They have 20 returning starters, 25 seniors, and a favorable schedule.
So, yes, they should be good.
But it's not all just a cake walk. Coming off a 7-6 record from 2006, they need to definitely make some improvements if the Bruins hope to get to double-digit wins for the 2007 season.
Along with general improvements, there are some holes to fill also.
Last year, the offense wasn't good. The passing game was very limited, and the running game was adequate. The offense lacked imagination and creativity. And, of course, there was a long-running issue of the play-calling.
Head Coach Karl Dorrell seemed to shore up the play-calling issues toward the latter end of the season. In the off-season, Dorrell fired Offensive Coordinator Jim Svoboda, and hired Jay Norvell, the offensive coordinator from Nebraska who, actually, didn't call the plays at Nebraska. So, that raises the question: If one of the issues last year with the offense was play-calling, it still has to be an issue since you went out and hired a coach that doesn't have much experience calling plays.
Right now, of course, the jury is out on Norvell. Many are pointing to the hire of defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker a year ago, and drawing parallels. But just because you hire one coordinator who is inexperienced that turns out to be good doesn't mean you can do it again. Norvell, so far within the program, is getting good marks from players and observers, but it's hard to know if that's just positive spin or if it really means something. It's difficult to know, really, until Norvell calls an actual game. The one advantage Norvell does have over a few of his predecessors at UCLA is that he is familiar with the West Coast Offense. The only other OC who was familiar with it – Tom Cable – ran it well for UCLA. So, hopefully the experience with the offense that Norvell has will be enough to make him successful.
If Dorrell can catch lightning in the bottle two years in a row, first with Walker and now with Norvell, it will be probably the biggest accomplishment of his head coaching career at UCLA.
In terms of improving on offense, how effective Norvel is will easily be the primary factor.
But filling some holes, too, will be a big factor in improvement.
The offensive line started off modestly in 2006 and then was impressive by the end of the season. They were always good at pass protection, but then really showed development in run blocking, looking good in UCLA's last several games of the season.
The primary hole for 2007 with the offense is at center, losing Robert Chai to graduation. Chai wasn't spectacular, but he became at least a known quantity at the position by his redshirt senior year. Now it's an unknown quantity, and there isn't a clear solution.
The traditional approach to the offensive line is to get your best five players on the field, and plug them into whatever positions you need to in order to do that. With Jim Colletto leaving UCLA, and the hiring of Bob Connelly, there are many unknowns – whether that approach will be upheld, what will Connelly's opinion of the existing personnel be, etc.
Before Connelly was hired, there were different factions within the program that split on whether Chris Joseph (SR, 6-5, 290), the starting weakside guard from last season, should be moved to center. From what we've heard, Colletto wasn't in favor of it but, of course, he's no longer on UCLA's staff. There are those remaining in the program who are in favor of it. The theory is that there really isn't anyone currently capable on the depth chart of playing the position at the level UCLA needs. Center is a critical position, calling all the blocking plays for the offensive line. Right now, we've heard that UCLA feels the older guys in the program at the position, Aaron Meyer (JR, 6-2, 280) and Nathaniel Skaggs (JR, 6-4, 296) aren't capable of taking over the starting position. Both have had to play center in games in the past due to injury, but they didn't do well enough for the coaches to be near comfortable. This spring will be a big one for Meyer and Skaggs, to prove they can step up with the big boys and play. There is also Jake Dean (R-FR, 6-4, 290) who it is felt is the center of the future, but he's still a bit green, especially for a position that has such responsibility. Joseph has spent some time at center while at UCLA, and it's been considered for the last two years that he could be an option there. It will be probably the biggest positional issue on offense, next to quarterback, of course, of spring practice.
If you do move Joseph to center, the issue then becomes who replaces him at weakside guard. It's been thrown around that starting strongside tackle Aleksey Lanis (SO, 6-6, 316) could be moved there, but there are those in the program that want to see him stay at tackle. Lanis had a good year as a redshirt freshman at strongside tackle, showing good quickness for his size and an ability to pick up assignments well. It's unlikely they'd move the returning starting weakside tackle, Noah Sutherland (SR, 6-5, 300), since he looked very comfortable and solid at his position last season. Of course, Shannon Tevaga (SR, 6-3, 315) will be an anchor of the interior at strongside guard and a potential All-American candidate.
The most likely candidate would be Micah Kia (SO, 6-5, 304). Kia didn't redshirt and was used on special teams for 2006, which, on one hand, probably wasn't wise since it burned a valuable year of having a talented player in your program. On the other hand, it gave him on-field experience, just in case he could move in and start in 2007. It's thought that Kia is easily one of the five most talented offensive linemen on the roster and UCLA wants to get him on the field.
