Fall Camp Preview: Offense

It's that time of year again. With fall football camp starting Monday, there's plenty about the program to get caught up about, including many developments in the off-season. So, who are the players you need to be watching through your binoculars out at practice? Here's the rundown on the offense...

If you read all of the pre-season predictions, the UCLA Bruins of 2006 definitely generate some doubt.

And really, it's not that difficult to ascertain why.

On one hand, UCLA is coming off its first 10-win season since 1998.

On the other, UCLA had a number of wins last season that were last-minute prayers - that were answered.

Plus UCLA lost the bulk of its offensive production with quarterback Drew Olson, running back Maurice Drew and tight end Marcedes Lewis departing.

And UCLA's defense was very poor, with a run defense ranked among the worst in the country.

It replaced coaches, particularly the defensive coordinator. It had to replace its offensive coordinator, who went to the NFL.

These add up to a lot of doubts for the 2006 season. The season really will be a prove-it kind of one for the Bruins; they'll have to prove many things if it's going to be successful.

And that's not saying they can't. There are a number of players that have the capability to step up, plug in to positions, excel and even star.  Overall, there might be more talent on the team this season than last, just far more unproven.  For UCLA to be successful it will have to come from a number of players stepping up this season and becoming strong starters and possibly stars.

OFFENSIVE LINE

It's always a good place to start, since the entire team truly begins and ends with the OL. If the OL is good, it enables the offense to do so many more things. If it's good, then it keeps the offense on the field and the defense off of it, and thus changes the defense's effectiveness.

Projected OL Starters:

ST  Noah Sutherland (JR, 6-5, 308)
SG  Shannon Tevaga ((JR, 6-3, 313)
Robert Chai  (SR, 6-3, 285)
WG Chris Joseph  (SO, 6-5, 300)
WT Aleksey Lanis  (R-FR, 6-6, 315)

Your first quick impression here is how young the OL is. Only one senior projected to start, Robert Chai, and he's only been a spot starter during his career at UCLA, and just a sometimes center (with four starts last season at the position). 

As we've maintained for as long as we've been doing this website, in college football the most important element of the game is experience.  You'd rather have a moderately talented OL that are all fifth-year seniors than a very talented OL made up of sophomores and freshmen. 

That will be the big question for this OL unit, how much can their talent overcome their inexperience. And they are considered very talented, perhaps the most talented, up and down the depth chart, in many years.

The guy considered the true star among the group for this season is Tevaga, who has been projected on to a few pre-season All-American teams. He is very talented, and now has two years of starting experience.  Tevaga is probably the one true definite starter going into fall camp.  The strongside of the line, though, is in pretty good shape, with probably the second most certain starter at strongside tackle, Noah Sutherland. Sutherland beat out a somewhat dinged-up Brian Abraham (JR, 6-6, 315) last season through toughness and hard work. Sutherland, who bounced around early in his Bruin career - from defensive end, to defensive tackle, to the OL - before settling in last season at offensive tackle, has transformed himself into a very impressive, maybe even pro prospect. In the off-season he was awarded the John Richardson Grand Champion award in the weight room - cleaning 339 pounds, squating 600 pounds, benching 465 pounds, jumping 32 inches and running the 40-yard dash in 4.91. Those are astounding numbers.  Sutherland also displayed some true toughness on the field last year and a mean streak, which endeared him greatly to the coaching staff. 

The center and the weak side of the interior line are far more uncertain. It does appear that Chai will man the center position, but there are some questions. Chai is recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his knee in the spring and didn't participate in spring drills. From what we've heard, the program is feeling good that Chai is healthy.  But Chai also is somewhat unproven at center. He's played there before, and actually started there the last four regular season games in 2005.  It's thought the staff will opt to Chai since he is a senior, he has some experience and he's smart - many of the traits a center needs - while the other centers in the program are still young and raw.  Chai remaining healthy will be a key to the line's performance this season.

