Rick Neuheisel starts his first season as UCLA's head coach, along with the coaching staff he put together that has to be considered one of the potentially best around.
That's high praise, given that Neuheisel's Bruins haven't hit the field yet. But given the staffs' resumes, it's a pretty safe statement.
The biggest name on the staff is easily Norm Chow, the offensive coordinator who has national championships, Heisman Trophies and extensive NFL experience on his 30-year football coaching resume. We saw what Chow was attempting to do to UCLA's offense in spring practice – mostly simplify it and employ the West Coast philosophy with more deception and surprise rather than predictability, like we saw from UCLA's offense over the last five years.
There is no doubt that Chow has the scheme to be successful. It's a question of whether he has the personnel to pull it off. Really, the question is whether Chow is enough of a magician to pull it off – even marginally – without truly the horses to do it.
After five long years of one of the worst offenses in college football, the big question, truly, heading into the 2008 season is: Can UCLA have some assemblance of a good offense – one that is diversified and not (gulp) predictable or conservative? Even if Chow's offense this year doesn't explode with huge amounts of yards, UCLA fans are ready to give him a pass if the offense even appears to be attempting something good and creative.
Most observers will give him a pass because they realize that UCLA, in fact, doesn't have the horses at offensive line. To be blunt, ex-UCLA Head Coach Karl Dorrell didn't leave the cupboard bare at all – with some good amount of talent, if you also give him some credit for the incoming recruiting class. That is, everywhere but on the offensive line.
So, questions 1A, then, of the upcoming season is: Can UCLA actually get some moderately good production out of its depleted, inexperienced, make-shift offensive line?
Question 1A, regrettably, impacts question 1 immensely, and probably affects the performance of the entire team and the outcome of the season more than anyone wants to realize.
Because, really, UCLA has decent talent on its roster –everywhere but on the offensive line. And after reviewing our booklet of Football 101, we know that, if you can't get decent production on your offensive line, your offense can't move the ball, and because of that, you can't score. The defense, then, has to spend way too much time on the field, which puts even more pressure on it to limit opposing offenses.
It's a snowball effect.
So, UCLA's offensive coaches, Neuheisel, Chow and offensive line coach Bob Palcic, have a considerable challenge.
You can probably expect UCLA to emphasize the run, hoping that its running game, at the very least, can keep the offense on the field and the defense off.
At least for a while.
So, since it's the key to the season, we look at the offensive line first.
UCLA returns two starters to the offensive line, left tackle Micah Kia (JR, 6-6, 300) and center Micah Reed (SR, 6-4, 309). Kia is considered a potential NFL prospect, with good size and quickness. He's still learning, however, after his first year as a starter last season.
And Kia has the most game experience on the offensive line.
Reed is a former walk-on who earned a scholarship, and had a good season a year ago, starting the last eight games of the season – at guard. He'll be at a new position, center, the one that requires the most knowledge and headiness on the offensive line.
If that doesn't necessarily sound re-assuring, don't read on because it gets sketchier from there.
Sketchy isn't the right word. Perhaps unknown is better.
Probably the next most assured starter is Darius Savage (SO, 6-4, 325) at left guard. Savage was converted from defensive tackle and has received good reviews from the coaches since spring practice. He's definitely what you would call a road grader – big, huge, immovable object. The question is his foot quickness, which he has been working on particularly in the off-season and, well, during his entire time at UCLA. If UCLA can emerge from fall with the coaches feeling really good about Savage that will go a long way, having three solid guys at the very least to go into the season.
The most up-in-the-air position on the OL is easily the right guard spot. Currently, Scott Glicksberg (SR, 6-4, 300) is penciled in there. Glicksberg has had an interesting career at UCLA – originally coming in as an offensive lineman, then was switched to the defensive line. He then had a bout with mononucleosis, and lost quite a bit of weight and didn't get on the field for a while. When he returned, he came back as a 250-pound tight end. He then injured his shoulder last season as the designated blocking tight end, but when the offensive line was growing even more thin, he gained his weight back, did some considerable time in the weight room and was plugged back into the offensive guard position. It would be a great story if, this fall, Glicksberg had a good season for the Bruins.
