To do it well, you'd have to know ahead of time the talent and capabilities of every opponent on the schedule -- at the time of the game -- which is impossible.
So, it's mostly sooth-saying. But fans love it, so here it goes.
Fall Camp Review
After watching the UCLA football team practice for almost three weeks, it provides us a little more insight into the team. It's allayed some worries and exacerbated others.
We generally wrote in the fall camp preview that the three keys to the season were 1) quarterbacking 2) the offensive line and 3) whether UCLA's defense could slow down the run.
Interestingly enough, the #3 worry is probably the one that is now the least concern. UCLA's defense this fall camp, while there hasn't been any potential stars breaking out from the ranks, has shown a vast improvement from a year ago. Of course, it's practicing against an offense every day that it knows pretty well, but it's not a stretch to assert that UCLA's defense will be improved over last season.
The primary improvement seems to be a general return to fundamentals by new Defensive Coordinator DeWayne Walker, and more of an emphasis on attacking. Compared to other years, this fall practice wasn't particularly exciting, mostly because the coaches worked so much on fundamentals – positioning, pursuit and tackling for the defense. The defensive players were by far more often in position to make plays this fall, and tackled considerably better. Unlike last season where opposing ball carriers commonly broke numerous tackles against UCLA, in this fall camp it seemed that UCLA's tacklers were wrapping up and finishing tackles much better.
It's obvious, too, that Walker is going to be more aggressive in his blitz packages. It starts with utilizing more man coverage, so that the safeties can cheat in to the box and focus more often on run defense. It does put some added pressure on your cornerbacks, who are commonly left out on an island in man coverage. This could possibly translate into less yardage gained on the ground by opposing offenses, but more, and longer, passes completed. At this point, it seems like a sensible gamble, with how painful it's been to watch UCLA's run defense recently. And it makes football sense – if an offense is willing to take the risk of throwing the ball, which is inherently risky in many ways, you'd rather give them the chance of a big pass play than conceding huge chunks of yardage on the ground. UCLA has always been conservative in its defensive approach, especially under Karl Dorrell, so this is a wide-eyed departure for the program.
It also helps when you have more faith that your front seven will be able to stop the run better. The defensive line was exceedingly young a season ago, and it didn't help that they were particularly under-sized. But there are now more – and bigger (and healthier) -- bodies on the defensive front four, and that added bulk and experience should definitely help in defending against the run.
It has been frustrating that we, as of yet in fall camp, haven't really seen what most would project as the starters working together with the 1s. At the beginning of fall camp, we thought it was a matter of time before DTs Kevin Brown and Brigham Harwell were inserted with the 1s permanently, but the coaches continue to mix and match the defensive line. When the depth chart comes out it's still pretty clear that Brown and Harwell will be the starting DTs, and Nikola Dragovic and Justin Hickman the starting DEs.
The linebackers are an enigma. You can't help but worry about them, with each being underdogs and under-sized. It doesn't help that truly the only linebacker with legit size – John Hale – is out for the Utah game. But the ‘backers have had a good fall, consistently playing solidly and being in the right position. Many close to the program attribute it to the new coaches -- Walker and linebacker coach Chuck Bullough -- but also to starting middle linebacker Christian Taylor. There are a few players on the team that embody the phrase "Gutty Little Bruin" but he is this year's poster child. Being under-sized and a former walk-on, Taylor has become a fixture at the Mike linebacker spot mostly because of his intelligence and heart. He's had a very good fall, and it will be interesting to see if he can physically hold up this season.
It appears that Reggie Carter will start the Utah game at the weakside linebacker spot, with the projected starter there, Aaron Whittington, moving over to the Sam spot with Hale suspended for the game.
The DBs have talent, but are thin, due to injury and attrition. It's easy to have confidence in the safeties, with Chris Horton and Dennis Keyes looking exceptional this fall. It was clear that Horton could be a star in the making, but Keyes has looked very good himself in the last couple of weeks. At corner, the good news is that Rodney Van looks to finally be living up to the hype, having matured enough to mentally be ready to play the position. The semi-bad news is that long-time starter Trey Brown didn't have a great fall camp. And that with the injuries to Mike Norris and Matt Slater, it looks like the two-deep at cornerback could be filled out by two true freshmen, Alterraun Verner and Jeremy McGee. Norris could very well be ready to play by the Utah game, out with a partially torn PCL. But Norris, to be blunt, is only back-up caliber anyway, leaving UCLA thin at corner. Verner is a talent, but is, well, a true freshman. McGee has speed, but is behind in his learning curve since he was just moved to corner from running back this week. In the year when UCLA decides to put more pressure on its cornerbacks, it's a bit foreboding that UCLA is thin at the position. Health at this position is particularly key. Watch for Verner to come in for nickel situations, with Brown moving inside.
