Heck, it's almost easier this season since UCLA has politely gotten so many major injuries already out of the way.
Even though, then, you'd have to say that it's scary to think what additional injuries could do to this year's squad.
We have to remind our readers that we've gotten a great deal of flack in the past for our predictions – which have turned out to be very accurate. In 2007, we predicted both the football season final record and, remarkably, the basketball season final record. We also predicted a win over USC in football that season.
Last year, we got a little arrogant in our predictions in both football and basketball. We predicted a national championship in basketball, which was a little too ambitious. We predicted a 9-3 finish in football, which was off compared to the 6-6 of the actual finish. But, if you remember, when we predicted 9-3, there were many that criticized the prediction and called it far too pessimistic. So, if anything, we definitely we're on the more accurate side of the fence in terms of having a grasp of the program last season.
We'll start, as we annually do, with a review of what we've seen so far from the 2008 Bruins.
Fall Camp Review
it was probably the most interesting fall football camp at UCLA in a very long time.
There was definitely something happening just about every day in terms of personnel, given how many injuries the program has gone through, but also given the fact that UCLA has to replace so many graduating starters. The last two fall camps UCLA had many veterans, and last season had to replace just three starters from combined offense and defense.
This season, UCLA had to replace 7 starters on offense and 6 or 7 (depending on your view of who was actually the starter at cornerback) on defense. That makes for a fall camp with a lot of new bodies shuttling into take a stab at working with the first-string.
On defense, however, given the turnover, the personnel moves were fairly predictable, and even the most outrageous move was pretty predictable.
That move was, just two days into fall camp, true freshman Rahim Moore being given a starting safety position. It is, almost certainly temporary, since senior starter Bret Lockett is suspended for the Tennessee game and needed to be replaced in the line-up. The move wasn't that surprising since most believed Moore would immediately come in and compete. But the timing of the move was the most intriguing – the fact that, just a couple of days into practice, Defensive Coordinator DeWayne Walker and his staff decided to supplant redshirt freshman Glenn Love with Moore. We know that there was quite a bit of consideration for Moore to play cornerback, even, so to make a move with Moore that quickly was a pretty bold move on Walker's part. It's clear he recognized Moore as being very talented, and wanted to go with the most talented DB he had on the roster to replace Lockett for Tennessee. Within the program, there is some great buzz about Moore, that he could be the most talented defensive back to come to UCLA in a long time, and there are big expectations for him.
But you can also expect him to get considerably burned in the Tennessee game. No matter how talented, he's very young, still not close to where he'll be physically in just a couple of years, playing against grown men, and his college experience is just a few weeks of fall practice.
But all of the Moore analysis might be better left for the Tennessee game preview.
Sufice it to say that the defensive backfield – even after Lockett gets re-instated -- is going to be pretty inexperienced. Lockett was the first safety off the bench last season, but the word on him is that he still is learning the position. Aaron Ware, the other starter at safety, is considered a solid player, but has very little playing experience. At one corner is Michael Norris, a redshirt senior who has yet to prove, in four previous seasons, that he's worthy of a starter's role at the position. Alterraun Verner, the one starter in the backfield with good experience, anchors the one corner spot, and he's shown in fall camp that he is a potential star in the making. But even Verner, who most fans already consider a star, hasn't even fully been a starter for a whole season in his UCLA career.
In fall camp we saw how Courtney Viney, the 5-9 redshirt freshman corner, earned the spot as the first cornerback off the bench, and will be the nickel back. He, of course, has no game experience, having redshirted last season. The back-ups after that are all babies, too, with true freshman Aaron Hester in the two-deep at cornerback, and true freshman Anthony Dye listed at safety along with redshirt freshman Glenn Love.
Are you hearing the word "freshman" a lot?
Once Lockett returns, we've heard that if it comes to it, Moore might also plug in at cornerback.
So, while fall camp sorted it all out, and plugged in Moore to the starting lineup, it also re-emphasized just how inexperienced – and young – UCLA's secondary is.
We've said before, in analyzing college football, that the primary factor in determining the success of any team in an given year is experience. Of course, there are other factors, and the amount of experience a team has doesn't always guarantee that they'll be successful. There have been many experienced college teams that were pretty bad.
But they were probably a lot better than they would have been had they been less experienced. The point is, experience is the #1 indicator of a team's success. And UCLA's roster just doesn't have much of it.
