Heading into fall practice, the feeling around the football offices is the most positive in years. Not only are the coaches excited for the season, the players are, and it's been reflected in how hard generally the players worked in the off-season. More players worked harder this summer than any summer in the last several years. The mood is high, and here are some things to look for heading into fall 2001 practice.
The offense has some great, proven talent at the skill positions, but an offense succeeds or gets shut down as a result of how well its offensive line performs. The offense in the last two seasons has not been as productive as it was in the 1997 and 1998 seasons, when it benefitted from a veteran, dominant offensive line. The last two seasons the line has been young and inexperienced. And while the line still is generally pretty young, with only one senior among its top nine players and only one senior starter, it is slowly getting older and it is definitely more experienced. But after the last two years when the offensive line struggled, the real question for the offense as a whole is: Has the offensive line now grown into a dominant unit? It has the highly-heralded talent, now it's a matter of seeing it translated into production on the field.
It appears the starters on the offensive line who emerged out of spring practice were Bryce Bohlander (6-6, 292, JR) and Mike Saffer (6-5, 305, JR), who are entrenched at left and right tackle; Troy Danoff (6-5, 307, SR), who returns for his second year as the starter at center; and Eyoseff Efseaff (6-3, 285, FR) and Shane Lehmann (6-5, 284, SO) who took possession of the left and right guard positions. It would take a drastic upset for that lineup to be disrupted in fall, or an injury. Possibly the wildcard here is Paul Mociler (6-5, 295, FR), who is very talented but was still shaking off the rust in spring practice from knee surgery. One question for the fall is if Mociler is 100% and ready to compete. Even if he doesn't win a starting spot this fall, it's key that he's able to play at an optimum level, given the youth on the OL two-deep. Blake Worley (6-6, 309, JR) is also critical to the OL, being able to back up four of the five positions. Another key to watch for is whether Steve Vieira (6-6, 296, FR) will prove himself worthy of the coaches' confidence to play him. The back-up at center is John Ream (6-4, 289, FR), who is getting rave reviews from the coaches for his talent and aggressiveness. It's too much to expect that one of the incoming freshmen OLs will be able to crack the two-deep. If, because of injury, one of the true freshmen had to play, possibly the most likely candidate would be Robert Cleary (6-7, 285, FR). But watch to see how far along Matt Mosebar (6-8, 280, FR) has come. Also, the coaches were pleased with the performance of Ed Blanton (6-8, 300, FR) in the Cali-Florida all-star game. And, of course, fall practice will be the first look we have at Collin Barker (6-8, 300, FR) and Mike McCloskey (6-5, 265, FR).
Again, the line is young overall, particularly when you get into the two-deep. It's progress, maturity and effectiveness are probably the key elements to watch for concerning the offense in fall.
At the skill positions, UCLA looks pretty well stacked. More than anything, the biggest determining factor for the success of the skill players is their health. It's critical that quarterback Cory Paus (6-2, 212, JR), tailback DeShaun Foster (6-1, 215, SR) and Brian Poli-Dixon (6-5, 216, SR) all remain healthy this year. They are three who have a considerable history of injury and haven't gotten through a season at UCLA unscathed.
With the departure of Freddie Mitchell, It's time for Poli-Dixon to step up, and fall practice is the time for him to send a signal to the rest of the team that he's prepared to do that. Poli-Dixon, though, has a habit of looking good every fall practice – like he's prepared to dominate during the season – then tends to go soft in the games. This is the year UCLA really can't afford for him to do that.
It's already very refreshing to come into fall practice without a quarterback controversy, and I'm sure Paus thinks so, too. Even with missing a few games last season, he still led the Pac-10 in efficiency rating, and averaged the most yards per game among Pac-10 QBs. Paus should be confident coming into fall practice. Watch to see if he has continued to improve his guidance of the offense, whether he's finding secondary receivers quicker and his comfort in the pocket has improved.
Foster said he has worked harder this summer than any other during his time at UCLA, and is in the best shape of his life. After always being hindered by nagging injuries, this fall it's key that Foster remains injury-free during the first three weeks of practice. Also watch to see if Foster has improved his explosiveness to the line, and his decision-making.
The overall situation at receiver, quarterback and running back is also in very good shape heading into fall.
