There are enough indications around the UCLA football program for UCLA fans to be optimistic.
Not just blindly optimistic, but realistically optimistic.
It's difficult, of course, coming off last year's disappointing season, the first for head coach Karl Dorrell.
And you have to always consider that, every year, during spring and summer, optimism is like a disease.
While many people close to the program are saying the requisite lines such as "we've never had such a good off-season" and "the offensive line has really made strides," there is enough real change that has occurred in the off-season to actually put a little stock in it.
The primary reason to feel optimistic are the prospects of UCLA's offense.
For one, there is only one place to go from last year, and that's up. UCLA had the 110th offense in the country, among 117 Division 1-A teams. It scored only 19 points a game, which was 100th in the country, and if you take away some of the points the defense put up, that probably goes down to about 16 points per game. It averaged 91.9 yards per game rushing, which had it ranked 114th in the country.
Okay, now that you're a little queasy after reading that, everything else from here on out will be encouraging.
It's the best place to start since, really, so much of an offense's success hinges on the success of the offensive line. If you can't run block, you can't run, and if you can't pass block, you can't pass. Easy enough.
And last year UCLA's offensive line couldn't run or pass block very well, making for the offense we grimaced through.
This year should be considerably different. And it's not rocket science and it's not just blind optimism.
The primary reason is the addition of offensive line coach and offensive coordinator Tom Cable. Now you don't want to place too much of a burden of responsibility on Cable, but heck, he's a tough guy and can take it. So here it is: the improvement of the offense depends mostly on the impact Cable will make. It makes sense – the two glaring problems with the offense last season were the weakness in the offensive line and the problems with the offensive scheme and play-calling.
Cable rides to the rescue.
First, as the coordinator, Cable has been noted as saying (paraphrased): "I don't know what offense they (UCLA) were running last year, but it wasn't the West Coast offense."
Last year, Dorrell's offense was being run by an offensive coordinator, Steve Axman, who wasn't at all familiar with the offense. He literally didn't know how to run it. It wasn't just the play-calling, but the philosophy. Now, you'd want to then say, "Well, why didn't Dorrell then realize there was a problem and take over the reigns of the offense?" Sounds good, but it's more difficult than it might appear. Taking over an offensive coordinator position, when you're the head coach, say, 4 or 5 games into the season, is a difficult task. While you'd like to think that head coaches are really completely versed on the nuts and bolts of their schemes, they really aren't. Head coaches are more like presidents – trying to see the big picture and not getting mired in the minutia. So it'd be extremely difficult for a head coach, then, to get up to speed on the specific minutia he would need to take over the offensive coordinator role. Plus, it's all just not that clear cut and black and white. While it wasn't exactly the offense that Dorrell probably conceived, it was natural to think that it would take a few games for it to gel. And by the fifth game, it looked like it actually had found some gel, when UCLA romped over Washington.
But by the second half of the season, it was pretty clear there was something wrong with the offense. The rest of the staff did, in fact, try to take over some of the responsibilities of the offense, but with so much having happened, with injuries (Matt Moore, Manuel White, etc.), they were pretty limited.
At the very least, Cable will stabilize the offense. While the offense might not execute precisely what it intends, you'll at least be able to notice that there is far more of a philosophy with the offense this season than last. This will come from Cable's excellent grasp of the so-called West Coast offense, an offense he's run for a decade and knows in and out. Many people around the program, particularly on the offensive side, are giddy about Cable and what he's already brought to the offensive scheme.
Cable, also, has made a big impact on the offensive line. Last year, and for several years, the state of UCLA's offensive line has been in disarray. And while it's always a complicated equation to affix blame, since in most situations it's usually a mixed culpability, there is some blame that has to go out to former offensive line coach, Mark Weber. Weber's style of coaching had created problems in the program. It wasn't necessarily that he wasn't literally a good coach, but his approach had ostracized many offensive linemen over several years. Many of the OLs who did leave the program will privately confess that a big reason was because of Weber. And many who were still with the program were thinking of leaving. While he was a taskmaster, which was good in many ways, Weber's style was such that it didn't ultimately promote cohesion or inspiration. His taskmaster style wasn't that of a good, strict and ultimately loving parent, but more of a tyrannical headmaster. Over the years, it took its toll, to the point that, by the end of Weber's stint, not only was the situation dysfunctional with the offensive linemen, but the teaching environment was stagnant.
