The OL has the makings to be possibly the best offensive line UCLA has had since 1998, with All-American-level talent and just about unprecedented depth. You almost don't want to talk about the depth because every time UCLA has had this kind of depth in recent years on the offensive they start losing linemen due to injuries or something. But with the risk of cursing next year's line, it's pretty easy to say that, after years of not having experience and depth on the offensive line, the 2002 season looks like UCLA has made it to the promised land on the OL: Having experienced, talented seniors backed up by a deep stable of underclassmen.
UCLA had a pretty good line last year. They got a little maligned at times for not being able to really dominate defensive lines in the second half of the season. But, to their credit, it's a bit difficult to consistently open huge holes when every defense has stacked the box and knows you're running. And it's a bit difficult to pass protect on every third and long. Despite the one-dimensionality of UCLA's offense, during the first half of the season the line looked still looked very good, and did physically dominate many of its opposing defenses, defenses that still were keying on UCLA's running game and teeing off on the predictability of UCLA's passing game.
UCLA loses only one significant player from that line, center Troy Danoff, and is plugging in a total of eight redshirt and true freshmen to the offensive line unit. Offensive Line Coach Mark Weber has to be wringing his hands with anticipation of having all of these guys at his disposal.
The anchors are the two tackles who have now been constants on the line for two years. They'll be going into their third year as starters together, Mike Saffer (SR, 6-5, 305) and Bryce Bohlander (SR, 6-6, 300). Both will be on a few pre-season All-American lists and both have a very, very good chance to make All-Conference next year.
With Saffer and Bohlander set at tackle, the interior of the line is a little more up in the air. With the departure of Danoff, finding the best replacement at center is a first priority. John Ream (SO, 6-4, 290) will be given the chance in spring practice to win the spot. The coaches had really liked him as a freshman in practice. In fact, they were saying that Ream would eventually be a better center than Danoff, with more athleticism and mobility. Last year, when he saw action after Danoff was injured, the reviews were pretty mixed. We have to cut him some slack, though; Ream was just a redshirt freshman, getting thrown into the fire.
Now, usually that's where UCLA's available depth would stop. At just about those seven linemen. But here's a new twist for recent UCLA offensive lines: For depth, they'll be plugging in the five redshirt freshmen behind those seven. UCLA then will have a total of 12 offensive linemen available to play next season, which is phenomenal and, as has been proven, much needed, with the way linemen can go down with injuries.
More than likely, the loose plan is for Mociler to still be the primary backup for the left side of the line, and Vieira to work as the backup for the right side. If Vieira wins the right starting guard spot, he'd probably still be the backup to Saffer, and Lehmann would then move into the guard spot. In other words, it's not likely that any of the redshirt freshmen will see any real significant playing time this season. It would happen for only two reasons: 1) Injury, and 2) if one of the redshirt freshmen really step up and prove themselves worthy of leapfrogging the likes of Lehmann, Mociler, Ream and Vieira on the depth chart. Either of those reasons, or a combo of both reasons, is very possible. But with the guard positions being the ones up for grabs, it just so happens that the redshirt freshmen who are probably most ready to contribute are tackles. Ed Blanton (R-FR, 6-9, 310) really impressed the coaches during practice last season. He came into UCLA at about 295 pounds and was on the skinny side, which is astounding. He has since put on about 15. The coaches loved his aggressiveness and toughness. He still is growing into his 6-9 frame and getting control of his coordination, but he made some considerable progress from the beginning of fall practice to the end. The coaches also had great things to say about Matt Mosebar (R-FR 6-8, 290). Mosebar, who was a volleyball player in high school, has very good mobility and quickness for his size. He came into UCLA at about 280, which was also astoundingly on the light sight for his frame. With Blanton and Mosebar being 310 and 290, respectively, at the end of their freshman year, it's almost frightening to think what these guys are going to look like when they're seniors, after four more years in the program. They are generally considered the tackles of the future. For now, they'll probably step in line backing up the tackles behind Mociler and Vieira. It will be interesting to see, though, sometime maybe a couple of weeks into spring practice, if either or both of these guys nail down the first backup roles at either/both tackle positions.
You might think that the two redshirt freshmen who are most ready to play being tackles doesn't help the situation at guard, but it, in fact, does. If Blanton and Mosebar are solid backups at tackle, then Mociler and Vieira become primarily guards. Eliminating that element – Mociler and Vieira having to play tackle – helps them with their development at guard.