While it's near-impossible to replace a fiery talent like Freddie Mitchell, just about everyone in the football program is excited about the potential of Tab Perry (6-3, 218, SO) at the flanker position. The word is that he's looked exceptional in the summer 7-on-7s. With Poli-Dixon at 6-5 and Perry at 6-3, UCLA presents some serious match-up problems for defenses with little cornerbacks. Moving up the depth chart considerably as a result of spring practice is Craig Bragg (6-1, 183, FR). While he's still young and has yet to play in a college football game, the UCLA coaches are touting him as an impact player. Hopefully that's not premature. Bragg is talented, and he brings the speed and shiftiness to complement the size of Poli-Dixon and Perry. But there will definitely be some growing pains for a redshirt freshman. Watch in fall practice to see how Bragg accepts his newfound expectations. The UCLA coaches will also be looking for one more receiver to emerge from the pack of Jerry Owens (6-3, 186, SO), Jon Dubravac (6-4, 216, SR) and Ryan Smith (6-3, 201, SO), to provide them a fourth, reliable receiver. Dubravac has been hampered by injuries (mostly a continuing back problem) for his career at UCLA. We'll see this fall if he's able to step up for his senior season. Owens was hyped out of high school and has shown flashes of being the man. Watch to see if those flashes become more than just flashes in fall. Many on the team believe that the fourth guy will be Smith, who has good strength and hands, while running precise routes. Incoming freshman Jacques Lazarus (6-1, 180, FR) could line up with the receivers next week.
With Foster as your tailback, you would think there wouldn't be much else to get excited about at the position. But UCLA has a secret weapon behind Foster in Manuel White (6-3, 240, FR). White more or less was the star of the team during spring practice, looking big, strong and unstoppable. Watch for Coach Toledo to line up Foster and White in the backfield at the same time in fall. Akil Harris (6-0, 209, SO) is also a tailback that you have to keep in mind. The word is that Harris comes into fall practice stronger and quicker. Kenny Pritchett (5-9, 183, JR) lends depth but still hasn't developed enough to see playing time. Fall practice will also give us a chance to see true freshmen Wendell Mathis (5-11, 185, FR), who was pretty well-hidden in Merced, and Jason Harrison (5-9, 185, FR). Tyler Ebell (5-9, 175, FR) was far more heralded, but given the depth at tailback and the fact that he could benefit from getting bigger and stronger, will more than likely redshirt. It would be nice if one of these three proved that they would be capable of playing if the position was decimated by injury.
Backing up at quarterback are Scott McEwan (6-3, 200, SR) and Ryan McCann (6-4, 213, JR) once again. McEwan made considerable strides last season and looked the best he ever has in spring practice. McCann didn't participate in spring but the word is that he's fully recovered from his shoulder injuries and will be ready to go. More than likely, the improved McEwan will keep a hold on the #1 back-up quarterback position.
At fullback, UCLA returns some experienced talent. Ed Ieremia-Stansbury (6-2, 259, SR) showed last year that he has a chance to be an elite fullback, with a crunching blocking style and nice hands out of the backfield. Matt Stanley (6-3, 243, SR) has also started many games and shown some greatness at times. Both, though, are recovering from off-season shoulder surgeries. The word is that they are both fully recovered but you might see UCLA try to bring them both along slowly at the beginning of fall practice. Probably the guy who gets the most raves among the younger players on the team is Pat Norton (6-1, 240, FR). There are stories of him in practice last year where he threw around linebackers and pounded defensive linemen. He's just a good all-around football player, the kind of guy you could put at nose tackle and he'd play well. Even with two experienced, talented seniors at fullback, watch to see Norton get some solid time in fall practice.
Another position with good talent is tight end, where senior Bryan Fletcher (6-5, 235, SR) and junior Mike Seidman (6-5, 241, JR) are listed as co-starters. With two talented players at the position, it will be interesting in fall practice to see if UCLA utilizes the tight ends more than it did last year. UCLA has always been known as having an offense that throws to its tight ends and the intention this year is to return to that. Depth, though, at the position, is a bit thin. Blane Kezirian (6-6, 238, SO) is the depth-lender here. But he might get some playing time this year, so watch in fall practice to gauge his development.