Perhaps the most experienced area of UCLA's team is its defensive front seven. Everyone at the seven spots has been a starter at one time, and six of the seven spots are either juniors or seniors. You could say that UCLA, really, is only replacing two starters from that seven, Bruce Davis and Christian Taylor. Defensive end Tom Blake started eight games last season, with Nikola Dragovic not being able to play the entire season; Korey Bosworth, the other defensive end, started three. Sophomore Brian Price ended the season as the starter at defensive tackle, and senior Brigham Harwell began the season as one before he was injured. At linebacker, UCLA loses anchor Christian Taylor, but Reggie Carter slides over from weakside linebacker to replace him at middle linebacker. Senior John Hale held onto the strongside position in fall camp, and he's been a starter at different times throughout his four years. Kyle Bosworth, the senior weakside linebacker, started seven games last season.
The biggest worry about the linebackers in fall camp was some minor injuries, but it gave us a glimpse at how the coaching staff might deal with potential ones during the season. Walker said repeatedly in fall practice that he was very pleased with Steven Sloan, the redshirt freshman middle linebacker, and he could very easily be the first guy off the bench. In fall camp, when weakside ‘backer Korey Bosworth went out for a couple of days with an ankle injury, it seemed the line-up of choice was to plug in Sloan to middle linebacker and slide over Carter to his old spot at the weakside.
Then, there is Akeem Ayers, the redshirt freshman that was pushing Hale for the starting spot at strongside. We thought how the coaches kept saying that Ayers was competing with Hale for the spot and it was undetermined through fall camp who would win it was mostly hype (since Ayers very rarely worked with the ones), to probably encourage the young Ayers. But the staff is very happy, and excited, about Ayers, and want him to get a good amount of playing time this season to get him ready to take over the position next year. In fact, in nickel situations, he's one of the two linebackers on the field, because of his exceptional coverage skills, along with Carter.
With Josh Edwards still recovering from injury, true freshman Sean Westgate finds himself on the two-deep at the weakside spot. But, as we said above, if Bosworth were out, Carter would almost certainly slide over. It will be interesting to see how Edwards can help when he's 100% since he was penciled in as a starter when he wasn't injured (which was before spring camp), and he's the fastest of UCLA's linebackers.
The first defensive tackle off the bench is Jerzy Sierwierski. As a result of fall practice, it appears Chase Moline would be next. Nathaniel Skaggs is then behind them. This is key, actually, since Harwell has yet to get through an entire season without an injury.
On the outside, Reginald Stokes, the redshirt sophomore, looks to have won the designation as the first off the bench at defensive end. In the last week, he's been getting some spot time with the 1s, in different situations. David Carter rounds out the two-deep at defensive tackle, and we've heard the coaching staff was fairly pleased with his fall camp. True freshman Datone Jones is probably ahead of redshirt freshman Justin Edison as a result of fall camp, but hopefully he'll be able to redshirt.
In fall practice, the real drama was on offense.
There was not only drama in terms of personnel, but in terms of scheme and Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow.
No matter how bad UCLA's offense is this year, fall camp gave us an indication that UCLA's offense will at least attempt to be dynamic for the first time in recent history. Watching Norm Chow's offense the last few weeks, even if it wasn't executed properly, has been the highlight of fall camp. Chow's variety of formations, his unpredictability on what plays will run out those formations, and his obvious attempt to take advantage of certain personnel, was almost revolutionary in terms of a UCLA offense. UCLA's running game now employs counters, draws, and pitches. Sometimes it worked the option – even out of a shotgun. Even the fullback got a carry. No more two stretch plays and a dive. In the passing game, there were four wideouts lined up at a time, the ball was thrown to the tight ends and fullbacks, there was a wide variety of pass routes, and the quarterback actually rolled out.
Now, again, this is not to say that UCLA's offense is going to be good. But, at the very least, it made watching fall camp quite a bit easier, and it will probably make all UCLA fans at least say to themselves while watching the new offense, "At least I like what they tried to do."
It's particularly exciting to think what this offense will be as soon as it gets enough talent to execute it.
Right now, UCLA just doesn't have it.
It gets old hearing about it, but the situation at offensive line is dire. Since fall camp wrapped and the team has been engaged in closed practices, the coaches are still experimenting with different combinations. That's not good. And they're doing it with guys who have never played the position before. Not good again.
Micah Kia, the one guy who actually returns as a starter at his position from last season, broke his hand earlier this week. It's now casted, and it's believed he'll have it wrapped like a club and play. That was a huge blow, given the other injuries.
Perhaps the most devastating injury was not to Sean Sheller in the off-season, but to Aleksey Lanis. Lanis had to quit the team because of lingering issues with his knees. If UCLA just had Lanis, who was thought to be an NFL-potential guy, at the other tackle spot, you might even think about giving this offense a chance.