Probably the third redshirt freshmen OL UCLA considers most ready to play is Mike McCloskey (R-FR, 6-4, 280), which is ironic since he was the least heralded of the group (much like Efseaff). The coaches really like McCloskey's smarts and athleticism. McCloskey, actually, might be the most ready to play among all of the redshirt freshmen OLs, but, as a center, he's behind both Ream and Efseaff on the depth chart. The feeling, though, is once McCloskey gets bigger and more experienced, he could be a definite threat to leapfrogging Ream on the depth chart. This spring will provide the first real possibility of that. If McCloskey does well, there's a possibility he could be an option at center next year.
Early on in practice last year, the general thought was that freshmen Robert Cleary (R-FR, 6-7, 285) and Colin Barker (R-FR, 6-8, 300) would be the most likely to take the most time to develop. It's probably still the case, but as practice continued, by November, the coaches were pleased with the way Cleary and Barker settled in. Cleary is considered to have some nice athleticism, it's just a matter of him getting bigger, stronger and tougher. He showed some solid signs of doing that by the end of practice. It's much the same story with Barker. He had lost some weight and muscle when he came to UCLA last fall, and wasn't very focused (as many redshirt freshmen are, being young, their first year in college, away from their families, and no hope of playing that first year). But the coaches were pleased with how Barker became more focused as practice went on, and started working harder, on the field and in the weight room. Last year, Cleary and Barker lined up mostly as guards on the scout team. Clearly has the potential to possibly play either guard or tackle, like Mociler or Vieira, while Barker's future is more than likely at guard solely. With more than likely four experienced players at guard – Efseaff, Lehmann, Mociler and Vieira – there isn't a great chance that either would see the field next season. But if Efeseaff moves to center that opens a potential spot on the two-deep at guard, and one of these two would have the opportunity to step into it.
With this kind of depth, it's near impossible that any of the three true freshmen OLs would play. Robert Chai (FR, 6-3, 275) would have to be considered the true freshman that would be ready the earliest. Chai is quick, mean, aggressive and has quick feet. After a couple of years in the weight room, he'll be in the mix at guard. Alex Potasi (FR, 6-6, 290) and Elliot Vallejo (FR, 6-7, 290) are two guys that will get in the system and hopefully grow and develop. Given the talent and depth (and youth) on UCLA's OL, they're two guys that are good pickups in a year that it would have been hard to recruit. Both have great size and some raw tools to work with. If either, or both, develops down the line it would be a huge win. Make no mistake, though. UCLA didn't take these two as throwaways. The coaching staff believes that both have some great potential, they're just a few years away from reaching it. So, it was a good fit for them – coming into a program that has the depth to allow them to develop.
This is the way it should work in regards to depth at UCLA at every position. You lose an All-Conference player at the position (Bryan Fletcher), but you have one experienced, talented upperclassmen ready to take up the spotlight in Mike Seidman (SR, 6-5, 245) (Man, where does the time go? Is Seidman really going to be a senior?). You have a guy who's been in the system for a few of years to give you depth in Blane Kezirian (JR, 6-6, 240). Then you have a talented young player who redshirted as a freshman in Keith Carter (R-FR, 6-4, 250). And then you have the #1 prospect in the country at the position coming in by the name of Marcedes Lewis (FR, 6-7, 240). Then there's also J.J. Hair (FR, 6-5, 240), who is a good, long-term guy that will develop in the system and probably step up to play when Marcedes goes pro early (only half joking). In a perfect Bruin world, this is the way you'd envision the depth to work at every position on the team.
Seidman had a very nice junior season splitting time with Fletcher, and actually seemed to get more opportunities than Fletcher in the second half of the season. He's had some problems with injury, but he's expected to have at least an All-Conference senior year next season. Carter is expected to step up and get a good share of reps next season. The coaches were particularly pleased with him in practice last season, having great size, mobility and very nice hands. He came across the country to go to UCLA, and he has the kind of character that allowed him to adapt really quickly to such a move, and then move right into the football program seamlessly.
Then there's Marcedes. The coaches are practically giddy with the prospects of making plans to utilize him. Refer to how Stanford used Teyo Johnson last season and you might get somewhat of a preview. He'll line up at tight end, wide out and in the slot. The coaches are drooling to get his size, strength and athleticism matched up against a 5-9 cornerback. Hey, the kid even threw a very good pass in the CaliFlorida game for a touchdown, so he also provides a great option for the gimmicky side of Toledo's offense. The prevailing sentiment is that Marcedes is one of the few recruits that qualify as a real difference-maker, on the same level as Matt Ware last year.
Kezirian as a junior, will be used sparingly, but will get some time. He's proven that he's a pretty decent blocker and could see the field in two tight-end sets. Hair is a little under-appreciated actually. He has a very good chance to be a solid player in the program down the line but will redshirt next year.
