It is real; After tackle Brian Price and end Korey Bosworth, the Bruins have 11 defensive linemen on scholarship, eight whom have never started a game, four whom have never so much as played in a game, and any injury could be devastating.
But it's not a point of worry. Never has been. It didn't merit even a shrug of the shoulders.
Since Howard has been at UCLA, somewhere or some time, the Bruins have always lacked size, lacked strength, lacked quickness, lacked depth, lacked something. Yet he always has made it work. It is what it is and it doesn't bother him in the least. The key at this point, like it was in 2006, '07 and '08, is what he has to work with and not what he does not.
"Still got to win. If they were shooting the losers of the game, you're going into the game hoping you're not going to get lined up against the wall. You coach to that. You coach the guys to do the best that they can and be as efficient as they can," Howard said.
"I'm always optimistic and I always think the new group is going to do better than the group previously, though that remains to be seen."
That does remain to be seen, but, for the record, Howard believes this defensive line can be very good, the ends just as productive as Bruce Davis and Justin Hickman were in his first year in Westwood when they tied for fourth in the nation in sacks and earned All-American honors.
"The guys that I have this year I think have a chance to be as good as those two guys," Howard said, of Bosworth and sophomore Datone Jones.
"I think both of them will have a shot at double-digit sacks. If they can stay healthy throughout the 12 games and hopefully a bowl game, they will get double-digit sacks. You've got Datone, who is bigger than Hickman and faster the Hickman. He's a sophomore, so that's the only thing – you have to see if it clicks for him, but he's working hard.
"Then you have Korey Boz, who is every bit as fast as Bruce Davis was. He's stronger than Bruce Davis. He might not be as flexible as Bruce Davis, but that was something I told him at the end of the spring that he needed to work on. I felt like had he not had a few misses here and there, he would have had double-digit sacks last year …as it was, he had 7 ½.
"I think a guy like Brian Price should get seven or eight inside. And Jerzy (Siewierski) has a better finesse game than Brigham Harwell, and he might be the best athlete of all them."
The imperative again will be the technique and fundamentals that Howard has stressed and made such good use of working with the Bruins' defensive lines. UCLA went from 116th of 117 teams in rushing defense in 2005 (232.8 yards per game) to 9th of 119 in 2006 (91.1), in large part because of the play of a line that came into the season lacking depth and experience.
What is hidden behind the face masks also are vital – the eyes, the ears, the wits.
"We teach techniques, and also I teach the guys (to play)…I like to say that if you play four years for me, you're going to think like a veteran. I played in the NFL and a lot of times a guy will say, 'By my third year I actually became a pro,' because you start knowing everything. You start recognizing every situation that can possibly happen to you and you know how to play the proper technique against it," Howard said. "Well, I point these things out to the guys I coach, so if they're fortunate enough to get to the next level, they already know what to look for and think along better lines. Look at this … see this ... know this."
He sent his linemen into the summer with video cut-ups of the top running plays run against the Bruins a year ago, 12 in all, with notes on how each position was to play against those plays and instructions to grade that film. He wanted them to know formations, down and distance, what was supposed to happen, what did happen. Tests start on Monday, with the start of fall camp.
"You have to know what you're doing. Look at a guy like (UCLA alum) Mike Lodish – Lodish isn't that big. But how many years did he play in the league? He played a long time, because he figured it out. He knew how to play. That's what you have to do to play at a high level. You have to know what you're doing,'' Howard said. ‘'You might not be the biggest guy, but you know how to play with leverage, you know how to recognize tendencies, you know how to play against different things, and you're going to know how to survive in there.
"There are a lot of guys in the NFL who are undersized and you wonder why they're able to play so long. That's why. I don't break ‘em off a little bit at a time. I'm telling them everything that I know – what to look for, why, if you see this, this is what you have to do … everything. I break ‘em off a big piece and by the time they're done here, they know how to play."
Put together, the Bruins have been able to thrive up front despite running some smaller or limited tackles and ends through playing rotations the past three seasons – Chase Moline, Kenneth Lombard, William Snead, Tom Blake included.
"I consider myself a techniques football coach, the fundamentals. You teach the techniques and get guys playing with the proper techniques and fundamentals, you've got a chance. And if you're a little better than the curve or the average, you can be really good. But you can at least get guys who are efficient up front," Howard said.
"They were all guys that listened to what was being said and taught and were eager to try to be better. I've always considered myself to be a positive coach – I'm going to coach from the standpoint that the glass is half full and I'm going to get you to play better than you think you can play and we're going to go out there and compete."