On offense, at quarterback, Ben Olson has had a so-so fall camp. He hasn't been as sharp as you'd like in practice, some days his throws being predominantly off the mark. His decision-making, which actually was the worry coming into to camp, continues to be a concern. But we also have to chalk up some of Olson's struggles to a huge amount of offensive playbook installation, and a defense that knows the offense's pass plays pretty thoroughly. Drew Olson, if you remember, didn't look particularly stellar last fall either, and Ben Olson came close to winning the position, before Drew went on to an enormous season. Watch for Olson to show some jitters, but the offense will be geared to getting him comfortable and in a rhythm, with three-step drops, the shot gun, and quick routes and dumps to running backs. While Olson will make mistakes, and throw some picks, he's so talented that it's not out of the question for him to have a strong year.
The key is the offensive line. The biggest worry that has come out of fall practice is pass protection. It's been fairly shoddy. If Olson is to have a strong year, he'll need time to do it, and the OL didn't give you much confidence that they'll be able to give it to him. The run blocking wasn't exactly excellent either. Now, while you could assert that the defense has vastly improved, it's probably more reasonable that the OL hasn't done well in pass protection or run blocking this fall camp. The OL is young and fairly inexperienced, and there is always talk about the OL needing time "to gel." Hopefully this is the case. It is a talented OL, and probably the most athletic one UCLA has had in a while. Shannon Tevaga is a legit NFL-caliber OL prospect.
The receivers are the deepest of any position on the team, especially when they're not hurt. While there isn't any game-breaking, All-American star in the bunch, there are a good number of very solid guys that will get the job done. UCLA's passing game, however, is based on quick throws underneath coverage, to get the ball into the hands of a receiver so he can make a play. Right now, Brandon Breazell seems like the guy most likely to be able to fill this role. Freshman Terrence Austin hopefully will provide some of the play-making also.
There is no way around acknowledging that UCLA will see a huge drop-off in production from the tight end position. You can't lose a guy like Marcedes Lewis and not have it. Hopefully the tandem of Logan Paulsen and Ryan Moya will provide enough of a threat to keep defenses honest. Moya presents match-up problems for defenses with his quickness, while being a slight liability at blocking. Watch for Paulsen to grow into a consistently solid guy as the season progresses.
The running backs are solid (that word again), but not spectacular. Markey is a good tailback, but not Heisman, All-American potential. Kahlil Bell has been a very good surprise, but without really the speed to break off game-busting runs, he's a solid back-up guy. Derrick Williams is also along those same lines. Freshman Chane Moline will provide some punch between the tackles, but it should be fairly overwhelming for him as a true freshman.
State of the Program
If you've noticed, the word "solid" is being used for this team and, well, this program repeatedly. And that truly is where the program is at this point. It's not elite, but it's solid.
That's a compliment, and a testament to Dorrell, on one hand, but it's also a criticism on the other hand. Looking down the roster, the scholarships are filled with "solid" guys, but it lacks elite, NFL-level talent. If you're going to compete at the upper echelon of college football you should have 3 to 4 NFL-caliber players in every class, at the very least, along with some potential free agents. UCLA probably has 4 to 5 total on its roster. There are a great deal of scholarships currently dedicated to non-impact level players. It's why so many fans look at the roster and think it's still pretty thin, while every scholarship on the team is filled.
While in college football there is a greater emphasis on experience, it still all comes down to talent. You'll will if you have talent. Pretty simple.
At this juncture in Dorrell's program, he's lacking the really elite talent to win at the elite level. There are some that could argue that, in his fourth year, he should have the talent, and that could be a valid argument. Dorrell gets high marks for cleaning up the "underbelly" of the program. He is very well-liked and admired in the program, and the players want to play for him. He gets high marks for putting together what in our opinion is a good coaching staff. The new hires, from what we can surmise and have heard, have been excellent. We're pretty confident that the hiring of DeWayne Walker will turn around UCLA's defense.
But Dorrell's recruiting has been, well, average, for UCLA. In our opinion, the program has tended to settle for the under-sized underdog, the "solid" player who is a good kid, with good character and heart and who is a good student. In a way, Dorrell has recruited himself. Dorrell was a "solid" guy, with good character and heart, who willed himself to be good. But UCLA hasn't won too many recruiting battles for elite recruits under Dorrell. He has beaten out the Arizona States, San Diego States and Boise States of the world, but has either lost out to or not even taken on the Notre Dames, Michigans, or USCs. Cal, for the most part, has come into Los Angeles and taken many of UCLA's targets in the last couple of years.
We've asserted before that Dorrell very well could have a formula for recruiting that could ultimately prove successful. We said before that he would fill his roster with solid guys, but then have to have a fair number of elite, NFL-level guys sprinkled throughout to win consistently. At this juncture, it appears there aren't enough of those types on the roster. There is always the possibility that some players will step up and show that they are All-American caliber this year, but in watching fall practice it just doesn't seem like Dorrell has the NFL-level horses. We've forgottten a bit what impact players like Freddie Mitchell, Marcedes Lewis, Matt Ware, Tab Perry and DeShaun Foster look like as freshmen when they step on Spaulding Field for the first time. In this current freshman class, there are many solid guys, there are guys that are tweeners that the jury is out on whether they'll contribute, and there are very few that you could put in the category of big impact guys. Most of them are fifth-year types, and if they don't redshirt this year it's not because they're huge impact guys but because the depth chart is thin at a certain position. There isn't necessarily one true freshman who is so good that he looks like he could start. Among all the freshmen DLs, there might not be one that sees the field this season, which is significant given that, after last year, you'd think that the UCLA DL would be a place where a freshman could make an impact.
