Football: State of the Program

This isn't as much a comprehensive look at the season or the program, but some random thoughts about some important factors in Rick Neuheisel's program given the disappointing 2010 season, and what that does in terms of expectation for the 2011 season...

This isn't as much a comprehensive State of the Program piece, but more a collection of thoughts on many subjects pertaining to the football program now that the season is officially over.

The most immediate topic, of course, is UCLA's staff. As we wrote Monday, there are plenty of sources indicating that both defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough and offensive coordinator Norm Chow will be replaced, along with possibly some other assistant coaches. Since Monday we've heard from more sources that Bullough and Chow will indeed be let go.

I don't think there's much question that most UCLA fans would prefer to see Chow and Bullough replaced. It was a particularly disappointing season for both the offense and defense. You have to figure in all of the injuries to both sides of the ball but, even so, it'd be difficult not to conclude that both the offense and the defense under-achieved.

Fans – and UCLA's coaches – were, in my opinion, valid to be optimistic about the offense this season after the Pistol was installed in spring. The spring scrimmage was easily the most offensively productive one in a very long time at UCLA. The scheme seemed to fix the running game while also retaining the best elements of the passing game from 2009, which had been modestly successful.

The running game then had a dramatic turnaround this season, particularly in the first five games of the season, really hitting stride when it gained 266 and 264 yards against Houston and Texas, and then a massive 437 yards against Washington State.

But then UCLA faced Cal, Oregon, and Arizona, three teams with good to very good defenses, which stopped UCLA's running game. It did so not only because these teams had talent on their defense, but because they did a good job of scouting UCLA's run game. Those three defenses had UCLA's running game sniffed out, consistently having a swarm of tacklers waiting for UCLA's ball carrier.

Those three games clearly turned the season, and a great deal of the reason was the inability of UCLA's offense to adapt and change. It went into all three of those games determined to run the ball, and do so in the exact same manner it had in the first five games.

The clear option was for UCLA to go to the pass. With the running game getting scouted out and opposing defenses sneaking up more defenders into the box, UCLA's counter should have been to pass the ball. But it stuck with its conservative game plan, predominantly running the ball and doing it exactly how it had done it before.

Of course, UCLA had quarterback issues at the time, with injuries to Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut getting up to speed. But the offensive philosophy was to not put Prince or Brehaut under too much pressure to make plays – essentially playing not-to-lose. Usually when you play not to lose you do exactly that.

It's not as if we were advocating that UCLA throw the ball down the field every other down. But the offensive play calling had become incredibly unimaginative, even moreso than it was under Karl Dorrell (and that's saying something). It was so predictable opposing defenses had an easy time defending it. There was a lack of creativity in terms of the actual plays being utilized and when they're called in terms of down and distance. That was what put Prince and Brehaut under too much pressure to make plays. It's not difficult stuff – if you have your quarterback throwing on a down that the defense can't anticipate, he'll have a better chance at success than consistently having to make a play on third-and-long.

We've learned since then that the play-calling responsibilities were all Norm Chow. We've also learned that the play calling was as baffling to many within the program as it was to observers and fans outside of it. In fact, it got to the point where, according to reliable sources, Rick Neuheisel took over a significant portion of the play-calling for the Arizona State and USC games. We've also learned that Chow had called certain plays out of the wrong formation, which led to some of those seemingly inexplicable time-outs.

Neuheisel has been in a bit of a difficult place. He hired Chow, who at the time was perhaps the biggest name as an offensive coordinator in college football. Neuheisel, being an offensive guy and a former OC himself, wouldn't usually be comfortable handing over the reins of the offense to someone, but this was Norm Chow. Hiring him was far too much of a public relations coup to resist, and it wasn't evident at all that Chow might be past his prime. Then, once Chow was in the program, and Neuheisel recognized that the play-calling needed help, it's a very awkward and potentially explosive idea to want to take away the play-calling responsibilities from one of the most celebrated offensive coordinators of all time.

This is not in any way absolving Neuheisel from blame for the state of the offense this season. He's ultimately responsible for it, and whatever untenable situation it became was his fault.

The defense, going into the season, as we said at the outstart, was going to be young and inexperienced, but hopefully would grow and develop throughout the season. But that wasn't the case, for a variety of reasons. Injuries hit the unit pretty hard, and then as the offense couldn't stay on the field, particularly through that three-game run against Cal, Oregon and Arizona, there was far too much pressure placed on the defense to get stops.

Then, from a strategic and tactical standpoint, there were a number of match-ups and situations in which it would have dramatically enhanced the defense's potential performance to employ a more aggressive style. Overall, we believe a more aggressive approach – one that utilizes more blitzing and pressure at the point of attack – is more effective. But there were specific match-ups against certain offenses and offensive personnel in which it was particularly the case. Bullough's bend-and-not-break approach can work at times against favorable match-ups, but it can be particularly detrimental when that philosophy is probably the least likely, in a certain match-up, to be effective.

So, in short, the football team, because of the combination of inexperience, injuries, the offense's inability to stay on the field and the wrong defensive mindset at the wrong time, basically painted itself into a corner of ineffectiveness.

