With 20 returning starters, 10 on each side of the ball, two starting returning quarterbacks, a good defense from last season that you'd think should be even better, a new offensive coordinator who is supposed to bring more energy and dynamics to the O, a returning 1,000-yard rusher, and a pretty favorable schedule, there is much to be excited about for the upcoming season.
With that excitement, you have to admit, there is a feeling, even among some of the biggest Karl Dorrell supporters, that is a make-or-break year in Dorrell's tenure. In four seasons, he's had a single successful one (in 2005, when he went 10-2). Other than that season, he is 19-19 in his three other seasons. Not only is there pressure from a pure win-loss standpoint for him to chalk up a second winning season in five overall, but the fact that there are so many things pointing toward this season as "the one." Dorrell himself has alluded in the past few years that he was building the program, cleaning out the "underbelly," and pointed toward this season as "the one." He doesn't have excuses anymore that the guys on the roster aren't his players, that he doesn't have the coaches he wants, or doesn't have experience on the team (with 25 seniors) that he developed himself.
With all that piled on, it's pretty clear that Dorrell has to have a clearly successful season in 2007. A record of 7-6 isn't going to cut it. Heck, 8-5 probably won't. There are probably some program-watchers that, given everything this season has going for it, would say that 9-4 is borderline. Dorrell will probably have to get to 10 wins for this season to clearly be deemed a successful one.
How vital is it for Dorrell to get that clearly successful season in 2007? His entire program weighs in the balance. If he doesn't, he'd have easily his most disappointing season during his head coaching tenure at UCLA; it'd be his fourth unsuccessful season in five years, which, for many, would be time enough for him to have turned around a program; and all of those 4-star recruits he has verbally committed could start jumping off the boat and, if they did, his future in terms of just mere talent in the program could turn bleak.
So, yeah, it is a make-or-break season.
With fall camp just a few days away, and with so many UCLA fans anxious about the most eagerly-anticipated football season in many years, here's a preview of what to look for in fall camp.
First, the offense.
UCLA has, in the last ten years, had a quarterback controversy of some sort. Drew Olson or Matt Moore. Cory Paus or Ryan McCann. Or Scott McEwan. Or J.P. Losman. Or, it couldn't simply get enough production out of the position. Ever since Cade McNown left the program after the 1998 season, there have been eight seasons since in which UCLA has had quarterback issues. Probably the 2005 season was the only one in that time where a quarterback (Drew Olson) clearly had a good season. And it's no coincidence that it's truly UCLA's only successful season since McNown's last in 1998.
One good season in eight years, and it's the season where the quarterback excels.
Are we all getting the correlation here?
UCLA won't reach those ten wins unless it gets a good season out of its quarterback position. Dorrell admitted as much at Pac-10 Media Day.
QB Depth Chart:
Looking at this depth chart, on one hand, you feel good about having two experienced former starting quarterbacks in your program. On the other, the way paranoid coaches think, is that you're two injuries away from a redshirt freshman walk-on, Bethel-Thompson, being under center against USC. Most programs want to carry at least four, if not five, scholarship quarterbacks, merely because injuries can decimate the position. UCLA moved Osaar Rasshan to receiver for this season and, if there were injuries to Olson and Cowan, he'd probably be moved back to give the coaches another option rather than just Bethel-Thompson. But one of the contributing factors in moving Rasshan to receiver was that coaches believe Bethel-Thompson is good – at least good enough to be the third-string QB. Only a real disaster at the position would force Forcier, who is a great athlete and has a good future at UCLA, to play this season. Forcier could also go far beyond expectation in fall camp and actually compete with Bethel-Thompson for the third spot, but it's unlikely since Bethel-Thompson has such an advantage, having been in the program for a year already and having a head start over Forcier on learning the offense.
Dorrell named Olson the starter in spring to try to build some momentum behind their starting quarterback going into fall. Everything is pointing toward Olson having his break-out year; many close to the program feel that the 24-year-old has been focused more than he ever has before. Some chalk it up to Olson getting married this off-season, and it's given him more drive and maturity. In spring, though, he didn't win the position overwhelmingly over Cowan. Dorrell naming Olson was based more on Olson's potential for being better than Cowan, not necessarily that he performed better in spring practice. Olson is a more accurate passer, with a better ability to put touch on the ball, than Cowan. As it's been said many times, in UCLA's controlled-passing-game offense, a high percentage of completion is vital, and we've heard that that was the primary reason Olson was chosen over Cowan in spring: He provides a better chance at a higher completion percentage than Cowan.
