We predicted a 7-5 regular season finish a year ago, and then also predicted a win over USC.
(And by the way, we also predicted the exact regular-season record in basketball, so we're on a roll).
So, here we go again.
Fall Camp Review
There were some unique aspects of this season's fall camp that make it stand out.
First, there were literally no starting positions to be won. It made the camp a bit uneventful and less dramatic than those in the past.
There was also a definite effort on the part of the coaching staff to have the team go "live" less – to spare injuries. You could say it probably worked – but then again, there were still a decent amount of injuries, so you'd hate to see what the team would be like if they had actually hit more.
In the fall camp preview, we noted that the keys to the fall camp to watch for were the development of the offensive line and the quarterbacking.
This isn't a tough conclusion to come to, and most anyone who watched practice would undoubtedly come to the same one: After watching fall camp for three weeks you'd have to still be unsure about both the offensive line and the quarterbacking. Not that it was bad, but there wasn't enough to be seen to make you comfortable say it's good.
The primary reason for this, truly, is that, when UCLA's offense practices against UCLA's defense, the defense is very good and also has an advantage in knowing basically what UCLA's offense is going to do. So, it makes it difficult to accurately gauge just how good UCLA's offense is.
There weren't any great strides made by UCLA's offensive line this fall. They didn't look particularly more effective against UCLA's defensive line. To be blunt, in the one-on-ones against the defensive line in practice, the DL most of the time won the battle. True sophomore offensive tackle Micah Kia got beat clearly by All-American defensive end Bruce Davis. But then, here we go again: That would be Kia going up against one of the toughest defensive ends in the country to block. Even if Kia actually isn't very good, you'd have to think that going up against Davis in practice every day is going to make other defensive ends he faces this season look like they're in slow motion. On the other side, Brian Abraham didn't do anything that made him stand out particularly, but looked solid. The interior of the offensive line has to be its strength, with post-season honors candidate, senior Shannon Tevaga, and known-factor Noah Sutherland both looking very reliable at the two guard positions. Tevaga sat out a while in practice because of an injured wrist, then worked his way back to the 1s, but he says his wrist is completely fine. Center was a position to watch in fall camp, to see how Chris Joseph, the starting guard from a season ago, could do at his knew position. The reviews were essentially pretty good, with a few people close to the program believing Joseph did well. He does have some health issues, recently in the last few days sitting out with a hip flexor that's bothering him, and long-term knee issues.
Overall, as stated above, the offensive line didn't do anything that really distinguished itself this fall camp, but it didn't look unexpectedly badly either. It looked better in run blocking than it did in pass blocking. It appeared that there was a bit more zone blocking going on, similar to how the OL looked under Tom Cable two years ago, as opposed to last season, even though the OLs say it's all very similar.
On the OL, it would have been nice to also see a back-up really step up in fall practice, but that didn't really materialize. Inside, the first back-up will be P.J. Irvin, who subbed in for Tevaga with the 1s when he was out. At tackle, the starter from last year who was supplanted by Kia, Aleksey Lanis, will be the first off the bench. Both the senior Irvin and the sophomore Lanis are considered very good, solid back-ups for the season.
After that, UCLA's depth on the offensive line gets a bit dubious. Inside, the next guy looks to be Nick Ekbatani, who disappointed the staff last season after being a highly-touted JC player. Ekbatani looked a bit improved this fall. Nathaniel Skaggs, the junior, is probably next after Ekbatani, but there isn't a great deal of confidence in Skaggs at this point.
In terms of development, easily the highlight on the offensive line for fall camp was the change in Brandon Bennett and Sonny Tevaga. Both came to UCLA a year ago weighing in the 370-pound range, and now are about 320 to 330, and look like different human beings. You have to give them a great deal of credit for transforming their bodies the way they have. Last year, we said they were considerable projects that, if they didn't change their bodies, probably wouldn't ever see the field. But now, since they have, they have a chance. They both looked promising in fall camp, Bennett in particular. The word is that the staff is hoping that another year of development for the two and hopefully they'll be able to contend for the starting spots that will open next season when Shannon Tevaga and Sutherland graduate. Watch for UCLA, if it's ever in a blow-out situation, to get these two some playing time to get them game experience. Jake Dean, the redshirt freshman, also looked better this fall than he did in spring.
