Column: Shooting the Dark Horse

Our resident columnist, Charles Chiccoa, starts off the football season with a considerable bang -- anaylyzing the team, the program, and the all-important quarterback position...

As I'm writing this, it's the morning of the first pre-season practice, the day many of us have been anticipating ever since that embarrassing loss in yet another irrelevant bowl game. Bruin Nation has been shrinking apace, stuck in the remains of Bob Toledo's underbelly, Pete Carroll's spectacular rise and Karl Dorrell's stalled liftoff. If you're reading this you're probably still among the believers.

Around this time, for as long as I can remember, UCLA football has consistently had more question marks hanging over its head than any other comparable program. No wonder we hardcore types have developed such temperamental, almost squirrelly dispositions. Maybe I'm just imagining this (something similar to the suspicion/paranoia? that the Bruins suffer more significant injuries than most programs, or suffer more at the hands of these middle-aged, slow-reacting, Pac-10 zebras who have had such a huge influence on so many heartbreak losses).

Because of the nature of the game - limited eligibility and the relative youth of its personnel - Fate and the God Almighty If. Why is it that the guy walking around with the nervous tick, mumbling to himself, is so often a Bruin football fan?

If there's any truth in this, the answer may lie in the historical/cultural area and, sad to say, may be tied up with the hated crosstown rival. With the single exception of the Red Sanders era, Bruin fans have never been able to completely shake off their inferiority complex, their fear of SC football. Red Sanders did have a reputation of publicly downplaying his team, but it immediately became apparent to everyone (especially the Trojans) that the excellence of his program made his humorous poor-mouthing nothing more than a reflexive nod to professional etiquette. Unfortunately, as we all know, Red checked out early, and that nine-year paradise, '49 - '57 turned to desert overnight. All that was left were Sanders' powder blue jerseys, the shoulder rings and the gold helmets.

Only four years after they planted Red, another L.A. coach rose to national prominence, but unfortunately his name was McKay. The old boss was back with a vengeance, and the new boy went back to caddying for him once again: Billy Barnes' last three Bruin teams were not even competitive. Tommy Prothro would return home to restore respectability, but he couldn't get over the hump, losing three straight heartbreakers to McKay, '67-'69. Pepper Rodgers' wishbone was briefly entertaining; it could run over anybody… except those teams that mattered, i.e., Texas, Michigan, Nebraska, and of course… SC. Dick Vermeil ducked in for a cup of coffee and a huge Rose Bowl upset, which, right there, kind of spotlights the problem (and I don't mean the fact he stayed just two seasons and Terry Donahue stayed twenty, though that, too, was a problem). No, it's the fact that UCLA has this annoying habit of winning from in back, "springing upsets," "laying in the weeds," to quote Terry Donahue, which may be okay but is nothing like standing up and winning from in front, dominating your conference, playing in real bowls, producing highly-ranked teams, being a serious contender for national honors. All these years later, and UCLA isstill "the gutty little Bruins."

Sanders and Prothro were, of course, southerners, and southern football coaches, especially, had developed poor-mouthing into something like an art form (Bear Bryant being, perhaps, its greatest virtuoso). But where Sanders placed tongue firmly in cheek, Prothro seemed to embrace the thing with a straight face.

McKay was revolutionary in many ways, not the least of which was the way he abstained from that time-honored tradition of falsely building up the opposition. When SC was good - even when they were not so good - McKay would, in effect, stand up and say, "Yeah we're good. Watch us." In that sense, he was ahead of his time. He'd have fit right in today.

Donahue, of course, was just the opposite. He'd played two years under Prothro, and TD, as most of us acknowledge, became a poor-mouther of extraordinary gifts, almost a kind of "method" whiner, which is to say he stayed "in the moment," seemed actually to believe what he was saying: thus lowered expectations, a dim national profile, suspicions he was a careerist. When his unranked Bruins annihilated #4 Illinois, 45-9, in a Rose Bowl game, the stunned media marveled at his Homer Smith-designed passing game, his Don Rogers-led defense; but few thought to ask how this team could have lost four regular season games and tied one.

