So, of course, it's time for our annual fall camp preview, a general rundown of what you should be watching for in fall camp.
Overall, it's a critical year for UCLA football. It's Head Coach Karl Dorrell's third season, and after going 6-7 and 6-6 in his first two seasons, it's generally accepted in UCLA circles that this upcoming season is imperative that Dorrell post a winning record. In fact, many close to the situation are asserting that 8 wins, minimum, is needed to keep Dorrell off the hot seat.
Luckily, for Dorrell, it looks like the 2005 team could be his best. He has a few holes to fill, yes, but generally might have his best overall talent – coupled with the most experience (which is key) – since he's been UCLA's coach. Plus, he's now in the second year of the offense being run by Offensive Coordinator Tom Cable, which can only heighten the comfort level of the players in executing it.
It's also key that UCLA's schedule looks to be very favorable – at least from this pre-season vantage point – with most of its toughest games in the Rose Bowl.
So, heading into fall camp, here are some of the keys for you to be watching for in terms of the offense and defense, and what we feel are critical areas for the squad.
Last year's offense, the second under Dorrell and the so-called West Coast Offense, was a vast improvement over the offense in Dorrell's first year. Most of that could be attributed to the arrival of Cable, and the fact that the players had another year to be comfortable with the offense's philosophies and functions.
UCLA became a fairly balanced offense, while probably relying a bit more on its running game, which was dominant at times, particularly early in the 2004 season. It was obvious, if you remember, that Cable had vastly overhauled the offensive line with a new blocking scheme, a better position fit for many players, and a strongside-weakside alignment. The improved performance of the OL, really, made all the difference, consistently opening up holes for the running game and giving UCLA's quarterbacks time to throw.
An overall question, though, that lingers from last season about the offense: It was dominant early in the running game, but its rushing production tended to trail off toward the end of the season. It's hard to put a finger on why – perhaps injuries, particularly to its star running back. Perhaps it was opposing defenses getting better at scouting Cable's blocking schemes. But it definitely is one of the biggest questions about the offense – and the team – generally for the 2005 season: Will UCLA's running game be able to regain the footing it had in the first half of the 2004 season? It's highly critical to the success of the 2005 offense.
And that leads us to the offensive line...
UCLA loses two starters from last season on the OL in longtime starter Steven Vieira and senior starter Paul Mociler. Both were critical to the success of last year's offensive line – mostly because of their experience as fifth-year seniors.
Many close to the situation, though, are excited about the state of the offensive line under Cable, the offensive line coach. They're excited not only about the direction of the offensive line, but about the potential of this year's unit.
WST: Ed Blanton (SR, 6-9, 332)
WSG: Robert Cleary (SR, 6-7, 316)
C: Mike McCloskey (SR, 6-5, 280)
SSG: Shannon Tevaga (SO, 6-3, 310)
SST: Brian Abraham (SO, 6-6, 293)
If UCLA had to play a game tomorrow, this would be its starting offensive line. That doesn't necessarily mean that this is how it will be when UCLA opens its season September 3rd at San Diego State. Cable has been known for juggling players and positions, trying to find the right fit. There are also a couple of depth chart battles that are going to be waged in fall camp that could affect the starting five. Cable's philosophy has always been to get his best five offensive linemen on the field, and if someone emerges as one of those top five who isn't on this preliminary list, Cable will find a place for them.
There are really two different groups among the offensive linemen – the ones that have proven themselves more or less, and those that need to prove themselves. The worry is that not all of the five projected starters are on the list of proven players.
