We aren't prepared yet to make predictions for the 2009 season, but it's clear from fall camp that UCLA will be much improved from a season ago.
Many would then surmise that the 2010 season would be even better, and that very well could be the case.
But the feeling around the program is that it's building toward the 2011 season – that that's the season where UCLA could really potentially put it all together for a big national run.
Looking at a roster and projecting out a couple of years is a dubious endeavor, we know. Things can change quickly. But heck, it's fun.
If you do it with the UCLA roster, things are very, very encouraging. There is quite a bit of young talent on the roster, which bodes quite well for the future.
Then, there is something else that lines up for the 2011 season.
Really, perhaps the biggest determining factor to the success of a team in any given year is its schedule. A good team can have a mediocre year if it happens to play a tough schedule, while a team not nearly has good could post a better record if it plays a weaker schedule.
So, you first have to look at UCLA's future schedules. Generally, the way it goes for UCLA is that it alternates every year between a somewhat tougher schedule to a somewhat easier schedule. That's mostly because, with how the programs have evolved in the Pac-10, every other year UCLA gets the tougher programs at home and the easier ones on the road, which makes for an easier schedule. In odd-numbered years, UCLA gets Cal, Arizona State and Oregon at home, and Stanford, Arizona, Oregon State and Washington State on the road. In its tougher seasons, the even-numbered years, it gets Cal, Oregon and Arizona State on the road.
So, it follows that UCLA should have a slightly easier schedule this season, and a slightly tougher one next season – and then an easier one in 2011.
In terms of the non-conference schedule for 2011, UCLA will be at Houston, and then have San Jose and Texas at home. Texas at home is perfect – a big, elite program on your home turf that will make for a big BCS win.
Let's then look at UCLA's hypothetical two-deep for the 2001 season.
With the all-important offensive line, UCLA might very well have 4 of 5 guys who have started together for three consecutive years – Jeff Baca, Kai Maiava, Stan Hasiak and Xavier Su'a-Filo. In 2011, Baca and Maiava would both be seniors, with Baca a four-year starter and Maiava a three-year starter. Hasiak and Su'a-Filo would be juniors and three-year starters. Now, we know Su'a-Filo has a plan to go on his Mormon mission next season, and that very well could happen. Just speculating, however, if Su'a-Filo does, in fact, start this season as a true freshman and does well, it will be interesting to see if the Mormon mission isn't put off for a while.
Let's say that Su'a-Filo is still part of the group in 2011. You can imagine how good this unit would be when they're seniors and juniors and have a history of three years of playing together.
Amazingly, that would mean UCLA would have to replace just one of its starting OL in three years. Just one.
The replacement could be Greg Capella, stepping in at the guard position left by Eddie Williams, when he leaves after the 2010 season. Or it could be that Nike Abele steps into the right tackle spot and Baca slides over to the right guard spot. There is also tackle Brett Downey, who is competing for a spot in the two-deep this season, and is only a redshirt freshman. Tackle Mike Harris, who started 5 games a season ago, and is part of this year's two-deep, would be a senior.
Then, you have to figure in some of the elite recruits UCLA will more than likely bring in over the next two years. There are guys UCLA is seriously involved with in the 2010 class – like Chris Ward from Santa Ana Mater Dei – who are talented enough to compete for that starting position, and even challege the returning starters.
At tight end, UCLA is potentially loaded – still. Cory Harkey and Nate Chandler would be seniors, Notre Dame transfer Joseph Fauria will be a junior, and Morrell Presley would be a junior, and you'd imagine there'd be at least one elite future recruit in the mix. Even if Presley doesn't develop into a tight end and is a wide receiver, it's still looking good at the position by having two seniors and a junijor and then room for younger tight ends to fill the rotation. From what we've been told, Harkey, Chandler and Fauria all have a chance to be pros.
At wide receiver, Taylor Embree, Nelson Rosario, Antwon Moutra and Colorado transfer Josh Smith will be seniors; Randall Carroll, Presley, Jerry Johnson and Ricky Marvray will be juniors. You can probably expect some shakeout here, with this kind of competition, especially with the talent UCLA will probably bring in at receiver in the 2010 and 2011 classes. But that's a pretty loaded group – already, two years before it happens.
The running back position is similar – in that you can already project a two-deep for 2011, without adding any 2010 or 2011 recruits. Derrick Coleman will be a senior, while Johnathan Franklin and Milton Knox will be juniors, and Damien Thigpen possibly a sophomore. UCLA is certainly going to get a running back for 2010, perhaps an elite one, too. And then there's the 2011 recruiting class.