But UCLA loses Lanis, then loses his back-up, Sheller, to the ATV accident. So, that sent UCLA scrambling all fall camp to find a replacement at the left tackle spot. Then, of course, redshirt freshman tackle Mike Harris goes down with an injury (and just recently returned). More scrambling. Former tight end Nate Chandler, who has just a number of days of experience playing offensive line, was running with the ones for a while during fall camp. It appears that junior Nick Ekbatani will start at that position, but it's very much a situation in flux.
Micah Reed, the former walk-on who started eight games at guard last season, is now the starting center.
That left two vacant spots at guard for fall camp, and it's been musical chairs trying to find the guys to finally sit down. The biggest issue at this point is the health of Scott Glicksberg. Glicksberg, if he had been healthy in his UCLA career, probably would have been a solid, two-year starter on the offensive line, but he's gone through a long string of injuries. The one that could limit him now is the lingering shoulder injury. But you can probably expect Glicksberg to play, and probably start, against Tennessee. It appears that Sonny Tevaga has beat out Darius Savage in fall camp, and he'll be a starter; Savage will probably start if Glicksberg falters. Converted defensive tackle Jess Ward, who just returned from injury, was getting time with the 1s. Brandon Bennett has invariably been given a shot at tackle and guard, but has consistently slipped back to the 2s.
But again, this all could change after today's practice, and drastically change by the end of the week.
Bottom line: UCLA's offensive line isn't deep or experienced, and is just moderately talent. The talent that is there is vastly unproven and young.
So, Chow has one of the biggest challenges of his career: How to work around and make up for a suspect offensive line, one that in fall camp allowed far too much pressure on the quarterback and is bound to do it this season?
If there is an OC out there who is capable of doing it, it's Chow.
Now, if Chow had an experienced and versatile quarterback to do it, he might have a decent chance. But UCLA's starting quarterback right now is Kevin Craft, who is moderately talented and has been in the program for only five months. It's one thing to adapt your offense to work around a suspect offensive line, but having to do it with a green quarterback is probably insurmountable.
Craft won the starting position this fall not because he clearly wowed everyone, and blew away the field. He won it, really, because he's more experienced (JC ball and San Diego State), and is older and probably a bit more savvy than redshirt freshman Chris Forcier. But make no mistake – he's not greatly experienced or greatly savvy.
It's Craft's job not just because of the broken toe of Ben Olson (out for two months), but mostly because of the season-ending knee injury to Patrick Cowan. Cowan was the designated starter when he injured the knee in spring practice. So, you have to recognize that, with Craft, UCLA is down to its third-string QB to start the season.
Forcier is the back-up, and Osaar Rasshan is third-string. But it's another indication of how much the staff lacks confidence in the position that Kevin Prince, the true freshman, was getting some reps with the 2s recently.
This fall was it was exciting to watch the running backs and receivers, both positions having a great blend of experienced and young talent. The tailback spot, if it can get an occasional hole to run through, should be fun to watch – with Kahlil Bell returning from his ACL and looking very good in fall camp; Raymond Carter, the redshirt freshman, returning from his ACL and looking fast and big; and the freshmen, particularly Aundre Dean, who looked quick while measuring 6-0 and 207. Dean started out fall camp a bit slow, not showing much discipline in the drills, with the coaches riding him a bit, but his talent was clearly evident. The other freshmen – Milton Knox, Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman – appear to be on their way to redshirting. Franklin might be the next guy in line, having gotten many reps during fall, which is curious since it appeared that Knox was a bit better and more physically prepared to play at this point. There is also Chane Moline, the short-yardage specialist, who will probably catch the ball out of the backfield some in Chow's offense.
At fullback, it's clear that the new offensive coaches are enamored with Trevor Theriot, who will be lined up at different spots on the field to take advantage of his pass-catching ability.
With the receivers, it was similar to the running backs – exciting to watch the many talented youngsters step up in fall. At first, it seemed like Antwon Moutra was stepping forward to win a place in the rotation, but then Nelson Rosario has asserted himself in the last week and a half or so. Rosario, the 6-5, 207-pounder, started tentatively in camp, but then got comfortable and exploited his size to shield off defenders and make catches. By the end of fall camp he was firmly implanted in the receiver rotation, especially since Taylor Embree, the other freshman who really made a name in spring camp, had been hindered by a shoulder injury. But don't count out Moutra, who was very impressive thoughout camp, and Jerry Johnson, another big, swift freshman who isn't too far away from the rotation himself.
Having that young talent to support the returning veterans – Marcus Everett, Dominique Johnson and Terrence Austin – gives UCLA good experience and depth at the position. They'll get even more when Gavin Ketchum returns from mononucleosis.