Easily the biggest, long-term worry that was definitely reinforced this fall camp is the future of the center position. Micah Reed, the walk-on, is currently #2 on the depth chart and he struggled in fall camp. Behind him is Aaron Meyer, the junior, who didn't do anything this fall to make you believe he's ready to step up. Andy Keane, the redshirt freshman, is a guy they moved to center to hopefully develop but, admittedly, it was hard to get a bead on him in fall camp.
On the outside, Sean Sheller, the redshirt freshman, was the guy we were really looking forward to seeing this fall. He sat out a great deal of practice last year with a knee injury, and then we couldn't really watch him last year on the scout team once he returned. But this fall camp he definitely struggled. It's interesting, because in many of the individual drills, he shows decent quickness, but he struggled containing blockers, particularly in pass protection. Hopefully it's just a matter of Sheller being raw and having to develop technique and experience.
Mike Harris, the true freshman, looked physically very impressive. He didn't look particularly quick for a tackle, and you could maybe see him moving inside down the line, even though UCLA is a bit short on tackles.
In terms of the quarterbacking, there was enough improvement in Ben Olson to elicit some hope. Olson, as he's done before, looked good one day and not good the next. But this fall camp there was more consistency than in the past. Toward the end of fall camp and this weekend he looked more confident making decisions and throwing the ball.
The bigger news at quarterback was the loss of experienced back-up Patrick Cowan to a hamstring tear that should have him out for probably the first two games, at least. So, the next on the depth chart is walk-on McLeod Bethel-Thompson. In any other case, it should really scare you that UCLA's offense is just one injury away from having to use a walk-on as its starting quarterback. But Bethel-Thompson, in our opinion, is a scholarship-level guy, and will more than likely get granted one of the three scholarships open for the season. There are times (even though he is going against the #2 and #3 D, and doesn't get many reps) that Bethel-Thompson had the best performance of a quarterback during the course of an individual practice. He got more reps, of course, being promoted to the #2 guy in the last week.
But even though Bethel-Thompson isn't your ordinary walk-on QB, it's still vital that Ben Olson stay healthy.
The coaching staff also said that, if need be, Osaar Rasshan, the quarterback-turned-receiver, could be brought back to take snaps. That would be only if Bethel-Thompson also was unavailable.
There wasn't much else that was eye-opening this fall camp from the offense. Perhaps the emergence of Rasshan as a real potential contributor as a receiver was the biggest news among the receiving corps. Veterans Marcus Everett, Joe Cowan and Brandon Breazell had pretty quiet camps. Gavin Ketchum looked good, as did Terrence Austin, even though Austin had some an issue with the dropsies a bit. Dominique Johnson, the 6-4 sophomore, had his moments, but Rasshan, despite his lack of experience, looked like he has the chance to move ahead of Johnson. Johnson will have a place, though, with the coaches wanting to exploit his size in mismatches. It looks like it's those seven in the receiver rotation, which isn't a surprise.
The status of the tight end position didn't really change at all during fall camp. Logan Paulsen is the starter and looked good. William Snead is first off the bench, and will get the assignment as the primary blocking TE. With Ryan Moya out for the season, There is Adam Heater and walk-on Tyler Holland, who will have a chance to see a few reps on the field, while walk-on Travis Martin is hurt. True freshman Nate Chandler isn't yet lining up with the scout team in practice, so it's thought that there is a chance he could also see the field, especially if there are any more injuries. He certainly is big enough now, all of 250 pounds and looking huge. Scott Glicksberg could also see some time in blocking situations.
One of the biggest issues of camp were the injuries at running back. True freshman Raymond Carter, who looked to easily be good enough to get into the rotation, tore his ACL early on, which means we won't see him until next season. Then Chane Moline broke his wrist, which has him sidelined at least for a few more weeks. That left Chris Markey and Kahlil Bell carrying most of the load, so UCLA looked to walk-on Ryen Carew. He was struggling, and then tweaked the knee he had surgery on a while back. Christian Ramirez, the safety who started out at running back at UCLA a year ago, has been switched to the tailback position and is getting a crash course, now being the #3 guy, a spot that in UCLA's system gets some carries. You can probably expect Markey and Bell to get most of the carries against Stanford, but for UCLA to try to get Ramirez in the game to get his feet wet.
Markey had a good fall camp, looking quick and strong. Bell looked improved, particularly his quickness.