Now, to a certain extent, any decent coach coming into a situation like this is going to be a breath of fresh air. Naturally, players would look to a new coach with a longing for salvation. So, in a way, with how bad the situation had become, it laid the ground work for the linemen to be thirsty for a new environment and new inspiration.
Enter Cable. He is a naturally inspiring coach, one who is tough and disciplined and demands hard work, but comes off, at least initially, as someone more like the strong, strict but ultimately loving parent.
The blocking schemes had been tweaked so much, trying to compensate for various problems, that they had pretty much worked themselves into a corner. Cable's new approach released that and enabled the offensive line to start over. It enabled them to start learning again.
And when a bunch of 6-4, 300-pound men get inspired, there's quite an opportunity for change. Cable's inspiration, teamed up with strength and conditioning czar Doc Kreis, have made a significant difference in the offensive line in the off-season, moreso than the usual "difference" you hear talk about every off-season.
We can't get too overly enthusiastic. The offensive line won't change from one of the worst in the Pac-10 to the best in just an off-season under Cable and Kreis. But it's not blindly optimistic to expect considerable improvement in the offensive line this season.
Walking around campus a few times in the last couple of months you'll run into some of the football players, and the first thing you will notice is the difference physically in the whole team, particularly in the offensive line. They are quite a bit larger than they were a year ago. When Dorrell said in the off-season before spring practice that the strength of the team had improved considerably, it has continued to improve. Dorrell said that last year, when he took over, just 3 players on the team could bench over 400 pounds. He said, then, in spring, that 13 now could. From what I've heard, that mark is now approaching 20. The majority of the offensive linemen are included in that statistic.
Six one-time starters return to the offensive line for this season, losing only Shane Lehmann, who had ended up being just a back-up by the time he left UCLA last season.
Now, there is that age-old saying: the good news is that everyone returns, and the bad news is that everyone returns.
But even though UCLA doesn't necessarily return a great deal of elite talent to the offensive line, being a year older and a year bigger, and having benefited now from seven months under Cable's tutelage, it's reasonable to expect that they're improved. Many close to the program believe they're vastly improved, especially after the weight-room dedication in the off-season. But optimism should remain tempered, until at least the first game week when we've had a few weeks to evaluate the offensive line's development. But heading into fall practice, the improvement of the offensive line – and the offensive scheme – are easily two of the top three most significant things (along with quarterback development) to watch for in the next few weeks.
Cable keeps saying that he's going to take the top five linemen he has, and then find the five places for them. The two most proven quantities among those five are Eyoseph Efseaff (SR, 6-3, 300) and Steven Vieira (SR, 6-6, 300). If you had been wandering around campus and had seen Efseaff, you'd be taken aback a bit by how big he's gotten. Vieira, too, looks far better put together. Among some insiders around the program, it's believed that these two seniors will probably benefit most from Cable's influence. Both are three-year starters, which is astounding to consider, and you can't diminish how that much experience benefits a college player, particularly an offensive lineman. Efseaff, at first, was slow to respond to Cable's demands, but has really bought in during the off-season. Vieira has been a trooper. They both are keys to the success of UCLA's o-line this season.
The other lock among the top five linemen will be Ed Blanton (JR, 6-9, 340). Talking about huge, Blanton is now truly a mountain. And scarily, he could still probably add more bulk. Blanton has definitely bought into Cable, and showed it during spring practice.
