Focusing In

<b>EDITORIAL</B>: Our resident columnist <b>Charles Chiccoa</b> looks at the team heading into its season opener this week against Oklahoma State with some shades of Blue. But what about the puzzle pieces on the already-depleted defense?

Getting a handle on this football team has proved harder than passing on those $50.00 tickets for The Who at the Hollywood Bowl (I didn't, and don't regret it). Before all the injuries hit the defensive front, I was feeling pretty good about Oklahoma St., more optimistic than most Bruin fans. But now, with the thin blue defensive line suddenly looking skeletal, the team, for me, has gone a little out of focus, become opaque ("hard to understand, not clear or lucid, obscure"). Before, I was next to complacent. Hey, bring on the Cowboys, I just wish they were higher ranked. While everyone else was sensibly concerned with Oklahoma State's big, experienced O line, their big backs, their running quarterback, not to mention shades of the Colorado debacle two years ago, I was thinking… two unquestionably solid defensive tackles, C.J. Niusulu and Kevin Brown… two promising JC defensive ends with a couple of smaller, younger, quick guys behind them… What, me worry? Maybe rotate Justin Hickman inside to back up the tackles. And with two great linebackers returning and Wesley Walker looking fine, shock ‘em, play them for the run early, make them throw. Then an improved offense puts up at least 24 and the Bruins are off to a nice start. But what now?

The news that Kyle Morgan, Brigham Harwell and Tim Warfield may return in time for Oklahoma St. was, to quote Mr. Johnny, "a bombshell." But this scenario sounds almost too good to be true. I mean Bruins don't come back that fast from injury; it's become a tradition. And will they get in enough practice time to make significant contributions? …And if Justin London, one of the Bruins' two defensive playmakers, would have been ready for the opener, I think I might have fallen over in a faint; I'll be happy if he makes it back by the Washington trip. And of course now there's the worrisome news about C.J. Niusulu, who was also coming off off-season surgery. And yet this optimism hasn't completely dissipated. Even if the defense struggles vs. the run, perhaps playing as a unit they might somehow be able to hold the fort until reinforcements arrive. Bruce Davis will be very key here. Guys like Robert Garcia, Nikola Dragovic, Noah Sutherland, William Snead, Danny Nelson, Aaron Whittington, guys who hadn't figured prominently, have a great early opportunity to make an impression, which all of them have done at times, but only on the practice field. Ultimately these remaining good vibrations have more to do with a belief that this year's offense bears little or no resemblance to that strange thing we had to endure last year.

Throughout practices, spring and pre-season, the stuff the offense is running has looked progressively more and more like a true west coast offense. My understanding of the term involves integrating the passing game as co-equal to the running game in sustaining ball control drives, i.e., shorter, less vertical pass routes with lots of crossing patterns, drags across the middle, attacking the seams with more cerebral timing patterns, and featuring a relentless use of the tight end and backs in the passing game, all of it designed with the idea of making an opponent defend the entire field and back off the line of scrimmage (and if it doesn't, making them pay dearly with longer passes). For UCLA this is just what the fans have been howling for ever since Cade McNown's absence was immediately appreciated. For the last five seasons Bruin quarterbacks have been unable to make defenses respect them, hence those notorious "stacked boxes" which have created so many problems for the O line to pass protect or to wedge out some daylight for some very talented running backs. From Drew Bennett, through Cory Paus, Ryan McCann, Drew Olson and Matt Moore, all have failed to make defenses fear the passing threat (only the unlikely Scott McEwen, who but for an injury seemed poised to do a John Barnes number, is thought of with much fondness). Unless we witness some kind of failure of nerve to call the same kind of game we've been seeing ever since Tom Cable replaced the reviled Steve Axman, Bruin fans should be pleasantly surprised by the offense. And Cable and Karl Dorrell have shown no signs of half-stepping when it comes to implementing this offense, which might explain KD's newfound euphoria. Steve Waters said it most succinctly: "The plays are there. The guys know them. Call the plays." If this happens (as it should), and absent catastrophic injuries, this year is largely on the players. The old debate about "talent" should be answered in pretty short order.

So where does the talent lie? Who are the playmakers? Which new guys might step up? Right now, the offense seems to be the least of the Bruins' worries unless, of course, Drew Olson either goes down or can't execute. Bruin fans understand that injuries, along with adolescent misadventures, can come out of nowhere: cheap shots, big hits, fingers banging off opposition helmets, freak breaks and sprains, pulled these and torn thats, motorcycle accidents, bar fights, brawls at McDonalds, some big lineman tumbling off a balcony during a frat party! If you can imagine it, some Bruin football player has been tagged by it. The pressure on Olson this season is enormous (second only to KD and Cable); he's got more to prove than any other player. But high profile jocks, unlike the rest of us, aren't much given to doubt. Jocks and coaches (who are simply ex-jocks), tend to be "can do," "type A" personalities. When they fail it's more often a question of talent, not nerve. You and me, civilians, fans in the stands, tend to be skeptical, cynical, even fearful. Olson (along with all the other failed QBs since Cade) has been badly served by poorly designed offenses and conservative play calling, last year's "blast, stretch, sack, punt" routine being exhibit A. If Olson stays healthy, his talents should, at worst, be adequate to the needs of this offense and, at best, a kind of revelation. Failure on his part and we all can likely begin focusing on alternate fall activities and praying for the coming of that other Olson.