If there weren't enough injury issues at tailback, they certainly had more at fullback. Starter Michael Pitre is out for the Stanford game. The #1 back-up, walk-on Trevor Theriot, has been limited in practice recently. Walk-on Chad Moline recently returned to practice from an injury. Redshirt freshman Dylan Rush has been getting some time, and looks to be used in short-yardage situations. Back-up senior linebacker Fred Holmes was moved to the position and the word is that he's doing okay. But you can probably expect UCLA not to use too formations with fullbacks too often before Pitre returns.
There isn't much to say about the defense's performance in fall camp. It was exactly what you would have expected, without many surprises. The defense overall dominated camp. There were very few days when you would say the offense owned the day.
Perhaps the best news about fall camp was that not one defensive starter was seriously hurt in the last three weeks.
On the DL, Nikola Dragovic looked very tough to block at defensive end, filling in the spot left open by Justin Hickman's graduation. It's key that UCLA has a real threat there, so opposing offenses don't heavily shade Bruce Davis on the other side. Tom Blake, the walk-on, also looked good enough to be a solid back-up there. Korey Bosworth, who was moved from linebacker, looked like a linebacker playing defensive end. Chinonso Anyanwu had an ankle tweak, but he returned to practice and finds himself behind Bosworth, backing up Davis.
Reggie Stokes, the redshirt freshman, didn't distinguish himself. After he was listed at defensive tackle, Jeff Miller moved back to defensive end, and looked okay. True freshman Justin Edison, once he got the hang of the intensity and speed of practice, looks like he has a real chance.
Inside, Brigham Harwell looks like a beast. One arm of his is bigger than Rodney Van's two thighs put together. Kevin Brown, first and foremost, stayed healthy, and looked physically in very good shape.
Without Brian Price, the star freshman defensive tackle, who is ineligible, there is some considerable talent drop-off at tackle after the starters. Chase Moline still looks small out there. The other guy off the bench with Moline has been Jess Ward, who looks just serviceable. We had thought, after a good showing last season where he got some playing time, that Jerzy Siewierski would possibly step up and own a #2 spot on the depth chart, but that wasn't clear after fall camp. Darius Savage looked better physically, having lost some weight, but still doesn't move easily. David Carter, the converted defensive end, showed some promise, even though it was mostly against fourth-string OLs.
John Hale, making the move to middle linebacker, had a good showing and looked at home in the middle. Kyle Bosworth is an old hand at this point backing up the strongside spot behind Whittington. Perhaps the biggest news among the linebackers was the emergence of transfer walk-on Josh Edwards, who will back up Carter at the weakside spot. Edwards is the fastest linebacker on the team and, from what we hear, is putting pressure on Carter, even though he still has a long ways to go in learning the defense.
Sophomore weaksider Shawn Oatis and redshirt freshman middle linebacker Tobi Umodu both didn't make a play to move up the depth chart this fall. The two true freshmen, Steve Sloan and Akeem Ayers, looked promising. Ayers, once he got up to speed, literally, showed good instincts. As we've said before, it's a question whether Ayers will have the quickness to play linebacker. Sloan looks big and in good shape, but a little stiff going through drills.
The secondary didn't do anything in fall camp to make you doubt that they should be one of the best in the Pac-10, if not the country. Safeties Chris Horton and Dennis Keyes are definitely two guys that can put fear in opposing teams when they walk on the field. Cornerback Trey Brown is one of the most under-appreciated players in the conference. Rodney Van looked much more polished this fall.
Behind Van is what many feel is a potential star in Alterraun Verner, and he looked good this fall. He'll get a lot of playing time as the nickel back. Michael Norris also had a good fall camp, and the coaches like him. True freshman Courtney Viney looks very small physically, but he made some plays in the last few weeks.
The back-up safeties started to look better and more consistent in spring practice and they did even moreso in fall camp. Bret Lockett looks physically like a linebacker (and is bigger than many of UCLA's LBs). Aaron Ware has matured and improved at free safety. With Ramirez moving to running back, there is senior Matt Slater, who also earned himself a spot at kick-off return with some flashy returns this fall.
On special teams, place kicker Kai Forbath had an above average fall camp. He showed good accuracy and decent consistency. There is a question of trajectory, and the possibility we could see some kicks blocked this season.
With the kick-off moved back to the 30, it's generally going to be a much more exciting play in college football this season. UCLA worked extensively on kick-off coverage because of it. Kicker Jimmy Rotstein looked like he could consistently put the ball on the 5 to 10 yard line, but that will put some pressure on kick-off coverage.
On punt returns, there were hopes that Austin would really step up and take control of it, but he dropped some punts this fall. The more sure-handed but less flashy Ryan Graves will get some time there.