What's a bit worrisome is, that after the top five guys, there aren't many guys who have stepped up to show they can be real contributors. You need a good 7 solid offensive linemen to get through a season, if not more, and right now it is a question as to who the other two guys will be. Dean is one potential guy, but it's thought he's still a ways away. Nick Ekbatani (JR, 6-4, 290) was a bit disappointing this last season. When he transferred in from the JUCO ranks last year UCLA thought they had a legitimate contributor, someone who would quickly be competing for a starting position, but Ekbatani has yet to live up to that. He'll have to have a major leap forward in spring practice to get playing time.
Brian Abraham (SR, 6-6, 307) is the most experienced veteran on the team other than the starters. He was once a starter hmself, but got supplanted by Sutherland, who overtook him pretty easily during the 2005 season. Abraham, that year, didn't play particularly well, lacking aggressiveness on the field. But last season, in relief of Lanis when he suffered both a broken arm and experienced a lingering ankle injury, Abraham looked improved. UCLA really wants Abraham to show that he's capable, again, of stepping in at tackle if he's needed.
Probably the guy who is thought to be a legitimate candidate to make that top 7 or 8 among the younger guys is Sean Sheller (R-FR, 6-5, 290). Sheller is coming off a knee injury he suffered in fall practice. He spent most of the season in a knee brace and rehab, but started practicing in December, and the reviews were basically very good. When he came to UCLA many thought he'd be a tackle, but he plugged in for bowl practice at guard and, while he was obviously rusty and green, Sheller showed good quickness, despite still nursing the knee.
P.J. Irvin (SR, 6-5, 305) has been a career back-up at UCLA, and you probably can't ask him to be too much more. For the first few years in the program it was thought Irvin wouldn't ever play, but to his credit, he worked hard, changed his body in the weight room, and contributed last season to solid reviews from the coaching staff. UCLA thinks of him now as a decent back-up in the interior line, but it's unlikely he'd be considered a candidate to start at weakside guard if Joseph does make the move to center.
Justin Brown (SO, 6-6, 280) is in the situation Irvin was a few years ago – unable as of yet to show that he can contribute. Tom Cable wanted Brown, over some objections, because he thought he had good agility for his size, but the rap on him was always a lack of strength and aggressiveness, and that's proven to be what has limited him on this level. Most close to the situation believe Brown would have to make a huge leap this spring to get into the mix at tackle.
Tony Lee (JR, 6-4, 285) was thought, two years ago, to be a strong candidate for the top 7 or 8 OLs in the program. But knee injuries and surgeries have kept Lee off the field – and the practice field – for most of his career at UCLA. Last season, he didn't practice much, and when he did, toward the end of the season, he had a noticeable limp. Within the program, it's believed that the knee injuries have taken its toll, and Lee might be just one more injury away from hanging up the cleats. It would be too bad, since Lee was projected at one point to be the next starting weakside tackle.
There are two more huge interior youngsters, Brandon Bennett (R-FR, 6-4, 350), and Sonny Tevaga (R-FR, 6-4, 350). Both, according to sources, were a long ways away from contributing last season. Both came to UCLA overweight and out of shape and while that improved last season in their first year in the program, there wasn't a drastic enough change. UCLA is looking for either (or both) Tevaga and Bennett to step up and get very dedicated, and so far it hasn't happened. If either shows up at spring practice in the 330-pound range, that would be a great indication. Tevaga is thought to have the more potential of the two, with better athleticism.
Incoming freshman Mike Harris (FR, 6-5, 305) isn't expected to have much of an impact when he comes to UCLA in the fall. He, more than likely, will plug into an interior position, being more of a road grater type.
Looking long-term, past next season, UCLA has some definite question marks. UCLA will lose Shannon Tevaga, Chris Joseph and Noah Sutherland after next season, three of its starting five OLs, along with Abraham and Irvin. That leaves them 12 OLs on the roster, which sounds good, but really only two (Lanis, Kia) the staff has complete confidence in that they're starter material. They feel pretty good about the potential of Dean and Sheller, and it would be huge this spring practice if these two showed they were future starters. It'd be good if someone worthy could emerge among Ekbatani, Meyer, Skaggs and the two huge guys, Tevaga and Bennett.
Because of so many question marks, and UCLA losing five OLs to graduation, look for them to go after 3-4 in the 2008 class.
UCLA has a long list of bodies at tight end for 2008.