Bottom line: Barring injury, UCLA has a great set of tight ends for next season.
The nucleus of a very, very good receiving unit returns next year with probably UCLA's three most effective wide receivers from last season returning. They are Tab Perry (JR, 6-3, 218), Craig Bragg (SO, 6-1, 185) and Ryan Smith (JR, 6-3, 205).
The big question mark right now is the health of Perry and Smith. Perry suffered some serious injuries last season, including broken ribs and a collapses lung. It's uncertain if both – or either – will be 100% in time for spring practice. Smith more than likely will and Perry is hopeful. While both pretty much have their roles secure for next fall, missing spring practice does still set them back. It's really critical, coming off last season, that the UCLA passing game get as comfortable as it possibly can and spring practice goes a long way in that regard.
By next fall, UCLA is looking to Tab Perry to be its marquee receiver. He has NFL size and talent, it's just a matter of him stepping up into the role – and UCLA getting him the ball. Ryan Smith proved last season that he's a solid, and sometimes explosive, receiver. Bragg is the quicker, shiftier speed guy, who also showed the toughness to play well at this level last season. With two of them being juniors next year and one a sophomore, this unit has the chance to become, collectively, one of the best in UCLA's history.
And if you're talking potential, it gets even more exciting from there. Reports on Junior Taylor (FR, 6-2, 190) from the off-season, informal passing sessions are very exciting. Taylor is apparently very fast, has great moves and good size. Of course, without having seen him play since high school, it's hard to project what he'll contribute next year. But generally, most observers believe he'll definitely be in the receiver rotation next season. I'd say probably the #1 curiosity of spring practice will be to see Junior Taylor. Taylor's addition to the roster is huge, given the injury status of the unit and lack of overall depth.
Jon Dubravac (SR, 6-4, 215) is slated to return to the team after taking a redshirt year last season to recover from lingering injuries. Not much has been said about Dubravac during the season, or duing the off-season. I think UCLA would feel great if Dubravac could make a contribution to the team, but generally playing it safe and not expecting it.
If Dubravac does recover and can contribute, and all five of these receivers stay healthy, it makes for a nice set of the five receivers UCLA uses in its offense for next season.
Depth, again, is question at wide receiver. The sixth guy on the depth chart is probably walk-on Garrett Lepisto (JR, 6-2, 195), who, because of injury, saw playing time last season and did pretty well given the circumstances. He might never start at UCLA, but he has a chance to break into the five-receiver rotation in the next two years. UCLA would love to see Jacques Lazarus (R-FR, 6-1, 185) step up this spring. He has some talent, with good size and athleticism. Last year, his attitude definitely improved in practice as the season went on. Now that he's not a scout player, it will be interesting to see if he turns it up a notch this spring.
The true freshman addition to the unit next fall is Antwuan Smith (FR, 5-11, 180). Smith has the talent and savviness to come in and play if he's needed as a true freshman. You would hope the only way he'd break into the top five receivers is he shows he's that good next fall, and not because of injury. More than likely, Smith redshirts.
With the loss of DeShaun Foster for the last few games of last season, it was pretty evident just how big of a loss he'll be to this offense. Even playing against a stacked box, Foster was still more or less able to move the offense on his own. There doesn't seem to be a running back on the roster of that caliber. It means, more than anything, UCLA is going to have to diversify – or die. UCLA will have to really go to the air next season to be successful. While it's doing that, hopefully one of the running backs on the roster will then step up and clearly show he's the primary running back on the team that is going to be the go-to guy.
Akil Harris (JR, 6-0, 210) has shown flashes of being pretty good in the past, but when given a chance last season when Foster was out, showed his limitations. He's relatively good at many things, but not really excellent at any. To be a workhorse, every-down kind of runner he's going to have to toughen up and develop the capability of not going down on first hits. Harris, for the time being, is at the top of the depth chart at running back.
But it could only be a matter of time before Manuel White (SO, 6-3, 240) overtakes him. White doesn't have blazing speed, but he is the every-down pounder that works well with UCLA's offense. And he is a pounder. The guy can run over people. And he's quicker than he looks. He's also a good receiver out of the backfield. One of the big spotlights of the spring will be, now given the chance, whether White can assert himself enough to clearly become the #1 running back on the team.