Really, Olson's primary issue has been decision-making since he came to UCLA. He's never been quick at it. In his first couple of years, you attributed that to being rusty, returning from his year-and-a-half LDS mission, and having to learn a complicated, pro-style offense. But he's now going into his third year in the program and that excuse has been exhausted. He still showed signs of shaky decision-making in spring, but you have to concede that, with new offensive coordinator Jay Norvell, it was a matter of the quarterbacks, the coordinator and the offense getting its first look at each other. While the offense is supposed to be conceptually the same, there still have been changes under Norvell, in terms of many things beyond just terminology. We'll concede the spring to Olson getting used to Norvell, and vice versa. But after an off-season of sleeping with his playbook, you'd have to expect that Olson will look far more in command of the offense this fall.
Cowan did a commendable job of filling in for Olson when he went down for half the season in 2006. Well, commendable enough to eek out a 7-6 record for the season. But when watching Cowan, you didn't think he was doing a really poor job, or an exceptional one. He had flashes, in the Notre Dame game, for instance, where you could envision him as a very good quarterback. He is athletic, and can create plays with his feet, which gives the offense another dimension when he's in the game. He can definitely throw the ball down the field. His issue, though, is accuracy and consistency. It's something to watch for in fall – whether Cowan has improved his accuracy.
Bethel-Thompson, the first day he stepped on Spaulding Field last August, we said he was by far the best walk-on quarterback we had seen at UCLA since doing this job. In fact, we said he looked better as a true freshman than many scholarship quarterbacks did in the last 9 years. He has a strong arm and throws a nice ball, and, from what we're hearing, he's smart and has picked up the offense quickly, especially knowing that he'd be the #3 guy this season. It's only a matter of time before Bethel-Thompson earns a scholarship. Heck, once Olson and Cowan graduate after the 2008 season, he'll be a redshirt junior in 2009 with only younger quarterbacks behind him and could very well be good enough by that time to be UCLA's starting QB.
As with every preview we've ever written going into fall camp, success for a football team is all about production at quarterback and on the offensive line.
UCLA's offensive line for 2007 will be an interesting situation: You have four returning starters, but only one returning starter at the position he started at for 2006.
UCLA will move to a dedicated left and right side of the line this year under new offensive line coach Bob Connelly, rather than the strong and weakside they've been employing in recent years. The move was done to exploit the natural ability of players on either side.
LT – Micha Kia (SO, 6-6, 299)
LG – Shannon Tevaga (SR, 6-2, 324)
C – Chris Joseph (SR, 6-5, 289)
RG – Noah Sutherland (SR, 6-4, 296)
RT – Brian Abraham (SR, 6-6, 298)
The only starter who returns to the position he started in a season ago is Shannon Tevaga. Tevaga is getting some pre-season honor hype, and it's deserved. He's a very solid, inside guy who now has experience, which has helped his consistency and intensity.
Sutherland moves from tackle to guard, which is probably his more natural position. He is probably the strongest guy on the team and very physically tough, and he'll be able to use his strength straight ahead more at guard than having to be out on the edge moving his feet at tackle. Being a veteran, the move to guard shouldn't be a tough one in terms of assignments.
The center position is probably the biggest issue on the OL. Joseph goes from guard back to the position he played before and he's a good, natural fit there, being very smart, and capable of making all the line calls. But it's a position that demands experience, and Joseph lacks game time there. Plus, he's been injury prone during his Bruin career, with questionable knees.
At one of the outside positions is a senior, Abraham, who beat out a returning starter, Aleksey Lanis (SO, 6-5, 319) during spring. Abraham, who was a starter in 2005 but didn't play particularly well, was a back-up last season. But Lanis had injuries, and Abraham stepped in and played much better, particularly on pass protection. The right tackle spot is the one protecting Ben Olson's blind spot, so it's the place you want your strongest tackle this season.