Probably the most uncertain position on the OL is the weakside guard spot. Chris Joseph is penciled in at the starter, but his status heading into fall camp is fairly up in the air. Joseph has always been considered a talent, but hasn't been able to stay on the field very long due to a succession of injuries. His left knee has been particularly troublesome, missing some of last season and spring drills after surgery on it, while also missing some of his redshirt freshman year because of the same knee. There is some question as to whether the knee, after so much damage, can hold up. Fall practice could be a big indication of that. If healthy, Joseph is considered a potential star, with great athleticism and quickness.

At weakside tackle it looks like heralded prospect Aleksey Lanis will get the first shot at the spot. Lanis came in early to UCLA, struggled to get in shape, being probably 25 pounds overweight. Last season you could then see his body transforming, and he now looks very good at a svelte 315-ish.  Lanis is athletic and the coaches know he's among the top three or four best on the team, despite his lack of experience. They've plugged him into guard or tackle in the last year, wherever they thought they needed someone. But by being in good shape, and improving his quickness, it looks like he'll be able to man the tackle position. The question with Lanis will be experience, since he's never seen the field in a real game.

The coaches will be looking for a total of ten OLs they think can play this season, at the very least - three, and after the five we just mentioned, it gets very wide open.

Perhaps the most promising is JC transfer Nick Ekbatani (SO, 6-4, 305). Ekbatani participated in spring practice, but has done some considerable work on his body since, gaining weight and muscle while looking leaner.  Head Coach Karl Dorrell, at Pac-10 Media Day, commented how Ekbatani could be sculpting himself into possibly playing some tackle.  Right now, he'll plug in at guard, and probably initially compete with Joseph, depending on Joseph's health status, for the weakside guard position.  Ekbatani was one of the most-sought JC OLs in the west, and scouts considered him a very good potential interior guy.

P.J. Irvin (JR, 6-5, 305) is a player that, when he came to UCLA, was considered to have a very long ways to go and it was thought that he might never see the field. Irvin, though, has shown a very good work ethic, and the coaches praise him for being dedicated to trying to turn himself into a legitimate consideration on the OL.  Last spring he started cropping up with the 1s and 2s on occasion, and the coaches now repeatedly say, "Hey, Irvin is doing well." He has really done wonders with his body, trimming the fat and adding muscle.  If he could offer solid support at the guard positions it would be considered a success story.

On the interior, after Ekbatani and Irvin, you have some of the true freshmen filling out the depth chart. The two of them who are certain interior guys, Brandon Bennett (6-4, 340) and Sonny Tevaga (6-4, 360) are considered more or less projects. The kind of body-changing we've seen in other OLs will probably have to happen here, with both needing to lose some poundage. UCLA, though, took them for a reason; both displayed good athleticism and quickness for their size, to go along with good strength. Tevaga, the younger brother of Shannon, is thought to have some considerable potential, if he can transform his body. Both have done some work already and are in better shape than they were a year ago, but still haven't had the benefits of a college weight and training program. It will be interesting to see both of them by the end of this school year.

At center, backing up Chai, there is defensive-tackle convert Nathaniel Skaggs (SO, 6-4, 305). Skaggs made the move last year, and then was forced to start two games because of injuries. He was a bit overwhelmed, from most reports, but showed that he's probably more of an offensive center than any other position.  Reports are that he's worked hard in the off-season and intends to push Chai for the starting job. He'll definitely be an interesting one to watch in fall. Aaron Meyer (SO, 6-2, 295) was second on the depth chart last season and when starter Mike McCloskey went down, he went in, playing most of the Oregon State game, while also appearing in two other games. But then the staff moved Skaggs to center and he supplanted Meyer on the depth chart. The word is that Meyer just wasn't mentally getting it, and with center being the quarterback of the OL, it's important he understands the position, making all the OL calls. Meyer apparently looked better in spring, which was encouraging. Freshman Jake Dean (6-4, 280) is UCLA's center of the future, with very good athleticism and smarts.  You wouldn't want to foresee a situation where he would get playing time this season, and the plan is for him to redshirt, learn the position and be ready to compete to start as a redshirt freshman next fall.