There is depth at tailback, albeit it very youthful depth. It will be interesting to see just how the three redshirt freshmen work into the equation this spring. The UCLA coaches figure that Tyler Ebell (R-FR, 5-9, 180) will clearly be the guy who has a chance to really contribute to the team in some way. Ebell was an interesting enigma last season in practice. When he's standing around or in the huddle, you just thought there was no way a guy his size could be effective at this level. Then, when he was unleashed in the scrimmage, he was particularly effective, using his quickness and shiftiness to break off runs. No matter how effective Ebell ever proves himself to be, he will always be up against the stigma of his size. But "Might Mouse" has said for quite a while that he has always had to overcome the size stigma, and he has always done it. So, I have to remind myself not to ever count out Ebell because of his size, no matter how often I'm tempted to looking at him on the sideline. Because of his effectivness in practice and in scrimmages last year, the coaches seem to be over that stigma with Ebell. They intend to use him in a variety of ways next season – as a change of pace in the backfield at tailback and possibly at other positions in the offense. He'll also be used as a kick and punt returner. This spring, when given some reps at tailback, it will be interesting to see if he can make a big enough impact that he could become an even bigger part of next year's offense.
Perhaps the other redshirt freshman tailback is the most ready to play is Jason Harrison, (R-FR, 5-9, 190). Harrison showed some good talent last year in practice. There were many days when the coaches thought he was the best of the three freshman tailbacks. He has nice moves and good quickness, and mentally is perhaps the furthest along in being prepared to play, picking up the offense pretty quickly. Probably more purely talented is Wendell Mathis (R-FR, 5-11, 190). Mathis has more explosiveness than any other back on the roster. In practice and scrimmages last season, eh was lightning through a hole, and then realy a blur in the open field, with a very nice burst. Holding back Mathis right now is how raw he was coming into the program, still learning the technical aspects of being a running back, and getting all of his assignments down. He also is still pretty skinny and a little bulk wouldn't hurt and probably wouldn't slow him down. Mathis is definitely the wild card among the group, and we'll see if, in the off-season, the light turned on for him.
There is a great amount of speculation about possible position movements for these three redshirt freshmen. Right now, two months away from spring practice, there is really no thought on the part of UCLA to move any of the three. The plan is still to let them try their hand at tailback, give them a good enough shot to fully evaluate them, and go from there. And it could be this way for a while, possibly a couple of years. Looking very far down the line, much could depend on the development of Mathis. If he gets bigger, gets more polished, he could be the tailback of the future. If his development as a running back doesn't come necessarily come along at a good pace, he has the makings of a great wide receiver, or possibly a cornerback. Harrison more than likely will stay at running back, but, if he were moved, has the quickness to possibly play cornerback. Ebell, in all likelihood, will stay at tailback and play on special teams. It's very possible that all three are never moved since depth at running back is incredibly important.
Kenny Pritchett (SR, 5-9, 185) will be in his fifth season next year, and he'll provide depth at the position.
The true freshman entering the fray is Glenn Ohaeri, (FR, 5-9, 190). Ohaeri, a few scouts believed, was vastly under-rated in the recruiting rankings. He is not blazingly fast, but he is very strong, shifty and tough. Being a true freshman, with many running backs ahead of him, it's extremely doubtful that he'd have the possibility to play next season. As a great all-around athlete, he has a chance to definitely be a contributor to the program in the future, as a tailback or as a defensive back. He is a great defensive player, also, with a great hitting ability and nose for the ball. Within a couple of years, Ohaeri will be on the field; it's just a matter of his position.
At fullback, UCLA has had the luxury of two talented, experienced players for two years, which has given given them good play at the position and depth. That's gone now. Now, they'll hand the position to Pat Norton (SO, 6-1, 240), and he'll have the job of following a pretty good act. Norton has the potential to be a pretty good act himself. In fact, he's probably one of my favorite players on the team. Tough, hard-nosed and mean. But generally a nice kid. That's generally what you want in a football player, right? Pat Norton is it. He also has some talent, being a good blocker and catching the ball well out of the backfield. His inexperience is his one drawback right now.
The fullback position is young, inexperienced, and not very deep. For depth, there's Ray Cassaday (SO, 6-1, 247), who's a converted linebacker. Cassaday, at this point, looks like he has the potential to really only provide depth at the position.
Coming in as a true freshman is J.D. Groves (FR, 6-2, 235), who looks to have nice talent and is a potentially very good player down the line. If pressed by injury, he has the size and physical tools to be able to play next year, but it'd be a great deal to ask of a true freshman.
There is also the possibility that Manuel White could see some time at fullback when someone else lines up at tailback. It gives UCLA so many options with White in the game along with another tailback. We'll see if this get experimented with this spring.