New OL coach Bob Connelly wanted to get his best five on the field during spring practice, get them in their positions and have them start meshing. Lanis has now moved to back up the left tackle position, and the word is he could win either of the tackle positions if he emerges as one of the two best out of fall camp.
Lanis will try to unseat Abraham and Kia, the very promising true sophomore. Both Lanis and Kia are considered UCLA's tackle tandem of the future, with both having NFL-type potential. The word is that Lanis needs to be more focused, but that they expect him, after being demoted to second string, to come out in fall on fire. Kia is the golden boy of the offensive line, with insiders going on and on about his NFL talent. He certainly has an NFL-type body, and very good athleticism for his size. He didn't play much last year, probably was in for 10 plays at the most all season (except on special teams), so his learning curve will definitely be something to watch this fall. If he falters, and is just too green, you still have Lanis.
It's still questionable that UCLA used Kia last season almost completely on special teams and burned a year of his eligibility.
UCLA seemingly has taken quite a few OLs in recent years, but it finds itself not exactly stocked depth-wise. At tackle, after Abraham, Lanis and Kia, you have Sean Sheller (R-FR, 6-5, 290), but that's about it. Sheller had knee surgery early last season and was practicing by the end on the scout team and getting good reviews. But after him on the depth chart is injured Tony Lee (JR, 6-4, 270) and confused Scott Glicksberg (JR, 6-4, 252). Lee has had serious problems with his knees and multiple operations, and it's thought that he's not long to leave the team with a medical scholarship. He's not supposed to be ready for full contact when practice starts next week. Glicksberg went from an offensive guard, to a tight end, to what looked like he was on his way to being an intern with the program holding a clip board, and now to offensive tackle. He's there purely because it was the thinnest position on the OL. There will also be true freshman Mike Harris (FR, 6-5, 305), but he'll redshirt, and could end up at guard.
Perhaps the most interesting depth of any position is at center, where walk-on Micah Reed (JR, 6-4, 310) is listed at #2. Reed has always been well-liked by the staff, and now he makes the move to center. The thought behind it: In case Joseph falters or gets hurt, you have an experienced, smart player to take over. It's also an indication that many of the guys UCLA has tried at center over the last couple of years haven't shown enough to be considered the "center of the future." Aaron Meyer (JR, 6-1, 285) actually started some games at the position, but has since moved down the depth chart, not understanding fully how to run the offensive line. Andy Keane (R-FR, 6-2, 270) has moved from the DL to center, in hopes of finding that "center of the future."
At guard, there is P.J. Irvin (SR, 6-5, 308) who, when he came into the program, looked like a longshot to contribute, but through steady work and dedication, has become what many in the program feel is UCLA's most dependable back-up on the interior line. Nick Ekbatani (JR, 6-4, 281) came to UCLA as a heralded JC transfer, but hasn't lived up to expectations. It'd be good if, after fall camp, UCLA felt solid about him as a back-up at right guard behind Sutherland. The other interior back-up with experience is Nathaniel Skaggs (JR, 6-4, 297) who was one of the center outcasts and, before that, on the DL. The game experience helps him. Then there are three young guys who need to prove they can contribute: Jake Dean (R-FR, 6-4, 293), Sonny Tevaga (R-FR, 6-3, 337) and Brandon Bennett (R-FR, 6-3, 336). Dean, who was thought to be the "center of the future," didn't make it there and is trying to find a role at guard. He's struggled with the strength and speed of the game as a true freshman in practice last year. Tevaga and Bennett, first and foremost, have had weight issues, coming to UCLA in the 360-pound range. UCLA has been working hard to get their weight manageable, and they've made some headway, but they're still on the very large side. Tevaga has some good athleticism underneath that girth and it's a matter of him getting down to a weight where he can be effective.
If the OL doesn't gel pretty quickly, watch for Connelly to be swift in making changes. We've heard that Connelly isn't one to wait around for someone with potential to pay off, but will more often go with the guy who can immediately contribute. This fall, how Joseph does at center is critical, and there will be somewhat of a battle for the two starting tackle spots.
The tight end position generally is looking good, with good talent and depth.