On the outside, the candidates to make that top 8-10 are definitely tackles Brian Abraham and Scott Glicksberg (SO, 6-4, 285).  Abraham started nine games last season, to mixed reviews. He was hampered at the end of last season and in spring by a leg injury, but is thought to be 100% now.  The question on him was whether he was tough-nosed enough, whether he was shying away from contact and had that mean streak needed to play the position. He'll have to come out with some of that this fall to wrestle away the starting strongside spot from Sutherland. Glicksberg is a guy that many have said has the potential, with a definite mean streak. He has yet, though, to step up sufficiently enough to seriously contend for a starting position but, if you talk to some close to the program, they think he could this fall, primarily competing with Lanis for the weakside tackle spot. Glicksberg, though, has some versatility and if he emerges as one of the top five linemen on the roster, could plug into the weakside guard position. Glicksberg being a viable option this season could be a key.

Three question marks on the outside are Tony Lee (SO, 6-5, 295), Chris Johnson (SO, 6-3, 300), and Justin Brown (R-FR, 6-6, 275).  Lee was emerging as a serious contender for a starting tackle spot but continuing knee problems have thrown that into uncertainty. He had late season surgery, missed spring practice and isn't recovering as quickly as many in the program would like. Not for lack of effort on his part, but the injury could be of a nature that his future is in doubt.  When healthy, Lee showed great athleticism, with great feet. He'll probably be brought along slowly this fall and hopefully be able to play this season.

Chris Johnson has been a question. He came to UCLA fairly unheralded as a defensive tackle, but didn't show the competitiveness or toughness to make it there. Because of his size, they moved him to the interior of the OL, but lack of fire held him back there. He's now found himself at offensive tackle, where he can maybe benefit from a relative degree of athleticism.  Johnson will really have to step up and prove something this fall if he hopes to be in the rotation at all.

Justin Brown came to UCLA will good feet but with a lack of strength. Last year, in his freshman year, he improved his strength but he still has a ways to go before being competitive at the Pac-10 level.

Freshman Micah Kia (6-5, 295) looks like a natural tackle and definitely passes the eye-ball test. If a freshman were needed to fill out the two deep at tackle, he'd be the candidate.

Freshman Sean Sheller (6-4, 285) is a guy that most project to be inside, and looks to still be developing physically.  He has gotten quite a bit bigger in the last year, probably gaining 20 pounds. He might not have the foot speed to play tackle, but right now it's wide open where he could plug in.

A walk-on of note is Micah Reed (SO, 6-4, 303), who crops up in the 2s and 3s pretty consistently and has a chance to provide legitimate depth.

TIGHT END

There are huge shoes to fill, those of All-American tight end Marcedes Lewis. And there really is no way that any tight end on the roster would be able to even come close to doing that. Maybe by committee, but it's still highly unlikely. Lewis caught 58 passes a year ago and was UCLA's go-to guy a year ago. When in doubt, Drew Olson looked for Lewis. That option, and that feeling of having a go-to guy to go to is now gone. It will be interesting to see, now, how involved the tight end is in UCLA's offense this year without Lewis.

Projected TE Starter:

Logan Paulsen (SO, 6-5, 250)

Yeah, UCLA will officially list J.J. Hair (SR, 6-6, 256) as the starter, but from what we've heard, Paulsen is going to be the primary, long-term guy at tight end. In fact, Ryan Moya (SO, 6-2, 245) will get featured even more than Hair. Might Hair be in the lineup just as much as the other two? Probably. On blocking downs. But last year Moya had 10 catches, Paulsen two, and Hair just one. It's very difficult to see that Hair will suddenly turn into a good receiving tight end.

The only thing holding back Moya is his size. If he were 6-4, even, he'd probably be the clear starter. But there are times, on certain calls, when it's a disadvantage to have him in. On the other hand, he's so much quicker in the open field than most tight ends, there are calls when he presents a great advantage. When he can get out of the box and into open field, Moya is going to present serious match-up problems for opposing linebackers.

Paulsen, though, is thought to be the guy who will eventually be the most complete tight end, with size, developing strength and skills, and very good athleticism. That 250 he's listed at could be a bit of a stretch, but he's all of 240, and looks quite a bit more filled out that even last spring practice.  Paulsen came to UCLA with very little football experience, not even knowing much football terminology, so it's been somewhat of a crash course for him.  But sources inside the program are excited about him.

