Probably the second biggest question about UCLA's offense for the 2005 season is who will step into the two vacant starting positions on the offensive line. <p>
UCLA's offensive line was probably the strength of its offense last season, which was quite an accomplishment given the bleak season the OL had in 2004. Their production did tend to curtail a bit it by the end of the season, but that might have been attributed more to opponents scouting UCLA better, and UCLA unable to really be a true, consistent threat throwing the ball. <p>
It will be very interesting to see what becomes of the offensive line in 2005. Offensive line coach (and offensive coordinator) Tom Cable was given much credit for turning around the offensive line. But you might have to attribute some of the turnaround to the line having talent and experience in 2004. In the 2005 season, with Cable having to replace two OL starters, it will be a good test of whether much of the turnaround on the offensive line was due to Cable. <p>
Really, though, a great deal of credit does belong to Cable. The UCLA offensive line had become dysfunctional under its former OL coach. Cable came in and instilled a fresh approach, and inspired the players. He also went to a strongside/weakside alignment, which definitely seemed to play to the strengths of the personnel. The offensive linemen swore by Cable last season. <p>
So, will Cable be able to work more magic a second year in a row, having to plug in possibly one, if not two, young players to the starting lineup who haven't really played any college football? <p>
The core of the offensive line is undoubtedly center Mike McCloskey (SR, 6-5, 280). McCloskey was probably the best all-around offensive lineman last season and he'll be up for a few different post-season awards in 2005. <p>
The two other returning starters are weakside tackle Ed Blanton (SR, 6-9, 345) and strongside guard Shannon Tevaga (SO, 6-3, 303). Blanton had a solid year, and he'll be expected to step up even further and lead the line as a senior. Tevaga is considered by many the most talented offensive lineman on the team. As a freshman last season there were times when he showed that talent. There were other times when he committed some lapses. Most believe the lapses were due to inexperience, playing as a true freshman, and that he'll continue to get better and better as he matures and learns to focus. <p>
A sometime starter last season at one guard position was Robert Cleary (SR, 6-7, 300), before he was beaten out by Tevaga. Cleary probably will plug into the weakside guard position vacated by the graduation of Steven Vieira. He's clearly the leading candidate to win the position. As he continues to get even stronger in the off-season and improve, you'd think that Cleary will have that position wrapped up by next fall. <p>
Paul Mociler graduated, leaving the strongside tackle position open. As of right now, Brian Abraham (SO, 6-6, 290) is slated to take over the position. Abraham has always had great size and he's continued to put on bulk and muscle, now up to about 290, as opposed to the 275 or so when he came to UCLA. Abraham has good feet to go along with that size. The issue is whether he'll be ready to start after playing in just a handful of plays last season as a true freshman. <p>
He very well might get some serious competition for the position by incoming freshman Aleksey Lanis (FR, 6-6, 315). Many close to the UCLA program fully expect Lanis to immediately compete to start, probably at that tackle position, but not counting out possibly the open guard position also. Lanis will come to UCLA this spring after graduating early and quickly get working with strength and conditioning coach Doc Kreis. Lanis has good core strength right now, but could lose about 15 pounds to improve his quickness and improve his upper body strength also. But he's so talented that some coaches and observers of the CaliFlorida Bowl practices thought he wasn't just the best lineman at the game, but the overall best prospect. He's strong and quick, and he has a nice mean streak. <p>
Robert Chai (JR, 6-3, 275) will be the other likely candidate to compete for the open starting guard spot, but he'll be behind after sitting out this winter practice as a result of surgery on his knee. Chai has backed up McCloskey at center for a couple of years, but it looks like he'll solely be a guard in the future. <p>
Those seven offensive linemen will probably be the core linemen that get most of the reps next season. But there are some younger players that have shown promise that could possibly step up this spring and next fall and get into that core group. <p>
Aaron Meyer (R-FR, 6-3, 285) will get a shot at center this winter practice. He has pleased UCLA coaches over the 2004 season with his work on the scout team and continuing to get in better shape physically, having trimmed up and improved his strength. He has a good, low center of gravity and will be a contributor down the line at either center or guard. <p>
Another young player the coaches are high on is Chris Joseph (R-FR, 6-4, 280). Joseph was among the top freshmen OLs last fall and was thought to get some playing time in the tw-deep before he blew out his knee a few weeks into the season. He won't participate in winter practice, but he's expected to be back fully by fall. Joseph, who had been playing a tackle position, will probably also get a look at center in the fall, having good quickness and being particularly sharp mentally. <p>
