pocket. Nobody took the reigns this spring, but Olson was a little more consistent, which wasn't that consistent."
The 6-foot-4, 231-pound Olson completed nearly 64 percent of his passes last year, compared to Cowan's 52.5 percent.
Running back Chris Markey was diagnosed with a stress fracture on the first day of spring practice and missed the entire spring. The 5-foot-10, 205-pound senior led the team last year in rushing yards and pass receptions, and will be up for many postseason awards this fall. Markey (1,107 yards rushing, 2 TDs, 35 rec., 261 yards receiving) has proved to be healthy this summer during 7-on-7 drills, so there is no worry about his status coming into the season.
"I don't think he will be the leading receiver this year, but he is just as valuable coming out of the backfield as a receiver as he is running the ball," Huffman said. "He did look good at the end of the year, especially against Florida State and their talented front seven."
Markey, who rushed for 144 yards against the Seminoles, will likely be spelled by junior Kahlil Bell (239 yards, 2 TDs) and maybe true freshman Raymond Carter. Tailback Derrick Williams (97 yards) had his fourth concussion this spring and has decided to hang up his cleats. Paving the way for these runners will be four-year starter at fullback Michael Pitre.
"He is probably the best blocking fullback in the west, and one of the elite blocking fullbacks in the country," Huffman said.
Eric Scott is the new receivers coach. He has really worked to shorten a very large receiver rotation the Bruins had last season. Five receivers had over 10 receptions, but nobody had more than Marcus Everett's 31 catches. Joe Cowan, a 6-foot-4 senior who missed all of last season with injury after leading the squad in receiving in 2005, is back to pair with Everett (31 rec., 450 yards, 5 TDs) as the starters. Brandon Breazell (21 rec., 389 yards, 4 TDs) missed most of the spring with injury, but is back and again will be the the unit's big-play threat. He had a 78-yard touchdown last fall. Sophomore Terrence Austin is a guy that will figure more into the mix after having just two receptions last season.
Olson also welcomes back 6-foot-6 tight end Logan Paulsen (27 rec. 331 yards). Ryan Moya (12 rec., 126 yards, 1 TD) broke his leg and could red-shirt this fall. The Bruins like to use a lot of two tight end sets, opening the door for converted defensive end William Snead (2 rec., 46 yards, 1 TD).
The offensive line returns four starters, but there has been some changes with the graduation of center Robert Chai. Chris Joseph (6-5, 289) moves from guard to center. Noah Sutherland (6-4, 296) slides down from right tackle to right guard. Micah Kia (6-6, 299), who was the only freshman to play last season, will now start at right tackle. On the left side, Brian Abraham (6-6, 315), a starter two years ago, beat out last year's starter Aleksey Lanis (6-5, 319) this spring at tackle. All-American candidate Shannon Tevaga (6-3, 337) anchors the line at left guard. Lanis, P.J. Irvin (6-5, 308) and center Aaron Meyer (6-1, 285) provide the depth.
"They looked better than they did a year ago in the spring," Huffman said. "They have a new offensive line coach, Bob Connelly, who came over from Alabama, so they are adjusting to him. That is probably the biggest area where they need improvement on the offense this year."
***Defense: The Bruins had one of the stingiest defenses in the country last year, ranking 35th overall, ninth against the run in DeWayne Walker's first season. That was a tremendous turnaround from the 113th-ranked total defense UCLA had the season before, while Walker was coaching the secondary with the Washington Redskins.
Walker chose not to pursue the Stanford head coaching job and return to UCLA where he could put himself in position for a more premier job in the future.
"There is a lot of excitement," Huffman said. "DeWayne Walker did an amazing job with the defense, taking it from one of the worst to one of the best in the country. They're expecting to be a top-10 defense this year."
UCLA ranked sixth in the nation in sacks at a shade over three per game last season. Even with the loss of All-American Justin Hickman (19 TFL, 12.5 sacks), the Bruins should still have no problems getting to the quarterback and stuffing the run with the line they have coming back.
All-American defensive end candidate Bruce Davis (47 tackles, 17.5 TFL, 12.5 sacks) has the most sacks of anybody returning in the country from last season. Lining up opposite of him is Nikola Dragovic, who started two years ago before tearing his ACL. Huffman said he looked outstanding in the spring. The two tackles are 6-foot-2, 283-pound Brigham Harwell (31 tackles, 6.5 TFL), and 6-foot-3, 293-pound Kevin Brown (24 tackles, 6 TFL). Both are pro prospects and enter their third year as starters. Huffman believes Harwell is one of the best in the Pac 10 conference.
Providing depth will be 6-2, 268-pound tackle Chase Moline (8 tackles, 4 TFL), and UC Davis transfer Tom Blake (6-4, 263) at end. There isn't much substituting, but a couple young guys to keep an eye on is red-shirt freshman Jeff Miller (6-5, 249) at defensive end, and five-star freshman Brian Price (6-1, 270) at defensive tackle.
The Bruins got to Brady Quinn five times last season and harassed him on most of his 45 pass attempts.
"That was kind of their coming out party," Huffman stated.
All the linebackers return led by senior Christian Taylor (83 tackles, 13.5 TFL).
"He is the leader of that defense, the emotional leader of the defense," Huffman began. "He has personified what UCLA wants on defense the last few years. He is a bit undersized (6-1, 220) compared to most middle linebackers, but ask any coach who the heart of that defense is and they say Taylor with out batting an eye."
Weak-side linebacker Aaron Whittington (29 tackles, 4 TFL) returns for his third year as a starter. Red-shirt sophomore Reggie Carter (48 tackles, 6 TFL) is back at strong-side linebacker where he was a freshman All-American last season.
"Reggie is another emotional fiery guy the coaches just love," Huffman said. "Aaron picked up his game and had a good spring."
There might not be a better safety in the country than preseason All-American Chris Horton (95 tackles, 3 INTs). The team's leading-returning tackler, he will team up with senior classmate Dennis Keyes (79 tackles, 6 BrUps) as the last line of the Bruins' defense. The top three cornerbacks from a year ago are also back. Senior Rodney Van (57 tackles, 9 BrUps) and senior Trey Brown (47 tackles, 4 INTs) are the returning starters and sophomore Alterraun Verner (59 tackles, 2 INTs) came on in nickel situations. Also in the mix will be Michael Norris, who missed all of last season with a knee injury after playing a lot his first two seasons. Junior Bret Lockett (7 tackles) will be a reserve at both safety positions, and freshman Courtney Viney will get a look at cornerback.
"The secondary is one of the best in the country, and they have good depth back there," Huffman stated.
"Forbath was the No. 1-ranked high school kicker a couple years ago," Huffman said. "Aaron Perez looked better last year, and was booming them during the spring."
Austin (8 returns, 63 yards) and Ryan Graves (8 returns, 110 yards) will be the punt returners again. Austin, Graves and Markey will get the first look as the new kick returners.
Overall: Notre Dame will have had five games to find and establish its identity with its young offense, coming into this difficult contest. A night game at the Rose Bowl that is sold out, the Irish will be walking into a tough environment.
As of right now, it doesn't appear that the Irish match-up very well on paper, but a lot can change by October.