#1 -- The Offensive Line
The offensive line is the key to the season. And UCLA's best offensive lineman, Jeff Baca, is still out with a broken leg, probably through the month of September. That pretty much mean's it's an open audition for anyone to step up and earn a starting spot while Baca's out. Sean Sheller, the 6th-year OL, will plug in at either weakside tackle or guard, depending on who steps up. The best bet is on Citrus College transfer Albert Cid (6-4, 320), who is expected to be academically accepted into UCLA and ready to go by next week. If Cid is good enough to hold down the weakside guard spot, at least until Baca returns, and UCLA can avoid any other OL injuries, the kind that have plagued them for years, then the OL could really have a shot at being good. You have guys with many starts on their resume – Sheller, senior center Kai Maiava and senior strongside tackle Mike Harris. You then have a budding star at weakside guard in sophomore Chris Ward, who got his feet wet in three games last season. You'd have to think that, other than Cid, the other guys who would have a chance at that fifth starting spot would be inside guys, since stepping into the weakside tackle position is a massive endeavor. The other inside candidates are Wade Yandall, the redshirt freshman, who has talent but needs to develop a motor; Casey Griffiths, who is similar in regard to a motor; and then the back-up centers, sophomore Greg Capella and redshirt freshman Kody Innes. Capella has really improved and has some game experience, so there is a chance he could step into the starting center spot and Maiava could temporarily be plugged into weakside guard. The candidates for weakside tackle start with Connor Bradford, the redshirt junior who has bounced around from position to position, mostly because he has a tough time keeping weight on his frame (he's 6-6 and is now listed at 275). He actually had a decent spring at the position. There is junior Brett Downey, who has been given looks at the weakside spot, but doesn't have the quickness and is better suited for the strongside position (which gets help blocking from the tight end). Then there is the chance that true freshman Torian White would be able to come in and play the spot. You'd have to think that any true freshman pulling this off would be a longshot, but White, who is 6-6 and 292, is the one incoming guy who would have the best chance, being particularly athletic for his size.
#2 -- Quarterback
As always, the quarterback position is a huge key. Kevin Prince, who is now a redshirt junior with plenty of experience behind him, will almost certainly get the first run with the starters. Prince has had a shaky career at UCLA, mostly due to a series of injuries. If he's healthy, and he is reportedly fully recovered from his knee injury that knocked him out of most of last season, he's the favorite to the win the job. Even though he hasn't always been stellar in games, he does have the combination of a strong arm, mobility, and the smarts and fundamentals that have made the coaches favor him. It's time for Prince to make it happen consistently in games. Richard Brehaut, who is now a true junior, had some good moments last season and had a good spring. At this point, with the experience he's had, it's time for him, too, to produce, and be another solid option at the position besides Prince. True freshman Brett Hundley showed an immense amount of talent in spring practice but was overwhelmed by it all, understandably. Now he's been set back by a knee injury he reportedly suffered playing basketball at home in the off-season. He had surgery on his meniscus last week and is expected to miss a couple of weeks of fall camp. It was critical for Hundley, if he were going to compete this season, to hit the ground running this fall, getting as many reps as he can, so this is a considerable set-back.
#3 -- The Development of the Pistol
The running game was good enough last season, and we've heard so much how Rick Neuheisel now wants – needs – to incorporate an effective passing game out of the formation. He brought in Pistol guru Jim Mastro, and Johnson, and Neuheisel took over the quarterback coaching himself. We'll concede that it was the first year in the Pistol so there were some growing pains, but with Mastro and Johnson developing the nuances and fundamentals, and being a year in, it's make-or-break for Neuheisel that the Pistol be effective. Being the river boat gambler, he's all in on the offense, and we'll see this fall camp if there are signs that the Pistol has been taken to the next level.
#4 -- Wide Receivers Stepping Up
We've been hearing how the influence of new Offensive Coordinator and receivers coach Mike Johnson has affected senior receiver Nelson Rosario. This fall is the time for the immensely talented player to put it all together. The reports on junior receiver Randall Carroll is that he, too, has been influenced by Johnson, and has become a wide receiver – rather than just a track guy playing football. The UCLA DBs now say that Carroll's route-running is so good, coupled with his speed, that he's very difficult to stay with. It's also time for Josh Smith, the senior to put it together, after showing so many flashes. Also watch for Shaquelle Evans, the transfer from Notre Dame, and junior Jerry Johnson, both of whom are recovering from injury, try to come back and get in the receiver rotation. Because of their injuries, both will start off slowly in fall. Even though there is quite a bit of experienced talented at wide receiver, we're hearing that true freshman Devin Lucien could have a chance to crack the receiver rotation.