The third young OL that has impressed the coaches is Tony Lee (R-FR, 6-4, 280). Lee came to UCLA initially as a tight end but within a few days of fall practice was switched to the offensive line. He has gone from about 260-ish pounds when he first arrived to about 280 as of last week. His strength has improved tremendously, and he always had good quickness, nimble feet and long arms. He's slated as a tackle, and will probably fill out the two-deep as the fourth tackle along with Blanton, Abraham and Lanis. <p>
The two biggest question marks continue to be Marc Villafuerte (R-SO, 6-3, 305) and P.J. Irvin (R-SO, 6-4, 304). Both have improved physically over the last year, getting in better shape and improving their strength, but they still didn't show enough last season in practice to lead you to believe they'd be able to contribute soon. <p>
Scott Glicksberg (R-FR, 6-4, 275) will return to the offensive line after spending the season on the d-line. He's thought to have more of a chance than Villafuerte or Irvin at guard, with better mobility and toughness. <p>
The other incoming freshman OL is Justin Brown (FR, 6-6, 275), who will also enroll by spring. Brown has caused a bit of controversy, with many close to the Long Beach Poly program not believing he's very good, and not UCLA's level. When UCLA offered him it came as a surprise for many. But the UCLA coaches, particularly Cable, like Brown quite a bit. The other rationale for Brown points to the fact that Brown is a good athlete, with good feet, and a good, wide lower body that could put on some considerable weight. You conceded that he, as of now, doesn't have a good upper body, but you have to consider that he's young for his age, still just 17. He's also a very intelligent kid, which helps in the trenches. When Brown comes in this spring he'll immediately get worked over by Kreis, to see if he physically can progress enough to where he could contribute in fall. More than likely, Brown is looking at a redshirt season to develop physically. <p>
So much will probably change in winter practice and certainly by fall camp and the first game in September. But as of right now, the loose, projected OL depth chart looks like this: <p>
Strongside Tackle: Brian Abraham (SO), Aleksey Lanis
Strongside Guard: Shannon Tevaga (SO), Aaron Meyer (FR), Scott Glicksberg (FR), P.J Irvin (SO)
Center: Mike McCloskey (SR), Aaron Meyer (FR), Chris Joseph (FR)
Weakside Guard: Robert Cleary (SR), Robert Chai (JR), Marc Villafuerte (SO)
Weakside Tackle: Ed Blanton (SR), Tony Lee (FR), Justin Brown (FR)
Another possible change to consider: If Ben Olson wins the starting quarterback job, being left-handed it could change the strongside/weakside alignment, with the spots potentially being flopped.
UCLA loses some difference-making talent at the wideout spots, losing UCLA's all-time leading reception leader, Craig Bragg, and a potential pro in Tab Perry to graduation.
That's a great deal of talent to try to replace.
The #1 receiver next fall will be Junior Taylor (SR, 6-1, 198), who started opposite Bragg last season. Taylor has been a bit shaky throughout his career at UCLA. He started out with a bang as a freshman and never has really delivered on that potential. He did, though, continue to improve this last season. By the end of the year he had played solidly and consistently.
He'll have to now fill the go-to, veteran roll of Bragg from a year ago.
Taylor will probably move to the flanker spot and Joe Cowan (JR, 6-4, 211) will step into the split end spot. Cowan has caught a total of 20 passes and two touchdowns in his two years. UCLA hasn't had to deal with such inexperience at a starting wide receiver position in a while, and much will be expected of Cowan as his playing time increases next season. Cowan has good straight-ahead speed and generally good hands, even though he's still improving his catching technique.
The receiver that will push Taylor and Cowan for playing time is Marcus Everett (SO, 6-1, 190). Everett showed considerable promise as a great possession receiver in the 2004 season, catching a total of nine balls, with many being critical, clutch grabs. He isn't a game breaker, but runs very good routes, has good hands and good body control. His consistency could possibly win him a starting spot.
UCLA usually utilizes five receivers in their rotation, and you can expect Brandon Breazell (SO, 6-0, 160) to definitely be among the top five. The UCLA coaches really like Breazell and consider him the team's next game breaker-type at wide receiver. He is definitely very quick and has great explosion, but last season in practice he was hampered by being so slight and not very strong. When he did play, often times he was knocked off his routes by stronger defensive backs. While on one hand he'd make a very good catch in practice, on the next play he'd drop one, seemingly due just to a lack of strength and ability to take a hit. Breazell will have to get considerable stronger in the off-season to make a big impact as soon as next year. How he fares in winter practice will be a big indication of his development, particularly physically.