This fall, Dominique Johnson continued to show that he could be a very good possession receiver, and now needs to do it as the designated starter.
At tight end, Ryan Moya had a very good fall camp, taking advantage of his new role in Chow's offense. Chow used Moya as an H-back, putting him in the slot, sometimes in the backfield, or out wide, trying to do what he can to exploit Moya's advantages over smaller defenders. Logan Paulsen, the senior, and a leader on the team, had a fairly good fall camp. The UCLA coaches felt pretty secure moving Nate Chandler to offensive line once they saw true freshman Cory Harkey, who is 6-5 and 247. Harkey was a bit raw catching the ball, but has some talent and athleticism.
The challenge for UCLA's offense this season is going to be trying to counter opposing defenses stacking the box. Every defense UCLA faces should have 8 or more near the line of scrimmage to stop any UCLA running game and challenging UCLA's quarterbacks to beat them. Whether Chow has enough magic to enable Craft to do that is the question of the season.
Special teams had a pretty decent fall camp. While punter Aaron Perez looked exceptional, especially with the development of his end-over-end pooch punt, kicker Kai Forbath was a bit worrisome with the low trajectory of his field goals. It's also a bit worrisome to realize that back-up kicker Jimmy Rotstein won the kick-off job over Forbath because he consistently kicked further than Forbath in competition. Rotstein, hopefully, has gained some foot strength since the new rule has kick-offs now being done from the 30-yard line and not the 35 this year, and Rotstein struggled to put kick-offs in the endzone a year ago.
The State of the Program
Last year at this time, the 2007 seasons was being called make-or-break season. It was a BCS bowl game or bust.
This season, new Head Coach Rick Neuheisel and his staff basically have a pass. They probably were going to be excused from too much criticism in their first year on the job, but now, with all the injuries that have even occurred prior to the season, they're holding the biggest Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card ever. Just speculating, but I bet there is even some feeling that they're slightly happy about the injuries since it does give them such a pass in their first season.
The staff will have to show something however. All the hype about "The Dream Team" of Neuheisel, Chow and Walker has to produce something tangible on the field this season for fans, the media and recruits to acknowledge.
But again, we think as long as the offense can at least appear to be attempting something dynamic it will satisfy onlookers, given what UCLA has produced offensively for the last several seasons. On defense, if Walker can again have a solid outing this season with the personnel he has he will look like he's almost re-building-proof. On the other hand, if Walker does produce a good defense this season, he could very readily be gone to a head coaching position at the end of the season. He wants one, and it's just a matter of waiting for a good job at a good program.
There has been some bemoaning of UCLA's recruiting under Neuheisel so far, which is natural. Neuheisel, so far, has done just okay in recruiting. Many were expecting more, given Neuheisel's penchant for being a good salesman and his likeability – and his selling points of Chow and Walker. Neuheisel, in the five years or so he's been out of college football, probably has gotten a bit out of touch with how recruiting is now. In just five years, it's changed – mostly being sped up, with programs having to get on recruits and having to make evaluations far earlier. That might have caught Neuheisel by surprise after he was hired.
So, the staff might not have been on as many guys as they could have since they've been hired. But then again, there isn't that much Neuheisel can sell now without a product on the field. Neuheisel has been good as promoting the idea of UCLA returning to greatness, selling the coaching staff, etc., but there's only so much he can do without an on-the-field product. Even if UCLA's offense isn't great this season, Neuheisel will at least have something to sell. He'll be able to tell offensive recruits, "See what we're trying to do? We just need talent – we need you – to accomplish it."
From what I know, there is a considerable confidence in the program that it will have something to sell from this season. And that was one of the primary reasons why UCLA hasn't necessarily offered many recruits in the class of 2009 – waiting to give Neuheisel something tangible to present to a higher caliber of recruits after the season. It might be a gamble, since the season might not go terribly well, but the feeling is that, whatever the results of the season, Neuheisel will be able to present it to recruits in a desirable way.
As long as UCLA doesn't go 3-9 or worse on the season, you can expect Neuheisel to have enough to promote.
And then, despite what many fans from other Pac-10 programs believe, UCLA's rightful place in terms of conference recruiting will always be among the top two programs. Even if UCLA doesn't even necessarily have a good recruiting staff in place it can still get top ten recruiting classes.
Why? Because, given UCLA's natural advantages, UCLA will always recruit well, and easily better than any other program in the Pac-10 other than a rolling USC. Heck, Bob Toledo parlayed two, back-to-back, 10-2 seasons into #1- and #3-ranked recruiting classes. Karl Dorrell was able to start the beginning of a top 10 national class merely because he beat USC once. And neither of those staffs, you would say, were excellent recruiting staffs.