Nick Ekbatani (JR, 6-4, 295) is also a candidate for the starting right guard position. Ekbatani, a former JC prospect, came to UCLA with big expectations, having been recruited by some big-named schools. But with some injuries here and there, he's been limited, and sat out the entire season in 2007. He then sat out much of spring practice, so the coaches are anxious to see him healthy next week.
Ekbatani will also be a candidate for the starting spot at right tackle, which has to be the hardest hit position on UCLA's football team. Aleksey Lanis, who was a good, young player, quit football after too many knee injuries. The projected starter after Lanis, Sean Sheller, had a serious knee injury in an ATV accident in the off-season and will be out for the season. There is actually some question whether he'll be able to return to football at all. So, UCLA is now dipping down into essentially its third string at right tackle. Mike Harris (R-FR, 6-5, 305) will get a chance there. Harris, physically, is impressive-looking, but he's young, inexperienced and there were some issues: 1) Whether he has the foot quickness and 2) the fact he was struggling to pick up the blocking schemes last season as a true freshman.
In the off-season, the guy who has lined up at the informal workouts at right tackle is Brandon Bennett (SO, 6-4, 310). Bennett has had his body transformed since coming to UCLA, having lost a good 30 to 40 pounds and added muscle, and he could still do some more work on it. Bennett, once he lost the weight, showed some decent quickness, so since UCLA is so thin at tackle, that's where he found himself.
Not only is UCLA's OL lacking elite talent and experience, but depth. After those six, there is Jake Dean (SO, 6-4, 295), who has hopped between center and guard, and is now settled in at center again. UCLA is grooming him as the center of the future when Reed leaves after this season. He did, however, injure his foot in the off-season but the MRI was negative and he's expected to be ready to start camp next week.
The only other lineman who returns from last season is Sonny Tevaga (SO, 6-3, 320), who is written in as a back-up guard. Tevaga, like Bennett, has lost a ton of weight, but we haven't see him this off-season at all and haven't heard about his progress.
Nate Chandler (R-FR, 6-4, 275), since he came to UCLA, looked more like a potential offensive tackle than a tight end. As Neuheisel said at Pac-10 Media Day, he kept thinking tight end but the mirror said offensive line, so he was moved from tight end to OT in the off-season. Neuheisel has a lot of praise for Chandler, even saying he has the agility to be a potentially impact player at offensive tackle. But it's thought he's at least a year away.
Adam Heater (JR, 6-5, 270) is now a center, having converted from tight end himself. Heater isn't expected to see the field this season and hopefully he'll develop at least into a dependable back-up in 2009.
UCLA, then, only has two new offensive linemen in the program this fall. Jeff Baca (FR, 6-4, 280) definitely passes the eye-ball test, being very well put together without much spare flesh on his frame. With a lack of depth, Baca very well could make the two-deep. The other freshman is Connor Bradford (FR, 6-5, 270), who has a good frame but is a long ways away physically from playing Pac-10 football and is almost certainly destined for a redshirt year.
It will be interesting to see if Andy Keane (SO, 6-2, 290) ends up wearing a blue (offense) or white (defense) jersey by the end of fall camp. The intention was for him to move (back) to defensive line this off-season, but now, after losing Sheller and Edwards, the OL might need more bodies and Keane could retain that blue jersey.
The biggest key, truly, to the offensive line in fall practice is to stay healthy. One more injury to one of the key players and they might have to convert more tight ends or defensive ends to the OL.
It's key that the offensive line show, by the end of fall practice, some cohesion, and just a bit of capability of run blocking. We're not going to even think about pass protection, since that would be asking too much (and actually, it's far more difficult to develop). If this group can get Palcic's new blocking schemes down and, by the end of August, show that they're capably of opening some holes against UCLA's defensive front seven in practice, consider that a big win.
