UCLA has, overall a solid kicking game, with some potentially great aspects and maybe a couple that need to be improved.
The punting duties go to experienced Chris Kluwe (SR, 6-5 215), who ranked fourth in the Pac-10 and 26th in the nation a year ago. He has a big leg and has been getting better with his consistency and ability to pooch within the opponent's 20 yard line.
A bit of a question in spring was the long snapper situation. Riley Jondle (SO, 6-3, 205) performed the duty last season, but his snaps were taking a bit long to get to the punter. UCLA had a number of long snappers take their shot at it in spring, but there wasn't anyone who was particularly great. UCLA will probably go with Jondle, hoping that he can tighten up his long snaps.
UCLA brings in a freshman punter this fall, Aaron Perez (FR, 6-2, 200), who averaged almost 43 yards a punt as a senior in high school. He'll redshirt and take over duties as a redshirt freshmen next year after Kluwe graduates.
Punt coverage was probably the other area of concern on special teams. There is a pretty horrific memory from last year's Oklahoma game in which details aren't necessary. It's one reason why Karl Dorrell decided to put the responsibility of the entire special teams into the hands of just one coach, Brian Schneider, instead of spreading around the responsibilities. Punt coverage is going to be a big priority, from what we've heard, and UCLA will not spare its better players from having to play on coverage if that's what it takes to prevent last year's Oklahoma debacle.
Justin Medlock (SO, 6-0, 195) returns for his second year as the place-kicker, after having a strong first season. He was recently named to the Lou Groza Pre-Season Watch List, after hitting 14 of 19 field goals a year ago, including some clutch ones.
The spots for returning kicks and punts are fairly wide open at this point. You'd have to think Maurice Drew (SO, 5-8, 200) might have a claim to one of the kick-returning roles since he was ranked second in the Pac-10 and 14th in the nation last season, after running back two for touchdowns. Star receiver Craig Bragg (SR, 6-2, 205) has been a good punt returner over the course of his career and will probably get the call again in his senior year, unless UCLA doesn't want to take the risk with him.
If UCLA can shore up its punt coverage team and get more comfortable about the long-snapping, the special teams have enough going for it to be a strength this season.
It's pretty clear that this UCLA team will probably look quite a bit different from last year's. Last year the offense was anemic but the defense was stellar. This year, the offense should be improved while the defense will be looking to find its personality – and some kind of ability to stop the run.
With five among its front seven new starters, you can probably expect opposing teams to make UCLA stop its running game. Why throw into an experienced secondary and against two linebackers who are very good against the pass if you can gain five yards a carry? UCLA is probably going to have to cheat on the run, bring up Jarrad Page, its strong safety, as a pseudo-linebacker, and (to use that dreaded term) stack the box. If UCLA's defense is passive, and does the bend-but-don't-break thing, opposing offenses will probably be able to consistently move the ball on the ground and break it.
Even though they didn't have a great season a year ago, you tend to put more faith in the offensive line. They have so many more things to hang your faith on, the fact that they all return, they're all quite a bit bigger and stronger, and they're getting some new coaching from new line coach Tom Cable. Even though many could question just how good Eyoseph Efseaff and Steven Vieira are, experience is still just as critical as talent in college football, and Efseatt and Vieira have quite a bit of it.
On paper, UCLA has some great talent at the skill positions. If you list the names, it sounds like a team that should be picked in the upper third of the Pac-10 at least – Craig Bragg, Manuel White, Marcedes Lewis, Maurice Drew, and possibly Tab Perry. There aren't too many teams in the Pac-10 that have that kind of skill position talent on offense.
The good money is also on quarterback Drew Olson being quite a bit better this year. All accounts of Olson in the off-season are glowing, citing his physical improvement and the fact that he's now got a good grasp on the offense. Heck, if Olson were the same as he was last season and could just get more time from his offensive line he'd be improved.
Generally the word on the program is that it's turned the corner on attitude. Many say that, last season, there was a lingering malaise from the last coaching staff, and it took until this off-season to turn the corner on it. While this might be some internal cheerleading to a degree, there is still always a period when a new coaching staff needs to instill the type of attitude it wants in its players and program overall.
Pretty much, in saying this, Karl Dorrell has definitely turned up the pressure on himself for this season. It has really been bold of him, if you think about it, to be so optimistic about the season. He could have been very reserved in what he's said this pre-season, so as not to raise expectations and be able to perpetuate any kind of excuse if the season doesn't go well. But Dorrell has been, well, brash this pre-season, and has pretty much eliminated any of his options for excuses. He has said the team will be improved, the offense will be improved, and that the attitude has turned a corner. He, and others, are saying that he just had to get "his own guys" on the coaching staff, has repeated how much they're all "on the same page," and how it's different from a year ago. He is certainly eliminating any excuse he might have for the season.