That fifth spot will be up for grabs among a number of players. Ryan Graves (R-FR, 6-1, 170), who spent the season on the scout team, could have the most natural ability among those left on the roster. He has good speed and catching ability, he was just still early in his learning curve and still pretty skinny. Like with Breazell, if Graves shows physical and technical development this winter, it will go a long way to quelling worries about depth at the receiver positions.
Matt Slater (R-SO, 5-11, 192) probably has the next best chance at playing time. Slater is one of the fastest players on the team and has great acceleration. He's suspect catching the ball and his level of play is inconsistent. UCLA could really use his potential game-breaking type of speed. Alex Ghebreselassie (R-SO, 6-3, 185) hasn't shown the dedication to develop into a player that would garner playing time. He hasn't gotten much bigger physically, which has particularly hurt his chances.
Two new players come to UCLA this fall as receivers, Jamil Turner (FR, 6-1, 190) and Gavin Ketchum (FR, 6-4, 190). Turner might have a chance to leapfrog Slater and Ghebreselassie in the pecking order, being physically pretty developed. He isn't particularly fast, but he has very good hands and a great knack for getting the ball, with a tremendous leaping ability. Ketchum is a great all-around athlete who will probably initially get a look at receiver, with good hands and toughness. He could, though, end up on defense, possibly at outside linebacker with the aggressiveness and nose for the ball he has defensively.
The receiver position is probably the weakest unit on the offense, with just one guy, Taylor, who returns with more than 20 career catches, a few guys who physically need to develop to play effectively at this level, and a few guys that have questions about whether the light will turn on. Winter practice will go a long way in assessing the receiver situation, and hopefully give some of the younger players an opportunity to step up and exhibit the ability to get playing time next season.
UCLA will have a good, if not excellent, situation at tight end for 2005. They return a potential All-American at the position, a solid senior, another senior, a junior who will be in his fourth year in the system, and (at least) three new freshmen.
Marcedes Lewis (SR, 6-6, 255) will be one of the premier tight ends in the nation next year, if not considered the best. It was a huge coup when Lewis decided to return for his senior season and not jump to the NFL.
Keith Carter (SR, 6-4, 246) is still a bit of a question mark, as a result of his physical limitations due to the hip injury he suffered two years ago. His effectiveness isn't really the question, it's his durability. When Carter played, he generally did well as UCLA's primary blocking tight end. But he was limited in how much he could play and practice. It's unknown if that will improve this season, and winter practice could be an indication of whether Carter's durability has improved.
J.J. Hair (JR, 6-5, 248) has never been considered a big-time pass-catching talent at tight end. But he has contributed more than many expected, and has become a decent blocker, which will get a tight end on the field.
The JC transfer, Matt Raney (SR, 6-3, 240) hasn't proven to be anything more than a depth-adder. He didn't play much last season, and it wasn't a matter that he was looking good in practice and just didn't get an opportunity in the games. It'd be a surprise if UCLA got a significant contribution out of him in 2005.
What will be really interesting is how the new freshmen tight ends do in the fall. With Lewis leaving in a year, it's critical that at least one of them steps up and proves he has the potential to step into the role of pass catcher for the 2006 season. UCLA could really, even, use two of them to step up and prove it. The thing is, all three of UCLA's incoming freshmen have some limitations about them that will make it interesting to see which one can overcome theirs.
Possibly the best bet is Logan Paulsen (FR, 6-5, 220). Paulsen has the pass-catching ability, and nice agility. His problem is he's built like a basketball player. He's listed anywhere from 215 to 225, and that all could be generous. He'll have a year to bulk up to not just get on the field but be able to even come close to being able to block. Hopefully he has the type of body and frame that can do it. If he's around 240ish and has gotten considerably stronger by the end of next year, Paulsen could be the guy.
Ryan Moya (FR, 6-2, 225) also is seen listed in a wide range - anywhere from 6-2 to 6-3 and 220 to 235. Moya, really, is more the size of a fullback or linebacker than a Pac-10 tight end. Moya, though, is a very nice receiver, with great quickness and very good hands. UCLA might determine that his pass-catching ability is just too good to do without, but he'll have to be able to block if he's going to get on the field more than just sparingly.