The Bruin's two most talented players (the guys who can open up the field for others) appear to be Maurice Drew and Craig Bragg. I wish Manuel White didn't play the same position as Mo, and he's obviously a playmaker himself, but I'd rather see him in split backs with Mo, or at fullback catching lots of passes. Mo simply needs to be on the field. I also recognize many other Bruins see Manny as the key playmaker. The season will tell.

If Marcedes Lewis doesn't finally bust out this year, it'll be a huge letdown. An injury here would be heartbreaking.

Tab Perry truly does look different. Whether it's a more serious focus, less weight, I don't know. Maybe it's a rose-tinged mirage. Anyway, he looks better.

You're hesitant to single out any offensive lineman for a gold star after last year, but Ed Blanton has looked awfully formidable at his new weak tackle position.

Defensively, the opposition has to account for Justin London and Spencer Havner. I would think London's injury will be handled with extreme care. Havner may be the headiest, most instinctive Bruin linebacker since Jerry Robinson.

So, counting up the known playmakers, that makes eight. Not too bad as the foundation of a respectable team. Who else might emerge. Kevin Brown and C.J. could be (should be) outstanding, but both are playing on tender knees. Wesley Walker has looked good. Kevin Harbour was looking fine before his injury and should likely contribute come midseason. Hickman and Morgan have looked pretty good since entering in spring, and, with Walker and Harbour, have enough size for their positions; it's really a question of them excelling at a Pac-10 level. Jarrad Page has played pretty well, but the rest of the secondary seems questionable. At least there are lots of alternate possibilities with the likes of Chris Horton, Dennis Keyes, Nnamdi Ohaeri, Eric McNeal, Mil'Von James and Jebiaus Brown (thank goodness he's back in uniform). I've been particularly impressed with Trey Brown, who plays with great aggressiveness, something we don't always see in the Bruin secondary. For the moment Gary DeLoach and Larry Kerr seem to be going with experience. We'll see.

We're all waiting for Joe Cowan and Junior Taylor to break out. You would think at least one of them should do it this year. Matt Slater, like Trey Brown, is a red-shirt freshman to watch. He has legitimate track speed and, like Brown, is very aggressive. A deep wide receiver corp becomes even more impressive if you factor in a couple of swift true freshmen, Brandon Breazell, "the Blade," and the more solidly built Marcus Everett. You won't find a profile of Chris Steck in the media guide, but he makes a nice, big, reliable target, and he's still only a sophomore.

Derrick Williams seems to me way underrated as a running back, while true freshman Chris Markey looks like an instinctive, natural talent (but he has dropped the ball too much in scrimmages). Since I have a hard time taking my eyes off the ball (I need to watch the tapes), I'll leave it to connoisseurs of offensive line play to spot any genuine sleepers there. Hope there are some.

Special teams couldn't be worse than last year, if for no other reason than now someone (Brian Schneider) has to take sole responsibility if we ever again must witness something like Antonio Perkins running untouched into the record books. Kris Kluwe obviously has a big leg capable of getting off the occasional 80 yard mortar shot, and Justin Medlock has nice enough range on his field goals. But they do need consistency.

So why should we believe this team might return UCLA to respectability? There is a certain segment of Cranks who still haven't gotten over last year (or indeed everything since the Miami game), who can't envision a comeback, not even the possibility. I know for a fact Cynical Dan and Buzz Bruin have renewed their season tickets and they'll undoubtedly be tag-teaming any unlucky Blues in their immediate section (be warned, there's a rumor they've hired a body guard). If they're reading this, they're probably in stitches. Pangloss, indeed.

For way too long now, UCLA has gone into the new season with their fans prepared for the worst. The reawakening of ‘SC has only compounded the feeling. September, 2004 begins to feel strangely like September, 1963. And Bruin fans seem to be confusing Oklahoma St. with Oklahoma. I mean, the Cowboys are hardly a national power, and the Pac-10, beyond the Trojans, doesn't figure to produce a vintage year (though you never know). Today the schedule doesn't look intimidating. The games in Berkeley and Eugene look tough, but by no means unwinnable. Seattle, despite the Huskies unpromising outlook, still scares me. I don't need to mention ‘SC. I would think that before facing SC, though, all the home games are winnable, nobody should be ticking them off in ink. Only a loss to San Diego St. might be a huge upset; maybe Stanford, too. Today, you'd also have to say the Arizona and Washington St. games could easily go either way. Today, all the road games look challenging, even Illinois. Look at it this way: the opener is a hugely important test, Cal should be the midterm, and ‘SC the final. KD may need something around the seventy percentile in order not to lose a significant chunk of the fan base, which bears on revenues, and which can thus spell trouble. Anything less and the losses will have to be very respectable or outright flukes. Is it fair? I don't know. But since he laid an egg as a freshman, you'd have to think this sophomore is on probation. What's good for the student is good for the teacher, too. However, he seems to be a likable teacher and I certainly wish him well.


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