There has been plenty of discussion about how this year's team is inexperienced and not very talented.
There has been a great deal of discussion about the ability of Head Coach Rick Neuheisel and his staff to turn around the program – how it could be a long, uphill battle, given the current state of the program.
There have been projections that it could take 3 or maybe even 4 or 5 years before Neuheisel returns to winning ways.
We hate to disappoint the naysayers, but the wait might not be long at all.
In fact, it might be as short as just one season.
In analyzing UCLA's future rosters and schedules, Neuheisel has a good chance to turn around the program by next season.
Huh? After all we've heard about how bad off the team is in terms of talent?
But, like we've said previously many times, there are many factors that contribute to having success in college football. Of course, one of them is good coaching, which is clearly occurring at UCLA now – something you couldn't definitively say about the program for probably the last 12 years. Also, a subset of the coaching factor is the amount of time players have in the coaching system and, by next season, they'll have double the time in Norm Chow's offensive system than they currently do. A huge factor is general experience, as we've pointed out before; predominantly, more experienced teams year in and year out have successful seasons compared to less experienced teams. Then, there is the talent factor, and UCLA, just because of the class of 2008, will have more talent on the field in the coming few years than they had this season. Then there is perhaps the biggest factor of all in determining success in any season: Your schedule and your opponents. A merely good team could have a 10-2 season against a soft conference, and an excellent team could go 8-4 against a loaded conference. And, in college football, the home-field advantage is, perhaps, the #1 biggest factor in determining the outcomes of games across the country.
This season, UCLA has a number of these factors going against it. But next season, in 2009, UCLA will have them going in the same direction.
Let's first take a look at UCLA's projected roster for 2009. Of course, it's difficult to be completely accurate since there will be many things that will change – players leaving the program, position changes, injuries, young players' development, new players making an impact, etc. But given all of that, you can still generally provide a good grasp of a projection for next season.
This season, if you look at UCLA's current depth chart, there are only two starters on offense that are seniors, and five on defense. On offense, there are four starters that are either sophomores or freshmen, and on defense, three. There are currently four freshmen on both sides of the line starting.
Next season, if you logically project who will be the starters, UCLA will have five seniors on offense and three on defense. They will probably have no freshmen starting.
The average class of the two-deep on the offensive line this season averages out to be a sophomore and a half. Next season (while it's difficult to project the two deep), the average would be a little over a junior. But it's just not about age, but game experience; Three current OL starters experienced not only the first start of their careers but their first playing time this season. Next season, perhaps only one projected starter will start for the first time (but that would be just at UCLA, since Kai Maiava started as a true freshman at Colorado).
Here's how the OL depth chart might project out for next season. Of course, this is really difficult to project accurately, since so much can happen. But this is our best guess given current information.
LT: Sean Sheller (JR), Micah Kia (SR), Connor Bradford (FR), Brett Downey (FR)
LG: Jeff Baca (SO), Darius Savage (JR), Greg Capella (FR)
C: Jake Dean (JR), Kai Maiava (SO)
RG: Kai Maiava (SO), Sonny Tevaga (JR), Brandon Bennett (JR)
RT: Nick Ekbatani (SR), Nate Chandler (SO), Mike Harris (SO)
The most recent reports are that Sheller is recovering well from his knee injury and they expect him to seriously challenge for a starting OT spot next season.
If Sheller isn't up for it, Baca could stay at tackle and Savage could remain the starter at guard.
Also figure in that all of the younger OLs will vastly benefit from a year in the program, and in Bob Palcic's system. It's exciting to think what Jeff Baca and Nate Chandler (who will almost certainly be moved back to OT from TE) will look like physically next fall.
Maiava, before he injured his knee in fall camp, was getting rave reviews from the coaching staff. He was projected as a force at center when finished redshirting because of the transfer, but since Dean has probably been the #1 pleasant surprise of the season at center, it could give the staff the luxury to move Maiava to guard.
Even the projected back-ups have much more experience. Savage, right now, is a starter, and Sonny Tevaga started two games.
Also, add probably four more true freshmen OLs that might easily be talented enough to break into the two-deep.
This is a much improved OL from this season, with more experience and more talent, particularly more athleticism.
The only current starter lost to graduation among the skill positions next season is Kahlil Bell.
Projected depth chart:
QB: Kevin Craft (SR), Kevin Price (FR), Chris Forcier (SO), Osaar Rasshan (SR), Nick Crissman (FR), Richard Brehaut (FR)
TB: Christian Ramirez (JR), Derrick Coleman (SO), Raymond Carter (SO), Aundre Dean (SO), Milton Knox (FR), Jonathan Franklin (FR)
FB: Trevor Theriot (SR), Chane Moline (SR), Tobi Umodu (JR)
SE: Taylor Embree (SO), Dominique Johnson (JR), Nelson Rosario (SO), Ricky Marvray (FR)
FL: Terrence Austin SR), Gavin Ketchum (SR), Antwon Moutra (SO), Jerry Johnson (FR)
TE: Logan Paulsen (SR), Ryan Moya (SR), Cory Harkey (SO), Jeff Miller (JR), Adam Heater (SR)
The receiving positions look to be deep and talented. Paulsen, Moya and Harkey could, by next year, be the best tight end threesome in memory. Again, it's exciting to think about Moutra, Rosario and Jerry Johnson by next fall. Also, the word is that you can expect Knox to have a big impact on the tailback position next season, with Ramirez probably being at the top of the food chain. At quarterback, Craft will have a whole year as a starter under his belt and, most importantly, he'll be pushed by Prince and Brehaut predominantly, along with Forcier and Crissman.