We were really only joking about the OL taking even more tight ends – since there really aren't any more to take. What was once a pretty deep position has quickly become a fairly thin one this season. But it could all be fine if the position stays healthy and a freshman or a walk-on is capable of providing effectiveness as the third tight end.
The starter is Logan Paulsen (SR, 6-6, 258). There might not be another player on the team who could potentially benefit from the arrival of Norm Chow more than Paulsen. He's always had the potential to be a good tight end, but never saw it realized in the last regime's offense. In spring practice, Chow showed a penchant for going to the tight end, particularly Paulsen, so he could be poised to have a big senior season.
Perhaps the other guy who could also benefit the most from Chow is Ryan Moya (JR, 6-3, 238). Moya was really missed last season when he sat out; he provides the offense a quicker, better-catching option at the position, one that is sometimes a tough match-up for opposing defenses.
After that, UCLA could have to rely fairly heavily on walk-on Glenn Rauscher (R-FR, 6-3, 228), who is the younger brother of graduate assistant Philip Rauscher, who also coaches the tight ends. Rauscher is considered a solid walk-on, who could see the field since he's a decent enough blocker at the position.
Of course, there are expectations for incoming freshman Cory Harkey (FR, 6-4, 220) to be ready to step into that #3 spot at tight end. Harkey is a very nice athlete, who is an agile enough to be an exceptional basketball player. He's looked athletic – albeit a bit raw – in the off-season workouts.
We could say that it's a high priority at every position to avoid injury, but it's now especially critical at tight end. Chandler, of course, could do some spot duty at the position. Expect Harkey, though, to have a very good chance to not redshirt, being needed as the third tight end.
If UCLA had the depth at offensive line it has at wide receiver, expectations would be extremely high.
The wide receiver group could conceivably go seven deep, with a good blend of experience, players about to break through and some of the best talent to come into the position in a while.
Marcus Everett (SR, 6-1, 205) had gained a rep as UCLA's most reliable and perhaps all-around best receiver over the last couple of years, until he injured his ankle early on in 2007 and sat out the rest of the season. If he merely returns to the same form he had before the injury it would be considered good enough. He has gotten even bigger physically.
The guy most are expecting to have a break-out year is Dominique Johnson (SO, 6-3, 206). Johnson is a big possession receiver who has a knack for pulling the ball out of the air in traffic. He had 25 catches for 322 yards and 4 touchdowns last season, and in Chow's precision/possession type of offense, you can expect Johnson to be a favorite receiver. Watch to see if Johnson really asserts himself this fall.
Gavin Ketchum (JR, 6-5, 209) is another guy with some expectations. He flashed some good moments over a couple of seasons, and then went through a series of injuries, only to succumb to an ankle injury which made him miss the majority of the 2007 season. He physically looks like a Greek god, but it's time for him to be more than Mr. Airport and produce on the field. This fall practice could be potentially the one that starts his comeback.
With three possession-type guys among your projected top three, Terrence Austin (JR, 5-10, 165) is a guy that is critical for UCLA's throwing game, to provide a little shake after the catch. Austin, while he's been a good punt returner during his two seasons as UCLA, hasn't quite lived up to expectation as a receiver. He has lacked the strength to run strong routes and has bobbled too many balls. He is very quick (not necessarily fast), and the big question will be whether he can be more consistent in catching the ball this season.
Another returning veteran is Ryan Graves (SR, 6-1, 174). Graves came to UCLA with some fairly high expectations and really hasn't been able to get big or strong enough to fend off Pac-10-level DBs. This, his senior year, the coaching staff expects him to compete for time in the rotation as that fifth receiver.
