Chiccoa: Watching and Waiting

Our football columnist, Charles Chiccoa, kicks off the season with an approach that most Bruin fans have adopted heading into the 2007 season -- guarded optimism. The defense is the known quantity, and we're all watching and waiting to see if UCLA can put together two good units for the first time in recent memory...

I wanted to call this something like "Fat City or Bust," but, with the customary Bruin question mark still hanging over the quarterback position (added to which we now have Patrick Cowan's injury), that wouldn't really be fair. As we've said before, anxiety is the natural state of the Bruin football fan, and as much reasonable optimism as there is surrounding the program, for that reason alone things still seem a little iffy.

Though he's suffered through two untimely injuries, it's nevertheless true that Ben Olson has yet to translate his out-sized prep credentials to the Pac-10 level. And, just as with the general team expectations, there's no time like the present to break on through. We've all heard the catch-phrases: "This is it;" "No more excuses;" "Put up or shut up;" "If not now, when?" Make no mistake… the pressure this year is huge: From Dan Guerrero to Karl Dorrell, to Ben, and to Patrick Cowan if Ben falters (or even walk-on, McLeod Bethel-Thompson, if Ben goes down early), through the entire coaching staff and down to the last guy on the traveling squad, that infernal "corner" badly needs to be turned this season.

The Drake Stadium scrimmage was just one more installment on what we've been looking at since the beginning of spring: The offense cannot sustain drives against this defense, particularly the first-string D. They can hit a play here and there, even for a score now and then, but they cannot drive the ball. Granted the D has the bit between their teeth and seems determined to establish UCLA as some kind of defensive powerhouse. They take every 7-on-7, every 11-on-11, every single scrimmage personally, while the O is merely trying to get down a new offensive approach and trying to break in what, despite his age, is a relatively green quarterback. Still, it's a little disquieting watching this ongoing mismatch. In a way, I'm relieved the practices are now finally closed (let Tracy do our worrying for us). But what a relief it will be to finally see a defense in something other than Bruin blue.

Let's briefly consider the Ben/Patrick question (This only concerns us, here, since the coaching staff has made it clear there is no question). Until one of these guys consistently moves the team and puts touchdowns up on the board, making field goal attempts the exception rather than the rule, fans will continue to be split on the subject. I've always been a Ben supporter, but who can fail to notice that he still looks insecure in the pocket, is still late on more throws than you'd like to see, even occasionally missing open receivers on short routes… even when he has time. But then this defense, in their aggressive mode, could make any quarterback insecure. This cannot be repeated too often.

Has Patrick been more impressive? I don't think so, or if he has it hasn't been by much. He has, in my opinion, as strong an arm as Ben; In fact, his ball has a consistently lower trajectory since Ben relies more on touch, particularly down field… which is to say that Patrick simply throws more line drives. But Ben still seems the more accurate thrower, which, in the Bruin tradition of pocket passers, is the preeminent QB virtue. For whatever its worth, Patrick also scores higher on the body language scale since he's more outwardly demonstrative, which figures since Ben seems the more thoughtful and articulate, for whatever that's worth. Patrick has a quicker release, which may be because he's making more pre-snap decisions and is certainly less concerned about mistakes. Who really knows? He breaks the pocket quicker (not always a good thing), though his frequent rollouts haven't led to a lot of completions since he's not great throwing on the run, not to mention the fact he eliminates half the field of potential receivers. Of course he can also buy more time with his quicker feet if he moves within the pocket rather than taking off. With the huge exception of the SC game, most of his runs have gained only negligible yards. Of course he's harder to sack than Ben. That he's a wonderfully tough kid with the heart of a strong safety is undeniable. Finally, I don't think either of them sees the field as well as they should; hopefully that comes in time.

Of course McLeod Bethel-Thompson, as Ben's temporary backup, now takes on real importance. At least he's had a year's experience on the scout team, and he does have enough size, at 6' 3" and 220. His arm is strong enough and the coaches seem to think he's picked up the offense as well as can be expected under the circumstances. Actually its lucky that Cowan's "minor" muscle tear occurred as early as it did, giving the walk-on that much more time to get prepared. How he might fair under pressure is anybody's guess. I would hope we won't have to find the answer to that question. Come to think of it, isn't he about the same size as John Barnes?

Should we still be concerned about the passing game? Sure, now more than even… and until we see otherwise.

The wide receivers, it seems to me, have taken a bad rap for the deficiencies of the quarterbacks, the offensive schemes and the conservative play-calling. Unlike a lot of you, I see no great concerns over speed issues, "separation" and route running from this group. Of course there's no DeSean Jackson… but neither is there on most other teams. With Osaar Rasshan finally having seen the light, I now count seven quality receivers. We all have our own favorites among this very deep group, so I might as well list mine: Marcus Everett, Terrence Austin and Brandon Breazell… then, in no particular order, Dominque Johnson, Joe Cowan, Osaar Rasshan and Gavin Ketchum. I'm aware that the combinations on the field aren't likely to break down that way, and though I've never been crazy about large rotations, in this case I think all seven deserve to see the field on Saturdays.

The loss of Ryan Moya may be just as disappointing as the loss of Raymond Carter, maybe more so as that leaves only two known quantities at the position, and Karl Dorrell as always been partial to two tight end sets. You don't want to think about a serious injury here.

Serviceable and thin might be the best way to describe the running backs. Whether Chris Markey is actually quicker, or whether it's just those singular white shoes, who can say? Certainly the "ever popular" Kahlil Bell has been impressive in practices, hitting the holes quickly, making one cut and finishing his runs nicely. He's listed at about 220 now, which should be helpful considering how hard he runs inside. Both have averaged right at five yards a carry and both catch the ball well out of the backfield (as do the fullbacks), something one suspects Jay Norvell will exploit much more than his recent predecessors. The move of Christian Ramirez back to tailback once again becomes "intriguing," and the sooner utility back, Chane Moline, returns, the better.