On the roster are Logan Paulsen (JR, 6-5, 250), Ryan Moya (JR, 6-2, 240), William Snead (SR, 6-5, 255), Scott Glicksberg (JR, 6-4, 255), and Adam Heater (SO, 6-5, 255). Coming into the program will be Nate Chandler (FR, 6-5, 245). There is also walk-on Tyler Holland (JR, 6-5, 250).
That's a lot of bodies, and it's thought that perhaps there could be some attrition here.
Glicksberg is a converted offensive lineman who, in practice last season, didn't show very good hands. Heater isn't bad, showing some good pass-catching skills at times in practice, but he just isn't probably a Pac-10 level tight end. There are some that think Holland, actually, might be better than both of them.
UCLA looks pretty good at the top end of the depth chart for next year, however. Paulsen was the fourth-leading receiver on the team last season with 27 catches, and showed flashes of all-Pac-10-level potential. Paulsen's issue when he came to UCLA was bulk and experience, but he's getting good weight room reviews, and he's a smart kid that has really gotten a great grasp on the position.
Moya missed half the season with a broken fibula. He was close to returning by December, and he's fully recovered now and gearing up for spring practice. Moya is used as a mis-match receiver, with UCLA trying to get him matched up in the seam against smaller safeties, and it's been pretty successful over Moya's career of a year and a half. Paulsen and Moya are a very good one-two punch.
Last season, Snead moved from defensive end to tight end, to shore up the position after Moya's injury, and the coaches were impressed with Snead at the position. Karl Dorrell thought early on in Snead's career that he could be a tight end, so the move was always in the back of the coach's mind. Snead took a while to get used to the position, but he caught two passes, one of them a touchdown in his first game as a tight end, against Notre Dame. With the time off, UCLA is hoping that Snead will look more refined at the position in spring practice. Snead also brings some bulk and more blocking ability to the position, and between the three of them – Paulsen, Moya and Snead – UCLA feels it has great versatility and depth.
Chandler will almost certainly redshirt, unless there are significant injuries in 2008. But if there are injuries, it's believed Chandler would jump over Glicksberg and Heater on the depth chart. It's a good situation for Chandler; he'll have 2007 to redshirt, get bigger and refine his skills, then as a redshirt freshman in 2008 be ready to join the triumvirate when Snead graduates, and then in 2009 probably be the starting TE as a redshirt sophomore. It's the perfect scenario for bringing in top talent and preparing them to start.
The receivers, like in 2006, will be among the most experienced and deep groups on the 2007 team. The only scholarship receiver UCLA loses is Junior Taylor (even though Matt Willis made a solid contribution), and will have Joe Cowan (SR, 6-4, 220) back from a knee injury that kept him out of the entire 2006 season.
The rap on the group, however, is that there isn't a truly elite guy among them – that they're merely solid but not spectacular.
Marcus Everett (SR, 6-1, 196) had the most receptions of any receiver on the team last season (31) and the most yards (450). He also averaged 14.5 yards per reception, which is good, especially for a guy that's been labeled a possession receiver. Everett has good size, decent speed, excellent hands, and the ability to make a difficult catch in traffic. There aren't too many times in the last four years that Everett has dropped a ball, while there are plenty of instances when he's made some improbable catches. He is clearly the best all-around receiver on the squad and is good enough that, if UCLA gets its passing game going, he could be an All-Pac-10 candidate.
Cowan comes back from the year off, and it's believed that he's fully recovered from the injury. He'll participate in spring practice, but will come back slowly, so he's completely ready by fall. The logic is – you lose Junior Taylor but add Joe Cowan, two fairly similar players.
The #3 receiver is Brandon Breazell (SR, 6-0, 160), who had a disappointing season in 2006. He was bothered by nicks here and there, which people in the program feel limited him. After 2005, though, where he showed flashes of big-play ability, there were high expectations for him, but it looked as though opposing defenses realized they could bump him off his route pretty easily. Breazell needs to continue to get stronger to be effective, and to give UCLA that deep-ball threat.
Probably #4 on the depth chart is Terrence Austin (SO, 5-11, 170), who caught just two passes as a true freshman last season. UCLA is expecting him to make a big leap between his freshman and sophomore seasons, hopefully getting bigger and stronger. Austin isn't a speed demon, but he is very quick, and is hard to guard off the line. If you're looking for someone to really boost the UCLA receivers into a higher caliber for 2007 Austin should be the guy. Austin will probably take hold of the #1 punt return responsibilities for 2007, also, and is a real threat there.
Gavin Ketchum (JR, 6-4, 205) has had a curious career so far at UCLA. In fall practice as a true freshman in 2005, he looked like he could be potentially an impact guy. But he more or less hasn't done much since then. He caught five passes last season and sometimes you tended forget about him on the depth chart. The feeling in the program is that Ketchum has talent, and potential, but needs to get dedicated.