The proven group consists of Blanton, McCloskey, Tevaga, Cleary and Robert Chai (JR, 6-3, 285). Blanton, the human mountain, has consistently improved over his career at UCLA and reports are that he's in terrific physical condition, slimming down a bit and improving his quickness. McCloskey won second-team All-Pac-10 honors and looks to be one of the best centers in the Pac-10. He's smart and athletic, which is exactly what you want in your center. Tevaga garnered rave reviews last year when he stepped into the starting spot halfway through the season. He's considered probably the most talented among this bunch, with it just being a matter of him gaining experience and learning how to sustain intensity and effort. Cleary could be the sharpest and the most competitive in the group. He's just limited a bit athletically and then tended to get worn down some last season. He's tried in the off-season to get in optimum physical shape to counteract the rigors of a long season. Chai underwent knee surgery after the season but is completely healthy heading into fall camp. He's also made some great strides as a football player, not only being in his best shape ever but in refining his skills in Cable's system. Needing a back-up to McCloskey at center, they experimented with Chai there until they knew he just wasn't a center.
Cleary and Chai complement each other well, and will probably split snaps at that weakside guard position. It will help keep the more focused Cleary fresh for the entire season, and it enables Cable to get a little more athleticism in at the position in Chai.
The second tier of offensive linemen – the ones that are still on the unproven list – consists of Abraham, Chris Joseph (SO, 6-4, 286), Noah Sutherland (SO, 6-4, 290), Tony Lee (R-FR, 6-4, 291), Scott Glicksberg (R-FR, 6-4, 300), and Aaron Meyer (R-FR, 6-3, 295). These are the guys that are truly the key to UCLA's offensive line this season – how they develop, step up and contribute, not only potentially as starters but in filling out the two-deep, which is critical in being able to weather any OL injuries.
Abraham, really, is the guy who is most key. He, right now, is in line to start at the open strongside tackle position, and a good fall camp will cement that status. There isn't a question with Abraham physically, he's actually the strongest OL on the team. The question is just a matter of experience, being a true sophomore with no more experience than eight or so mop-up snaps last year for the season. The question will be whether Abraham can step up and shoulder the responsibility of the starting position as a true sophomore.
Joseph is coming off a partially torn knee ligament a year ago, which kept him out of more than half of the season. He's reportedly healthy and ready for fall practice, coming off a great summer, and is really one player to watch on the offensive line this fall. Joseph, at this point, is thought to be the heir apparent at center, being similar to McCloskey in his athleticism and smarts. But, on the other hand, the coaches believe he could maybe edge into the starting lineup as a result of Cable's best-five-play theory, which would more than likely have him plug in at the open tackle spot. He would have to really blow the mind of Cable probably to do that, and for now he's thought of as the future at center.
Out of the four remaining on the second tier, Cable needs to find one back-up at the strongside guard position, and two back-up tackles to fill out the two deep.
Glicksberg might have the best chance of backing up Tevaga at the SSG spot. The coaches like his toughness and nastiness, and physically he's fine, it's just a matter of maturing and learning how to play every down for Glicksberg. Competing with him will be Meyer, who has really improved physically, losing weight and getting stronger. Meyer worked at center for most of spring, and he'll still get looks there this fall.
It looks like Sutherland and Lee are in line to be the backups at tackle. The coaches like Sutherland, the converted defensive lineman, showing good feet and explosiveness this spring enough to get looks at tackle this fall. Lee is also well-liked by the coaches because of his athleticism, and he's gotten huge. He came to UCLA a year ago at about 247 pounds and is now topping out in the 290 range.
All hope hasn't been lost on P.J. Irvin (SO, 6-4, 310), who has tended to be the odd man out on the offensive line for a couple of years. Irvin came to UCLA needing a body overhaul, and he's come a long way in doing that. The coaches think he has talent, but just has to get the right mindset to play every down with intensity and focus.
