Fall Practice Preview: Offense

There are more questions on the offensive side of the ball that need to be answered going into fall practice than on defense. There is quite a bit of talent, but the predominant question is: Will UCLA get the effectiveness it needs out of its quarterback position?

The offense has a few more question marks than does the defense, and it added another question mark when it lost a slated starter at wide receiver in Tab Perry for the season.

The primary questions, though, remain at quarterback and offensive line. The issue at quarterback is obvious: Can one of the young quarterbacks step up, perform effectively and, at the very least, not make UCLA lose?

The issue at offensive line is a bit more convoluted.  The line ostensibly has had good talent over the last couple of years, and looks to have at least as good talent this year. So why has it under-performed in recent years?  Was it the offensive system of the old coaching staff?  While the effectiveness of all positions in football are at least somewhat dependent on the team and system around it, the success of the offensive is even moreso. So it's difficult to quantify just how unsuccessful the offensive line has been in recent years.  In writing this preview for the last few years, though, one of the key factors heading into fall practice has annually been the offensive line - and the question has yet to be answered.  With a new coaching staff, a new offensive system and a new outlook, again, hopefully the question gets answered this season. 

OFFENSIVE LINE

The bad news is that two veteran starters - Bryce Bohlander and Mike Saffer - need to be replaced. The good news for many is, well, that Bohlander and Saffer need to be replaced. While that could be a bit harsh, the fact is that tackles Bohlander and Saffer never seemed to live up their hype coming into UCLA and neither developed into truly elite linemen.  They ended their UCLA careers as solid players, but UCLA needs some elite players on its offensive line if its offense is going to be successful.

Projected Starters:

LT - Steve Vieira (JR, 6-6, 300)
LG - Eyoseph Efseaff (JR, 6-3, 300)
C - Mike McCloskey (SO, 6-5, 276)
RG - Shane Lehmann (SR, 6-5, 290)
RT - Ed Blanton (SO, 6-9, 330)

Without Bohlander and Saffer you can definitely say that the offensive line this year will be on the younger side, with only one projected starter being a senior and two of them sophomores. Really, though, only one projected starter doesn't have a great deal of game experience - and that's Blanton.

The veterans of the group now are Vieira and Efseaff, who have been around the longest and started the most games.  Vieira made the switch to left tackle in spring, and has a chance to be very good, going into just his junior year. He has good athleticism and a nice mean streak.  Efseaff is solid, having started since his freshman year. He was named to the Pac-10 second team a year ago. 

Perhaps the most promising is McCloskey at center, who won the starting center position a year ago in fall camp because of his quickness and athleticism. 

It is definitely time for Lehmann to step up and prove himself.  He came to UCLA well-hyped. A big effort and a good year from him are critical to the success of the offensive line. 

While Blanton is obviously less experienced than either Bohlander or Saffer, he's got quite a bit more upside. He'll probably be prone to a few mistakes, but he's just so large that it makes it very difficult for defensive ends to get around him.

First off the bench for the OL will be Paul Mociler (JR, 6-5, 290). If Lehmann falters, Mociler will step into that right guard position.  He could also play some at right tackle, having moved between positions for the last couple of years. Mociler is another - like Lehmann - who needs to prove himself, having been in the program now for three years.

After that, the line depth gets rather thin.  The first backup at tackle on the depth chart behind Blanton is Robert Cleary (SO, 6-7, 300). Cleary also came to UCLA with some good hype and, after two years in the program, needs to produce.  After being a guard to begin with, he's now slated at the tackle position.

Alex Potasi (R-FR, 6-6, 302) is the one offensive line recruit that has come into the program in the last couple of years that has shown immediate potential to contribute.  He was hampered by knee surgery last year, which actually brought into question whether he'd be able to ever return to football. The general prognosis now is that he's recovered, but it's uncertain as to how durable the knee will be. The new coaching staff has yet to really see Potasi, even though hold-over offensive line coach Mark Weber is familiar with him.   Potasi will back up Vieira, but if he's playing well and the tackle position on the other side is in question, Potasi easily could move to the other side. 