But there will be plenty of competition from some youngsters.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of spring practice was the play of Taylor Embree (FR, 6-4, 185), the son of former UCLA coach Jon Embree. He came to UCLA with almost no hype, enrolled early, came out to spring practice, looked like a skinny kid, and then made probably the best catches of the spring. He went up in traffic with some great hands and caught mostly everything thrown around him. He did it day after day, and proved (at least in practice) that he wasn't a fluke. It will definitely be something to watch if Embree can continue that level of performance in fall. While he's still fairly skinny, he looks a bit more muscular since spring.
It was known that Antwon Moutra (FR, 6-3, 187) was a great all-around athlete in high school. It wasn't certain, though, if he'd play receiver or safety in college. But after watching him in the off-season informal workouts, it's pretty certain that Moutra will get a long look at receiver in fall camp. He's big, strong, runs good routes and has good hands, and his explosiveness tended to take the veteran DBs a bit by surprise in the informal 7-on-7s.
Then there's Jerry Johnson (FR, 6-3, 207), who almost looks like a book-end to Moutra. He's probably not quite as quick as Moutra, but stronger, with good hands. He also has been impressive in the off-season.
It's not a longshot to think that either one, or possibly both Moutra and Johnson, are candidates to not redshirt this season. They could not only compete for the 4th and 5th spot in the receiver rotation, but if one of the veterans falter, it's not inconceivable to see either become a significant weapon in UCLA's offense as a freshman.
The other frosh receiver, Nelson Rosario (FR, 6-4, 202), appears a bit further away after seeing him in the workouts this summer. He's particularly skinny and, with his length, tends to get pushed off his route. You'd have to think, among the three, he's most likely to redshirt.
Jamil Turner will not return to the program this season.
Overall, it's a good group. There might not be an All Pac-10 level player among the top returning veterans, but there is some solid talent and experience to mix with some very promising younger talent. The competition in fall practice – watching someone like Moutra try to earn his way into the rotation – will be particularly entertaining.
If you're talking depth, it is probably the deepest position on the team, and perhaps the deepest the tailback position has been in recent memory.
Perhaps the biggest worry, and it might not be much at this point, is the condition of the knee of Kahlil Bell (SR, 6-0., 219). Bell was on his way to a 1,000-yard season when he injured his knee, underwent surgery and has since been rehabbing. He looks darn good out there on Spaulding Field this July, even though he's toting around a big brace on the knee.
Besides Bells knee, there are a number of other particular curiosities at running back. Raymond Carter (R-FR, 5-11, 208) was looking good in fall practice last year when he also blew out his knee, underwent surgery and had to redshirt. Since then, he's gotten much bigger physically, and is also still toting around a brace. It will be interesting to see Carter flash the break-away speed he had in high school this fall.
Chane Moline (JR, 6-1, 232) is the designated short-yardage specialist, and we've heard they could experiment with him lining up at fullback for a few sets this season.
Christian Ramirez will have to redshirt this year to get his academics back in order. It's a good year to do it with some of the young depth at the position.
Aundre Dean (FR, 6-1, 210) looks like the size of a typical UCLA linebacker in recent years, and has shown some good quickness in the workouts. He comes highly regarded and seeing him out on Spaulding Field is one of the most anticipated aspects of fall practice.
Milton Knox (FR, 5-9, 200) is a guy who shouldn't be discounted, however. He doesn't have the hype that Dean does coming in, but there are some close to the situation that believe Knox is going to be the man within a few years. The defensive players commented privately that they were very impressed with Knox's quickness and toughness this summer. He injured his Achilles Heel a few weeks ago and it's uncertain if he'll be completely ready for the start of practice next week.
It's believed Johnathan Franklin (FR, 5-11, 186) will first get a look at safety, but he could very well hop over to the tailback position sometime this fall. He's a very good athlete, and don't be surprised if he actually starts out fall camp at running back.
