UCLA's football team will look considerably different as it takes to Spaulding Field February 23rd for the start of winter practice.
Not only will it be missing some key, departing seniors and one underclassmen, it's replacing six of its nine assistant coaches.
Because of the turnover on the coaching staff, the word out of the program is that winter practice will highly emphasize fundamentals, both on offense and defense.
Jim Svoboda, the quarterbacks coach, will take over duties of Offensive Coordinator with the departure of Tom Cable to the Atlanta Falcons. Svoboda has had experience as an offensive coordinator at D II Northwest Missouri State (where, in fact, he won the Division II Offensive Coordinator of the Year honor), but he'll be getting acclimated this winter to a different type of offense he's used to running, having previously called plays for a spread type offense rather than the West Coast type UCLA runs under Karl Dorrell. The word, too, is that Dorrell will have consistent input into the concept, design and play calling, and actually did when Cable was the OC. The buzz, is that, with the coaching changes and losing some key personnel, the offense will get back to basics this winter.
And the defense will definitely return to the drawing board, with the era of Defensive Coordinator DeWayne Walker beginning this winter. If you think the offense will return to fundamentals, the defense, after a very poor showing in the 2005 season, will definitely get back to basics. There's much sentiment around the program that the defense under former DC Larry Kerr had gotten away from some basic fundamentals, and the word is that Walker wants to start from the very beginning. You can expect some very basic drills emphasizing tackling technique and pursuit, especially early on in winter practice. You can expect the new defensive coaching staff to establish a tone of no-nonsense toughness and hard work from the outset. Also, we've heard that many players will be moved around and will see time at different positions to give the new coaching staff looks at the personnel and see where everyone might fit in best.
It's definitely now Ben Olson's baby.
The quarterback will be 23 years old on February 28th, a redshirt sophomore officially, and he's waited long enough to get control of a major college football team's offense. Last season there were many close to the program that thought he had actually beaten out Drew Olson before Ben injured his thumb and sat out about a month at the beginning of the season. All in all, that's a good sign - that Ben was thought to be better at directing the offense than Drew, a senior who had one of the most prolific seasons as a quarterback in UCLA history.
The issue with Olson to watch for is if he continues to grow in the position this winter and makes good, quick decisions. Physically we know he's very capable.
The quarterback position is thin for spring, and it won't get any better for fall, with no scholarship quarterbacks coming in to add depth. Patrick Cowan is stepping into a very critical role, that of first back-up to Olson, and this winter will be a test to see if he's up for it. With how many injuries there are in college football, especially to quarterbacks, Cowan's development could be a huge factor in the success of the 2006 season.
Along those same lines, the development of Rasshan is significant also. Right now, UCLA has one quarterback (Olson) it's pretty certain can play the position effectively at this level. It has another (Cowan) it believes could do it. And a third (Rasshan) that the jury is still out on. And that's not very comforting - going into next season. Rasshan was very sporadic during his true freshman year on the scout team. He had a few weeks in October where he looked like he was making considerable progress, throwing tighter, more accurate spirals. But then he seemed to regress again. Generally throughout the season in practice, he didn't look great, just not able to throw a ball accurately, with a long, awkward throwing motion. One of the biggest curiosities of winter practice will be how Rasshan has developed, and whether he shows signs that he could play the position at this level or not.
There's a name that is conspicuously missing from this depth chart - Maurice Drew, the All-American who declared for the NFL draft a year early. UCLA was going to have to replace the production of Drew Olson and All-American tight end Marcedes Lewis next season, and it was going to lean on Drew considerably in his senior year.
But that's not happening now. The word is that UCLA will divide up the reps at tailback a little more evenly between Markey and Bell next season, and we'll probably see quite a bit of that this winter. A question to ponder during the next few weeks: Does Markey have what it takes to be the #1 tailback? He's been a very effective #2 man for the last two years, but there is some question whether he'd be able to sustain effectiveness if he's getting 25 carries a game.
Bell had a surprising freshman year, one that surprised the coaching staff as much as UCLA fans. He was quite a bit more of an effective running back than anyone might have anticipated, and the doubts were undestandable. Bell isn't really big, and he's not particularly fast. But he's tough, likes to hit people and run between the tackles. He also has a good, quick burst. He's reportedly gotten a bit bigger since the end of the season, and the physical development of his lower body will help him be even a more effective runner. The coaching staff is very high on Bell, at least as a very serviceable contributor at the position.
Williams has been a bit of an enigma. He was on the good side of the staff coming out of the 2004 season, looking good on the scout team that year. He then got suspended last fall and was injured, and he sat out for a few weeks. Bell surpassed him on the depth chart and seemingly in the eyes of the coaches. It will be interesting to see if the small but tough runner can get solidly into the rotation this winter.
Sheppard is a walk-on, and will probably not much ever be more than walk-on caliber, even though the coaches like his toughness and work ethic.
The guy to watch is Carew, who was one of the best senior high school running backs in SoCal in 2004, before having a few issues in high school and not getting a scholarship anywhere. He actually turned down some to walk on at UCLA, and last spring it looked like UCLA had gotten a steal - with Carew looking quick and elusive. Then Carew blew out his ACL and sat out last season, getting surgery and re-habbing. He hung around football practice in November and December, and the word was that he recovered very well from the injury. Physically he looked quite a bit bigger and thicker, and the word is that he spent a good deal of time in the weight room. He'll be limited in practice during the winter, being able to run and go through drills but without contact. The coaches are hoping that he'll show he's a potential contributor down the line, and would be elated if that "down the line" came next season.
There's a foreign name on this list - that of former linebacker Dan Nelson. He'll make the move to fullback, mostly since it didn't look like he'd be getting too much playing time at linebacker next season and he might very well be better suited for the fullback position.