At center, the backup is Robert Chai (R-FR, 6-3, 275), who impressed the new coaches at spring practice. 

That leaves a walk-on on the two-deep at left guard - Tyson Clayton (SR, 6-2, 276).  While Clayton is not on scholarship, he is one of the most technically sound of the offensive linemen. 

It'd be a big relief if even just one of the two incoming freshmen, P.J. Irvin (FR, 6-4, 280) and Nikola Dragovic (FR, 6-3, 270), was able to possibly compete to make the two-deep at guard, but it's unlikely at this point. Both are considered redshirt candidates and will need some time to develop in the program.

RECEIVERS

As stated above, the once standout unit of receivers now has a bit of a question heading into the season with the loss of Tab Perry to academics for the season.

It's a worry, but actually not too big of a worry. The receiving unit is fairly deep, and actually there are players who might use the opportunity to step up and prove themselves worthy of that starting spot.

At tight end, UCLA looks to replace the productivity of last year's workhorse Mike Seidman.

Projected Starters:

SE - Craig Bragg (JR, 6-2, 190)
FL - Junior Taylor (SO, 6-2, 202)
TE - Marcedes Lewis (SO, 6-6, 245)

One of the most under-heralded players in the Pac-10 is Bragg. He is probably the best offensive player on the team, and very well could be the best player on the squad overall.  Bragg was both the go-to receiver and the big-play receiver last season, making some of the best catches in recent years in a Bruin uniform, and this spring he had the most impressive showing of any player on the team.  The offensive theory this season should be: Get the Ball to Bragg.

With the loss of Perry, the guy who looks to benefit the most is talented Junior Taylor. Taylor is a great-looking athlete who had moments of greatness in games last season.  He'll now be given the chance to step up and own the starting position.

Lewis comes off a solid freshman season at tight end. In the off-season, he dropped the notion of playing basketball and focused on football, and the word is that he looked particularly good in the off-season workouts.

The depth at receiver is solid, but it's a bit diminished with the loss of Perry, coupled with the loss of Jibril Raymo (JR, 6-3, 200), who has left the program for a year to get some things in order.  The blow would be considerably softened if Ryan Smith (SR, 6-3, 210) can show he's fully recovered from a lingering ankle problem which forced him to have surgery last season.  When Smith was healthy in his sophomore year, he was a significant contributor - a great possession receiver who runs very precise routes, is strong and has a burst upfield. 

It's really then a wide-open competition to fill the five-receiver rotation after Bragg, Taylor and Smith. Garrett Lepisto (SR, 6-2, 187) is the steady former walkon, will probably fill one of those spots.  But there is a chance he could get overtaken by more talented younger players.  The best candidate at this point is Idris Moss (R-FR, 5-11, 170). Moss looked good in practice last season as a true freshman and showed that he's one of the quickest players on the team this spring. He's still raw in his pass-catching abilities, but it's a pretty good bet that he'll get playing time this season.  What would relieve some worries is if Jacques Lazarus (SO, 6-2, 187) stepped up in his third season in the program and lived up to his potential. We said this last year in the fall camp preview, too - that Lazarus is one of the best athletes on the entire team, with very good athleticism and very good speed.  As they say, the light just hasn't turned on as of yet. He tends to float at times and not stay focused, even for the duration of one play.  If new wide receiver coach Jon Embree can turn Lazarus into a player this season it would be a major accomplishment.

The other receiver already on the squad who will be fighting for one of those five positions is Antwuan Smith (FR, 5-11, 180). Smith will be a true freshman this season, but he arrived at UCLA last winter and participated in spring practice.  In spring, Smith had moments, but looked like he was a while away from contributing, but it's difficult to anticipate how someone has developed in his first off-season. Also watch for walkon Josh Roenicke (SO, 6-3, 185) who has shown potential in his two initial years at UCLA to potentially earn a scholarship. 

