Spring Football Preview: Offense

Spring football practice starts tomorrow, and the much-maligned offense has a great many questions to answer before next season. The biggest: How much impact will new offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Tom Cable have?

QUARTERBACK

Drew Olson (JR, 6-3, 220) has matured physically, and worked hard in the off-season. The reports from various other offensive players is that Olson looked very good throwing in the last couple of months. So much rides on Olson getting command of the offense next season, and how he steps up and takes control this spring and shows leadership will be a huge indication of it.

It's too much to expect the JC transfer David Koral (JR, 6-3, 220) to really push Olson this spring, since he'll still be cramming on the offense. It would be good, though, if he did, at least, flash some ability, enough to push Olson next fall. We're looking for a strong arm and good mobility this spring; if we see that, we'll consider it a good spring for Koral.

With how thin the position is, the coaches are taking the development of walk-on Brian Callahan (SO, 6-0, 190) very seriously. Being third on the depth chart, and with how often college quarterbacks get injured these days, he'll have to be ready to step in and play next season, and this spring he's expected to show he can do that, at least, well enough to operate the offense. He is a smart kid who gets the offense, having learned its principles from his father.

RUNNING BACK

Manuel White (SR, 6-2, 245) will be limited in his spring practice participation due to his off-season surgery on his fractured should blade. He is expected, though, to start at tailback next season.

Maurice Drew (SO, 5-8, 200) will shoulder the bulk of the tailback responsibilites for spring. Watch to see how much more comfortable Drew is in the offense. Many expect Drew to have a break-out spring after a solid freshman season.

Jason Harrison (JR, 5-10, 205) is listed third on the depth chart, but it isn't likely he'll remain there. Harrison has made a valiant effort recovering from two ligament surgeries on his right knee, missing the 2003 season. It's still doubtful if he'll ever really recover enough to be a regular contributor.

Derrick Williams (R-FR, 5-10, 205) will get into the rotation at tailback this spring, after being named the scout team player of the year. He's not a speedster, but very powerful for his size, with a nice ability to run tackle-to-tackle. He's expected to be the third option at tailback next fall and will need to prove this spring he's worthy.

FULLBACK

Pat Norton (SR, 6-2, 240) now has sole possession of the starting position, mainly because he's the only experienced player on the roster at that position. A fiery guy, he's a warrior on the field and has grown into a good, technical blocker.

The rest of the picture at fullback is very sketchy. It would appear that Jimmy Stephens (R-FR, 6-2, 230) will be the most likely to make the two-deep at fullback, having been a option there last season due to injuries at the position. After a year on the scout team he'll be trying to prove himself this spring. The status of Michael Pitre (R-FR, 5-11, 245) has been uncertain since he first came to UCLA because of a lingering neck injury, and it's still uncertain going into spring practice. The depth chart for the position is filled out by walk-ons, namely two former walk-on linebackers Steve Seigel (JR, 6-1, 235) and Mark Mangelsdorff (SO, 6-2, 225). It would be a very productive thing if one of them, probably Seigel, emerged from spring as a viable option at fullback.

WIDE RECEIVER

Really, the only completely known quantity among the receivers heading into spring is talented veteran Craig Bragg (SR, 6-2, 205). Having seen Bragg in the off-season, he looks huge compared to his former self, with much bigger arms and torso, having done work in the weight room in the off-season.

Junior Taylor (JR, 6-1, 205) will be out for spring due to a hernia operation in the off-season. So, penciled in at the top of the depth chart at split end opposite Bragg is Joe Cowan (SO, 6-4, 205). Cowan, as a true freshman, showed flashes of good things last season, and is really expected by the coaching staff to step up and produce this spring. UCLA's wide receivers went from fairly well-stocked to fairly inexperienced, and it would go a long way if Cowan showed this spring that he's going to be, at least, solid.

The rest of the receivers are a group from which the coaches are hoping possibly a couple of players will step up and prove themselves this spring. Idris Moss (SO, 5-11, 175) has the most experience, despite having a peculiar redshirt freshman season last year where he dropped some balls and looked out of sync at times. He does have great quickness, and hopefully he'll feel more comfortable this spring. The coaches are expecting Matt Slater (R-FR, 5-11, 190) to step up and challenge for a receiving spot, and be a true option next season. Antwuan Smith (R-FR, 5-11, 190) and Alex Ghebreselassie (R-FR, 6-2, 195) have yet to really show they could contribute soon, and this spring they'll try to dispel that notion. Reportedly, Ghebreselassie has gotten bigger physically.

TIGHT END

The recurring theme here for spring is thin, and the tight end position is, while hopefully it will get some added help. It's definitely time for Marcedes Lewis (JR, 6-6, 250) to show he's now a real, consistent threat. He's looked very good at times in the last couple of seasons, but at other times has disappeared, which might not be as much his fault as that of the play-calling in the past. This spring, UCLA needs Lewis to continue to improve his pass-catching technique and especially his blocking, so he can stay on the field.

Recognizing the thinness at the position, UCLA went out and got JC transfer Matt Raney (JR, 6-3, 245). He's billed as a good blocking tight end, and UCLA will need that to be true. Also there is J.J. Hair (SO, 6-5, 245) who has yet to prove he can play consistently at this level.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Again, the theme is thin. There are only eight offensive linemen on scholarship for spring, and two are recovering from injuries and will be limited in spring.

The new-look offensive line will shift from a left and right side alignment to a weak and strong side approach, to help to streamline the roles of the linemen. It's still uncertain as to who will be the strongside tackle, but the word is that Ed Blanton (JR, 6-9, 340) will probably fill the bill. Blanton has really improved his strength in the off-season, bulking up to 340, which many still consider slim for him. Steve Vieira (SR, 6-6, 300), the other incumbent starting tackle, had off-season surgery on his knee and will be limited in what he can do. The only other tackle on scholarship is Robert Cleary (JR, 6-7, 305), and the coaches are praying he shows some newfound fire this spring so he's an option next fall.

On the interior, it's a little better, but not much. At center, Mike McCloskey (JR, 6-5, 285) returns after missing half the season with a fractured ankle. As of now, it's uncertain how much he'll be able to practice this spring. Looking to possibly take the starting spot from him is Robert Chai (SO, 6-3, 280), who stepped in to the spot last season when McCloskey went down. Chai, many believe, has more promise at the position. No matter who wins it, the other will probably find himself competing for a starting guard spot. Eyoseff Efseaff (SR, 6-3, 300) is a three-year starter and getting some senior hype, but the inside word is that he'll need a strong spring to keep the starting position. The problem, though, is that there isn't a clear, viable alternative at either guard position. Paul Mociler (SR, 6-6, 300) had a questionable season last year, and it was thought just a month ago he could be moved to tackle for depth there. He starts spring practice on the depth chart at right guard. It's uncertain if P.J. Irvin (R-FR, 6-4, 300) will be able to provide an option, last year looking like he was pretty far away from contributing. UCLA needs its JC transfer, Marc Villafuerte (SO, 6-3, 300), to show this spring that he can play at this level and be a real option at guard. If not, the depth on the offensive line is truly worrisome.

OVERALL

Probably the biggest factor to watch for this spring is the effect of new offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Tom Cable. Even if you try to play it down, the offense was heaped with much of the blame for the disappointing season last year, and the offensive line got much of the sub-blame for the struggling offense . Cable will be expected to be the savior of the offense next season (Gee, no pressure). All eyes this spring will be on how his influence potentially changes the offense, its play-calling and approach, and if he can whip the offensive line into a decent unit.


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