'05: Standing at the Crossroads

BRO columnist <B>Charles Chiccoa</b> was at Spaulding Field almost every day for winter practice, and he provides his observations -- and an analysis of where the program is heading into Karl Dorrell's third season...

Come September, we'll begin year three in the Karl Dorrell gamble. The pressure is up, the temperature's rising, and on the third Saturday of that month (a likely scorcher), we should have an early indicator of things to come. Barring a disaster in San Diego, or the prospective "scrimmage" vs. Rice (fans can afford a bit of complacency), the Oklahoma spectacle in the Rose Bowl should be the most important game of KD's professional career, not to mention the biggest Bruin game of the new century.

Forget for a moment Dan Guerrero, the Morgan Center, Albert Carnesale. By the end of the year, hardcore Bruin fans should be pretty well united in their feelings about the head coach and the immediate future of the program. The powers that be can do as they wish; it's their ball, after all, their rules. But if KD is seen to have underachieved once again, to have looked at strike three, and yet the administration refuses to call him out, they put themselves at risk of losing a significant chunk of the Bruin Nation (shrunken though it may be), with only True Blues following reflexively behind. What I'm wondering is whether there's actually some kind of unwritten "guaranteed four years" scenario? Is it real or is it paranoia? I mean we are talking about the culture that let Steve Lavin run its proudest athletic tradition straight off a cliff. The best response, of course, is for UCLA simply to win, to produce a successful season. So what constitutes a successful season? I would suggest the usual: respectability, the return of a national profile and certainly an end to that infernal "soft" image.

With the single exception of the 20-game win streak, we've been living through some pretty dark times. For some of us, the last satisfactory football coach was Dick Vermeil, almost 30 years ago. Call me "unreasonable," but Terry Donahue's Hall of Fame credentials always seemed built more on Bill Rees' recruiting skills, a few good assistants, and outstanding quarterbacking rather than on any particular coaching talents of his own. Give him Jeff Dankworth, Troy Aikman, Tommy Maddox or an experienced, mature, mechanically sound senior coached up by Homer Smith and he might produce a decent (not great) season. Give him Rick Bashore, Bret Johnson, Ryan Fein or Wayne Cook and you could count on disappointment. TD's material during his 20 seasons was damn high, certainly high enough not to have lost 74 games (along with an inordinate number of ties). And today it's become clear that TD's immediate successor, Bob Toledo, was only kept afloat through a lifeboat in the form of Cade McNown and Rocky Long. Throw in SC's recent explosion as college football's premier football program - and the natural effect that must have on Bruin recruiting - and it's easy to understand why some of us are more than a little anxious and cranky.

By now we've become used to the routine of a hopeful spring followed by a bitter fall. Yet some of us - those with some free time and in reasonable proximity to the campus – keep coming back for these open practices on beautiful spring days. Even Cranks find it hard to resist the charming north campus, mild rolling hills, Westwood Village lunches or lunch somewhere on campus, preferably with fellow BROs or old college friends… and no pressure what-so-ever. This year, UCLA felt it expedient to conduct spring practice in late winter, and so most days on Spaulding Field were uncomfortably cool, overcast and short (hey, anything to break the routine).

Spring practice is basically a time to get a line on individual players, seen day to day for three weeks or so, then to figure the relative strengths and weaknesses of their various units. It's understood that trying to extrapolate how your team will do in the fall is a chump's game, really, since you have little or no idea how most of your opponents stack up, not to mention such unforeseeable factors as injuries, players "blowing up" or being "exposed." Whenever I hear some radio guru launching into "my predictions," I usually zone out or switch stations.

So what did I notice on Spaulding Field this winter? Mostly what's already been generally reported on BRO. On the offensive side, Maurice Drew and Chris Markey look better than ever; they're known qualities and Mo, of course, is a super. Derrick Williams and Ryen Carew should provide more than adequate depth.

The fullback in the Bruin system still looks like a mere blocking back. Perhaps Michael Pitre will be able to change that a bit.

The O line, less Shannon Tevaga, Robert Chai and the incoming monster, Aleksey Lanis, looked okay. Once they join the mix, it should be fine.

Junior Taylor has continued to build on his strong finish of last season and might just put up Bragg-like numbers in the fall; he's assumed that same confident, go-to swagger. And at least one or two of Marcus Everett, Brandon Breazell and Joe Cowan seem likely to step up and greatly complement Junior. Everett is quicker than you think, Breazell is fast and has that Jim McElroy aggressiveness and fearlessness about him, and Joe Cowan needs only to become more assertive in using his size and more consistent catching the ball. Other than Junior and Cowan, the receivers are obviously inexperienced, but their talents seem to me pronounced, particularly Everett and Breazell. Marcedes Lewis, of course, is still the perennial gift waiting to be discovered. Hopefully, the quarterbacks will finally be able to find him this season; it's their last chance. Of course, there's not a lot behind him. With the unlucky Keith Carter out of football, Marc is one player who can't go down. Which brings us to another one who can't: The quarterback.

I think we can put that "savior" talk on hold for a while; Ben Olson is human. It's still safe to assume he's got the goods, physically, but quarterback is a brutally tough gig, doubly so when you've been away from competition so long. Yes, Virginia, he was rusty. He didn't complete a high percentage of passes in the scrimmages, and his ball tended to take off on him, especially on medium routes. Whether it's some slight mechanical flaw that needs adjustment, or just over-anxiousness due to learning a new system while shaking off the rust, who knows? He's certainly the people's choice. All you had to see was the mobs of fans surrounding him after the final scrimmage at Drake Stadium. He's probably as popular as that other Ben, and right now he is to this program what the freshman, Carson Palmer, was to SC's.