An incoming player that might have the best chance to break into that rotation is Joe Cowan (FR, 6-4, 185). Cowan showed in the recent Shrine Game that he possibly is physically ready to play as a true freshman. He's a possession receiver with a great straight-ahead burst, and it might be enough to fill one of the open rotation positions as a true freshman.  Alex Ghebreselassie (FR, 6-3, 180) has some talent, but will probably be a more likely redshirt, along with Matt Slater (FR, 6-0, 175), the son of former Ram great Jackie Slater who signed with UCLA in late spring. 

The biggest news of the off-season was the possibility that Keith Carter (SO, 6-4, 240) could return to play not only this season, but fairly early. Carter's season, and future, was thrown into question when he suffered a dislocated and fractured right hip in a spring motorcycle accident.  It was uncertain whether he'd play this year, much less ever.  But his recovery has been much better than expected and Head Coach Karl Dorrell has said he expects Carter to play this season, and didn't rule out the possibility of him playing in the opening game against Colorado September 6th.  With Carter on the lineup sheet, it makes UCLA's tight ends go from thin to at least solid. Carter is not only a good blocker (being used as an H-back last season, too), but a sure-handed receiver. Also, if Carter can play, it gives the UCL A coaches the option of using Lewis as a wide receiver in the Teyo Johnson style of receiving.

Blane Kezirian (SR, 6-6, 235) has been a solid contributor over his career at UCLA, both as a backup tight end and special teams player.  It'd be very good if J.J. Hair (R-FR, 6-5, 240) could show this fall that he could contribute, coming off a true freshman year on the scout team where he didn't do much.  Walkon Will Peddie (R-FR, 6-5, 260) might have just as good a chance to contribute as Hair. 

RUNNING BACKS

It's one of the deepest and most talented units on the team - and it has some experience while it's still overall a young group. Pretty much it's close to the ideal situation of how you'd like every position to be on your team every year.

Projected Starters:

TB - Tyler Ebell (SO, 5-8, 180)
FB - Manuel White (JR, 6-3, 245)

It's amazing to think that UCLA fans will be able to watch the "Thunder and Lightning" backfield of White and Ebell for another two years. 

Ebell had a very good season as a redshirt freshman when he got the call as the starter a few games into the season and proved he was worthy of it, gaining close to 1,000 yards, and earning second-team Freshman All-American honors.  His quickness, cuts and vision made his diminutive frame hard to find in a backfield.  This spring, if it's possible, Ebell looked even quicker and more explosive, and had probably the second-most impressive spring behind Bragg on the team. 

White is one of UCLA's best weapons, able to play either tailback or fullback, and very good at catching the ball out of the backfield.  While he's slated to start at fullback, he'll get moved around on the field to utilize his talents.  The idea is to get him into the open field matched up on smaller defensive backs and let them try to bring down his 245 pounds.

The spring was good for former starter Akil Harris (SR, 6-0, 210). Harris had a disappointing junior year where he was supplanted by Ebell, but he had a great showing during spring practice. If he has an equally impressive fall, expect the coaches to use him as an alternative to the smaller, scatback style of Ebell.

Wendell Mathis (SO, 6-0, 185) is another intriguing athlete who, at times, in his career at UCLA, showed flashes of greatness - at least in practice.  Mathis has long been rumored to be leaning toward transferring, and the rumors didn't entirely die during the off-season.  He's a talented football player and it'd be a loss to have him leave the program, especially since he's a very good receiver who could possibly have a future at that position as well.

Jason Harrison (SO, 5-10, 205) was showing some good things on the field last season when he blew out his knee in the Washington State game. He's had two ligament surgeries since and his status for the season and even longer-term is still in doubt.

So, not only at tailback is there Ebell, some contributions from White, former starter Harris, and promising Mathis, you have one of the best high school running backs in the nation coming into the program in Maurice Drew (FR, 5-8, 195). Even though the team has that kind of depth, it's expected that Drew will show this fall that he's good enough to contend for playing time.  Derrick Williams (FR, 5-10, 195) was a standout prospect himself, is a good all-around athlete who almost certainly will redshirt.