Mike McCloskey (JR, 6-5, 285) will be favored to win back the center position this fall. McCloskey had a considerable scare this spring, when it was uncertain whether he'd be able to return to football due to an undisclosed ailment that caused pleurisy. Interestingly, though, the word is that McCloskey, because of his athleticism and mobility, might also be utilized at tackle at times this season.
Robert Chai (SO, 6-3, 280), stepped in at center for McCloskey when he fractured his ankle last season, and generally the reviews were good on his performance.
It was thought, as recent as last week, that these five would be the starters going into fall practice. But there's been a very recent shake-up in the line-up.
Cable has standardized the offensive line set, permanently recognizing the strong and weak side linemen rather than having them stay on one side. In other words, the strongside tackle will line up on either side, depending on which is the strong side for that play.
It was planned that Blanton would be the strongside tackle, but the new change will put Paul Mociler (SR, 6-6, 300) at the strongside tackle position. Mociler has struggled during his career at UCLA, but showed good development in spring practice and has pleased the coaches during the off-season. The best thing about Mociler is his versatility, having played all three line positions, making him able to step in at center, guard or tackle.
So Mociler will start out at strongside tackle, with Vieira at strongside guard. On the weakside Efseaff will be at guard, with Blanton at tackle. McCloskey will start out as the #1 center, with Chai behind him.
The recent changes were done for a few reasons. Cable wants to load his strength up the middle, with Vieira, McCloskey/Chai and Efseaff on the interior, to help with the running game tackle-to-tackle. It's thought that Blanton, with his reach, would be able to lengthen the short side of the field, while Mociler could be helped by the blocking tight end on the strongside.
The plan will be implemented at the beginning of fall practice to see how it meshes. If it doesn't click, they could go back to what they intended for the last several months -- to start Vieira and Blanton at tackle, Efseaff and Chai at guard and McCloskey at center.
It's refreshing, to say the least, that there is a new willingness to experiment under Cable, with UCLA traditionally being pretty conservative when it comes to positional changes and experiments.
UCLA would really love to be able to get some solid depth from the other returning OLs on the roster. Marc Villafuerte (SO, 6-3, 300) might have the best chance. The JC transfer has been working to get himself in shape and get stronger, but he has decent quickness, which enables him to maybe back up at tackle as well as guard.
Robert Cleary (JR, 6-7, 305) looks better physically, having put on probably 10 pounds of bulk since last season. He has yet to show the aggressiveness and instincts to get him minutes, and the time is now for the light turn on. If UCLA could depend on Cleary for solid back-up minutes, it'd be significant, giving them eight linemen already on the roster they could depend on. He's pegged for the guard position, even though he's played tackle in the past.
P.J. Irvin (R-FR, 6-4, 300) has also improved physically, looking quite a bit better than when he came to UCLA a year ago. But the word is that he's still a ways away from providing help.
Among the incoming freshman, the guy to watch particularly this fall practice is Shannon Tevaga (FR, 6-3, 295). He is probably the most physically developed of the incoming freshman offensive linemen and probably the most talented. UCLA expects him to make the two-deep at guard as a true freshman.
The coaches are also hoping that Aaron Meyer (FR, 6-3, 285) and possibly Brian Abraham (FR, 6-6, 260) might be able to have a chance at the two deep. Abraham, reportedly, has been dedicated to the weight room and has gained some considerable strength. So much will depend on whether these two are physically far enough along to match up on this level just yet. Chris Joseph (6-4, 255) will also probably have a shot at making the two deep after Tevaga, Meyer and Abraham.
The two other incoming freshmen – Scott Glicksberg (6-4, 285), Nathaniel Skaggs (6-4, 255) – aren't expected to contribute as true freshmen. If they do, if they're ready and far enough along, it's a bonus.
For the first time in quite a while, UCLA, at the very least, will have a good number of bodies to throw around on the offensive line. It will be one of the most interesting aspects of the fall to see which incoming freshmen OL have the capabilities to make the two-deep this year, and even which project down the line as potentially significant contributors.
Next: The rest of the offense...