Adam Heater (R-FR, 6-5, 260) is more of a blocking TE, but has fairly good hands. He's not particularly quick in his routes, but is a solid guy. There is some thought around the program that, if he bulked up, he'd make a potentially good tackle. This season could very well determine where Heater ends up.

Also, don't completely dismiss UCLA's walk-on tight ends, Tyler Holland (SO, 6-5, 247) and Travis Martin (SO, 6-4, 245).  If you ask some players in the program, they'll tell you that Holland, the converted quarterback, can make plays. They're not pretty plays, but he gets it done. Martin is a very good physical specimen, running an outstanding 4.65 40-yard dash. While you can't expect them to ever really compete for a starting position, of course, you can expect them to provide security in the depth chart at tight end.

WIDE RECEIVER

What a diference a year makes. Last year, heading into fall practice, the wide receiverwere probably the biggest question mark on the team. How was UCLA going to replace Craig Bragg and Tab Perry?

Now, after the 2005 season, you'd have to say that the wide receiver group is probably UCLA's less worrisome position, with the most depth.  You have four guys that have extensive experience, and are all upper classmen. While there might be a stand-out star in the group, it is, collectively, a strength of the team.

Projected WR Starters:

Split End:  Marcus Everett (JR, 6-1, 203)
Flanker:  Joe Cowan (SR, 6-4, 220)

Between the two of them, Everett and Cowan accounted for 67 receptions and over 800 yards.

Everett showed an almost uncanny ability to make the big play, in clutch situations. He really stepped up halfway through last season, while tapering off some toward the end. The word is that he's bigger and stronger, and better. Cowan will more than likely be the same guy - sometimes struggling to hang on to the ball, but also making key, small, unspectacular plays that help you win the game.

Junior Taylor (SR, 6-2, 212) will be welcomed back into the rotation. He blew out his knee against Oklahoma and had to sit the remainder of the season, and went through surgery and some extensive re-hab in order to return for his fifth year. Before he went down, he was looking good, even though we've heard that Marcus Everett was possibly going to be named the starter over Taylor anyway. If Taylor can return to form, he, Everett and Cowan should give smaller DBs fits with their size and strength.

So, you have your bigger, strong WRs, then throw in the smaller, fast, shifty guy in Brandon Breazell (JR, 6-0, 170).  Breazell is listed behind Cowan at flanker, but there will be games when he gets more playing time, when he's needed to counter UCLA's other bigger, more-possession-oriented receivers. Breazell is the home run guy, with great moves and acceleration. He had 24 catches a year ago, and it wouldn't surprise if he doubled that and became UCLA's leading receiver this season.  The word is that he's worked hard, and his route running has become far more polished.

Going out on a limb here, but we think that true freshman Terrence Austin (5-11, 175) could squeeze in here as the fifth receiver.  In the 7-on-7s he's looked good, and has become a relative favorite target of the QBs. He's developing into a favorite since he gets open, being very hard to guard in the first 15 yards. He's pretty slight, not looking much bigger than he did a year ago at Long Beach Poly, but his route-running and pass-catching are so good, he's going to get time as a true freshman.

One guy to really keep an eye on is Gavin Ketchum (SO, 6-4, 210). Ketchum was easily one of the biggest standouts of the freshmen last year in fall camp, but then got banged up and tended to fade a bit by the end of the season. He's considerably bigger physically, which will help. The off-season word is that Ketchum is still in the process of getting it and isn't quite there, so fall camp will be an indication of just how "there" he is.

Andrew Baumgartner (SR, 6-1 202), a walk-on, proved to be a very reliable guy last season, filling in admirably when UCLA had holes in its receiver rotation.  He's considerably bigger physically this year, almost unrecognizable actually.

Another walk-on, a former trackster, Matt Willis (SR, 6-0, 195), has generated some good buzz around campus. He's always been fast and explosive, but raw in his skills and probably shy about contact. But the word is that he's worked himself into being a football player and that he could be a real threat this season.

Bobby Whithorne ((JR, 6-1, 200), a transfer from Washington who was on scholarship there, is another walk-on that could compete for playing time. Whithorne might be a slightly faster version of Baumgartner.