Walk-on Craig Sheppard (JR, 6-1, 195) showed something last year when many of the tailbacks ahead of him were hurt, and he probably deserves a scholarship. He showed last season that he's at least a solid third-string guy.
At fullback, Trevor Theriot (JR, 6-0, 237) is a former walk-on who did earn a scholarship, and the coaches have generally been pleased with his performance. Tobi Umodu (SO, 6-0, 236) doesn't appear ready to overtake Theriot, but he has, to the pleasure of the coaches, shown he could be able to step in when Theriot graduates.
The coaches are very much looking forward to getting Derrick Coleman (FR, 6-0, 218) some reps to see what he can do. He is pretty much projected to the fullback spot, but he's such a good athlete who runs so hard that it's thought he could potentially be a tailback. Among the freshmen, Coleman is one we've heard some of the best buzz about in the program.
So, you have your vet in Bell, your youngster who's been in the program and is poised to excel in Carter, the designated short-yardage guy in Moline, a solid depth guy in Sheppard, and then two, three of maybe even four talented freshmen who should push all of them and could conceivably supplant a couple of them this fall.
It has to be the year of Ben Olson (SR, 6-4, 230). Going into his fourth year in the program, it's now or never. He doesn't really have competition for the starting position. Neuheisel has said he doesn't want Olson to look over his shoulder worried about starting, but to concentrate on getting down the scheme, doing what he has to do mechanically and becoming a leader of the team.
Olson, as has been repeated again and again, has shown an inability to get the ball off quickly over his career. It's what most point to as the biggest issue holding him back. Chow's offense, being far more simplistic than the previous one, hopefully will help Olson with that. He had spring practice to get his first taste of the scheme, and now you have to hope that, starting in fall camp, he'll be far more reactive in the pocket.
Olson has been cleared to play after breaking his foot at the very end of spring practice. While the official word is that he's fine now and recovered, we've heard he's still hampered by it a bit. So, that's something to watch next week.
Kevin Craft (JR, 6-4, 205) is Olson's projected back-up, and he's definitely someone to watch this fall. He came into spring practice a day after first enrolling at UCLA, so everything was new to him, and he looked like he was confused quite a bit. Now, a few months after studying Chow's playbook, he should be better, and more comfortable. He has many of the things you look for – a strong arm, some touch, and mobility. And he has a good swagger to him. We've been impressed with him in the workouts in July.
Chris Forcier (R-FR, 6-3, 185) struggled as a true freshman in the program last year. Even though he pretty much just ran the scout team, he had issues with his strength. He's a very good athlete, particularly nimble-footed, but last season in practice he just didn't look like he had the potential arm strength. This summer he looks a little bigger and a little stronger, and he looked like he was throwing the ball better.
We've heard that the new coaching staff was a bit disappointed in Forcier and Osaar Rasshan (JR, 6-4, 215) last spring. The reports are that Rasshan, who struggled in a few games last season, looks about the same now as he did then. It will be interesting to see if there is talk about him switching (back) to wide receiver, even though he's indicated he doesn't want to do it (again).
When we saw Kevin Prince (FR, 6-2, 210) at a 7-on-7 the summer going into his high school senior year at Encino Crespi, we were impressed. He had good enough size, and was exceptional in his mechanics, arm strength and particularly his accuracy. Now, a year later, after blowing out his knee, committing to Washington, de-committing to Washington, and then committing to UCLA, his childhood dream school, we again were impressed this summer at the off-season workouts. Apparently the UCLA coaches were impressed with Prince, too. Because of his injury, when Prince committed it was thought he'd greyshirt, but the UCLA coaches recognized how advanced he was for a freshman and determined they should bring him into the program this fall, to potentially not redshirt even. Prince, at this point, has a chance to be UCLA's #3 quarterback, and it will be interesting to watch him compete with Rasshan and Forcier for the spot.
Nick Crissman (FR, 6-3, 215) has also looked good in the summer sessions, but less polished than Prince. You can probably expect him to redshirt.