The monkey wrench in the whole offensive line scenario is Aleksey Lanis (FR, 6-6, 326) the freshman who graduated early from Los Angeles Crenshaw and came to UCLA for spring quarter. The word is that coming to UCLA early has definitely benefitted him, at the very least from a physical standpoint. The word is that Lanis, who was huge to begin with, has had a noticeable body change since getting into the off-season workout regimen of strength and conditioning coach Doc Kreis. The coaches, though, can't really get a gauge on how Lanis will be able to contribute since they haven't been on a field with him. Physical ability probably won't be an issue for Lanis; it's just a matter of how ready-to-play a true freshman offensive lineman can be. Lanis is a smart kid and is expected to be able to pick up the intellectual aspects of the game, but nobody knows how fast he'll be able to pick up the emotional aspects and be able to sustain effort and intensity. Because of Cable's best-five-play philosophy, if Lanis is good enough – if he's mentally ready to play – Cable won't hesitate to use him, even possibly at the starting strongside tackle position. More than likely, Lanis has a very good shot to make the two-deep at either tackle spot as a true freshman. Probably a good bet is that Lanis will plug into the two-deep at weakside tackle behind Blanton, and be in line to inherit that position when Blanton graduates.
The other freshman OL who graduated early, from Long Beach Poly, and came to UCLA in spring is Justin Brown (FR, 6-6, 260). Brown, obviously, isn't as far along as Lanis physically. When UCLA took his commitment they liked his feet but knew he drastically needed to improve his strength, and coming to UCLA early has really had an impact on Brown, according to reports. But he's thought to be destined for a redshirt year this season.
Some people in the program are concerned about the wide receiver situation, while others aren't as much.
There has to be a natural concern when you lose two big veterans like Craig Bragg and Tab Perry. Both were drafted by the NFL, and Bragg is UCLA's all-time reception leader.
But those that aren't that concerned think there is enough talent among UCLA's young receivers that, now given the chance to play, they'll step up and show that there isn't much of a drop-off.
It's a tough call.
But you might have to tend to lean toward the concerned camp.
SE: Junior Taylor (SR, 6-1, 198)
FL: Joe Cowan (JR, 6-4, 211)
TE: Marcedes Lewis (SR, 6-6, 255)
It's now Taylor's time. He's been a starter, off and on, since his sophomore season. Expectations have been high since that touchdown on his first reception as a true freshman. He has slowly and steadily grown into a solid receiver, collecting 32 catches for 463 yards a year ago. But this is now the year that Taylor has to take over the major responsibility of receiving for the team. Off the field, reportedly, he's become a leader, and his work ethic has been admired. He did tweak a hamstring in the off-season seven-on-sevens, but it's believed he'll be fine in time for fall camp. In the pro timing day, he was one of the fastest Bruins, and opened eyes among NFL scouts with that showing of speed. It's just a matter of running more consistent routes and having more consistent hands.
It's also now Cowan's time to shine, with an open path to the starting flanker position. Cowan has shown potential, with his good size and straight-ahead speed, but has been unreliable catching the ball. He looked more comfortable catching the ball in spring, and hopefully that will continue in fall.
UCLA will look to find five solid receivers for their rotation this season, and also use a sixth to a degree.
After Taylor and Cowan, those other 3 or 4 spots are really up for grabs (yes, the pun was intended).
Probably the best contenders for the #3 and #4 spots are Marcus Everett (SO, 6-1, 200) and Brandon Breazell (SO, 6-0, 165). Everett has some talent, with very good hands and sharp routes. Everett had nine catches last season, and some were great grabs. The skinny Breazell, has added some weight, about ten pounds, thankfully. In the off-season he's looked quite a bit better holding his routes and holding onto the ball, while also showing his great quickness. The opinion is that Everett and Breazell are starting to "get it."
Probably the player who, right now, has the best chance to fill out the fifth spot in the rotation is Matt Slater (SO, 5-11, 197). Slater is one of the fastest players on the team, if not the fastest, with probably the best burst up the field. But it just hadn't clicked in for him so far while he's been at UCLA, being always particularly raw in catching the ball. The opinion is that he made some good strides in spring, looking more refined and comfortable catching, and his performances in the informal seven-on-sevens during the summer tended to back that up.