Christian Yount, the new longsnapper, and the first guy to actually be recruited out of high school at the position, gets the ball off very quickly. He didn't show any signs of nerves in fall camp.
State of the Program
This season is being called the make-or-break one for Karl Dorrell, and there's no way around it. Everything is in place – 20 returning starters and a lot of experience. There have been excuses in the past, that Dorrell had to clean up the program and run off Bob Toledo's dead weight, but this is truly now Dorrell's program and Dorrell's team. After a disappointing season last year, at 7-6, and just one clearly successful season (2005, when he went 10-2) in four seasons, with how much this team has going for it, a disappointing season would be disastrous for Dorrell's program.
Dorrell has put together a very good – if not excellent – recruiting class for 2008. He has recruits verbally committed that are truly a step up in talent level. It's the future of his program, and to hold onto it he'll have to have a successful season. It's one more bit of pressure compounding the situation.
Right now, Dorrell's program isn't among the elite in college football – but this is the year that Dorrell could use to knock on the door. He has put together his program by recruiting solid guys that he can get past UCLA's academic restrictions, but not enough difference-makers. This is the year that, if he goes to a BCS bowl, he can parlay it into getting more of those difference-makers. There are more of those in the 2008 class than he's ever had in a recruiting class, and a big season will only keep that momentum going for future recruiting classes, especially since he has good recruiters now on his staff in DeWayne Walker and Eric Scott.
Again, though, it's all on very shaky footing. Really, so far, Dorrell hasn't been defined as either a good or bad coach. The jury has really been out for his first four years. If the season isn't successful, recruits could jump off the bandwagon and Dorrell could be then be finally put in the category as a clearly questionable coach. If it's a successful season, Dorrell could then be labeled a success, and it could be all gravy from here on out.
Again, it can't be emphasized enough how much is riding on this season.
This season was almost set up for success. 20 returning starters and a favorable schedule. Last season, UCLA had a tough schedule, with most of its tougher opponents on the road. This year, as luck would have it, UCLA's tougher opponents will come to the friendlier confines of the Rose Bowl.
It also worked out that UCLA has two bye weeks to break up the grueling 12-game, regular-season schedule.
It's set up to be a blessed year all the way around.
There is no reason UCLA should even slightly struggle with Stanford in Palo Alto to start the season. The Cardinal have only the element of surprise on their side since they have a new head coach, but absolutely nothing else.
Brigham Young comes to the Rose Bowl, a team that many have picked as a pre-season top 25. With UCLA having to face them early, when possibly the UCLA offense is still getting used to its new scheme and coordinator, it will be a challenge. BYU's defense should be solid, too, so this is a game that definitely goes in the uncertain column for the season.
Also in that column is the game the next week at Utah. They're projected as a bowl team and, even though UCLA handled them pretty easily a year ago in the 2006 opener, this game will be on the road and Utah's toughest game of the season, so the Utes will be really up for it.
The other non-conference game is, of course, against Notre Dame, in the Rose Bowl. The Fighting Irish are in a re-building year, but it is Notre Dame and they do have some talent.
Two tougher Pac-10 opponents – California and Oregon – are at the Rose Bowl, along with Washington and Arizona State.
Two games that should be the tough ones on the road are Oregon State and Washington State. The Beavers are expected to be good and UCLA always struggles in Pullman. Then there is also the game at Arizona.
Let's be blunt here: UCLA will more than likely lose to USC. Yeah, as a fan, you want to be optimistic, but as an analyst and predicting outcomes, you have to give that game a loss. Then, UCLA will probably lose one of its games to one of its better opponents – BYU, Oregon State, Notre Dame, California, or Oregon. If it wins all five of those games you'd have to say it should be a magical year. UCLA also always loses at least one game it definitely should win every season under Dorrell (Washington last year?). This year the candidates are at Utah, at Washington State, Arizona State at home, or Arizona on the road (can anyone say 2005?). So, that's three losses. We'll go with a 9-3 regular season record and a second-place finish in the Pac-10.
That's not bad, but probably a bit below what many feel are standard expectations for the season, which is 10 regular-season wins. UCLA, to do that, will have to show it's not going to fall into the familiar Dorrellian characteristics it has in his four years, like losing to a team it shouldn't and even beat some teams it probably shouldn't.
That's the type of stuff of elite programs. It truly is the season where Dorrell has to prove he has a chance to build one at UCLA.