Post-scrimmage, early May:
That's us in the corner, a certain number of Cranks, wishing and hoping, waiting on the offense, worrying… always worrying. Not so, perhaps, those fans on cruise control, even tempered, "reasonable," everlastingly cool. In a way I envy them (but only in a way). For the rest of us there's this question: When was the last time you went into a season without that familiar ball of tension in the pit of your stomach? Was it 1997 and '98, the 20-game streak? No, in '97, even with Cade McNown poised to perform miracles, there were worries (ultimately unfounded) that the defense was too small. Then in '98, now Rocky Long-less, the D actually was too small; also green and fabulously soft. It would become notorious as the unit that cost the Bruins a national championship game and started them on the downward slide.
Matter of fact, there hasn't been a lot of off-season good vibrations going all the way back through the Brett Johnson ‘89 season, a period marked by the quarterback drought (Cade and Tommy Maddox excepted), killer injuries, lack of quality depth, and little offensive/defensive balance. Throw in Bob Toledo's crash and burn, the sucker punch that was Karl Dorrell, the horrifying rise of SC and Pete Carroll, and you have the perfect storm that has landed us where we are today. Which would leave, I suppose, the two Troy Aikman years, '87 and '88, as the last feel-good off-seasons. And even though those teams blew a pair of Rose Bowl invitations, they at least provided a sense of pre-season anticipation, untainted by apprehension.
Now we have Dick Vermeil, Terry Donahue, assorted ex-players, and seemingly four out of every five Bruin fans preaching peace, love, and understanding (in other words, wait until 2010). What a deal… Even Rick Neuheisel's relentless optimism seems to have taken a slight hit. After losing Logan Paulsen, Kai Maiava and Jake Dean to injury, on top of all the other offensive injuries, his demeanor running up to the Rose Bowl scrimmage seemed to become progressively graver. And the continuing lack of significant offense in the scrimmage had him singing a similar tune to Vermeil and Donahue, though in a minor key. "Stick with us" was, I believe, his message. As if we had a choice.
And yet… I'd bet that all of us, Cranks or otherwise, still can't wait for August, then September and the perennial week-to-week drama. I've grown so used to Bruin insecurities that I barely notice that queasy feeling anymore. Wise up, Cranks, it's the price of being a Bruin. But, all whining aside, things change, they really do. Who knows when it'll be UCLA's turn to reawaken, particularly if they ever find a quarterback.
As usual, everyone's drawing some sort of equivalency between the quarterback woes and the O-line woes. As we've noted before, it's become easier, more athletically correct, to bash a unit rather than an individual player, especially the quarterback, whom, we've all learned, must be handled with care. You must have noticed how coaches become more circumspect when dealing with the most important position on the field -- the ignition if you will -- compared to their handling of such workaday parts as centers, guards and tackles, which is to say it's easier to replace an O-lineman than to plug in a brand new quarterback. Not that the big uglies are not important...but you see what I'm saying.
So let's talk about the O-line. Somehow, I have the idea that between all the candidates (Kai Maiava, Jake Dean, Sean Sheller, Jeff Baca, Mike Harris, Nick Ekbatani, Nate Chandler, Darius Savage, Micah Kia, Ryan Taylor, the incoming freshmen...even those problematic fat boys, Sonny Tevaga and Brandon Bennett), Bob Palcic will somehow cobble together a competent enough unit, with enough depth, to overcome an injury or two. And count on it, there will be injuries here. There always are. All the returnees are obviously a year more experienced, and some, or all, seem noticeably stronger. Add to them the four incoming freshmen, particularly the projected gems, Xavier Sua'fila and Stan Hasiak, along with JC transfer, Eddie Williams (if he makes it in), and the prospects for real improvement become even better.
And so to the quarterback question...
After hearing that Kevin Prince was making progress in practices last year, his performance in the spring had to be a bit disappointing. He does show a strong enough arm, but his accuracy, his touch, has not been impressive, and he's got a rather slow release, at least right now. Of course this lack of rhythm, of timing, isn't entirely his fault, and, yes, there's time to work on it over the summer and into pre-season drills. But after the Ben Olson experience, you can't help but wonder about that two-year layoff from competition.