To Howard, they will thrive again with Price priming his motor, Siewierski finally getting a shot at extended playing time, and the young Jones making himself into a monster defensive end.
All are in for a challenge – the tight side ends, 3-techniques, shades, open ends. Howard makes that also very clear.
Here are some excerpts from Howard on personnel breakdowns...
On Brian Price, who mentioned in the spring that Howard had been on him about playing with greater consistency and not relying solely on his natural ability:
"I think he's getting better about that, getting in better shape. But I told him, on a scale of 1 to 10, I thought he was a 6 with taking advantage of everything that he could do. I'd like to see him be better at that. He was first-team all Pac-10, but I think there's still a lot of things that he can do that he's not doing with regard to just being able to work those guards over. I think he can be more productive. If you put it this way, I thought he was at 60 percent of his capacity to produce and he was first-team all-Pac-10."
On Price, and the prospect that he could be a three-year-and-out player at UCLA:
"Based on 60 percent last year? No. If he gets it done and achieves all the things I think he can, I'm going to tell him the truth, I'm going to tell him, ‘Hey, I'd like to see you here four years because you make me a better coach.' But I'm going to tell him. And if he's ready, he's ready - you know what you're doing. If he's not, I'm going to tell him he's not ready - if you go out now you'll end up being a third-round or a fourth-round. You should be a first round. I'll be honest with him and let the chips rest where they may."
On Price, who has a career high for sacks in a game of one. Yes, one:
"That's why he needs to get better. He has one signature move – that's his explosive quickness. But there's a lot of other stuff that he can do to be more effective, because he does have the ability. He just hasn't figured out how to do it yet. That's what I'm talking about as far as getting to 90 or 100 percent of what you're able to do."
On Siewierski, finally getting a chance at a starting role:
"It's just been unfortunate that Jerzy has been here and he's been behind Kevin Brown and then Brigham Harwell. You wish this was just his junior year and you'd have him for another year, but he's an athletic guy, he gets it, he has a good football instinct. I just think that he's going to have a productive year. I hope he can stay healthy because he's never played more than 15 or so snaps a game. How's he going to be when he's playing 80 percent of the snaps? It will help that Jess Ward is his backup and Jess is a starter-caliber player. Maybe rotating those guys in and out, 60-40, can produce a productive nose guard."
On any concern there is that Siewierski hasn't seen the bulk of the snaps in a game?
"It not because we haven't felt that he wasn't a player, it's just that he played behind Brigham last year and the year before that he played behind Kevin Brown and both those guys were in their senior year. I know that he can do it, so it's his shot. My college roommate, (running back) Rod Bernstine, did not play until his senior year and was a first-round draft pick of the Chargers, so if he aspires to play in the league, it doesn't take but one year to do good and you want to do it in your last year, obviously."
On athleticism versus strength for Siewierski at the nose tackle, at the point of attack:
"He has quick feet. A lot of times you want that in a guy lining up over the center. A lot of times the center is one of the better athletes up front, sometimes they're not as big as the guards and the tackles, so they can get on you quicker, and the next thing you know you're getting scooped by a guard, you're getting scooped out of the ‘A' gap and things are happening to you because you're both able to move your feet. But he's able to sit in there and handle the blocks that he's going to get inside. He definitely has the strength."
On Korey Bosworth, entering his senior year:
"Boz I think is going to have a good year. You'd like to see him be heavier than what he was, but Bruce (Davis), Bruce probably played his last game at UCLA at 230 (pounds). He was very thin, and Boz is at least 250 and he's stronger than Bruce. I just look to him to have a breakout year, him and his brother. They both ran 4.5s this spring, so they can run. We have a lot of team speed this year. I mean, Datone Jones ran a 4.6, 4.65…Brian Price ran a 4.9. You've got Akeem Ayers, 4.6. You've got some athletes. We should be able to fly around."
On Bosworth getting into double-digits in sacks:
"Look at it like this. He had 7 ½ on a team that never got ahead, where the other team had to throw. You know what I mean? And he still had 7 ½ sacks. So, if we can be more productive on offense and get in situations where teams have to throw and we can just pin our ears back and get after them, then he's going to get his double-digit sacks."
