The offense obviously improved this year as a result of hiring offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, Tom Cable.
Last year the offense was abysmal. It was simply one of the worst UCLA offenses ever.
And actually, the offense had more talent last year than it did this year. The coaching staff was obviously dysfunctional, with an offensive coordinator, Steve Axman, who had never run the offense and an offensive line coach, Mark Weber, who had coached himself into a corner with his players and couldn't get them to perform.
The quarterback position in 2003 was not as effective as it was this year, and that's quite a statement given the circumstances. But overall, the 2003 offense still should have been quite a bit better than it was. It had more talent than this season and was one of the worst offenses ever, while this season, with essentially the same personnel (even compensating that the personnel was a year older and more experienced),the offense was quite a bit better.
The question, for the future, is whether this offensive scheme, particularly the run blocking scheme, can continue to be effective. Was the success early this season attibuted somewhat – or even predominantly – to opposing teams not knowing how to defend Tom Cable's blocking schemes? It clearly appeared that opponents in the second-half of the season had the offense figured out far better. UCLA, a team that had been averaging 190 yards on the ground per game (and much more than that early in the season) ran for just 126 yards on the ground against Wyoming, a team that was giving up an average of 189 yards per game rushing, against average teams. Wyoming, and many of UCLA's latter opponents in the season, sure looked to have UCLA's running game scouted out well.
It's very clear that UCLA's offense under Cable and Dorrell is fairly conservative. The approach is first to establish the run. They have both said repeatedly that they believe an offense's first priority should be running the ball. The passing game, then, tries to accomplish two things – 1) enhance the running game with essentially short, high-percentage pass plays that are not much more than elaborate running plays, and then 2) go for the quick-hitting big play down the field.
So, UCLA's offensive game plan under Dorrell and Cable, it's now clear, is to establish the run, use the passing game efficiently and for big strikes, and then, if you've established a lead, win the game by dominating the line of scrimmage and eating up the clock.
The question is, now that the Pac-10 has scouted this offense and understands it, how effective will it be? Its success is entirely predicated on having a dominating running game. But the biggest question facing the offense is: Will it, next year and beyond, continue to be able to run the ball? With Pac-10 opponents now well-versed in Cable's zone-blocking scheme, it would seem that talent and experience on the offensive line might be what determines UCLA's future effectiveness on the ground. I mean, if the defense knows what you're going to do, and you are dedicated to doing what they know you're going to do, the only way you can be effective is if you do it well enough that they can't stop you, regardless. Looking down the line, it's questionable whether UCLA will have the talent and experience on its offensive line over the next couple of years to be dominating. You could easily make a case that Cable benefited this season from having a few players that had some talent, but were being under-utilized by Weber, like Steven Vieira, Paul Mociler and Robert Cleary. Cable also benefited from getting them when they were the most experienced, with Vieira and Mociler both fifth-year seniors and Cleary a fourth-year junior. Next year he'll have to replace two starters, and there aren't obvious choices that are both experienced and talented. The following year he'll have to replace Mike McCloskey, Ed Blanton and Robert Chai. So, in 2006, he'll have four different starters on the o-line than what he had this year. And the biggest worry is – just how good really are the guys who will be these replacements? We've heard from the program that Brian Abraham is very good, as is Chris Joseph, two freshman offensive tackles. But Abraham was considered a good but not elite prospect and Joseph was a sleeper. We've also heard that recruit Aleksey Lanis is talented enough to come in and possibly content for a starting position -- next year. While it's good to know that Lanis is that talented, it's worrisome that the offensive line is under-talented enough that any true freshman could come in and contend to start. Shannon Tevaga did it this year, and it was just as much an indication of how good Tevaga is as how not good the offensive linemen on the roster were.
So, really, that is the biggest question facing Cable and Dorrell's offense over the next couple of years. Will there be enough talent and experience on the offensive line for UCLA to do what it stubbornly wants to do, which is predominantly run the ball? Was the performance of this year's offensive line a fluke? Was it Cable benefiting from getting some experienced talent that was mismanaged under Weber and opponents not catching on for half a season to the zone-blocking scheme?
Offense, though, is something that is truly the sum of its parts. There is also the question that, if Ben Olson can provide more talent and options at quarterback, will the offense blossom and evolve into something more dynamic? Many close to the program firmly believe that this offense has been extensively limited by the limitations at quarterback. Will just adding athleticism and a more accurate throwing arm to the quarterback position enable the coaches to actually use most of that playbook, which sources say sits there unused because of the limitations at quarterback?
Overall, while the offense took immense strides under Cable from a year ago (while there was really no other direction to go), there are still, as we've laid out here, many questions. The evidence we have from this season is inconclusive, in so much that it's not difficult, as we laid out here, to have doubts about the offense after this season. The running game did not sustain its success for the entire season, with its effectiveness falling off toward the end of the season. Will it be able to run effectively in the future?