Again, this is also not factoring in any other big-impact recruits.
This is clearly a better offense, talent- and experience-wise, than this season, and we'll even go out on a limb and call it a vast improvement. Just that Craft, Prince and Forcier will have been under Chow's tutelage for another year is huge.
The big loss on defense is the graduation of Brigham Harwell.
Projected defensive line depth chart:
LE: Reginald Stokes (JR), Chinonso Anyanwu (JR), Justin Edison (SO)
DT: Brian Price (JR), Damien Holmes (FR)
DT: Jerzy Siewierski (SR), Jess Ward (SR) Andy Keane (JR)
RE: Korey Bosworth (SR), David Carter (JR), Datone Jones (SO)
We've taken a bit of a license by moving Holmes to defensive tackle. He's already about 255 pounds, so we project him to move inside after a full year in the program and given UCLA's need at DT. The position is definitely the spot that a good true freshman (or freshmen) could come in and play. We have heard that Ward will move back to DT. The coaches like Stokes and, of course, like Jones. It's believed that Jones very well could make such improvement between his freshman and sophomore seasons he could leapfrog to the top of the D-end depth chart.
Another-year-more-experienced Stokes will probably be better than the current starter Tom Blake, who's been playing with nagging injuries. Siewierski will probably be a step down from Harwell, but Price will be a year better.
The line will, collectively, be a bit better than this season's.
It's easily one of the most exciting units to speculate about for next season.
Projected depth chart:
SLB: Akeem Ayers (SO), Donovan Carter (FR), Isaiah Bowens (FR)
MLB: Steve Sloan (SO), Patrick Larimore (FR), Todd Golper (FR)
WLB: Reggie Carter (SR), Sean Westgate (SO), Mike Schmitt (JR)
Ayers, another year older, will almost certainly be an upgrade on Hale. He's the nickel linebacker now and already much better in pass coverage and pursuit.
There will also be one more linebacker recruit to potentially fight for space in the two-deep.
If Ayers and Sloan just continue to progress at a moderate rate, with Carter, it should be a very good unit and improved from this season.
It's perhaps the biggest question mark next season on the team, since it loses two seniors.
Projected depth chart:
LC: Aaron Hester (FR), Courtney Viney (SO), Alex Mascarenas (FR)
SS: Tony Dye (SO), Glenn Love (SO), E.J. Woods (FR)
FR: Rahim Moore (SO), Aaron Ware (SR)
RC: Alterraun Verner (SR), Andrew Abbott (FR), Sheldon Price (FR)
It's also the unit most difficult to project along with the OL. Dye, we have been told, is a safety, but he could, after a season, fit better at corner. Hester is big and very fast, but raw right now, so it will be very interesting to see him next fall. The guy who we also are most curious to see get in the mix is Woods, since he might be one of the most talented among this group.
The challenge will be for UCLA to find its other cornerback. True freshmen could easily compete at that position for playing time.
Overall, it's probably a better defense than this season's. At many of the positions where you're losing seniors you're probably upgrading in talent. And figure in the added experience and physical development of Ayers, Sloan, and Moore, this season's three freshman starters, and it's very encouraging.
Next Season's Schedule
It seems UCLA's football schedule alternates every year between a tough schedule and an easier schedule. It's mostly based on the Bruins having to face the traditionally good teams in the Pac-10 conference on the road one season, and then at home the next.
This season, UCLA gets its tougher conference games – Oregon, Cal, and Arizona State – on the road.
Next season, it flips, with Oregon, Cal and ASU at home.
Road games are Tennessee, Stanford, Arizona, Oregon State, Washington State and (technically) USC.
Among those (other than USC), Oregon State and Stanford might be the toughest games.
The other two non-conference games are San Diego State and Kansas State, both at the Rose Bowl, and neither team projects out to being very formidable next season.
It will, also, be interesting to see the status of Tennessee. The Volunteers are currently 2-3 and in turmoil, with the possibility that Phil Fulmer could be replaced – and that's with a fairly veteran team this season.
Looking at the conference, the quality of teams might not improve much from this season. Cal, Arizona State, Arizona and Stanford will all be replacing senior quarterbacks. Cal, Oregon, Oregon State and Arizona will all have considerable turnover in their offensive lines.
Overall, Cal will still probably be pretty good – a top 25 candidate – while Oregon, which isn't elite this year, might slip a bit. Stanford could improve, Oregon State will probably be about the same, but Arizona and Arizona State will probably degrade. There isn't much hope for Washington or Washington State to drastically improve by next season.
USC will probably be about the same.
UCLA's conference schedule, though, improves dramatically having Cal at home and being able to avoid playing Oregon in Eugene.
Of course, again, we preface this by saying it's ridiculously premature to be doing this, but it's not inconceivable for UCLA to get 9 wins next season. Eight would be a reasonable expectation.
So, Bruin fans, buck up. Your wait for a successful football program might be just months away.