The three younger guys that UCLA is expecting to step up this season are Austin, Ketchum and Jeremy McGee (SO, 5-10, 180). McGee gets the award for most positions played in 2006 – starting out at running back, moving to cornerback and then finishing off the second half of the season at wide receiver. He didn't catch a ball, but ran two end-arounds for a total of minus 6 yards. McGee is one of the fastest guys on the team, and UCLA expects him to be the guy who brings more speed to the wideouts. His pass-catching was still raw in practice last winter, so his development this spring is something to watch.
Ryan Graves (JR, 6-1, 165) is someone else UCLA has been hoping would step up, and he did so to a degree in 2006, as a punt returner. Graves, to my memory has had very few actual downs at receiver in a game, and has not caught a pass yet in his career. He was still working with the scout team last season, and he'd have to make a bit of an unexpected advancement to break into the top six. Graves hasn't been able to put on weight or add much strength, and his pass-catching hasn't developed, so he's languished. He does give UCLA more depth at punt returner, but he'll probably be second string behind Austin.
UCLA is high on Dominique Johnson (R-FR, 6-4, 209). Johnson got in a game early for a few plays but then injured his ankle in practice and will be able to take a redshirt year. UCLA likes his size and pass-catching ability. We're still skeptical, since Johnson lacks quickness and speed. He did look like he'd be a good receiver to go over the middle and get up to catch a ball, but looks limited on the edge. We still think he should bulk up to about 240 and be a tight end, but that's just our opinion.
One of the players on the team most suspected to be a candidate to transfer out is Jamil Turner (SO, 6-1, 205). Turner even conceded in mid-season that he had contemplated leaving, since it didn't look like he would be getting much playing time at UCLA. Turner has decent hands, but is just too slow to play at this level.
UCLA didn't bring in a receiver with the 2007 class, which was easily its biggest disappointment with that recruiting class. After the 2007 season, UCLA will lose Everett, Cowan and Breazell, and be left with a few guys with promise that need to prove themselves, and then a few others that it's questionable whether they can ever really contribute. That leaves receiver a gigantic priority for the 2008 class.
It gets old to keep using the word, but UCLA should be "solid" at running back in 2007. It doesn't have incredible talent, but good, experienced talent...and a youngster that could give UCLA that exceptional talent.
UCLA returns a 1,000-yard rusher in the 2007 season. Chris Markey (SR, 5-11, 205) ran for 1,163 yards and averaged 4.9 yards per carry. While he has his well-documented limitations, you have to give Markey credit for the 2006 season. He was running behind an offensive line that didn't create many holes, at least for a majority of the season, but he gained over 1,000 yards, and looked like he got stronger as the season wore on. He doesn't have blazing speed, and the knock was that he couldn't bust the big one, but he did, actually. He also was UCLA's leading receiver with 35 catches. While you tend to think that Markey is limited when watching him, it's hard to deny his productivity.
Derrick Williams (SR, 5-10, 211) was let out of the doghouse long enough in 2006 to prove that he's worthy of being in the rotation. He's smallish (5-10 if he's lucky), but he's stocky and square, hard to bring down, and runs tough between the tackles, with good vision and quickness. When Kahlil Bell (JR, 6-0, 205) was injured and then suspended from the team, Williams stepped up and was clearly the better back-up to Markey. In fact, many think Williams is better than Markey and will supplant him as the #1 running back in 2007, and it's arguable. The baffling question is: Why has Williams been kept under wraps for so long? We know that he got in the doghouse for the incident that got him suspended at the beginning of the 2005 season but, come on, that's a long time to spend in a doghouse.
Bell was suspended this year and missed the second half of the season. He had a pretty good freshman year in 2005, where he showed a bit of promise, but he showed his limitations in 2006. It's believed that Williams, at this point, is clearly better than Bell, and if Bell takes over the #2 reps at running back by fall it'd be, well, baffling. There are some observers that thought Bell was going to leave the program after his suspension, and there is still a feeling that could happen.
What could precipitate Bell leaving is the arrival of Raymond Carter (FR, 6-0, 195). A slasher type, Carter has a great deal of potential, with sprinter speed in a long frame. He could easily put on 20 more pounds of muscle in the next year. Carter, also, is a great receiver out of the backfield. It all adds up to UCLA expecting big things from him, and big things starting now – as in 2007. It's not hard to imagine Carter moving into the three-man running back rotation and even challenging Williams and Markey for more reps.
Chane Moline (SO, 6-1, 238) gives UCLA another change of pace at tailback. He was very good last season in short-yardage and goal-line situations, but he also can be a very effective every-down running back. With a year of experience under his belt, expect Moline to be better, stronger and in even better shape, which will make him good enough to get a good amount of reps himself.