#5 -- The Defensive Scheme and Philosophy
Former Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bullough was very conservative and new DC Jim Tresey and his coaches are talking a good game of being a very aggressive defense whose primary goal is to put pressure on the quarterback. We saw some of it in spring practice, but it was a basic, no-frills version of what Tresey wants to do. Now, in fall, by the time the Houston game comes up on the calendar, it's time to see the full-frills version.
#6 -- Questions at Special Teams
UCLA's special teams has some unknowns. Kip Smith, the redshirt freshman place-kicker, didn't have a great spring. Recently, he also went into the hospital for some tests on his heart, but we're hearing he's fine. Jeff Locke, who could be one of the best punters in the nation in 2011, didn't participate in spring practice due to hip surgery. He also is good to go for fall, but whether he's fully recovered is definitely something to watch. And whether Smith can step up and be consistent enough to take on the place-kicking duties after UCLA has been spoiled by All-American field goal kicker Kai Forbath for so long is the big question. If he falters, Locke could very well take on the field-goal kicking duties, too. UCLA has also been spoiled for four years by All-American long snapper Christian Yount, but walk-on Kevin McDermott was solid in spring.
#7 -- The Emergence of the Defensive Line
The return of Datone Jones is huge for the defensive line. Jones missed all of last season after suffering a foot injury in fall camp. He is thought to be an NFL-level guy. Behind him at left end is Owamagbe Odighizuwa, the true sophomore, who is immensely talented but raw – and everyone is waiting for when the light turns on. The right end, Damien Holmes, looked overwhelmed a bit early last season then came on in the second half, and now the coaches are touting him as an impact player. Inside, Cassius Marsh should be that much better after playing the entire season as a true freshman, and he'll be pushed at the three-technique by athletic senior Nate Chandler. The coaches are touting senior Justin Edison and junior Donovan Carter at the nose, a position that needs more production than it had last season.
#8 -- Starting Strongside Linebacker
The defense has a couple of questions to answer, but not many, actually. Perhaps the biggest unknown is who will be the starting strongside linebacker. Senior Glenn Love is penciled in; he had a very good spring and has put in work during the off-season. The talented true sophomore Jordan Zumwalt had a bit of an issue with work ethic in his first year (college life can be distracting), but we're hearing he's getting serious. The other guy to really watch at linebacker is Eric Kendricks, the redshirt freshman who will back up Sean Westgate at the weakside spot. He is getting raves from the coaches, is considered a future star, and he might be too good to keep off the field.
#9 -- Third-String Tailback
If you're watching the OL and QBs from Spaulding's bleachers, then turn to the running backs and find some comfort. You have a returning 1,000-yard runner in junior Johnathan Franklin and veteran senior Derrick Coleman. The thing to watch is the competition for the third spot. Malcolm Jones was that guy last year as a true freshman, but he looked tentative for most of the season. Reportedly he's re-committed himself and has looked good in the off-season workouts. Jordon James, who redshirted last year as a freshman, electrified spring practice.
#10 -- Starting Strong Safety
The secondary has veterans and looks strong, with three returning starters, but there are a couple of questions. Dalton Hilliard missed all of spring practice with injury; before that he was getting raves as the next big thing at strong safety. While he was out, true sophomore Dietrich Riley stepped up in spring and has been penciled in as the starter. It should be one of the best position battles to watch in fall, between the two guys who will almost certainly be the starters at safety in 2012. With Courtney Viney jumping ship for his senior season, it presents a little question of depth at cornerback, especially since Anthony Jefferson, the talented youngster, underwent back surgery Monday and isn't expected back until October. Andrew Abbott, the senior and former walk-on, is the only proven back-up behind starters Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester. It would be huge if Brandon Sermons, the redshirt sophomore who fractured his femur in spring of 2010, could fulfill that role. There is discussion that promising redshirt freshman free safety Tevin McDonald could get a look at cornerback.
#11 -- Third-String Tight End
At tight end, the coaches will be looking for a third guy behind Cory Harkey and Joseph Fauria. The candidates are John Young, who is returning from injury that had him sit out spring, and true freshman Raymond Nelson. It's also time for Fauria to step up and be a legitimate weapon.