Many observers want to blame defensive coordinator Larry Kerr for this season's porous defense, but it's easy to make a case that he did better coaching this year's defense than last year's. Last year's defense had experienced talent at most positions (including at least five guys who had a cup of coffee in the NFL). How hard was it to make an effective defense out of that? This year, though, Kerr had a challnege, with a severe lack of experienced talent. He had five new starters among the defenses front seven, and not one senior among them. He had significant injuries to his thin linebacking group, and an under-performing senior safety that was a disappointment.
You have to concede, though, that UCLA should never be among the worst defenses in the country. UCLA has too many advantages in recruiting to not have better defenses than half of the under-privileged programs across the nation.
But, that was this year's excuse – a lack of talent and experience on defense. And while Kerr wasn't exactly successful with this year's defense, if you actually recognize the lack of experience and talent he had to work with on the field, it might have been far worse. Kerr did quite a bit to try to mask the huge deficiencies on the defensive line, using the nickel defense quite a bit, and different blitzing schemes, including the zone blitz extensively. It is difficult, though, when you have to try to mask not only a very young, inexperienced and averagely talented defensive line and, at the same time, a hole at one cornerback.
The fact that UCLA's defense kept most teams under 30 points, including the #1 team in the nation, showed that Kerr did more this year with his smoke and mirrors than he did a season ago.
But make no mistake, this team went 6-6 this season because of the defense. While you could blame last year's 6-7 record squarely on last season's offense, this one goes to the defense. It's hard to have a winning record when your defense is giving up 210 yards per game on the ground, and 432 overall, which is more than your offense is producing (it averaged 410 yards per game).
So, what happens now? Will UCLA's defense improve?
It's bound to. The unit loses only two senior starters, one of which is safety Ben Emanuel, and his departure many close to the program feel will only enhance the defense's effectiveness. The defensive front seven return intact. UCLA only loses two seniors in the front-seven two-deep, defensive tackle Eyoseph Efseaff, who was a converted offensive lineman and whose contributions weren't particularly significant this year, and linebacker Tim Warfield who unluckily sat out most of this season with an injury. It will also get back Kevin Harbour to its defensive line.
The personnel issue that could hurt the defense significantly would be the potential loss of strong safety Jarrad Page, who might forego his senior season for a pro baseball gig. If Page returns, it's not hard to surmise that the defense will be improved from this season.
And it's not too much to expect that it vastly improves. Kerr had some good, experienced talent his first year. This last season he was under-manned, with a lack of experience and talent. The program was able to blame that on recruiting lapses in Bob Toledo's program over a couple of years, particularly on the defense line. But next year, with Dorrell's program now having brought in its third recruiting class, and with six seniors (counting Page) projected to start, it's reasonable to expect that UCLA's defense should resemble the 2003 defense more closely than the defense of 2004.
If you can't recognize that, despite the 6-6 record, the program made strides this season than you're just too stubborn to admit the truth.
The program in 2003 was disastrous. If Dorrell had not brought in Cable and had not fixed his offense for the 2004 season, it was easy to see that he was on the road to his demise. The 2003 team that went 6-7 was by far more experienced and talented than the team that went 6-6 this season. You could also make the case that this year's team, given its talent, should have finished better than 6-6. It very well should have been 8-4, with at least two more wins among Arizona State, Washington State and Wyoming. So, from a win-loss record, the team under-achieved this season.
But if you're a sophisticated fan, like those on BRO, it's easy to see that the program improved overall, despite the under-achieving record. The offense, under Cable, now has some foundation to build on. There are still questions, as we laid out above, but after this season you now at least have a reason to believe that Cable's offense has a chance to be successful. The defense didn't have a good year, and while UCLA should never have one of the worst defenses in the country, there were plainly obvious reasons why this defense wasn't very good. It's all about having experience and talent in college football. And the defense lacked severely in experience and arguably to a degree in talent.
This sets the stage for next season, the decisive, make-or-break third year in Dorrell's program. Having gone 6-6 this season, despite improvement, it's required that Dorrell post a winning record in his third season for him to stay off the hot seat. It's also essential that the program continue to improve, that you can see tangible improvement in both the offensive and defensive units. Dorrell will have no excuses next year (unless the team is inordinately beset with injury). He now has the offensive coordinator he wanted originally (the excuse from the 2003 season), and will again have the type of experience and talent on defense needed to win (excuse from this season). Dorrell also has a favorable schedule, with just one tough non-conference game in Oklahoma, and with most of the tough Pac-10 games at home and the easier ones on the road. If this year's team had lived up to an eight-win season, it would have taken off some of the pressure for the 2004 season. Dorrell might have gotten away with a slightly less successful season next year. But without it, the pressure is now on for Dorrell to produce a clearly successful season in 2005. And barring any huge rash of injuries, there aren't any valid excuses remaining to explain a less-than-clearly-successful season in 2005. Expectations will be high for 2005, from inside and outside of UCLA, and Dorrell's program will have to live up to them.