Jamil Turner (R-FR, 6-1, 203) is coming off his freshman year on the scout team where many liked his hands but questioned his quickness, pretty much the same scouting report he's had on him since high school.  The word is that he'll need to really make strides to see the field.

It's probably a very critical fall camp for Ryan Graves (SO, 6-1, 180). Graves, who many in the program feel has talent, just hasn't clued in, and hasn't gotten much bigger physically.  Patience could be running out.

Freshman Dominique Johnson (6-4, 205) is somewhat of a Jamil Turner type, with good hands but lacking speed.  This fall will be time to watch him, to see if he has the capability of playing at this level at receiver. He will almost undoubtedly redshirt unless he exceeds all expectation.

Freshman Jeremy McGee (5-10, 171) is listed initially as a wide receiver, has been talked about at running back, but it's thought he could end up as a cornerback. McGee has very good speed, but it would be shocking if he ended up with any significant time in practice at receiver.

RUNNING BACK

It's another position where UCLA will feel the fallout from losing an All-American level player, losing Maurice Drew one year early to the NFL.

While losing play-maker Drew is huge, it might not be as big as losing Lewis or Olson. Namely, since UCLA has some maybe not as spectacular players to fill the gap, but some definite talent.

The question will probably be depth, or proven depth.

Projected Starters:

Tailback: Chris Markey (JR, 5-11, 208)

Fullback:  Michael Pitre (JR, 6-0, 235)

Markey is not Maurice Drew. He doesn't have the same sort of big-play ability that Drew has, or the explosiveness. But if there was a knock on Drew it was that his running style wore him down. Markey, perhaps, might not make the big highlight run, but he is, in the long-run, more durable, since he makes tacklers miss more than Drew, and he could be, in the long-termm more productive.

One of the best surprises last season was the immediate emergence of Kahlil Bell (SO, 6-0, 215). Bell was projected to be a fullback coming into UCLA but was moved to tailback for depth, and then surprised everyone, even the coaches, by how good he was. You can't fault them - it was hard to anticipate; Bell was a little scrawny in his legs, and didn't have great speed. But with Bell, as soon as he arrived in Westwood, he was a competitor and a warrior, and that sometimes is hard to project when you're evaluating players. He's gotten bigger, adding some solid muscle, and I've heard he's lowered his 40 time.  He's probably a bit green to take the responsibility of reps you get as the #2 tailback in UCLA's offense,  but most in the program feel that Bell has the mentality to rise to the occasion. He still isn't considered a potential star, but a solid guy. But who knows - maybe he'll continue to surprise.

Derrick Williams (JR, 5-10, 214) had a disciplinary issue last season early on and never really got out of the doghouse all season. He did, though, in spring practice, look good, being so low to the ground and strong, and able to run tackle to tackle.

Perhaps the biggest curiosity among the incoming freshmen is Christian Ramirez (6-2, 195), an athlete who was originally recruited as a safety but looked so good at tailback in high school and, because of UCLA's lack of depth at the position, wil take a stab at TB first.  He is long and lanky, but a very good instinct to make tacklers miss, with surprising explosiveness.  If he could prove to contribute, say, as much as Bell did a year ago, it'd be considered a win. If he proves to be potentially a star of the future, hallelujah.

Ryen Carew (R-FR, 5-10, 200) is a mystery. Considered one of the best running backs in SoCal out of high school two years ago, he had some issues at his high school transferred, and subsequently didn't get a scholarship offer. He walked on to UCLA and look raw but talent, until he blew out his knee and spent last season re-habbing.  He's still not completely cleared for contact, but he has gotten particularly bigger physically while re-habbing, including what looks to be taller (UCLA lists him at 5-9, but he looks at least 5-10).  If Carew can rebound from the knee and be, at the very least, a solid potential option at tailback, it would go a long way to giving UCLA the depth it needs.  UCLA uses two tailbacks extensively, and dabbles with the third, and with the way injuries are in college football today, depth could be a concern for UCLA at tailback.