We're all familiar with recent Bruin history, and despite the eight-game streak, a couple of hot recruiting classes and the Cade interlude, the trend is not edifying. Today, Karl Dorrell, a star of the Donahue era, can be accused of many things, but one thing he cannot be accused of is whining. In fact he's almost terrifyingly optimistic, bordering on naïve. And for that, at least, I'm grateful. Now, if only the Bruins will play as confidently and aggressively as the head coach talks… and, you know, leave the worrying to us. So what are the prospects for beginning work on this "dark horse" issue?

…According to the media, not very good. The Bruins are picked anywhere from 2nd to middle of the Pac-10, with the consensus being 4th or 5th – a "dark horse" in other words. Considering where the program has fallen since the Miami game, maybe we should be thankful. v It's fair to say Bruin fans are justifiably worried about depth on the D-line, at linebacker, and behind Marcedes Lewis. We're even worried about the running back and wide receiver positions, a traditional Bruin strength. In the defensive backfield, where there are about a dozen candidates for four or five jobs, we worry about quality instead of quantity. And nearly everyone I've talked to is worried Drew Olson will start the San Diego St. game. Only the O line seems to bring us some peace. But how many other programs have lost significant talent? How many of them are worried about new guys stepping up, about adequate depth? Nearly everyone, that's who.

Tracy's already given us a nicely balanced rundown of personnel expectations. I'm probably a bit more optimistic, a little less concerned. I'll be surprised if the D-line, absent a catastrophic injury to Kevin Brown, Brigham Harwell or Justin Hickman, doesn't make an even more dramatic turnaround than the O line made last year. William Snead, with an additional 20 pounds, now seems to have the edge on Kyle Morgan, which is a good thing. If Morgan's injury truly was the reason he was ineffective last year, that can only bode well for the unit's depth. Nathaniel Skaggs looks like a definite comer, and between Chris Johnson, a slimmed-down and presumably stronger Kenneth Lombard, Nikola Dragovic, perhaps even one of the two freshmen, the depth here might not be quite as frightening as it looks (then again it might). A huge key for this unit is whether Hickman can carry over his startling showing from winter practice into the regular season.

Depth at linebacker is probably a bigger concern than along the D-line. The addition of Bruce Davis, a quick 245-pounder, into the starting unit, alongside Spencer Havner and Justin London, and backed up by the much smaller but very instinctive (and underappreciated) Aaron Whittington is an upgrade from last year. Moving Wesley Walker inside, behind London, looks like another sound move. Behind the top five, someone, either a freshman or a walk-on has an opportunity to make a statement. Until someone steps up, depth here is truly scary.

The little I've seen (and heard) of Logan Paulsen and Ryan Moya is very encouraging. These two guys look like players, athletic and skilled. Both could use a year in the weight room, but it doesn't look as if the Bruins will have that luxury. At least one of them should see significant playing time this year, and I wouldn't worry about their pass catching abilities (particularly Paulsen). J.J. Hair really needs to make a contribution.

The O-line seems fine, a nice combination of experience and legitimate promise. Throw in the gem of the recruiting class, Aleksey Lanis, and prospects here are that much brighter.

I'm also less concerned about the running backs and receivers. Maurice Drew still hasn't shown us his best, Chris Markey is a proven talent and Derrick Williams probably just needs some carries to build an identity. If Ryen Carew is unable to provide tailback depth, and if a serious injury were to occur here, Eric Bieniemy would have to reach deep into the bench. I continue to hope that KD and Tom Cable will finally begin exploiting the fullback. Like the under-used Marcedes Lewis, the lack of a consistent threat from this position makes it that much easier to defend the Bruins. And it's not as if they've lacked for talent over the years. Michael Pitre and Jimmy Stephens could do some damage this year.

The Bruins badly need Junior Taylor to stay healthy. He may be almost as important as Marcedes Lewis. Junior always had the talent and now that he's playing with real confidence the Bruins can't afford to have him off the field. Marcus Everett seems to me a sure thing, and Brendon Breazell and Joe Cowan only slightly less sure. Breazell came close to making a couple of spectacular touchdown catches last year, and "the Blade" still has the feel of a Jim McElroy type. Cowan has nice size and skills and only needs to become more consistent and aggressive. Matt Slater and Ryan Graves could surprise here, too. And don't forget the mystery man, Matt Willis, who, day after day, does nothing but impress.