At UCLA, if you build it, they will come. So, the doomsday UCLA fans who complain that Neuheisel isn't recruiting well and that will spell the end for him in a few years don't see the big picture, and don't know UCLA very well. If Neuheisel has, say, just one 9+ win season in the next three years he can sell, recruits will be jumping in the boat.
So, given everything we just went over above, what would be considered a productive season for UCLA?
The problem is, no one usually takes into consideration schedule difficulty, injuries, what the program was left with in terms of talent, etc., when they remember a season's record years later. And really, that's where judging performances superficially gets most fans into trouble – on both sides of the equation, when they give a program too much credit for a fluke of a successful season, or not enough credit when they might have been better than their record.
Since this is a season prediction, I predict that Rick Neuheisel will be able to use this season as a springboard in recruiting, regardless of the team's final record.
This might sound like a huge apology for the season, but really, fans shouldn't get too hung up on actual win-loss numbers in this first year.
Because more than likely the win-loss numbers aren't going to be pretty.
Like we said, one of the biggest indicators of the success of a team is its experience, and UCLA lacks it this season.
We'd even put more stock in UCLA being able to be successful this season because of the strength of its coaching staff – if it just had a couple more players. We're not talking five more All-Americans, but if the offense just had a healthy Patrick Cowan and Aleksey Lanis, we'd be fairly optimistic, given the advantage we think this coaching staff brings to the table.
But it doesn't have those guys, and it has much less. It's down to its third string at both quarterback and offensive tackle. And that pretty much is the proverbial straw.
Combine that with a very tough schedule and predicting the season isn't fun. If UCLA had, even, its schedule from last season, we might even be inclined to give them a decent chance.
Tennessee comes to the Rose Bowl September 1st to kick off the Neuheisel era, and while Tennessee isn't any great shakes this season, it's tough to expect UCLA to do well in that game, given it's the very first game for a young, inexperience team with a new offensive scheme.
Regrettably, UCLA then has to go on the road in its second week to face BYU. If it had, perhaps, BYU at home in its second week we might give UCLA more of a chance in this one. Next to experience, the next biggest deciding factor is home field advantage in college football. So, despite the fact that BYU might be having some issues itself, it still has the core of a team that most sports writers consider a top 20 team.
If UCLA gets one win out of these two, right then and there consider the season a success.
We can expect UCLA to then win probably two of the next three at home – against two Pac-10 teams (Arizona, September 20th; Washington State, October 4th) that will probably be in the bottom four of the Pac-10.
It's not fortuitous that UCLA's second game on the road is at Oregon October 11th. It's traditionally one of the toughest places to play in the nation, and again it's a young, inexperienced UCLA team against one picked generally in the top 25. Hopefully the Ducks get banged up the week before when they play USC at the Coliseum.
If the Bruins can avoid injury, they could have some rhythm and familiarity to their offense by game six, which is Stanford at the Rose Bowl October 18th, and the Cardinal just can't be very good this year.
If there's a potential upset on UCLA's schedule, we'd have to go with the Cal game in Berkeley October 25th. Cal doesn't look to be as good as it's been in recent years, and maybe UCLA will have Ben Olson back to add some experience to the quarterback position.
After a bye, UCLA gets what should be an okay Oregon State team at the Rose Bowl November 8th. At this point, if UCLA has remained fairly injury-free, having seven games under the belt of many of the younger players could really be paying dividends by this point.
The game at Washington November 15th might be the one that the season hinges on, in a way. Washington looks to be down this season again, and beatable. UCLA's youngsters might have their seas legs by then, and Chow could be elaborating on his offense. If UCLA pulls off this win on the road, it could mean the difference between 4 or 5 wins (respectable, given the season's situation), or (dare we dream) actually managing 6 wins and avoiding a losing, regular-season record.
The last two games, at Arizona State November 28 and at home against USC December 6th, have to be put in the loss column at this point. USC is a national title contender, and Arizona State is probably the second-best team in the conference.
So, we're going to go with what we feel is an optimistic 5-7 prediction. Optimistic you say? It's optimistic given the injuries UCLA has right now, much less those they could encounter this season.
But again, given the situation and not just judging a season by its record, I would probably conclude that UCLA's season was a success with a 5-7 record. It would mean that UCLA's defense kept going without a beat under Walker, and it would mean that UCLA had some decent production out of its quarterback position and that Chow did find some magic.
And it would mean that Neuheisel would actually have a whole lot to present to recruits.