The sixth spot is really up for grabs. Ryan Graves (R-FR, 6-1, 175) is recognized as having talent, but hasn't really applied himself yet, according to sources. That could probably also describe Alex Ghebreselassie (SO, 6-2, 189), who needs to bring it this fall or get in the permanent doghouse – the one leading to transferring. He has floated through his first two years at UCLA, not improving much or getting physically bigger, and we would suspect that UCLA won't hold a scholarship for someone too long if he doesn't start to show signs he can contribute.
Probably one of the most interesting players to watch is Matt Willis (JR, 6-0, 186). Willis is a former UCLA trackster who walked out onto Spaulding Field last spring and asked for a tryout at wide receiver. It was obvious immediately he had some raw talent, particularly very good quickness, and they issued him a uniform and he participated in spring practice. The feeling around the program is that he's talented enough to play college football at UCLA's level, and actually be very good, but it could be a bit late for him. He's considered a redshirt junior, and will have only two years to use two years or eligibility. Hopefully Willis can make some considerable strides in refining his skills and learning the position this fall, and break into the rotation.
Two incoming freshmen will try to break into that rotation, too, Gavin Ketchum (FR, 6-4, 190), and Jamil Turner (FR, 6-1, 190). Both Ketchum and Turner have good size and good hands, but it's believed that either of them would have to perform far beyond expectation for them to make that five-receiver rotation.
The tight end position is definitely one to watch in fall since there are some questions.
Of course, UCLA has one of the best tight ends in the nation in Lewis, who is poised to have a huge season. We're not letting anything out of the bag by revealing that the 2005 offense will look to Lewis often. It will try to make up for the loss of the veteran pass receivers Bragg and Perry by exploiting Lewis far more than it had previously. Lewis had 32 receptions a year ago, but it still didn't seem like the offense looked at him enough. This year they'll have to, and if they're using Lewis right they should be almost trying to force the ball to him.
After Lewis come the questions. After Keith Carter left the program, it created a big void in the tight end depth chart. Trying to fill the void will be J.J. Hair (JR, 6-5, 248), who hasn't been much since coming to UCLA as a fairly heralded prospect. UCLA wanted Hair to do a lot of work this summer and improve, and they're hoping that happened. And it's not just to use him as a back-up; UCLA uses two-receiver sets quite often, and Hair is the guy they'll need to do that. Matt Raney (SR, 6-3, 245), has been hindered by injuries, but even so, isn't thought to have the talent to make any kind of real contribution. If he can be effective as a blocking tight end sparingly, that'd be a win. Will Peddie (JR, 6-5, 252), a walk-on, might also see some action.
So, tight end is a position where a true freshman could make an impact, and because of that, it's one of the most interesting situations heading into fall camp. UCLA signed three tight ends, Logan Paulsen (FR, 6-5, 225), Ryan Moya (FR, 6-3, 230), and Adam Heater (FR, 6-5, 245). The three of them have been participating in the off-season seven-on-sevens, and it's given us an early glimpse. Moya and Paulsen are both very skilled in catching the ball, but there is a question about the size of both – with Moya being his height and Paulsen being his girth. Moya, who could be closer to 6-2, is very talented, looking like a fullback out of the backfield, and could be better suited to that position, or to being an H-back type. Paulsen is long and very lanky, and could have strength problems getting off the line and off his man, and blocking at the Pac-10 level as a 225-pound true freshman. Heater is the bulkiest, but he's not near as skilled a pass-catcher. It's still believed that, down the line, he could end up an offensive lineman.
UCLA is hoping that either Paulsen or Moya will show they can play immediately, and overcome their physical deficiencies as true freshmen. UCLA generally wants the option of using three tight ends, and would be short-handed if they had to use just Lewis and Hair, but would do it if none of the freshmen were ready.
It's a new era, without Manuel White in the backfield, who seems like he's been a mainstay of the UCLA running game for about 10 years. UCLA will try to piece together a few players to make up for the loss of White's talents, using the back-up tailbacks extensively to spell Drew, and utilizing the fullbacks in a Manuel White way – that is, throwing out of the backfield to the fullback.