Pitre had a few nagging injuries last season, but was still named to the Pac-10 Honorable Mention team. When he's healthy, he's a weapon, mostly catching the ball out of the backfield. He is definitely one of the glue guys for the offense, doing the little things that need to get done, the guy who knows the schemes really well and is a team leader.

Jimmy Stephens (JR, 6-2, 247) is a big, strong kid who is a good, straight-ahead athlete but lacks finesse.  Some close to the program like his potential, but he sat out spring with an injury, so there's some curiosity about him.  With Pitre being prone to injury, Stephens being healthy is a key.

It's expected that incoming freshman Chane Moline (6-1, 240) could very well cause a stir this fall.  Moline is a talent - not really possessing great speed - but with instinct and toughness that made him one of the best high school football players in the state of California for the last couple of years.  He's already pretty physically developed, even though he could get stronger, and he could be most skilled fullback on the team, in terms of both running and catching the ball. It's expected that Moline will compete with Stephens for back-up fullback minutes and that, if there are injuries at the position, he could needed to play.

There is converted linebacker Danny Nelson (SR, 6-1, 235) who made the move to fullback since it wasn't happening for him at linebacker. A JC transfer who spent time in the armed services, Nelson is older (23), and is a morale leader on the team. Sources close to the program believe fullback suits him far better than linebacker, where he doesn't have to move so much laterally and can just plow straight ahead.

Two walk-ons fill out the depth chart --- Ben Idemundia (JR, 6-0, 239) and Trevor Theriot (R-FR, 6-0, 234). While you might see them in fall camp a bit, it'd take some serious injuries to hit the fullback position for you to see them on the game field.

QUARTERBACK

Many might never have anticipated it - that the UCLA community would be wondering a bit how UCLA could replace Drew Olson.

Ben Olson.

Olson, after struggling for most of his UCLA career, came into his own in his senior year, passing for over 3,000 yards and 34 touchdowns, and having one of the most prolific seasons for a quarterback in UCLA history.

How does UCLA replace that?

Projected Starter:

Ben Olson (SO, 6-5, 225)

The answer is: UCLA doesn't. Seriously. Even though Ben Olson is considerably more talented than Drew Olson, it's far too much to expect that B-Olson will step in and keep going in the same stride as D-Olson.  It look D-Olson years to get the offense, and B-Olson is only in his second.

Olson has all the tools to be a pro quarterback, the size, strength, athleticism, arm and smarts. He just lacks experience.  The one knock that follows Olson is that he still isn't completely getting the offense and is taking too long to make decisions. It was evident in spring practice and seemed evident in the summer's 7-on-7s.   Will it all click in by fall camp? Does he need some game experience, to execute the position in real game speed, to get it?

It's by far the biggest question of fall camp.

What makes it very interesting is that his presumed back-up Patrick Cowan (SO, 6-5, 224), might defy that presumption. Cowan, who doesn't have the pedigree of Olson, coming to UCLA very unheralded out of high school, has the size, strength and arm strength - but also seems to show a quicker decision-making ability.

While many have already handed the reins of the quarterback position to Olson, many close to the program are saying, "Hey, the other guy is pretty good."

Either way, they're both extremely inexperienced. In a league where teams succeed with experienced quarterbacks, so much of UCLA's offensive success depends on the effectiveness of its quarterbacking. And, this is key: whatever QB finds himself over center in the Rose Bowl is going to be behind an inexperienced offensive line.

UCLA doesn't have great depth at quaterback. Most close to the program feel it has two quarterbacks who can play at this level. Osaar Rasshan (R-FR, 6-4, 210) didn't engender much confidence in practice last year as a freshman. He's a great athlete and would bring a great running dimension to the position. But a quarterback needs to throw the ball and, very basically, Rasshan has not proven he can do that yet at this level. 

Finally, one of the most interesting aspects of fall camp to watch is the offense under new Offensive Coordinator Jim Svoboda. It might not look substantially different than last year's, but there could be some wrinkles (like the much-publicized use of the shot gun). The real specific to watch is how Svoboda handles the responsibilities, especially in the first few games. Will the play calling be dynamic or, dare we use the word, conservative? You might get some clues from fall practice.

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