Logan Paulsen (JR, 6-6, 250)
William Snead (SR, 6-5, 240)
Ryan Moya (JR, 6-3, 230)
Adam Heater (SO, 6-5, 245)
Tyler Holland (JR, 6-4, 240)
Travis Martin (JR, 6-3, 240)
Nate Chandler (FR, 6-4, 250
Paulsen is the returning starter, having caught 27 balls for 331 yards in 2006. He had some flashes of greatness last season, and he's expected to be one of the best tight ends in the Pac-10 for 2007. It's interesting that Paulsen lacked a great deal of experience and knowledge of the position when he came to UCLA, but he's now the old veteran taking young tight ends under his wing.
Snead is the converted defensive end who, right after he made the position switch, caught a touchdown pass at Notre Dame. He's a big body who is a good blocker at the position, while he's showing a developing skill at catching the ball. Much will be expected of Snead as the #2 tight end since Moya's status is uncertain. Moya fractured a fibula last year, had surgery and looked recovered by early 2007, but he's still experiencing some complications. As of right now, he's questionable to start fall camp, and Dorrell didn't rule out the possibility of Moya redshirting if he gets too far behind.
If Moya is unavailable for that third TE spot, there's a big question mark as to whom else could fill it. Heater hasn't yet shown he can play at this level, but perhaps going into his third season in the program he can now be serviceable for a few downs a game. The coaches like walk-ons Tyler Holland and Travis Martin – as walk-ons – but it's questionable whether they could really provide any true game-playing depth. Chandler, the true freshman, will definitely be part of the UCLA offense down the road, but it will be a question this season if he's physically capable of it. We've heard he's put on weight but isn't necessarily very strong.
UCLA's wide receiver group, which looked to be one of the most solid units on the team, just got turbulent with the development of coach Eric Scott being charged with felony burglary and put on administrative leave.
Dorrell said, if Turner is not re-instated in time for practice, he himself will take over the duties of coaching the receivers.
It shouldn't, though, affect the personnel that much. UCLA's receivers, as everyone knows, are solid, but not spectacular, with good depth and experience but no real star.
Marcus Everett (SR, 6-1, 203)
Brandon Breazell (SR, 6-1, 160)
Everett, in the off-season, has worked hard, and reportedly improved his quickness and speed. He's always had the hands. Even if he is about the same as he's been, the smart, experienced senior receiver always seems to have a good season in the Pac-10.
Breazell had a disappointing season in 2006, after showing some real promise in 2005. The scouting report on him was, because of his lack of size and strength, to press him and bump him off his route, and that worked last season. Often times, Breazell wasn't a factor in many games. He's still skinny, but apparently has gotten stronger, and has been doing work to make him a more effective route runner.
UCLA uses at least five receivers in its rotation, and every year it's tough once you get past the first two or three to see who else will fill the spots. This year, however, with the depth UCLA has at receiver, it's pretty clear.
Joe Cowan (SR, 6-4, 219) will be considered a starter. The redshirt senior returns from a season he sat out due to a knee injury, but in the off-season workouts he's looked very good, and very experienced and savvy.
Gavin Ketchum (JR, 6-5, 202), with his size, has shown flashes of great agility to possibly have a break-out year in 2007. He's had some issues with catching the ball at times, however. He and Cowan give UCLA two very big receivers that can create mis-matches against opposing teams with smallish corners.
The other guy who is expected to become a major contributor is Terrence Austin (SO, 5-10, 165). Austin has decent speed, but great moves, and should be very difficult to cover in UCLA's timing passing game. There were many who thought he deserved more playing time a year ago, but as one of the top five receivers on the team, he should get an opportunity this year.
UCLA is expecting Dominique Johnson (SO, 6-3, 210) to also contribute. Johnson is very long and has good hands, and is very good at catching the ball across the middle in traffic. He was injured last season and sat out some portion of the year, but he did actually get some playing time early in the season. This has left his capability of redshirting in question and, as of today, it's still uncertain if he'll get the year back.
Osaar Rasshan (SO, 6-4, 212) makes the move from quarterback. When Rasshan came to UCLA as a QB, we were skeptical whether he would ever be able to throw the ball well enough to make it at the position. He showed very good athleticism and escapability, and we remember seeing him in various camps before his high school senior year and thinking he could project as a wide receiver in college instead of quarterback. It took a couple of years, but Rasshan is now a receiver and, according to some off-season reports, has a chance. He has a good, natural pass-catching ability but now has to learn some of the technique for the position, namely the footwork. It's wouldn't be too much of a surprise if he contributed some this season.