Adam Heater (FR, 6-5, 250) has the size of a legit Pac-10 tight end, but probably doesn't quite have the skills or quickness required. If those skills improve, he's easily the most physically ready to play. But more than likely, as we've stated before, the UCLA coaching staff could easily move Heater to offensive line, where he'd make a nice, nimble offensive tackle. He has a good frame, and still looked fairly thin at 250, so it's thought he could easily put on 30+ pounds.
If Erik Lorig (6-4, 250) decides to come to UCLA, he very well could be an option at tight end, with very good hands and already good size.
Projected Receiver Depth Chart:
Split End: Joe Cowan (JR), Marcus Everett (SO), Ryan Graves (R-FR),
Alex Ghebreselassie (SO), Jamil Turner (FR), Gavin Ketchum
Flanker: Junior Taylor (SR), Brandon Breazell (SO), Matt Slater (SO)
Tight End: Marcedes Lewis (SR), Keith Carter (SR), J.J. Hair (JR), Matt Raney (SR), Logan Paulsen (FR), Ryan Moya (FR), Adam Heater (FR)
With Manuel White gone, it's now the Maurice Drew (JR, 5-8, 198) Show. Drew will be poised to get more reps with White moving on, and will have the opportunity to really take over the offense. He did show some durability issues by the end of the season, having gotten beaten up quite a bit as the season wore on.
Giving Drew a relief will be Chris Markey (SO, 5-11, 200), who had a good showing as a true freshman running back. Markey went beyond expectation last year, and showed great poise for a freshman. The hype with Markey might have gotten a bit excessive, but there is no doubt that he's a solid young talent at running back.
Running backs coach Eric Bieniemy likes to keep his backs fresh, as he did with shuttling in White, Drew and Markey last season. He'll try to find a third for 2005 to go along with Drew and Markey.
Derrick Williams (SO, 5-10, 203) is next on the depth chart, and the next most capable. He doesn't have game-breaking speed or moves, but he's tough to bring down and runs strong tackle-to-tackle.
Jason Harrison (SR, 5-10, 200), as of right now, intends to return for his senior year. If you recall, Harrison has gone through a number of serious injuries to his knees and, candidly, isn't the running back he was when he arrived at UCLA as a freshman. There have always been questions since whether Harrison would hang it up because of it. Many close to the program think that he ultimately won't return to the team next fall. If Harrison does stay, he'll probably play fullback primarily.
It leaves UCLA's tailback unit not incredibly deep. That could get solved by using fullback Michael Pitre (SO, 5-11, 232) as a tailback next season in much the same way that Manuel White was utilized in the offense, which is a distinct possibility.
Pitre will continue to see his role expand, not just possibly at tailback, but also as the starting fullback. He's a potential impact player, not only tough running the ball but good at catching the ball out of the backfield.
Backing up Pitre is Jimmy Stephens (SO, 6-2, 235) who the coaches like quite a bit. Stephens continues to develop physically, getting bigger and stronger as he matures, and his agility enables him to catch the ball well while being a good blocker.
Incoming freshman running back Kahlil Bell (FR, 5-11, 206) is thought to be a fullback. He doesn't have the quickness for tailback and has the capability of adding 20-25 more pounds, which would make him perfect for UCLA's fullback spot, much like Pitre.
It will be something to watch whether someone gets moved to the fullback position next fall, such as Ryan Moya, who, with his size and pass-catching skills, could be an excellent fullback.
Tailback: Maurice Drew (JR), Chris Markey (SO), Michael Pitre (SO), Derrick
Fullback: Michael Pitre (SO), Jimmy Stephens (SO), Jason Harrison (SR), Kahlil Bell (FR)
Just about every Bruin fan knows the situation at quarterback for UCLA.
Of course, Drew Olson (SR, 6-3, 217) is still on crutches after undergoing surgery on the torn ACL and MCL of his knee, suffered in the Las Vegas Bowl against Wyoming.
It's completely unknown if Olson will return 100% in time for fall practice, or even in time for the season, or half of the season. There's a wide range of projection on when he could return - anytime between late summer to not during next season. It all depends, really, on how well his knee responds.
UCLA's new quarterback, Ben Olson (R-FR, 6-5, 235), then steps into that void. Olson, as we all know, was the #1-ranked high school quarterback in the nation in 2002, who went to BYU for a half year before going on his Mormon mission. He returned in November, 2004, and committed to UCLA in December. It was the biggest commitment UCLA has received since DeShaun Foster, since not only is Ben Olson very talented, UCLA was in desperate need for talent at quarterback, particularly elite talent, which it hasn't had since Cade McNown left in 1998.