Except for injuries, of course. That would be the one real excuse Dorrell could use this season if, in fact, the team suffers some injuries that do impact. This team isn't deep, especially at defensive line. It's an injury to its quarterback away from the offense itself going into ICU.
If the team stays relatively healthy, the primary aspect of the team to watch is the impact of Tom Cable. As we've stated, UCLA's two biggest areas of need from a year ago were the offensive line and the offensive scheme, and Cable comes in as the new offensive line coach and offensive coordinator. Dorrell now has "his guy" in place. Everyone is supposed to be on the same page, and Cable is supposed to know this offense forwards and backwards. Again, it leaves little room for excuses.
Luckily UCLA's schedule is not particularly strong, and it's gotten some breaks. It's toughest non-conference oppponent, Oklahoma State, who it faces in the season opener at the Rose Bowl September 4th, has some questions at quarterback. They do, though, return almost their entire offensive line intact from a year ago, which isn't something that bodes well for UCLA's new defensive line. But after that, there's Illinois, who UCLA beat 6-3 a season ago and they're not supposed to be any better, and San Diego State, who should be decent, but they are, after all, just a Mountain West team. UCLA goes on the road early against Washington, and the Huskies are supposed to have one of their worst teams in years. UCLA, also, is the one Pac-10 team that generally has done well in Husky stadium, and it's in September, when the weather should be beautiful. Then, to complete its first five games UCLA faces Arizona at home, the worst team in the Pac-10 from a season ago.
If UCLA doesn't get at least 3 wins among those first five, it's going to be a tough season. In fact, for it to be a successful season, UCLA would probably have to get four wins out of those first five games.
Because, after that, it gets quite a bit tougher. UCLA goes on the road to California, a team many are picking to be in the top two in the league. They go on the road to ASU, which is never an easy game. Stanford follows at home, but then there's Washington State at home, which probably won't be an easy game, and then the two toughest games of the season to finish off the year – at Oregon and USC at home.
Road games are probably the key to the schedule. Last year, UCLA struggled on the road, going 1-5, with its only win against last-place Arizona in Tucson, a game UCLA very well should have lost. This year's team, to be successful, is going to have to prove itself on the road. The numbers are simple. If you throw out the USC game, UCLA plays five games at home. It's going to probably have to win two road games to have a successful season. It will probably have to get two wins on the road from among Illinois, Washington, California, Arizona State and Oregon. And then get four wins at home from among Oklahoma State, San Diego State, Arizona, Stanford, Washington State and USC – just to get to six wins for the regular season. Getting more than two road wins could be too much to expect. So, let's say UCLA beats all of its opponents at home except USC, and wins two on the road, it's record is just 7-4.
And this is without a really tough schedule. Imagine throwing in an Oklahoma or a Michigan to the non-conference schedule, and imagine if the Pac-10 was as strong as it typically is, with, say Washington State the type of team it was the last few years, or Washington the way it usually is traditionally. Or if UCLA had to play Oregon State, a team that should be pretty good.
The first three games could very well dictate how the season goes. If UCLA can beat Oklahoma State, it might have a very good chance of going at least 4-1 in its first five games and have a winning record for the year. If it goes 2-1 in those first three games against Oklahoma State, and Illinois and Washington on the road, it could have a very good chance to finish with a winning record. If it goes 1-2 in those first three, it could very well struggle to get to a winning record.
But then again, the opponents we are anticipating as being good or bad don't always live up to our expectations. Overall, the Pac-10 seems like it will probably be a bit weaker this season, with USC the best team and no one really particularly good after that (In fact, even USC is probably over-rated. They are very deep in talent, but it's young. Being picked #1 in the nation when you have to replace four of your five offensive line starters, mostly with sophomores and redshirt freshmen, is tough. It's especially tough to rank USC #1 compared to Oklahoma, a team that returns 16 starters, gets back perhaps its best player in linebacker Lance Mitchell who missed all of last season, returns its entire offensive line and, oh yeah, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback in Jason White). So, this Pac-10 schedule could end up quite a bit softer than it even looks now. What if Cal doesn't live up to its billing, or Oregon doesn't live up to its rep? Yes, some teams could very well be better than they're billed, such as Arizona, Arizona State, or Washington State, and not just be easy wins for the Bruins. But looking at the rosters in the pre-season, the Pac-10 looks like it has a chance to end up being softer than it does tougher.
So, given that, and UCLA's non-conference schedule, and the fact that there are no excuses now in Karl Dorrell's second season (according to Dorrell himself), if UCLA can avoid big injuries, it's not too much to expect a winning season for 2004.