The biggest issue of the football program is the quarterback position. Much has been written and speculated about the history, career and future of Cory Paus (SR, 6-2, 210). Reports right after the season coming out of the program was that Paus was done, that more than likely he would not be UCLA's quarterback next year. But three months or so later, the reports have changed. Reports now are that Paus satisfied his jail time for the drunk driving conviction quietly and remorsefully. Reports are that Paus is emerging from the doghouse. Reports are that Paus has been focused and working hard. Reports are he's recovered from his thumb injury and looks very good in the informal passing sessions. Reports are that Paus is mentally prepared for spring practice and fired up.
Whether you're a Cory Paus fan or not, or whether you think he's the guy for the job or not, you have to be rooting for the kid regardless. Paus is a good-character kid, despite the conviction and some bad press. And, as still just a kid, he deserves the support of the UCLA community.
Now, when it comes to the quarterback position, will he be the guy next year? Well, if not Paus, who else? Paus will be the guy more or less because he'll have no real competitive threat. Ryan McCann left the program, in what was an expected and probably ill-advised move. He'll play for a D-2 program next year in hopes of making a huge impact, enough that it (he's hoping) will give him the launching board to playing in the NFL. While we'll be pulling for McCann to pull off this improbable feat, the transfer still doesn't make much sense. McCann probably had a better chance of playing and making an impact at UCLA next season, given the susceptibility of college quarterbacks to injury, than he would at the D-2 school. Probably the best example of why McCann leaving was a mistake was the fate of Scott McEwan, the perennial backup quarterback at UCLA who had some considerably exceptional performances toward the end of last season, something that did actually make NFL scouts take notice.
With McCann's departure, it leaves UCLA's quarterback crew awfully shallow and inexperienced. Going into spring there is only one other quarterback on scholarship, John Sciarra (R-FR, 6-1, 195). If you go by his performance in practice last season, Sciarra would in no way be ready to play an significant minutes at quarterback and be effective. Sciarra has a good feel for the position, but lacks the arm strength to execute the position at this level. If he hopes to have a career at UCLA, he'll have to get considerably stronger and develop a better arm, which is not inconceivable. But for the immediate future, it doesn't bode well.
UCLA will definitely be preparing its true freshmen quarterbacks, Matt Moore (FR, 6-4, 185) and Drew Olson (FR, 6-2, 190), as potential backups, which means, given the penchant for injuries at quarterback, there's a good chance that one of them could play as a true freshman. Moore, who is a highly-rated baseball player, is skipping his high school baseball season to dedicate his time to preparing to play quarterback next year.
Between the three of them, Sciarra, Moore and Olson, it's really a tossup as to who will be Paus's backup next year. Sciarra has the edge in experience, and having been in the program. When it comes to maybe having to use your backup to get through a few situations, he might be the guy they go to since he's the furthest along in grasping the offense. But Moore and Olson will come in hitting the ground running next fall (or throwing), rather than having the usual, laid-back, I'm-going-to-be-only-running-the-scout-team attitude when they come in. Olson is generally considered to be more developed as a quarterback, but Moore is considered better talent-wise. Olson grasped the offense at the Califlorida practice really quickly, faster than more highly-touted California teammate, Ben Olson. The early bet is that Drew, because of his ability to pick things up quickly, might have an edge over Moore. But Moore is being discounted just because it was his first year as a starter last season at Hart. Moore lacks experience, but the general opinion is that he has a great natural feel for playing quarterback and that could be the edge next fall.
How about Matt Ware, you're asking? As of now, there isn't a plan for Ware to play quarterback more than how he did last season. But that's not to say that the plan can't change. If things get desperate, Paus gets hurt or is ineffective, and Sciarra, Moore of Olson aren't up for it, Ware could be the option (get the pun?). No matter who it is, if Paus goes down, it's going to be an adventure as to who would be the UCLA quarterback.
UCLA's kicking game is, for another year, in great hands. Feeling like they've been at UCLA for about a decade, kicker Chris Griffith (SR, 6-2, 200) and punter Nate Fikse (SR, 5-9, 180) return for their senior years. Waiting in the wings at punter is Chris Kluwe (SO, 6-5, 200). Kluwe had an knee injury last year, and still shows inconsistency, particularly in the technical aspects of his punts. He has a cannon for a foot, and if he gets down the technique, the punting position will sold for two more years after Fikse leaves. UCLA will bring in Justin Medlock (FR, 6-0, 185) as both a kicker and punter next fall. He'll redshirt and then next year compete with Kluwe for punting and kicking duties.
On punt returns, Craig Bragg looks like he might step into being the #1 punt returner. Tyler Ebell will get the opportunity. Ricky Manning will probably also return some punts. On kick-off returns, Matt Clark had some impressive returns toward the end of the season, and looks like he could move to the top of the depth chart there. Craig Bragg might be there with him, with Tab Perry and Akil Harris there also.