Olson has been enrolled in school since January and going through workouts. The workouts consist of mostly conditioning and weigh-lifting, but Olson has also been throwing in seven-on-sevens some afternoons. He is, first, very impressive physically. He has looked a bit rusty, which is to be expected, and tentative since he's still learning the offense. But the ball he throws is exceptional - tight, strong and accurate.
Olson is also going through a crash course in UCLA's offense, often times spending four or five hours a day studying it or watching film.
While it's a big mystery whether Drew Olson will be physically ready to play, it's just as much a mystery if Ben Olson will be ready to play himself by fall. Not many players have gone on two-year Mormon missions and come back and played their next season. It's especially difficult for a quarterback.
He's getting a heap-load of pressure, being hailed as the potential savior of the UCLA program. And interestingly, Olson welcomes it. There is a bit of cockiness to Ben that he not only welcomes the challenge but came to UCLA for that reason - that it gave him the opportunity <i>to be</i> the savior of UCLA football.
The biggest interest in winter practice is, of course, to see Ben Olson. You can probably expect unprecedented crowds at Spaulding Field for practices, all mostly coming out to see Olson.
For him to get an edge on the starting position, he'll have to show that he's able to make up for his lack of experience and knowledge of the offense with his considerable gifts. His athleticism, arm and smarts, it's believed, will allow UCLA's coaches to do so much more with the offense than they have been. It's only a matter of whether Olson is ready for it.
Despite rumors that he would leave the school, David Koral (SR, 6-3, 218) is still in Westwood and working out with the team. He could, still, leave after winter practice, if he gets the idea that he's been passed over for Ben Olson. Koral had some good moments when he had to step in for the fallen Drew Olson against Wyoming. It's still believed, though, that he will be behind both Olsons next season, which could still inspire him to leave.
While many were talking about other true freshmen who actually played last season, like Chris Markey, Pat Cowan (R-FR, 6-4, 210) might have been the freshman behind defensive end Brigham Harwell who showed the most promise. Cowan came to UCLA fairly unheralded. And his first couple of weeks of practice he looked as good as he was heralded. But as he got comfortable, Cowan started to show some talent. He has very good size, and decent mobility for his size. He has a stronger arm than any quarterback on the squad from last season, with the ability to throw deep effortlessly and also really zip it on short throws. He is very inexperienced, at not only the offense but at playing quarterback in general. But he has some great potential, given his natural talents. His further development is another big curiosity for this winter practice.
UCLA has a few walk-on quarterbacks for depth, the most noteworthy being Brian Callahan (JR, 5-11, 210). Callahan, the son of Nebraska coach Bill Callahan, knows the offense well and his arm has improved over the last three years. He's been UCLA's third string, but with the further development of Cowan, Callahan will probably be demoted further this fall. Eddie Miller (SO, 5-11, 193) and Tyler Holland (R-FR, 6-4, 210) have little chance of contributing more than just as scout team players.
Coming in this fall will be Osaar Rasshan (FR, 6-4, 200). While many observing the situation from afar might think it's a bad situation for Rasshan to come to UCLA the same year as Ben Olson, it's actually ideal for him. Rasshan is an excellent athlete, who has the potential to be the athletic type of play-maker UCLA's offense could really use. He is, though, still very raw as a quarterback, in his throwing and his knowledge and feel for the position. If he came to UCLA and anyone expected much out of him before two years, minimum, it would be unfair to him. Coming in the same time as Ben Olson gives Rasshan the opportunity to develop behind the scenes. It also gives UCLA the luxury of developing him, and not having to rush him, or even push him to another position.
If Drew Olson were healthy, it'd be easy to say that this is the best state the quarterback position has been in at UCLA since, well, McNown left. You'd have a senior quarterback, a highly talented freshman who really isn't a freshman, and two promising young talents that UCLA has the luxury of developing slowly.
But the injury to Drew throws a bit of wrench into that somewhat rosy perspective. It could force Ben Olson to have to play before he's ready, or might push Cowan ahead of his schedule as a backup.
No matter how much you're pulling for Ben Olson to allegedly save UCLA football, it's in the program's extreme best interests for Drew Olson to recover and be back to 100% by fall.
Quarterback Depth Chart:
Drew Olson (SR), or
Ben Olson (FR)
David Koral (SR)
Pat Cowan (R-FR)
Brian Callahan (JR)
Osaar Rasshan (FR)