Stephens recently suffered a small meniscus tear and won't be full speed for winter practice.
Pitre, who showed more and more last season that he's capable of having a big guy in UCLA's offense, could have his name called more often next season. With the loss of Drew, and some uncertainty about whether the returning tailbacks can carry the load, Pitre might benefit in terms of touches.
This also could be a position where a true freshman next fall makes a mark - in the form of Chane Moline (6-1, 235). Moline is talented enough that he could possible move right past the solid but unspectacular Stephens.
Junior Taylor is still recovering from his knee injury and won't participate in winter practice.
Even without Taylor, UCLA is about the deepest it's been for winter/spring practice at wide receiver in recent memory. It returns five guys with some solid game experience - besides Taylor.
Everett had some moments that were spectacular in 2005, and showed that he could be one of the big-play, clutch type of guys UCLA needs to make up for the loss of Olson/Drew/Lewis. Ketchum had a very good freshman year, especially given the injury, and he's gotten bigger in the off-season. He'll be fun to watch this winter, being bigger, stronger and more confident. UCLA is expecting Matt Willis to contribute more; the former trackster is now in his second year with the football team and looking more refined in his pass catching ability, to go along with his natural explosiveness. Graves' best chance at contributing is probably as a kick-off and punt returner, where he's very effective.
Cowan had a solid junior campaign, and shook off the rap that he didn't have reliable hands. There is still the lingering glow from Breazell's performance in the Sun Bowl where he returned two onside kicks for touchdowns. This winter he'll hopefully continue to step up and be the speedy, big-play guy UCLA needs. Baumgartner was a very steady force. The walk-on who earned a scholarship for last season will again be at the top of the list to be granted one in 2006 if the program has some open.
Turner is perhaps one of the most interesting offensive scout team guys from last year. He drew praise from the coaches, for his size and catching ability, but then would also not do it consistently enough throughout the season in practice. The coaches are expecting him to step up this winter.
Matthew Slater is absent from this list since he's made the move to cornerback. The move was made at Slater's request.
Perhaps the biggest news among the tight ends is that Logan Paulsen has continued to fill out, probably gaining 8-10 pounds since last fall. Paulsen has all the tools, the long, rangy body, good quickness and good hands, but was very new to the game, didn't know that much about football and was on the skinny side. It will be interesting to see how a year in the program makes a difference this fall. Don't expect anything vastly different from Hair. Moya has gotten physically a bit bigger and the coaches believe will be even more able to match up physically. He was better last season than many thought he would be. Heater is a guy the coaches like and he very well might not have redshirted last season, but it only made sense to play two of the three freshmen tight ends. Heater has size and strength, and while he isn't as quick as Moya or Paulsen, he has good hands. Now that he's off the scout team it will be interesting to see him compete.
Out for winter practice are Chris Joseph and Tony Lee, both recovering from knee injuries. Joseph might be able to do some running and non-contact work, but Lee won't. Lee's injury was the equivalent in terms of recovery as an ACL and he's not expected to be ready until fall, while most of the other players who are currently out are expected to be cleared by the summer. There has been some concern about Lee and his recovery, but recently those close to the program have been feeling better about it. Lee emerged as the leading candidate to replace Ed Blanton at weakside tackle so his return could be critical. Joseph is considered perhaps the OL with the most potential on the team and, once he's healthy, it will be interesting to see where he plugs in. He could play any of he OL positions, so he might end up where the weakest link in the starting OL is.
Easing the concerns about Lee, though, is the arrival of Ekbatani, the JC transfer who has been enrolled at UCLA since January. The coaches have been impressed with how Ekbatani has hit the ground running. Glicksberg has improved, but he's still probably a ways away from being considered in that top tier of OLs. Justin Brown needed to get stronger since he arrived at UCLA and he has. He's gone from about 250 to 266, but still hasn't put on enough weight or gotten stronger to the point he'd project to compete seriously at the weakside tackle position.
On the other hand, someone who needed to trim down since he arrived at UCLA is Lanis, and he's done that, going from about 340 to about 315. The coaches are very excited about how he looks and he'll get the first crack at that open weakside guard position. Irvin has continued to improve his body, but still isn't close to being a contributor.
At center, senior Chai returns, and he's healthy for winter. UCLA would really love it if Chai could show the consistency and maturity to own the center position. Skaggs, the converted defensive tackle, did fairly well when called on late in the season to play center due to injury. He's considered some solid depth there. Meyer fell out of favor last season after getting some playing time, mostly because of his inability to get the mental aspects of the position.
Tevaga is probably the most consistent, steady force on the OL. It's expected that he'll step into some notoriety next season and be a potential pro prospect. Chris Johnson made the switch to OL halfway through last season and it's still uncertain if he has a chance to compete. It's the same old thing -- his light just isn't on at this point. Micah Reed is a walk-on who has a chance to add a solid body to the depth chart.
At strongside tackle there should be an interesting battle this spring between Abraham and Sutherland. Abraham leads, but when he was injured last season, there were many who thought Sutherland was better when he stepped in. Abraham is more physically gifted but Sutherland has the mean streak.
Really, probably the biggest curiosity this winter practice is the new coaching staff. Dinos Babers takes over as running backs coach, in place of the departed Eric Bieniemy. Replacing Babers as wide receiver coach is D.J. McCarthy. Replacing Cable as OL coach is former UCLA assistant Jim Colletto. The new tight ends coach is John Wristen, who was just named this week. The early returns on McCarthy and Colletto are very good, with many in the program and the players really responding to the two since they've been on the staff. But it will all be quite a new experience when these guys run on to Spaulding Field next Thursday. In fact, Wristen is such a new hire, he might have to introduce himself.
The rundown on the defense is coming soon…