Drew Olson (JR, 6-3, 220) has the job to himself really for the first time in his UCLA career. Hopefully rather than making him complacent it will make him feel secure.
Olson looks huge physically, having gained probably ten pounds of muscle, looking broader in the chest and shoulders. He's coming off probably his best stint as a quarterback in UCLA with a good performance in spring practice. Reports from the off-season seven-on-seven is that he's far more comfortable and making decisions far quicker. Many close to the program cite the influence of new quarterback coach Jim Svoboda. It would be considered a breakthrough if Svoboda could merely teach Olson how to look off a receiver this year.
Even though there isn't as much pressure on Olson because he has the starting position certainly locked up, there are a great deal of expectations for him this year. Before, it was legitimate to use the inexperience and youth excuse with Olson, but now, as a junior, having started a great deal of his first two seasons, and having a year of learning the offense under his belt, the inexperience and youth card can't be readily used.
Olson, to his defense, was constantly under fire last season, with little protection from the offensive line. It wasn't necessarily as apparent watching the games on TV, or even from the stands as it was seeing it sometimes from a reporter's perspective on the sideline, from an angle behind Olson. It was pretty evident that he had very little time to operate, much less look off receivers. He also withstood the onslaught pretty well, earning quite a few toughness points with his teammates and coaches. It has helped Olson step into a leadership role on the team.
After Olson on the quarterback depth chart is where possibly the most danger for the 2004 season exists. After Olson there really isn't any quarterback on the roster who can play at the Pac-10 level at this point. The #1 back-up will probably be David Koral (JR, 6-3, 215), the JC transfer, who showed his limitations in spring practice. Koral looked a bit out of sorts in the offense in spring and also unable to throw the ball down the field effectively. UCLA insiders are praying that Koral has a miracle development spurt this fall. The lack of depth at quarterback by far is UCLA's biggest vulnerability for the season. It's not difficult to say that, if Olson goes down, more than likely so does UCLA.
Walk-on Brian Callahan (SO, 6-0, 190) knows the offense really well, but doesn't have the physical tools to be a UCLA-level quarterback. If Olson went down, though, he very well could be the option over Koral since he knows the offense so well.
Eddie Miller (SO, 6-0, 190) walked on to the program in spring, transferring from Louisville. He'll have to sit out the 2004 season. Miller is small and has an average arm.
Incoming freshman Pat Cowan (6-4, 200) is the younger brother of receiver Joe Cowan. He wasn't a highly recruited prospect, but has good size and smarts, with just an average arm. It would be a whoppingly huge surprise if he showed any capability of backing up this season.
There are two things to look for in fall for quarterbacks: Drew Olson's continued development and the sign that another quarterback on the roster could execute the position effectively enough that if something happened to Olson the entire season wouldn't be over.
If Olson does stay healthy, it's not a stretch to expect him to look improved, and for the offense to be so accordingly. UCLA's #1 objective for the season: Keep Olson healthy.
The running backs are easily among the most talented units on the team for 2004.
White is still recovering from a fractured right shoulder blade he suffered in mid-season last year. He just recently was cleared for full contact, but could still be brought along fairly slowly in the first couple of weeks of fall camp.
White, if he can stay healthy, is really a guy who changes the complexion for the offense. He's listed as the #1 tailback, and he'll get plenty of time there, but will also see quite a bit of time at fullback, alongside Drew. White is a horse who can pound defenses, but he's also great catching the ball, which is where you want him, with the ball in his hand in the open field. Reports from the off-season are that he's in great shape.
Drew is the blossoming star for the offense. He had the third best performance as a true freshman running back in UCLA history (582 yards). He's not only quick, but possesses great strength and balance, which makes him bounce off tacklers. He's supposedly looked very impressive in the off-season and the general feeling around the program is he's the next big thing in UCLA football.
At tailback, there is some vulnerability with depth, mostly because of the unknown that is Jason Harrison (JR, 5-10, 205). Harrison, as most know, suffered serious ligament damage to his right knee which led to two surgeries. He's been practicing since the end of last season and through spring, but there are still questions of whether he'll ever be able to play effectively. This season will probably determine whether Harrison can play or not.
The UCLA coaches are going to need Derrick Williams (R-FR, 5-10, 205) to be ready. He's considered a solid program guy, someone who works hard and is talented enough to provide strong back-up at the position. He'll have to step up and prove that he's the caliber of an eventual starter.