The secondary is deeper than a Reggie Miller jump shot. And the pressure that kind of competition produces can only be of benefit once the season starts. Michael Norris and Rodney Van appear to be the early favorites at the corners, with Trey Brown, Byron Velega and Marcus Cassel breathing down their necks. I guess that makes Jebiaus Brown the dark horse. Chris Horton needs to get healthy, but Dennis Keyes is right there with him as a talent. Either one is a significant improvement over the departed (and outrageously over-rated) Ben Emanuel. Jarrad Page and Eric McNeal are givens. A true freshman could see some playing time here.

There seems some doubts about Aaron Perez as the punter, especially since we'd become spoiled with Kris Kluwe, who became, perhaps, the second best punter in Bruin history (behind Kirk Wilson). Justin Medlock, however, looks like a solid plan B. And yes, one guy can handle both the punting and place kicking. It's up to the coaches to see he doesn't over-tax his leg during the week.

…Which brings us, finally, to the delicate question of the quarterback, and the probable fate of this hugely important season. Obviously much depends on the pre season performances of the three contenders. If Patrick Cowan and Ben Olson don't kick it up considerably from the winter sessions, and if Drew Olson finds his receivers, completes more passes and moves the team, Drew is the starter… again. The drama and pressure each day in practice is going to be something to see, and, like the cornerback wars, whoever survives should come out the better for the experience.

Drew is somewhat in the position of a woman with a reputation: he's experienced, but he also has a history. Cowan and Ben Olson, because of their obvious natural gifts, and their youth in the system, should show improvement, but it's less likely that Drew, after three lackluster seasons, will suddenly turn into a playmaker. And the Drew we've become familiar with is not what this team needs.

There were reasons the running game was ineffective against decent defenses last season, and the primary reason was lack of respect for the quarterback. He's also the reason why the receivers caught fewer passes than they ought to have done. In order to beat good teams your quarterback needs to threaten a defense. Knowing the offense, maintaining, not making mistakes, doesn't cut it. Coaches may say that it does, but they're either being disingenuous or blowing smoke. Furthermore, the numbers do not attest to the oft-repeated notion of Drew's improvement. Over the last three years he's simply had the opportunity to be on the field more, to throw more passes. And he hasn't gotten appreciably better. His yards per completion actually went down his second year, rose some last year, but still lagged behind his freshman numbers. His yards per attempt, the best barometer of effectiveness, dropped his second year, and rose by only a little over a yard last season. He's always thrown too many picks, he hasn't inspired confidence, he's never been known for successfully managing an offense, and his overall completion percentage is .548, mediocre by modern standards. Because of all these opportunities to play (he's already thrown 305 more passes than Gary Beban), he currently ranks fourth all-time on the Bruin passing list. But in the numbers that measure effectiveness, forget the likes of Beban, Cade, Aikman, Maddox, Ramsey and Dummit… Drew's down there with Matt Stevens and below Cory Paus.

The schedule looks manageable, if not downright inviting, and this is not an inexperienced team. Redshirt freshmen dotting the two deep are in their second year in the program, and by the second year talented players should contribute. Every projected starter, with the exception of Brian Abraham, Michael Norris and Rodney Van, played significant minutes last year. What this team needs most is for Patrick Cowan or Ben Olson to win the job outright… and as early as possible (David Koral is the truest dark horse on the team). To go with a quarterback until he costs the Bruins a game would be unfortunate, particularly if that game is Oklahoma. College teams do this sort of thing all the time, and nobody would be surprised to see the Bruins take the conservative road and go with experience. But if one of the inexperienced quarterbacks grades out higher than Drew, let's hope that guy starts the season… then, if he stalls, fall back on experience. I realize it's not beyond the realm of possibility that Drew could suddenly shine after so many dull performances… it's just so hard to imagine.

In any case, UCLA must take care of business in the first two games. I mean, how sweet would it be for the Bruins to come into the Rose Bowl in game #3, with momentum and confidence and a huge crowd vs. Adrian Peterson, Bob Stoops and the Sooners? A win here would be the most significant Bruin victory since Nebraska in '88. It's past time for making a statement, turning the corner, standing tall (pick your cliché), and would go a long way in disposing of that gutty little dark horse.

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