TB: Maurice Drew (JR, 5-8, 205)
FB: Michael Pitre (SO, 5-11, 230)
Drew had an outstanding first half of last season, and then got injured and worn down for the second half. He's been dedicated to getting in better physical condition – stronger, if that's possible – so he can tolerate the rigors of an entire season. If he can, Drew could have a 1,500+-yard type of year. In person this off-season, he looks like he is indeed stronger and even quicker. And the coaches believe he's achieved a real comfort level in the offense where it's becoming second nature to him.
The conventional thought is that Chris Markey (SO, 5-11, 203) is the #2 tailback, after running for 350 yards as a true freshman a year ago and being named to the Sporting News Pac-10 All-Freshman team. But actually, coming out of spring, Derrick Williams (SO, 5-10, 208) had edged ahead of him on the depth chart. Williams had a very good spring and the coaches thought he was more effective than Markey, which is more a tribute to Williams' hard work and dedication than it says anything about Markey. Being 5-10 and compact, Williams has very good power and a low center of gravity, like Drew, but without that kind of explosiveness. Markey, who showed fearlessness as a true freshman last year, will have to fight to retain the #2 tailback spot.
Tailback, though, suddenly becomes a bit thin with the uncertainty around promising Ryen Carew (FR, 5-11, 191) the walk-on who joined the team for spring. He apparently has injured a knee and his status is uncertain.
At fullback, Pitre has been overcoming hamstring issues, but is expected to be completely ready for fall camp. When he's healthy, Pitre is considered by the coaches to be a potentially big-impact guy, with his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
One of the guys who might have improved the most this spring – in fact, many thought he was the most improved player on the team – is back-up fullback Jimmy Stephens (SO, 6-2, 244). Stephens broke out a bit in spring practice, and has looked good in the off-season workouts, looking big, strong and quick. Look for him to get some long looks this fall.
Incoming running back Kahlil Bell (FR, 5-11, 206) is thought to project as a fullback, but will probably not break into the two-deep with Pitre and Stephens ahead of him.
You would think that if UCLA had a senior quarterback who is a two-year starter, had an elite quarterback prospect as a redshirt freshman, another very promising redshirt freshman, and a senior back-up quarterback, the UCLA quarterback situation would be in pretty good shape.
And basically it is. Probably better than it's been in at least a few years.
But there is still an awful lot of uncertainty with the position, mostly because of the injury to Drew Olson, which not only has left his health a question, but also now raised another question: Are there better options at quarterback for the season?
If you talk to coaches or anyone close to the program they sincerely have no idea. They are eagerly awaiting fall practice and what many believe should be a competitive, heated battle for the starting position.
Drew Olson (SR, 6-3, 225)
Olson has seemingly recovered very nicely from the major knee surgery he underwent in January after being injured in the second quarter of the bowl game against Wyoming.
For the degree of injury, most believe he's recovered quickly, and attribute it to the surgeons using ligaments from a cadaver to repair Olson's knee.
He has worked hard at rehab also, and is truly acting like a returning senior in terms of work ethic and leadership in the off-season.
If you ask Olson what is the biggest difference he'll bring to the table as a senior, he'll tell you the experience in Cable's offense. He feels far more comfortable in it, says he doesn't have to think as much and is able to react much quicker. This is good since Olson has a rap for seemingly holding the ball too long and being unable to make a quick decision.
A healthy Olson probably would clearly win the starting position for the opener against San Diego State, mostly because of the experience, not only with the offense but also because of his 26 career starts. Olson, now, is truly a veteran, and while he might not have the natural gifts of Ben Olson (R-FR, 6-5, 227) or even Patrick Cowan (R-FR, 6-4, 215), in college football experience and maturity most of the time go quite a bit further than pure talent.