Incoming freshman Chris Markey (FR, 5-11, 195) is really an unknown factor at this point. Being from Louisiana, we don't know him very well. He had a great prep career but he wasn't too highly recruited by schools in the South. One of the big curiosities of the fall will be to get a first look at Markey.
While the tailback position is a bit thin, the talent at the top – White and Drew – is considerable. The question at tailback really is if Harrison can prove he can play, or if Williams or even Markey can step up and be good enough to earn game reps.
At fullback, as stated above, White will get a lot of reps. But the guy who will be called on as the primary blocking fullback will be Pat Norton (SR, 6-2, 240). Norton has shown flashes of being very good during his career at UCLA, which has also been slowed by injury. It's fairly important he stay healthy, and productive, this season, since there isn't a great deal of proven talent behind him.
The next option would be Michael Pitre (R-FR, 5-11, 245). It was thought for a long time that Pitre's neck condition wouldn't allow him to play football, but he returned last spring for practice and had a very good showing, exhibiting the ability to block well and also carry the ball effectively in traffic. Pitre's good performance last spring made the UCLA coaches feel a bit better about their depth at fullback but he's still highly inexperienced. After Pitre is another redshirt freshman, Jimmy Stephens (R-FR, 6-2, 230), who is a hard worker, but there is a question whether he can contribute at fullback significantly.
There are some walk-on options at fullback, including Steve Seigel (JR, 6-1, 235), Kris Kiley (SO, 6-0, 240) and Mark Mangelsdorff (SO, 6-2, 225). Fullback is a position where walk-ons have traditionally had a chance to play and if the depth chart takes some injury hits, these guys could see some time.
The wide receiver group will be good, and has a chance to be very good – as in one of the best in the west and possibly the country.
It all revolves around Craig Bragg (SR, 6-2, 205), who is one of the best UCLA receivers in the last ten years and, from a records-book standpoint, will more than likely leave UCLA as the most productive receiver in the program's history. He's just 23 catches and 659 yards away from being #1 all-time in both categories for UCLA receivers.
It's quite an accomplishment if you consider that he has played in a couple of different offensive systems, under a couple of different head coaches, and under one of the least productive offenses in UCLA's recent history.
Bragg, if you've seen him lately, looks like he's a balloon that someone has blown up, compared to how he used to look. He's put on about 10 pounds of muscle in the off-season. Reports from the off-season workouts indicate that he's even faster, clocking a very quick 40 time in the recent informal testing. He has to be one of the most under-rated receivers in the Pac-10 and the country.
Bragg is the starter at flanker on the depth chart, and at the opposite side, at split end, is Joe Cowan (SO, 6-4, 205).
But there are some wild cards here that could unseat Cowan from that starting position.
As everyone knows who reads BRO, the former starting wide receiver, Tab Perry (SR, 6-4, 210) is trying to get re-instated to UCLA. Perry, if you remember, was kicked off the team, but remained in school last year, given a chance to recover academically, which he squandered. Once he left UCLA, he considered transferring to a 1-AA school so he could play his senior season immediately. But, according to NCAA rules, you can only transfer if you are in good academic standing with the school you're leaving. So, it stood to reason, that if Perry had to do the work to get in good academic standing, he might as well then return to UCLA. All reports on Perry, to his credit, is that he's worked hard to make up the academic work. He went to San Jose City College, and UCLA summer school. There apparently have been some questions of whether UCLA would accept his credits from SJCC, but the most recent rumors are that it's very likely Perry will be re-instated. The hope is that he'll get the word in time to suit up when practice starts next week.
Perry has also, apparently, taken his game seriously. Reports are that he's trimmed down, having lost 10-15 pounds, and is quicker and more agile.
If Perry could return, it would give UCLA a great combination of talented veteran receivers in Bragg and Perry.
On top of that, the player returning with the most experience behind Bragg is Junior Taylor (JR, 6-1, 205). Taylor, who showed flashes of greatness as a freshman and then went into a bit of a funk last season, has seemed like the forgotten man at wide receiver, since he also sat out spring practice due to a hernia operation. The latest on Taylor is that he's made considerable strides – he's much bigger physically, and he's very focused. Many who have seen the 7-on-7 have said he was the most improved player on the field. Then, you have Cowan, who played limited minutes last year as a true freshman, but showed he has good hands and size to be a very good possession receiver. He doesn't have great lateral moves, but does possess very good straight-ahead speed, being a potentially world-class high hurdler.