As usual, I'll leave the O line evaluations to old O linemen. I see these guys more as a unit than particular individuals, though it's hard not to notice when a big tackle gets beaten by a quicker, more athletic defensive end… or when the center gets tossed around in the SC game, or looks like he's performing on skates. I'll take the word of those in the know that, apart from Aleksey Lanis, the depth here is shaky. One can only hope one or two of the younger guys will come along as the season progresses. So far the O line seems respectable, and I doubt Chris Joseph is going to "find his heels three yards behind the line of scrimmage, and his butt blocking out the sun from the running back's vision" (I'm a sucker for memorable rhetoric. Thanks BruinMBA.)

What more can you say about the defense? They made their bones off the SC game by stuffing the run and hunting John David Booty with relentless pressure. As DeWayne Walker said, it was basically him vs. the rather stationary Booty, and, of course, Walker won. Unfortunately, he squandered some capital in the subsequent Florida State loss, seemingly turning a proven mediocrity like Drew Weatherford into a quality quarterback, while his defense was getting worked by one of those ugly little Bowden homunculi (this particular one on the way out of his daddy's house). Perhaps Walker miscalculated the level of pressure needed. Perhaps, after neutralizing Booty and the Trojans, he had a bit less respect for Weatherford than was absolutely healthy (quite understandable). Again, who knows? Something similar may have been at work, earlier, with Washington State's Alex Brink (a better passer than Weatherford), when Brink nailed the secondary for 405 yards in the Bruins most embarrassing loss. I don't need to mention the last-second drive against the Irish.

It's good to remember that Walker was in his rookie year as a coordinator. To hear him talk, he appears to have learned his lessons, seems well aware of last year's deficiency, i.e. attacking spread offenses more decisively. He talks of sleepless nights after Notre Dame, of not having to live through that horror show again just before the "McPick." Regarding personnel, for him it's still speed and quickness over bulk (always a good idea, in my opinion, and one that always eluded Bob Toledo and his failed DC's after Rocky Long's departure). And you've got to love Walker's statement that "everyday is an interview," which should be a sure cure for any complacency. I don't believe the day to day excellence we've seen out of this defense has that much to do with a merely stagnant, pre-season, vanilla offense. This group should be regularly stoning the lesser offenses and should be a major headache for everyone else.

As brilliant as they've looked as a unit doesn't mean they lack genuine individual talents, starting of course with Bruce Davis up front and Chris Horton in the secondary. We all know about Davis's speed and quickness off the edge, but I've been amazed at his strength in overpowering tackles 50 or more pounds heavier. He's like a street fighter who gets in the first punch. Brigham Harwell and Kevin Brown do more than just anchor the inside while Davis, the linebackers and the secondary beat opponents to the corners. I've sworn off worrying about the linebackers, even the depth issue. I suspect linebacker's coach, Chuck Bullough, has something to do with it. I mean, his father was known as the "Doctor of Defense" in the NFL.

The secondary seems finally to have come into its own and would appear to be a radical departure from some of the soft, zone-loving, Bruin secondaries of the past. Perhaps the safeties might be vulnerable in pass coverage, but the corners, along with linebackers dropping into coverage, should be as effective as any Bruin secondary within memory. Trey Brown is a proven playmaker, Alterraun Verner looks to be a future All American, and Rodney Van and Michael Norris are noticeably improved, as are the back-up safeties Bret Lockett and Aaron Ware. Matthew Slater hasn't looked bad either.

It's an extraordinary opportunity, having 10 retuning starters along with a little depth. It's equally extraordinary that a talent like Alterraun Verner is playing behind anybody, but the senior, Rodney Van, has been making enough plays in practice to hold off Alterraun ever since the spring. However, I think we'd be surprised if he maintains that hold all year. Only Nikola Dragovic and Tom Blake have something to prove, and only the depth at defensive end seems to be seriously lacking.

That leaves only the special teams. Kai Forbath won't be as consistent as Justin Medlock last year, but he's got five to ten more yards in his leg. Aaron Perez, with two seasons remaining, seems to me on track as another good Bruin punter. In any case we'll always associate him with his monster, last-second punt over that Trojan's head as the seconds ticked beautifully away on the 13-9 scoreboard. No disrespect to the reliable Ryan Graves, but the choice of Austin and Verner to return punts adds a new break-away dimension. And with a year's experience they could be as reliable as Graves. Slater, on kickoff returns, looks increasingly promising. The new rule moving the kickoff back five more yards may be the most profound rule change in years; kickoff returns have now doubled in importance. Considering he's the rare long snapper specialist ever to receive a Bruin scholarship as an incoming freshman, Christian Yount had better not sail any snaps over Perez's head.

Since none of us, right now, knows what kind of offense to expect, it's comfort, indeed, knowing that Stanford, BYU and Utah have seldom been known for defense. On the other hand, the Bruins have seldom inspired confidence in early season road games. Deny it if you will, but aren't you just a little extra tense every time the Bruins hit the road, no matter the opponent, no matter even if it's just Stanford coming off a disastrous season, with a new quarterback and their eccentric rookie coach? But then he's got to be an improvement over poor Walt Harris. And to think they turned down Norm Chow for that pretentious mutt.

It seems to me either perverse or somewhat agenda-driven not to be optimistic going into a season like this one. A few weeks into the season and we can address what exactly constitutes a successful year. But until I see some early season crack in expectations, I'm going to adopt a more sanguine outlook than usual. But of course, there's always one more thing (read: injury, turnovers or an early season upset), especially with this program.

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