Given all of the factors, is it fair to say the team under-achieved? Completely. In Neuheisel's first two seasons, given the personnel situation he had and other factors, it was arguable whether those two teams under-achieved. And this year you have to consider the injuries and the excessively difficult schedule. But even so, most of the time, given the level of talent and degree of experience UCLA had on the field and at its disposal, it's fairly clear-cut to determine that this year's team under-achieved.

Should UCLA fans have reasonably expected more in year three of the Neuheisel era? Yes. But only because it's fair to determine that this year's team under-achieved, not because there is some arbitrary expectation of success in a coach's third year. It's very naïve to just automatically expect a program to be turned around by year three. There are just too many factors – like the talent that was left in the program, the schedules, injuries and an array of other influences. If you want to judge whether a coach is doing a good job you have to take the specific season, weigh all of the factors and determine whether the program went beyond reasonable expectation or under-achieved.

How will an under-achieving 2010 season affect recruiting? Probably considerably. It's still too early to really be able to reach any conclusions, but we've definitely seen a downward turn in UCLA's recruiting since the outlook of the season turned downward. Luckily for Neuheisel, he doesn't have a lot of scholarships to give out for the 2011 class, so that might minimize the damage to a degree. Plus, the glaring recruiting need – that of an elite quarterback prospect – has already been filled by the verbal commitment of Brett Hundley. If UCLA fans are worried about Hundley's commitment given the performance of the team and the possible firing of assistant coaches, there are many first-hand reports from this last weekend that would put those worries to rest. Hundley was on his official visit to UCLA this weekend, along with a big collection of talented recruits, and all reports were that Hundley was firmly committed, and recruiting each one of the other recruits fairly aggressively. Other recruits commented that, even if they don't ultimately choose UCLA, they thought that Hundley, just from the weekend, had a chance to be the savior of UCLA football. Now, of course, that puts a great deal of pressure and unrealistic expectations on an 18-year-old, but it's a indication of how much Hundley is firmly dedicated to being a Bruin and turning around the program.

Also, in terms of recruiting, if Neuheisel is able to pull off some coups in terms of his staff hirings, it will potentially serve UCLA's recruiting efforts better. As all recruitniks know, in recruiting the promise of the unknown quantity is always more exciting than the known quantity. If Neuheisel does indeed, say, fire Bullough and hires a fairly hot defensive coordinator, it will potentially jumpstart UCLA's defensive recruiting. With only two commitments from defensive players, it sets up UCLA to finish off the 2011 recruiting class with a bang.

We've said generally for the last three years that Neuheisel "gets it," and when his teams on the field have struggled many people have criticized that characterization. When we said Neuheisel "gets it" we were always talking about the various elements of being a head coach off the field – that many UCLA coaches in our experience don't get. First, and the most obvious to the public, is Neuheisel's ability to recruit. He is simply the best recruiting head coach that UCLA has had in a very long time. He has been able to bring in top-ten recruiting classes – with only mediocre results on the field to sell. Secondly, UCLA can be hard to navigate for a coach, and if you don't get it you're destined to fail. Karl Dorrell, in his inimitable military-like approach (being a military kid), always played things by the book, without any real aptitude for knowing how to play the gray areas. Neuheisel, if nothing else, is a lawyer, and he's excellent at being able to get things done behind the scenes that will facilitate success on the field. UCLA is notorious for having a tougher academic standard for admission, and Neuheisel has already shown the ability to get some academically-borderline athletes past admissions, recruits who never would have been admitted under Dorrell. At UCLA, it's traditionally been taboo to use outside funds to enhance coaches' salaries, but Neuheisel, since he's been at UCLA, is loosening up those long-held policies. Neuheisel, too, while many fans might not see, is very good at acknowledging what's wrong with his team on the field, as opposed to some coaches who are stubbornly determined to do things their long-established way regardless. Dorrell kept insisting that if they kept his "nose to the grindstone" his West Coast Offense would work. Neuheisel, obviously in bringing in the Pistol, is trying to find new ways to succeed. Even though he's found himself hamstrung at times by the coaching staff he employed, which is entirely his fault, he at least recognizes his mistakes, isn't blind to it, and intends to fix it.

We had previously pointed to the 2011 season as the one in which UCLA would clearly have its best chance to be successful and turn the corner. Now, given the results of the 2010 season, and the team's under-achievement, the expectation for the 2011 season has changed. It's not just the season that you could see UCLA being successful, for Neuheisel it's probably now the season where he has to be successful. The 2011 season is going to be a highly dramatic one, regardless of what drama takes place on the field, because it's truly the do-or-die season for Neuheisel at UCLA. There is very little chance I could foresee Neuheisel surviving a less-than-successful 2011 season. I think even a moderately successful season won't suffice. At the very least, the team will have to at least live up to expectation in every game, without room for under-achievement. Even then, even if game by game it doesn't under-achieve but still somehow comes out with a 7- or 8-win season, that might not be enough. And if Neuheisel does indeed replace a good-sized portion of his coaching staff, including both coordinators, it puts a great deal of increased pressure to get results in what would be the first year in the program for many of the coaches.

For Neuheisel at UCLA, the 2011 season looks like it's now set up to be the make-or-break, do-or-die season.

Should make it just that much more fun, right?


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