Like most SoCals, I admit to being spoiled by our mild weather: I hate the cold, and so most days out at practice felt like Greenland to me. With the exception of Saturdays in pads, and the morning scrimmage in Drake Stadium, the "crowds" were usually composed of a few huddled groups scattered amongst the Spaulding bleachers. One particular Thursday, there was just Tracy and me and about ten other lonely, shivering souls. With the sun going down and a chill wind whipping through the top row of bleachers… and with my raspberry cappuccino long gone, I was feeling desperate enough to build a small fire out of shredded roster printouts. Alas, I had no matches.
The players had no problem keeping warm… not with six new coaches pushing the practice tempo, and players trying to make a fresh impression on new staff members. I think it's safe to say that the biggest revelation, come September, won't be Terrence Austin, Micah Kia, Christian Ramirez, Reggie Carter, Aaron Ware or Logan Paulsen… but rather new Defensive Coordinator, DeWayne Walker. All those players are undoubtedly talented, but they'll be competing against respectable competition at their positions. All Walker is competing against is the dull, unhappy memory of Larry Kerr and his three failed predecessors. Not since Rocky Long have the Bruins had a DC most of us wouldn't have been pleased to see the back of after their first seasons. But Walker really does look like the cure for what ails UCLA football, i.e., an aggressive, knowledgeable, self-assured, state of the art DC. He's got the right pedigree and, most importantly, seems to have the talent and will to teach, to insist upon, fundamental defensive techniques integrated with a confident, aggressive style (sound familiar?), without which a college football program can't achieve national recognition. I'd be shocked to see another defensive player get away with such a "gentle" style of play as, for example, the well-remembered Ben Emanuel. Of course, as long suffering Bruin fans, who refuse to be fooled again, the proof will have to wait until September 2nd (followed by early road tests at Oregon and Washington, then the trip to South Bend, then the all important Trojan final). More than anything else, ultimate success for this program, just like basketball, will depend on shedding the soft label, and this means not getting blown off the field, as happened last year in Tucson and at the Coliseum.
Every time there are wholesale coaching changes, we all talk about "the renewed energy and dedication on the practice field." This time, however, it looks as if it may take, as if it may translate into the regular season and beyond. Didn't you love Walker's statement that it doesn't take great players to play great defense? I take him to mean that good players, properly prepared, can form units that yield great results (and who knows what we might discover in the way of great players). These horrible, bendable defenses of recent years have, without exception, all ended up bent and broken at season's end… and I believe most of the players concerned were ill-served by their coaches (particularly the coordinators). They were made to look worse than they actually were, which in turn hurt the Bruins' chances of recruiting better defensive talent.
With so many D-linemen out with injury (or held out for precautionary reasons), and with a questionable corp of linebackers, we won't have a good idea of what the defensive front looks like until just before the opener. Today there's practically no depth, but once you combine Kevin Brown, Brigham Harwell, Justin Hickman, Nikola Dragovic and Chase Moline with Bruce Davis, William Snead, Kenneth Lombard and Jess Ward, the last four of whom looked improved in the winter while gaining valuable practice reps, things should start looking brighter. Perhaps even an incoming freshman or two might add depth.
The "weak" linebacker looks to be in good enough hands with Eric McNeal, backed by Aaron Whittington and Shawn Oatis. McNeal looks ready to have a good senior season, looks finally to have found his position and plans to come in at around 215 or 220 pounds by pre-season. In the middle Reggie Carter demonstrated what all the talk was about; he's quick and a genuine hitter, but apparently hasn't overtaken the more experienced Christian Taylor. Unless Taylor pulls some kind of Brian Willmer act, you'd like to see Carter start vs. Utah. Forced to play last season as a true freshman, John Hale looked tentative and in over his head. At "strong" linebacker, he has enough size and should improve based on all the reps he got during the winter. Kyle Bosworth and possibly Fred Holmes (if he's healthy), should also figure here. Right now, this looks like the most questionable position on the team. Considering last year's awful linebacker play, this year couldn't be much worse and certainly the coaching should be improved with Chuck Bullough.
The defensive backfield might finally become a Bruin strength, not least because this is Walker's specialty. Losing Byron Velega was a bad break, but Trey Brown and Rodney Van looked good at the corners in winter, and Michael Norris seems to have it physically. Matt Slater, moving from wide receiver, certainly has the speed to play the position. Walker is apparently counting on talented freshman Alterraun Verner to get in the mix, but Verner looks pretty light. Hopefully he'll come in a bit heavier. Chris Horton should blow up this year at one of the safety positions. He looked consistently good in winter, which was no surprise. Dennis Keyes at the other safety got some great experience last year and should be improved. If not, Bret Lockett and Aaron Ware could step up. Both are obviously talented. Robert Kibble, of course, is questionable.