On what he saw in Bosworth that translated to the d-line, to end:
"He just could run, and he was flexible. When you get guys like that, that's your recipe. How do you not play guys like that? How do you not play guys like that? You don't want guys that you look at on film who aren't hustling, don't look like they love football, they aren't hustling, they're walking. And then you've got a guy like Boz? This is all you need. You don't talk about what he can't do. This is all you need to do. If he can run, and his aggression and his attitude are like this on the football field, you let those guys play. They're going to win more than they lose. I just like guys that like to fly around. You may not know what to do, but you can at least chase the ball like it's a piece of meat and you haven't had anything to eat." On Jones and his future at UCLA:
"He's hungry. He does what you ask him to do. If I were to tell Datone, ‘Hey, man, when you get up in the morning do 10 jumping jacks,' he would get up and do 10 jumping jacks. That's the kind of guy that he is. He's a hungry player and I think he has a chance to be better than any end I've coached since I've been here. That kind of lets you know what I think of him."
On what Jones has to do to become that dominant player:
"Just get the experience. We'll see this year what he's going to be. I mean, you can talk about potential all you want. Until we see this year how he approaches the games and how he produces, that's going to tell you. Damien Holmes is not far behind. He might not be as gifted as Datone is, but he listens. He studies. He understands what's going on."
On Damien Holmes, and where he is physicallly with the injured shoulder:
"I think he'll be ready to go. He might have lost a little strength. But I think he'll be a capable back up for Boz and be ready to step in when Boz leaves. He's been lifting, I think, the past two or three weeks. He was strong as Datone in everything, before he got hurt. But it comes back quick. He's working. Every time I see him, I ask, ‘How's the bench?' And he assures me it's coming back. And he wants it, too. He's hungry, too.
"You get guys that are hungry you're going to end up being all right. I think the problem is getting guys who are complacent and talk about being champions and not really working to be champions. It'd be like saying I want to fly planes, but you're not taking any flight classes. It sounds good, but it ends up being a bunch of bull."
On Jess Ward, coming into his final season:
"He's pretty good straight ahead. He's a guy, I thought, if he had a different attitude as far as what it took to be even better, I think he could have achieved it because he has the size. But I think Datone is stronger than he is bench-press wise and I'm like, How does that happen? He could tell you, ‘I work hard.' But his (lifting) numbers are lower than a lot of guys coming in. But despite those low numbers, he's still a solid player. If he had come in here and been a workaholic and a weight room guy and, hey, I'm going to bust my butt and do everything I can, he could have been 100 percent better."
On the changing culture at UCLA under Coach Rick Neuheisel and this staff:
"The culture … that, ‘We think we can be good without working hard.' That's changed. It's not going to be like that with these younger guys. The Datones and the Damiens and the younger guys, they work hard. Anybody coming in behind them, they're going to see what it takes."
On David Carter, finally growing into a tackle: "Yeah, but he's gotten to be about 300 pounds and he's 6-foot-5 and if Brian Price ends up going pro David Carter will end up being the starter and I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up being a third-rounder. … He has play-making ability. He's 6-5. He runs decent. He's what you're looking for inside. If you had to draw up a guy for inside, I'd much rather Brian Price be 6-5 and 305 and doing what he does right now. And (Carter) is that guy.
"I think he has the ability to make plays. His downfall is that he'll make a play, but then he'll screw something up because he thinks too much. But he's maturing and he wants it. He's another one who needs to get stronger."
On Carter, spurred by what he sees in his future:
"You would think. I mean, because you are 6-5 and you are 300 pounds now, you're what they look like. Do you want it? Are you going to do the things that you need to do to get it done? I know I'm going to coach it. And I know if you start here at UCLA for a full year, you're going to be productive. And he does have the ability to be productive."
On Reggie Stokes, who competed with Jones through the spring:
"Stokes is an IQ guy. He's smart, and he's a valuable member of the defensive front who makes me feel very comfortable about our top eight guys."
On freshman Keenan Graham, and what his future might hold:
"I think he'll be just like Datone – a guy who can run. I'm anxious to see how his hips and stuff are, but obviously he can run. He's 6-2 ½, 236 pounds right now, and hopefully gains 10 pounds a year, and if he can do that the sky is the limit."
On whether Graham and Iuta Tepa might play some this year:
"Keenan ran a 4.56 and I'd like to see him play, you know, at least on special teams – get our good athletes out there on special teams with some size. But we'll see how that works out.
"Tepa, I'm going to see what he can do, too. If he can play, hopefully Frank (Gansz Jr., UCLA's special teams coach) will use him on our special teams and let those guys get their feet wet.''