At fullback for 2007 UCLA has a guy who will be a candidate for many post-season honors, Michael Pitre (SR, 6-0, 244). It seems like Pitre has been in UCLA's program for a long time, and he brings a great deal of experience and leadership to the offense. The fullback in UCLA's offense of the last few years doesn't get too many carries, but we've heard that could change some in 2007. Pitre is a good receiver, effective at getting that 5-to-10-yard gain.
Behind Pitre is a question in Jimmy Stephens (SR, 6-2, 240). While Dan Nelson wasn't a big contributor at fullback last year, he did give you someone behind Pitre, and UCLA is hoping Stephens can be that guy. Stephens sat out all of 2006 with an injury, and UCLA is hoping he'll be completely healthy for 2007. When healthy, Stephens does possess some ability, and is a solid run blocker.
Moline will also probably be seen more often at fullback, since he could be stepping into the position when Pitre leaves after the 2007 season. It's been said a few times that UCLA would like to expand the role of the fullback, especially to utilize Moline's ability, and we'll see if that begins to happen this spring and fall. There is push in the program to get Moline more time at fullback to get him on the field.
Let's admit it: There is a quarterback controversy at UCLA.
It's kind of the classic controversy, too. On one hand, you have the guy who is more talented who will probably be able to do more for your program in the long run. On the other hand, you have the scrapper who might be better for your team right now.
The more talented guy is obviously Ben Olson (JR, 6-5, 227). Olson started the season as the #1 quarterback last fall, but then injured his knee and sat out most of the season. When Olson returned to relative health, Patrick Cowan (JR, 6-5, 218) had stepped up and done enough that he retained the starting position for the USC game.
Cowan is a Pac-10 level quarterback, with size, quickness, a strong arm and good enough grasp of the game. He also is a gamer, and while he showed some limitations this season, particularly his ability to complete passes consistently enough, he also showed a great deal of grit in tough situations, which will serve him well down the line.
Then you have Olson, who has recognizable NFL talent. It's pretty understandable that, after he had sat out for six weeks and then was ready to play against USC, that the UCLA coaches opted for Cowan since he was in such a groove, having started in place of Olson. But the general opinion around the program is, now that they're back on the same ground for spring practice, Olson will emerge and win the position by fall.
It's not a bad situation by any means, to have two quarterbacks that you are confident can run your offense well. And the competition between the two of them can only make them better. We've heard that both Cowan and Olson have taken this off-season very seriously in trying to secure the starting position.
Another factor in all of this will be Norvell, and how he blends in or makes his mark with the two quarterbacks. It's too early for anyone to draw any conclusions. It's known, however, that the quarterbacks didn't have a great deal of confidence in former OC and quarterbacks coach, Jim Svoboda. These are two young men who are smart, experienced (Olson will turn 24 years old tomorrow) and savvy, and need a strong coach to engender confidence.
The quarterback depth is good, generally speaking. One of the bigggest, lingering question marks on the team is Osaar Rasshan (SO, 6-4, 208). Rasshan is a very good athlete that hasn't yet proven he can consistently make the throws to play quarterback at UCLA. He has improved – he was much better as a redshirt freshman last season in practice than as a true freshman. But he still has a long ways to go. He is such a good athlete, and a great scrambler, that UCLA is very insistent on trying to develop him into a quarterback, and this spring will be another chance for him to prove it.
UCLA's walk-on, McLeod Bethel-Thompson (R-FR, 6-3, 222) is easily the best walk-on quarterback to come to UCLA in the last decade. In fact, he's better than many of the scholarship quarterbacks that have come to UCLA in that time. He's a scholarship level player – not necessarily an All-Pac-10 caliber guy, but definitely a D-1 quarterback. He has a very strong arm and throws a nice ball, and has good pocket presence. He's not quick, but not a snail either. He has a legitimate shot at winning a scholarship at UCLA and being thought of as a solid back-up at the position.
The incoming freshman is Chris Forcier (FR, 6-3, 185) who will almost certainly redshirt. Forcier is the most athletic player to come to UCLA as a quarterback – probably ever. He runs a legit 4.4 40 and is very, very quick. His arm is good, not great at this point, but he has good basic mechanics and arm strength. With so much to learn in UCLA's offense, Forcier will spend the year probably running the scout team and studying the playbook, and getting stronger and more refined. In years to come, it will be interesting to see how UCLA tries to take advantage of his athleticism and, particularly, his upfield speed.
UCLA needs to maintain its quarterback depth and will look to take at least one quarterback in 2008.