So, is it time to panic? No. There is a scenario playing out here that could elevate UCLA's recruiting to the point it needs to be.
UCLA has already seen a boost in the caliber of player it's been able to get in the 2007 class. For the first time in a few years, UCLA has commitments from players that were offered by USC – Brian Price and Raymond Carter. In recruiting, that's a hint that UCLA is starting to turn the corner.
It received that recruiting boost as a result of the 10-2 season in 2005. So, again, the mantra is: Win and they will come.
Under Bob Toledo, UCLA put together two top five recruiting classes (conservatively) as a result of back-to-back 10-2 seasons. Dorrell needs to essentially do the same. He might not have to go 10-2 this season to get UCLA where it needs to be in recruiting, but he certainly needs to post a winning record.
Given the talent and experience on the roster, if the team went 8-4 this season it should be considered successful. Every year, to judge whether that season was successful you have to take that specific season, and all of its elements, into account: the talent, experience, the schedule, etc. While many who look at it far more simplified feel that 8-4 is mediocre, I don't; given the factors, including a bitch of a schedule, 8-4 would be considered successful. There are some that would say that, with Dorrell in his fourth year, he's had enough time to get the talent so that 8-4 wouldn't be considered successful. That's probably too simplified; even elite programs have re-building years, and when you're building a program you tend to have more ‘re-building" years initially.
So, what we're looking for is close to the Toledo scenario, but over the course of three seasons. There's the 10-2 from 2005, then, say, an 8-4 in 2006, and then, hopefully, with the experience on the squad next year, at least a 9-3 in 2007. You put together three seasons like that in a row, and you'll be able to get top five recruiting classes, and the impact, NFL-caliber guys the program needs to play consistently at a top ten national level. And Dorrell has a much better chance than Toledo of sustaining success, both on the field and in recruiting, since the "underbelly" is in much better shape. Toledo did benefit from USC going through dark times, but there are still enough elite recruits around to populate two elite programs in L.A.
There is also another potentially interesting parallel between the rise of Toledo's program and Dorrell. Toledo really rode the coattails of Cade McNown, who was the prime reason UCLA went 20-4 over two seasons. Toledo rode McNown to two top ten finishes, then recruited two top ten recruiting classes. Dorrell could do the same conceivably with the horse he has at the same position, Ben Olson, over the next two seasons.
So, the 2006 season is critical to keeping this going, and bridging the program from the lofty 10-2 of 2005, to potentially the year UCLA fans have been waiting for in 2007.
While in 2005, UCLA benefitted from a fairly favorable schedule, the one factor truly that hurts UCLA's chances of getting to 8-4, or better, in 2006 is the schedule. The more you look at it, the more it ain't pretty.
What's really kind of scary is how much the Utah game, the opener on Sept. 2nd, is shaping up as a potentially season-hinging game. You could make a case that UCLA needs to go 4-1, at least, in its first five games if it even hopes to be sure of getting six wins this season. Beating Utah would go a long way in registering that 4-1 mark in the first five games.
Utah, however, is considered a potential top 25 team and no easy out. Rice, you'd have to chalk up as a win for UCLA. While many fans give UCLA a quick win for its game at Washington, you can't look past it that quickly. UCLA only beat Washington, a team that went 2-9 last season, by pulling out a late fourth-quarter miracle. And that was at the Rose Bowl. UCLA will face an improved Washington team in Seattle. Stanford is at home, but UCLA barely beat the Cardinal last year in overtime. Arizona at home is the fifth game of the season, and we all know what Arizona did to UCLA last season.
Then UCLA goes through its schedule gauntlet. At Oregon, at Notre Dame, Washington State at home, at Cal, Oregon State at home, at ASU and USC. UCLA will probably be the underdog in five of those seven games. It will have to over-achieve to win four among those seven games, and it would need four wins to go with the 4-1 in the first five games to get to 8 wins. If UCLA can win one of the two games at Oregon and at Cal, and then hopefully ASU will be in disarray by November 18th and UCLA can get that win on the road, that would help get the Bruins to possibly 4 wins among the last seven games on its schedule.
Given the tough schedule, we're predicting 7-5 on the season, and maybe a fourth-place finish in the Pac-10. In predictable style, UCLA will probably win one of the games at Cal or at Oregon, but lose one to Stanford, Arizona, Washington State or Oregon State.
We can't be such homers and predict UCLA to beat Notre Dame or USC. UCLA is two winning seasons away from getting the type of recruits it needs to compete with the USCs and Notre Dames of the world. But a winning season in 2006 will be the stepping stone to keeping Dorrell in the win column, and getting commitments from the elite type of recruits he'll need to build an elite program.