Olson's injury, though, has, at the very least, raised the issue of possibly someone else taking over the starting job. Since he missed spring practice, the other quarterbacks in the program got more reps and had a chance to prove themselves.
The problem is that no one seized the opportunity to really do it.
The highly-heralded Ben Olson, who has all the physical, athletic, and mental capabilities of a potential NFL quarterback, looked like he was a guy who hadn't played in two years, which was exactly what he was, fresh off his Mormon mission. With spring practice coming early, in late February, Ben Olson found himself going through the recruiting process, committing, enrolling, being handed a huge playbook and being out on the football field all within a few weeks. Not only was trying to learn the playbook a monumental experience, but throw in everything else being and it's understandable that he struggled in spring practice.
Olson, though, this summer in the seven-on-sevens, has shown more flashes of brilliance, and more consistently. He has the strongest arm among the quarterbacks, and throws the best ball, and it really does seem like it's just a matter of time before he gets more comfortable, both physically and mentally, and it starts to click. He said in spring that physically his foot quickness, which was one of his assets in high school, was slow to come back from the long hiatus, but recently he said he's feeling a great deal better about it now.
It's believed that Ben Olson will continue to get better and better, and probably fairly soon, as in sometime during the season, be good enough that the UCLA coaches will be very compelled to use him. And it could possibly be even before that.
Again, it's another one of the aspects about UCLA's quarterback position going into fall camp that is uncertain and impossible to predict.
Another tough call would be just how good Pat Cowan has become. With Drew Olson out, and Ben Olson struggling, Pat Cowan put up the best performance of spring practice among the quarterbacks. He threw the ball the best, ran the offense the best and executed the position the best. Mind you, it wasn't clear and away better than the other quarterbacks, but enough to make Cowan now a legitimate contender for the starting position this fall. Cowan has good size, sees the field well, and is very smart, and has picked up the offense very quickly. He has a strong arm, can throw deep and has good power and accuracy on his short throws. If the decision were based purely on how a quarterback executes the position during fall practice, Cowan would probably win out. But there is also the intangible of knowing that Drew Olson has the experience of those 26 career starts.
There is also David Koral (SR, 6-3, 216), who stepped in for Olson when he went down in the bowl game and had a good showing. Running as the #1 QB for spring practice, he got a lot of reps, and was a bit disappointing. Generally it's believed that there is a good chance that Koral, who is essentially the same as we've seen him for the last year – physically limited, with less-than-average arm strength, but with a good knowledge of the offense – will get surpassed on the depth chart by Cowan and/or Ben Olson this fall. Koral will have to really be focused to fight them off, and then to actually win the starting position. You'd have to think if it came down to between Drew Olson and David Koral, if those two actually had the best fall camps, that the coaches would go with Olson anyway.
Osaar Rasshan (FR, 6-4, 205) is a raw athlete with some potential because of his athleticism. He has a strong arm, but a very unpolished throwing motion, and is very inexperienced in a sophisticated offense. There is absolutely no chance that he will play this season, unless the quarterback position is decimated with injuries. And the coaches would probably go with fourth-year walk-on Brian Callahan (JR, 6-0, 191) in that case anyway.
PK: Justin Medlock (JR, 6-0, 186)
P: Aaron Perez (R-FR, 6-2, 232)
LS: Riley Jondle (JR, 6-3, 200)
Medlock was as semi-finalist for the Lou Groza Award a year ago and, if he has the kind of year expected, will go down in UCLA history as one of its best place kickers. Jondle is a reliable longsnapper, and has continued to improve, particular his quickness in getting the ball off.
The question in the kicking game will be whether Perez can step up this fall and prove he can handle the punting chores. With the graduation of Chris Kluwe, the responsibility falls to Perez, and he didn't look up to the task during spring practice, struggling with his punts, drops and timing. If Perez falters in fall, Medlock very well could take over the punting duties as well, and it's known that Medlock has been working on his punting technique, preparing for possibly doing just that.
Coming up: Fall Preview of the Defense...