Dude, Where's Our Offense?

Our football columnist, Charles Chiccoa, comes out of his off-season slumber to chime in on spring practice. As the old saying goes, the defense is ahead of the offense, but is it because the defense is so good or the offense not so good?

It's become commonplace to say the defense is always ahead of the offense. Yet in the days of Cade's ascension, or even as recently as spring of ‘05 when Ben Olson seemed to be genuinely pushing Drew Olson, it wasn't at all like this. Despite the occasional long gainer (usually against some combination of second and third stringers), it looks to me like this defense is just stoning the offense. Remember when we used to worry about the D-line getting rolled, manhandled - seemingly picked up and tossed at the linebackers – back in the dark days of Larry Kerr? We're only just entering the second year of the DeWayne Walker deliverance, yet those days seem dead and gone. Walker's become kind of the Ben Howland of Bruin football. But just as with basketball, you won't truly intimidate teams until you can whip people on both sides of the ball. Of course it's helpful to remember we're only halfway through spring practice.

There are at least three good reasons for the current offensive eclipse:

(1) The D has been healthier, the unit's more intact, though some of the nicked up O linemen are now beginning to scrimmage. Still, Ryan Moya is missing, Brandon Breazell is now down, and Chris Markey and Derrick Williams will not be participating. We're all aware how badly Williams could have used these spring reps in order to nail down more playing time in the fall, but considering the beatings Kahlil Bell, Chane Moline and Ryen Carew are taking at the line of scrimmage, Markey, at least, might consider himself lucky. On the plus side, Terrence Austin and Dominique Johnson have definitely stood out. We all know how good Austin will be, but Johnson, too, has demonstrated real athleticism, which, at a solid 6' 4", is not all that common. Marcus Everett is still the indispensable man at wide receiver, but these two are due to emerge this season.

(2) With a new offensive coordinator who's doing things his own way, there are obviously some new sets and apparently some new terminology… things that always involve a period of adjustment. Jay Norvell looks like a "type A" personality, and not merely the head coach's creature. He's more Tom Cable than Jim Svoboda (though he seems more comfortable throwing the ball than Cable).

(3) The ever present quarterback question, which I'll return to later.

Let me give you a tip if you're planning to get out to some of the remaining and very important practices: avoid the bleachers and head for the east parking structure. Karl Dorrell likes to start scrimmages at the east end of the field, and until the O starts moving the ball with any consistency, you can't really see "jack" from the bleachers. Imagine sitting low in the first few rows of the Rose Bowl when, say, Ryan McCann was trying to drive the Bruins 80 yards from the opposite end of the stadium. In short, lots of static offense.

The D has been pretty much immovable inside, and outside they've been too quick. And then, of course, as has been noted on the message board, Olson and Patrick Cowan haven't been burning up the secondary, particularly downfield (this is putting it kindly). There's been lots of banging into the proverbial brick wall, followed by lots of searching for the open receiver, hesitating, then settling for a little check down for negligible or no yardage, resulting in lots of 3rd-and-long incomplete passes.

Last season, some of us suspected the defense would greatly surprise. This year it looks set to dominate. But is it great D or just poor O? There's experience and size inside with Kevin Brown and Brigham Harwell, both of whom should contend for All Pac-10 honors, and more depth than we've become used to (once Kenneth Lombard and Chase Moline return, and once, presumably, the "can't-miss" Brian Price joins the rotation in August). No doubt Justin Hickman will be missed, but if Nikola Dragovic, or any of the handful of young challengers at that position, can take pressure off Bruce Davis on the opposite side, the front seven should be death on opposing ground games, not to mention better at pressuring the quarterback.

Walker, I believe, has been quoted to the effect that he needs to bring more blitzes. Hopefully this translates into turning up the heat on spread offenses, something that proved to be an Achilles Heel last season. I'll never forget watching a recent video clip of the Tennessee wide receivers coach, in a film session, asking his guys, "When was that defensive back beaten?", upon which the players immediately shot back, "At birth." I agree this is usually the case. Most wideouts are bigger, faster and better athletes than the general run of DBs who must simultaneously backpedal, turn to find the ball, and then close on the play. After quarterback, defensive back is easily the most challenging, pressure-packed position on the football field.

Although we've seen the Bruin secondary play aggressively in practices, only to pull in its horns during the course of the regular season… this time it feels as if the Bruins are going to carry this more confident style through to the regular season, or at least until such time as the secondary proves inadequate to the style. Like any admirer of the Rocky Long school of D, I'd much rather see passers like Isaiah Stanback and Drew Weatherford forced to beat the Bruins over the top than concede them the much easier completions underneath. The less we see of the infamous "cushion," or some kind of safety first zone, the better.

Every day, Alterraun Vernor looks more and more like a future All American, yet Rodney Van, with newfound aggressiveness of his own, continues to hold him off, limiting Verner to the #3 cornerback and to nickel duties. Trey Brown is also playing well, as is Michael Norris. With Courtney Viney entering in the fall, depth here looks very good. And the safeties, at least the starters, have a wealth of experience, with Chris Horton a likely All American candidate. In fact, this entire team is generally more experienced than any Bruin team in recent memory. As KD, himself, has said, "it's time to make a move."

Less some striking weakness, such as the D line going into the Oklahoma St. opener in ‘04, my biggest concern, as a fan, is almost always with the passing game, both offensively and defending the pass. This particular secondary is rapidly banishing half of that concern… which leaves only the quarterback position.

Anyone who blithely says the quarterbacks "will be fine" is more sanguine than me. Olson will always be the more accurate thrower. He should normally complete a higher percentage of passes, particularly downfield, in stride and on the numbers. But now, halfway through spring, entering his third season without having claimed the job outright… this has to be a disappointment, not least to him. Bad luck, no doubt, with the injuries and all, and yet… we expected more. The Utah game was almost too much, but the other starts, as few as they've been, were not quite enough… and then the strained hamstring, early in these sessions, setting him back briefly once again. Cowan is not going away. He's had a taste of success and, of course, the reflected glory off his key efforts in that 13-9 defensive masterpiece. He survived Rey Rey's killshot, and he's obviously tough, durable and fearless. His accuracy, thus far, has not improved; his rollouts, right, are getting predictable and have been notably easy to defend. (I've never bought the idea that he throws well on the run, not to mention that it requires the defense to concentrate on only half the field.) He is putting more air under the ball on deep routes, which is good, but Gavin Ketchum, otherwise playing quite well, dropped Pat's best pass of the spring on Saturday (Olson's not the only frustrated quarterback). Unless the Bruins can do it with defense alone, the quarterback story, as we've suspected all along, is likely the make or break position on this team. I know there are Olson skeptics out there, and he must certainly earn the job with his play now, and in the preseason, but in my opinion the team needs him to win the job. Thankfully, there's time yet for either of them to kick it up before the Stanford opener.

Expectations have finally risen around here. People are even talking BCS, even a victory in the Coliseum (something that hasn't happened since '97). These are some interesting days, BROs.


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