UCLA will always be good offensively as long as they have a legit quarterback which, of course they have in Ben Olson. Ben didn't blow away anyone this winter, likely due to facing Walker's first-string D much of the time. But this guy should be as good as advertised once he finds some success on the playing field, and the schedule sets up nicely for this to happen. We all know he possess all the tools of a great quarterback, particularly his ability to throw downfield accurately. He also throws a very catchable ball. The question is whether Olson is comfortable enough in the offense to make the quick decisions that are needed. We all saw what comfort in the offense and just a mili-second difference in decision-making did for Drew Olson. Will Ben put up Drew-like numbers from last year? Probably not since, hopefully, he won't have to fill the air with passes while trying to overcome huge early and late game deficits.
Patrick Cowan is also physically impressive and continues to look good. He has good size, a strong arm, and moves well in the pocket. He's looked better than ever this winter and seems to be hanging in the competition with Ben. Last year he fell behind Ben in pre-season, so we'll have to see if he can keep up the pressure this year. Like Ramirez, he's another intriguing prospect…talented, though under-rated out of high school. Seeing the field, "making good decisions" in the current vernacular, is going to be crucial for both these inexperienced quarterbacks.
Osaar Rasshan, right now, is strictly a running quarterback, which isn't to say he doesn't complete the occasional pass… just that he does this only occasionally, which isn't enough. But, as everyone knows, he can run the ball, particularly in the open field. He's a big, strong, confident athlete, but right now the Bruins are playing with fire with Osaar as the #3 because if he was somehow forced to play, and if his accuracy doesn't radically improve, UCLA would quickly find itself looking at eight- and nine-man fronts. Rasshan obviously wants to play quarterback, doesn't seem at all discouraged, but would probably be better off, long term, at safety or perhaps wide receiver. One hopes the Bruins can bring in a quality walk-on quarterback between now and pre-season… just in case.
Over the years, UCLA has always had talented ball carriers and wide receivers, and despite the unanticipated loss of Maurice Drew, this year should be no exception. Based on the winter sessions, there's little to choose between Chris Markey and Kahlil Bell (I favor Bell's more quick-hitting style, and Markey also has a tendency to drop the ball). Derrick Williams has also shown extremely well. All three are about the same compact size. Toss in the taller freshman, Ramirez, who looks very intriguing, and the rushing yardage here could exceed last year with Mo (which isn't to say any of these guys are better than Mo, but that as a unit they're underrated). I wouldn't mind seeing freshman Chane Moline come in and push Michael Pitre at fullback; he's bigger and seems more skillful offensively. Pitre, however, is still a formidable lead blocker.
Wide receiver is the deepest position on the team. From the first day of winter practice Brandon Breazell has looked the best to me, though there's little to choose from between him and Marcus Everett, Gavin Ketchum and Junior Taylor (if he returns healthy). Joe Cowan, the biggest of the group, has become more consistent and more confident in using his size. Throw in another intriguing physical talent in Matt Willis, then add the dependable Jamil Turner, Andrew Baumgartner, this year's new and possibly improved "Baumgartner" in transfer walk-on Bobby Whithorne along with true freshman Austin and there's no excuse for the quarterbacks not completing passes.
Marcedes Lewis will obviously be missed, but Ryan Moya and Logan Paulsen are both talented receivers. Marc may be missed more as a blocker than a receiver. J.J. Hair and Adam Heater will be used more as blockers.
The offensive line is always the hardest unit to judge, either from the practice field or at the Rose Bowl, at least for me. And more than any other unit they must play together. So with only the loss of Ed Blanton and Robert Cleary from last year, and Shannon Tevaga and all the other returning young linemen, together with the half dozen new prospects coming in as true freshmen, you have to believe an experienced coach such as Jim Colletto will be able to put together a pretty decent two-deep. One hopes Chris Joseph also returns healthy.
As we've noted before, KD is nothing if not methodical… and determined. He's dumped disastrous "second choice" coordinators, Steve Axman and Larry Kerr, and now in his fourth season seems to have put together his best staff yet. Now there's a definite "pro" edge to the staff, where in his rookie year you had the sense of a certain collegiate, almost dilettantish effect, which may have been at the root of what seemed to be an inadequate emphasis on individual techniques and even fundamentals. Now, with those 10 wins, KD seems to have acquired some "juice" (despite the two ugly losses). They'll be time enough in pre-season to consider the changes in the offensive approach between Jim Svobada and Tom Cable. Right now it's enough to feel the relief of not being terrified by the sight of your own defense. Maybe now we can finally get back to something like real football, where you don't have to score six touchdowns just to have a shot at the end.