Patrick Cowan is this year's "fly in the ointment." He's tall, he's slight of build (though athletic enough), he's got a strong arm and, like Ben, can throw downfield effortlessly and accurately. But will he be Jay Schroeder or Steve Buck… or something in between? His throwing motion, classically over the top, looks like nothing so much as… there he is again, Carson Palmer. But he doesn't have that blue chip, prep pedigree, didn't throw much in high school, started just one year, completed less than 50% of his throws for only 1,100 yards. However, his father was a quality Pac-10 quarterback, and so you could be excused for believing he knows more about the position than his modest prep numbers would indicate. In other words, he's another of those intriguing, two-star, KD "sleepers." From a distance he does look good. We'll see.

Last year David Koral looked dreadful in the early practices I saw. He had trouble seeing the field, seemed to pull the ball down too quickly, threw too many picks (though he did show nice tackling form). He still has that naturally tight throwing motion, snapping off his throws more with his forearm and wrist rather than using a fuller arm extension, which might explain his relative lack of arm strength. This year he obviously has better command of the offense, and completed a higher percentage of passes than either Olson or Cowan. He undoubtedly received a rush of confidence from his two-touchdown Vegas Bowl experience, though he seems a little more taken with it than the rest of us. Hey, more power to him. Insecurity in a quarterback is as unwonted as self-consciousness in a stripper. But the majority of his throws have been the easy ones: swing passes, screens, short check-offs to the tight end, short routes to the wide receivers. And, judging from his quotes, he even seems to be subtly "politicking" for the job, not a welcome circumstance. But he has come a long way from last spring.

Ordinarily, you would hope either Ben Olson or Cowan starts the San Diego St. game, but, since both were unable to separate themselves in winter, they're now going to have to win the job in pre-season practices. I suppose Drew Olson has some fans left who still believe his "experience" should win out, but I haven't found any. In fact it's our experience with him that leads many of us to believe he's not the answer. Today, my fear is that the coaching staff might feel they have no other choice but to go with "experience." Let's hope the most talented kid makes a decisive statement in August and forces a decision for the best. One's worst fear is a situation where the "safe" quarterback starts the first two (easier) games, then can't handle the fierce pressure Bob Stoops will surely bring, something we've grown all too familiar with since Cade left. Of course this could happen anyway, no matter who starts.

I'm sure for some Cranks the idea that this year's defense can become a strength is a hard one to swallow, but right now there's 3/4ths of a very formidable front four, and if either Kevin Harbour drops some weight or William Sneed packs some on, this unit could perform the same sort of turnaround as last year's O line. Kevin Brown, Justin Hickman and Brigham Harwell should prove to be a major headache for any opponent. Mix in some slightly improved depth over last year's disaster, and you have an entirely different defensive outlook.

If the front four is 3/4ths the way there, the linebacking might be said to be 2/3rds the way there. Spencer Havner and Justin London, like Mo and Markey, are known qualities, so either Wesley Walker needs to kick his game up a notch or someone like Bruce Davis (bigger but new to the position) or Aaron Whittington (undersized, but very heady and instinctive - think Grootegoed) may steal his job.

If depth in the defensive front is a concern, that's certainly not the case among the DBs. I count at least nine players who could reasonably start in the defensive backfield, most of whom had pretty impressive winter camps. Trey Brown should be a sure starter at one corner, since he has experience and some heft. Byron Velega also looks like he carries a bit more weight than the rest of the young corners, but the other starting position seems up for grabs among Michael Norris, Rodney Van, even Marcus Cassel, the only upper-classman (and that's not to mention Mil'Von James, who could make the field as a safety and the oft-injured Jebiaus Brown). At strong safety there's Jarrad Page, the three-year starter, but he'll be pushed by Dennis Keyes or Eric McNeal, likely nickel backs. Chris Horton is the presumed starter at free safety, though Keyes could move in there also. The question here will be quality, how well these guys can mesh into a cohesive unit, how well they can compete with the bigger, mostly faster wide receivers they'll see each week, and how well they understand their individual assignments. But this is no more than the same challenges most defensive secondaries must face. An extra added bonus here will be the presence, finally, of a quick, hard-hitting free safety.

Barring yet another rash of Bruin injuries, the only questionable position to me remains quarterback. Everyone will continue to stack the line of scrimmage until one of these guys makes them pay. This team needs Ben Olson or Patrick Cowan to win the position, to start the opener, to get in some game preparation for the "shock and awe" of Oklahoma, but they'll have to come with more than they've shown in practices. SC surely stripped away some of the Oklahoma mystique in the Orange Bowl, but the Bruins don't have a Heisman quarterback or a "genius" offensive coordinator to throw against them, which isn't to say the Sooners are a lock, just that it's going to take an effective passing game to stay with them. Wouldn't it be nice to play them on something like equal terms.

For me, there's also the nagging question of conservatism, particularly with Larry Kerr. We've seen lots of "press" coverage in the spring only to see it rationed much more sparingly in the fall. Will the Bruins finally attack this year? Will the coaching staff feel comfortable attacking the scary boys like Oklahoma and SC. KD is nothing if not methodical. It's hard imagining him kicking out the traces, his team playing with its "hair on fire," putting a highly ranked opponent on its heels, throwing on first down, throwing on consecutive downs, forcing them to back off, show some respect… even some fear. This looks to be a watershed season and the drama should be first rate. Tom Petty said "waiting is the hardest part." But then he's from Florida, and probably some kind of Gators, Seminole or ‘Canes fan. Compared to us, he doesn't know what waiting is.

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