Fullback is also pretty deep with talent. Behind White is sometime starter from last year, J.D. Groves (SO, 6-2, 240). Groves was pretty good as a true freshman, pressed into duty last season when White was injured. There's also Pat Norton (JR, 6-1, 145), who showed quite a bit of promise in his first couple of years at UCLA only to be slowed by injury last season.

There are then two incoming players, Michael Pitre (FR, 6-1, 240) and Jimmy Stephens (FR, 6-3, 230) to provide even more depth. The word is that Pitre is impressive, but with the depth at the position, he'll almost certainly redshirt. Stephens will redshirt, and could end up at another position, possibly on defense.

QUARTERBACK

It's the biggest key to UCLA's season. If the Bruins can get good production from its quarterback position, there is so much talent on this team on offense and defense that a solid quarterback performance would be enough for the team to suceed.

Projected Starter:

Drew Olson (SO, 6-2, 216)

Olson and Matt Moore (SO, 6-4, 185) didn't distinguish themselves from one another last season, when both were asked to fill in for the injured Cory Paus.  It's a huge shame that both had to be used to get through last season and that one couldn't have been redshirted.

Both came into spring practice fairly even, with many believing that Moore having the chance to overtake Olson.  Neither really had an excellent spring, with Olson pulling ahead slightly, grasping the new offense better and generally throwing better balls. 

In the off-season, the word is that Olson has continued to work hard and improve his grasp of the offense. Rumors about Moore potentially transferring abounded, and actually continue to persist.  If Olson wins the position, many believe that Moore will look to transfer.

Moore thinking of transferring is a bad idea, for both Moore and UCLA. The reasons it's a bad idea for UCLA are obvious: It would leave them with only two scholarship quarterbacks, Olson and John Sciarra (SO, 6-1, 208) on the squad. They would be two injuries away from walkon Brian Callahan (R-FR, 5-11, 191) having to actually play. It's also a pretty farfetched idea for Moore to think of transferring.  Moore has some promise as a quarterback, but it's not as if he'd walk in to a major program and immediately be anointed the starter. He would probably even have a tough time of winning the position, after the redshirt year required for transferring, at a place like San Diego State.  It's understandable that, being in the same class as Olson, that Moore could fill that he'd never get a chance to be the starter. But 1) when's the last time UCLA went an entire season without an injury and the same guy as a starter the entire season? That would be Cade McNown in 1998.  Moore, over the course of his career at UCLA, is very likely to get a chance at starting and earning the position on the field. And 2) Since he has to redshirt to transfer, into a situation that probably wouldn't give him much certainty of starting anyway, wouldn't it make more sense to impress to the UCLA coaches that, if he doesn't win the starting position, he'd like to redshirt at UCLA?  He'd then be a year behind Olson and have just as good a chance as starting his redshirt senior year as he would if he transferred. So, he gets almost the equivalent chance he probably would have at another school, but gets to stay at UCLA, the school he's always loved.

No matter what happens with Moore, between he and Olson UCLA needs a quarterback this season. It's easily the #1 focus of fall camp and everyone - coaches and fans alike - will be watching the quarterback situation the closest to see how it plays out.  Much might be determined by which quarterback grasps the new offense the quickest, since the coaches say they only installed 25% of the offense for spring practice.  Fall camp at Cal State Fullerton will more than likely decide the starter.

KICKERS

Projected Starters:

PK - Justin Medlock (R-FR, 6-0, 195)
P - Chris Kluwe (JR, 6-5, 212)

UCLA has had a very steady and dependable situation in its kicking game for many years.  This season, for the first time in a long time, UCLA goes into its season with some questions among its kickers. Kluwe is in going into his fourth year in the program. His technique has continued to improve and it's safe to expect that he'll be dependable as the punter - getting off some of his signature bombs as well as some average punts. 

Medlock is the more prevalent question. In practice last year, he looked very good, very rarely missing a field goal.  In spring practice, however, he looked shaky, and it raised worries about his ability to step into the place-kicking duties.  He'll have to prove himself very quickly in fall camp, or UCLA might look at other alternatives, such as possibly Kluwe handling double duty.  Hopefully spring was just a blip on the radar screen and Medlock will go back to the consistency he showed in practice last season. 


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