Developing a second receiver threat is key. It makes Bragg so much more effective if there's someone on the other side that defenses can't ignore. Hopefully between these three – Perry, Taylor and Cowan – there will be at least one legitimate threat opposite Bragg.
Who would have rounded out the top five was Idris Moss, until he was dismissed from the team last week for an unspecified rules violation. Moss was given enough chances to straighten out what he needed to straighten out, and the UCLA program was completely justified in dismissing him. And you have to respect them for it since Moss, many were saying, was making great improvement on the field and considered possibly the third best among the returning receivers, behind Bragg and Taylor.
That fifth spot will probably fall now to Matt Slater (R-FR, 5-11, 190). Slater worked out all last season with the regulars and not the scout squad, but never played. He has very good acceleration and is still honing his pass-catching skills. The coaches like his potential.
Alex Ghebreselassie (R-FR, 195) has struggled some to make the leap to college level football. He hasn't yet matured enough to put in the effort and dedication, from what we've heard. He does have talent, though, and the coaches are waiting for the light to turn on. It'd be great for UCLA if it happened to be this fall.
Possibly fighting for the potential of early playing time will be three true freshmen, Marcus Everett (FR, 6-1, 190), Ryan Graves (FR, 6-1, 180) and Brandon Breazell (FR, 6-0, 170). The opinion of most is that Everett is the most physically and technically prepared to play. Graves, though, has some talent. The reports from the workouts are that Breazell brings potentially burner-type speed.
If Perry returns, and UCLA has Bragg, Perry, Taylor and Cowan, that's a pretty talented group of receivers. Then if even just one from among Slater, Ghebreselassie or the freshmen can step up to fill that fifth spot, it would probably be UCLA's deepest and most talented unit.
While the prospects at tight end looked a bit bleak not too long ago, it's a wonder what just a few months and a recovery from an injury can do for you.
At the top of the tight end list is, of course, Marcedes Lewis (JR, 6-6, 250). Lewis, also, has gotten considerably bigger in the off-season, and looks huge. Reports are that his pass-catching has improved, as well as his blocking, which has always been his Achilles Heel. Lewis has the potential to be an All-American with his size and quickness, and with the word being that Cable intends to really exploit his tight ends, it's easy to be optimistic.
What really generates optimism is the return of Keith Carter (JR, 6-4, 255). After getting in a motorcycle accident in the spring of 2003, Carter had a series of surgeries on his hip and then tried to make it back last season, but couldn't. It was believed by many close to the program that his playing days could be over. But not only has he recovered and been cleared to play, the word is that he has a very good chance of getting all the way back physically, to the point that he could have a considerable impact. It's another added bonus and considerable boost that UCLA's offense got in personnel in the off-season.
UCLA's tight end group, without Carter, would be thin, and questionable when it comes to blocking. With Carter, who, if you remember, was an exceptional talent, it's deep and the blocking is shored up. If Carter can really hold down the position on the line, it also enables UCLA to use Lewis as a wide receiver, giving them a great matchup advantage with the 6-6 Lewis going against against possibly a 5-10 cornerback.
There is also the JC transfer, Matt Raney (JR, 6-3, 245) and J.J. Hair (SO, 6-5, 245), who UCLA will need to be able to provide depth and, at least, blocking. A walk-on, Will Peddie (SO, 6-5, 255) also has a chance to contribute. A true freshman, Tony Lee (FR, 6-4, 250) was signed because of his athleticism and versatility, and his ability to block as a tight end. He'll line up first at tight end at UCLA, but the thought is that he very well could end up on the offensive line. It's unlikely he'll make it off the scout team this season.
There are some things to definitely be optimistic about with the offense. Tom Cable has done some work to overhaul the offensive scheme, and also the offensive line. UCLA could get the added bonus of getting back Carter, McCloskey and Perry, which would provide a considerable boost of talent. You have a very talented senior wide receiver in Bragg, two potential star running backs and quarterback who, according to all indications, is pointing toward at least a solid year. The offense must have collectively added a couple of tons of muscle, thanks to the strenuous demands of Doc Kreis. But perhaps the biggest reason for optimism is that the offense should be far more on the same page and running quite a bit more smoothly under Cable.
While you don't want to go making wild proclamations that the offense will go from 110th in the country to top ten in the country, there are enough indications that the offense should be considerably improved. It's amazingly key, not just to the success on the field this season, but down the road, with so many recruits waiting to see how the offense looks this year before they consider jumping in the boat.
Next: The Defense...