Jamil Turner (SO, 6-1, 198) and Ryan Graves (JR, 6-1, 170) have been in the program for a while but can't make the receiver rotation. Turner has good hands but lacks the quickness, and Graves has good quickness but lacks the strength.
UCLA's group at tailback is best described as (here comes that word again) solid.
But it went from very solid, to a little worrisome with the loss of Derrick Williams, who left the team after too many concussions.
That leaves the depth chart quite a bit thinner.
Chris Markey (SR, 5-10, 205)
Kahlil Bell (JR, 6-0, 219)
Chane Moline (SO, 6-1, 230)
Ryen Carew (SO, 5-10, 202)
Raymond Carter (FR, 5-11, 190)
Markey rushed for 1,017 yards, being only the 11th Bruin to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season. It was, however, one of the quietest 1,000-yard seasons. Markey gains his yards through steadily, consistently, gaining the 3-8 yards on a carry, with very few game-breakers. He did, however, get stronger as the season wore on and was more effective in the second-half of UCLA's season in 2006. He skipped spring practice due to injury but reportedly is fully recovered and ready for fall camp.
Without Williams, who many thought was even better than Markey, Bell is the #2 guy. Bell was suspended from the team last season for a while, but returned. He's gotten bigger physically, and doesn't look like he did just a year ago. He has shown some ability to run tackle-to-tackle, plowing through while keeping his feet. But he isn't going to give the team anything more than 10-15 carries a game to give Markey a blow.
UCLA likes to rotate three tailbacks and without Williams, the job for the third spot is up in the air. Moline, who is UCLA's short-yardage specialist, could get more carries and pick up the slack. Carew, the walk-on, has talent, but recovered from knee surgery. If he could live up to the promise he's shown it would go a long way for UCLA's backfield.
The big question is how ready true freshman Carter will be to play. He has been hyped as a guy with the kind of talent that could come in and immediately play, but Dorrell has been backing off from that in recent statements. Carter has had a hamstring issue, but in recent workouts has looked fine. He gives the UCLA backfield break-away speed, and it will be interesting to see this fall camp if his talent overcomes his inexperience and possibly lack of strength to earn him playing time.
Fullback Depth Chart:
Michael Pitre (SR, 5-11, 229)
Trevor Theriot (SO, 6-0, 227)
Dylan Rush (R-FR, 6-3, 240)
Pitre sat out spring practice due to injury, so UCLA, in trying to motivate him, moved walk-on Theriot into a tie for the starting fullback position on the official depth chart.
Pitre is the starter, and a good one, and he's really improved himself physically in the off-season, having gotten even stronger and leaner.
Theriot has worked hard and earned the back-up spot on the depth chart at fullback. Rush made a move from defensive end, and it's really just an experiment to see if UCLA can find a position for him.
If Pitre went down, there isn't a guy who would step in and there wouldn't be drop off. Theriot could, at the very least, block the position. More than likely, Moline would get some time at fullback, and probably will here and here anyway.
The UCLA offensive mind trust is claiming they're going to get the fullback more involved in the offense, give him some reps carrying the ball, so that will be something to watch for this fall.
The feeling around the program is a very positive, optimistic one about the offense, namely because of Norvell. Or really, because the offensive coordinator from last year, Jim Svoboda, isn't there anymore. Norvell definitely comes off to the team like he knows what he's doing, but that's not hard to do given who he replaced. But with new leadership and some intelligence running the offense, the players are confident that UCLA's offense will be much more productive than it was a season ago.
Just from the standpoint of personnel and experience, regardless of Norvell, you'd have to think the offense should be improved.
What was most promising last season was how well the offensive line started to play toward the end of the season, being effective in opening up the running game. If that can continue, and there aren't issues or injuries on the offensive line, that would be a big factor for the offense's success this season.
And, of course, all eyes, again in this fall camp, will be on the quarterbacks, particularly Ben Olson. If he can have a successful season, the offense will click, and with the defense being its reliable self, you'd have to think that UCLA will have the season it's been waiting to have for sometime.