Richard Brehaut, considering his short time on campus, has shown enough that you'd think there's no question of red-shirting him, in the sense of him running the scout team instead of being prepared as Prince's backup. The idea of Kevin Craft being an injury away from the field must be more frightening to the coaching staff than it is to us. Mop-up duty, just handing off the ball, sure, hold Brehaut out. But Prince needs to be pressured, and Craft can't do that. Brehaut's skills look promising, and any meaningful experience he can pick up this year should be all to the good. In any case, it was inevitable that Prince would get first shot at the job come fall, though he'll undoubtedly be on a shorter leash than Craft last season.
Tailback depth is obvious. Christian Ramirez demonstrated his worth last spring when he had nothing to play for but pride and the future. Milton Knox and Johnathan Franklin have the most shake, while Aundre Dean and Raymond Carter still seem to be factors. Chow apparently sees the 230-pound Derrick Coleman as a LenDale White type, so we've got a serious traffic jam here; enough so that it's easy to imagine someone falling out. As always, one hopes the fullback position (or ace back) will finally become a significant threat in the passing game.
The receiver depth is also impressive. Terrence Austin, Taylor Embree and Nelson Rosario are proven talents; Dominique Johnson, Gavin Ketchum, Antwon Moutra, Jerry Johnson and the hybrid, Morrell Pressley, provide very respectable depth (And I wouldn't worry too much about Pressley's drops in the spring. He's all that we expected). With the return of two such quality tight ends as Logan Paulsen and Ryan Moya in the fall, there should be no lack of quality receivers. And anything they can get out of incoming burner Randall Carroll is just gravy, which mostly likely could be in returning kickoffs.
Since the offense still lacks the class to seriously test the defense, the question, once again, is how good, really, is the defense? My guess is good enough that I'll be humming a happy tune when they take the field September 5th. They're experienced and no longer undersized, they look quicker sideline to sideline, and they play with a genuine swagger. Here's hoping, also, that new Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bullough will rely more on pressure, up front, against good passing attacks than did his predecessor, and I like that his coaching background is based in the front seven rather than the defensive backfield. This D would appear to have more playmakers than at any time in recent years (Here I'm thinking of Brian Price, obviously, along with Reggie Carter, Alterraun Verner and Akeem Ayers. It would be a shame if any of those four went down for an extended period). Datone Jones and Glen Love look like upgrades at their positions over a year ago, while the Bosworths just keep "over-achieving." Though Aaron Hester has been pushing the envelop on pass interference, you have to admire his confidence and aggressiveness. In all likelihood, this defense is going to have to carry the team, at least early on.
What else? Punter Jeff Locke seems much improved over last year, getting exceptional hang time on both his punts and kickoffs (Kickers, for some reason or other, seem to take a couple of years to settle into consistency). And Kai Forbath should be one of the very best field goal kickers in the country. Likely, he'll be getting lots of attempts once again.
The schedule doesn't appear to be intimidating, but then it's still late spring. Tennessee shouldn't scare you, offensively, but Knoxville should. Kansas State welcomes back Coach Bill Snyder, but loses quarterback Josh Freeman. San Diego State is, well...San Diego State (If the Bruins lose this one, cover your eyes). Both Oregon and Oregon State return formidable quarterbacks, and UDub's Jake Locker, fully mended, could be the Pac-10's best player unless Aaron Corp goes off early, like Matt Leinart did, or Jahvid Best again runs wild for Cal. Wazzu returns a couple of experienced QBs (and the game is in Pullman). Stanford has an intriguing new QB in Andrew Luck, while Arizona State and U of A, like the Bruins, are starting from scratch with new QBs.
The pre-season rags have yet to come out, but I'd guess UCLA will again be relegated somewhere to the middle of the conference behind, of course, SC, and also Oregon, OSU and Cal. SC's still in a class by itself, but it does appear that the Holiday Bowl is up for grabs (as is getting shut out of any bowl game). I'd be surprised if the Oregons or Cal have a better defense than the Bruins, so for UCLA it's going to come down to the QB position and the O line. But then you knew that.
Unless Christian Ramirez turns out to be the real thing, Milton Knox is my choice to be this season's break out player. And though I usually only half pay attention to player quotes, this one from Johnathan Franklin is worth repeating. For those who missed it, he said, "I want us to change the way we are. I don't want to be how we were back in the day. I want it to be a new era… It's like a revolution – we have to change it for good… to change it like it's never been before." Can't say fairer than that.
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