At quarterback, Kevin Prince would be a junior and in his third year as a starter. It's fun to imagine. If he did, in fact, hold the position for that long, it will be interesting to see what happens with, say Richard Brehaut, who hopefully (unless he's forced to play this season) would be a sophomore in 2011. The ideal scenario is that Prince becomes an elite college quarterback, and after he leaves he hands over the starting spot to a well-seasoned Brehaut for at least one season (possibly two, if Prince, let's say, leaves early). There's also Nick Crissman, who will be a junior, and not someone to count out. UCLA has a commitment from 2010 prospect Brett Nottingham, who would probably be a redshirt freshman in 2011, and then perhaps a 2011 recruit who would be a true freshman.
Interestingly, the defense doesn't project out for the 2011 season as deep as the offense. UCLA loses quite a bit of talent in its front seven over the next couple of years that it will have to replace.
The defensive line will have defensive end Datone Jones as a senior, who could very well be a monster or gone early to the NFL. The other ends will be Damien Holmes as a junior, and Keenan Graham who could be a junior or a redshirt sophomore. Marquis Jackson, the JC transfer, has three years to play two when he comes in next season, so he could either be a junior or a senior in 2011. Iuta Tepa will almost certainly redshirt this year, so he'd be a redshirt sophomore in 2011. Converted OL Connor Bradford would be a junior. Figure in at least one more solid contributor as a defensive end from the 2010 class, and possibly even a true freshman from 2011 and, if Jones is around for his senior year, you could see the defensive end positions being a real strength.
Defensive tackle is easily the biggest question mark for the 2011 season. The only scholarship player at the position on the roster who will be here in 2011 is third-stringer Justin Edison, who would be a senior. There is Justin Mann, a good walk-on, who could be part of the two-deep. UCLA does have two commitments from defensive tackles in the 2010 class – Julious Moore and Wesley Flowers. Flowers could possibly project as a defensive end, but more than likely he'll be a tackle. UCLA will stock up on even more defensive tackles for 2010, and finding at least two among them who will be able to be at least solid at the position for the 2011 season very well could be the key to the season. You would think someone like George Uko, the elite defensive tackle prospect from Chino (Calif.) Don Lugo, might recognize that he could be a key to a championship season in 2011.
At linebacker, the question is the weakside spot. At strongside Akeem Ayers will be a senior in 2011, and it's easy to seem him as an All-American candidate. The likely candidate for the middle is Steve Sloan, who started a number of games last year, and would be a senior. When Reggie Carter leaves after this season, it's expected Sloan will step into the starting spot next season. So, that leaves the weakside spot. Sean Westgate would be a senior, but he's small. He's a gamer but you'd have to think that UCLA will have recruited someone with more elite talent to take over the position. You might get a candidate from one of the younger players currently on the roster – like redshirt freshmen Patrick Larimore and Damien Carter, or true freshmen Todd Golper or Isaiah Bowens. Larimore and Golper are currently slotted at middle linebacker and Carter and Bowens at strongside. We could see Golper potentially making the switch there. Golper might not necessarily have the size or speed, but he's a player. There is also Taniela Maka, the 2009 recruit who didn't quite make it academically, who will try to achieve a qualifying test score and enroll at UCLA later this year. He is, in fact, slated as a weakside linebacker. There is also Jared Koster, who didn't enroll due to an injury, but is expected to enroll sometime this year.
It's why there is a potential opening for an elite 2010 linebacker on UCLA's roster – someone like Los Angeles Crenshaw's Hayes Pullard.
If, indeed, Dye does win the starting spot, hypothetically it would be interesting to see Love perhaps move to weakside linebacker in the future. He's 6-4 and about 215 now, runs very well, and he plays the run better than he does pass coverage now, as a strong safety.
The two-deep at safety looks strong, with Stan McKay, a future stud, competing to start by next season. The coaches also like Dalton Hilliard. There is under-sized Alex Mascarenas, who the coaches say has a chance to be a solid contributor. But then there are also the 2010 commitments – Tony Jefferson and Earnest Thomas – both guys you could see being strong contributors by their redshirt sophomore seasons.
Current questions you might have at cornerback for the 2011 season will long be answered before then. You can pretty much bet that Aaron Hester will be a star, since it would be his third year as a starter. Filling the other spot should develop into a nice battle, as early as next season after Alterraun Verner graduates in June. Whoever wins the position for next season will almost certainly be the starter in 2011, so UCLA will have two returning starters at corner for 2011. Courtney Viney would be a senior, and Andrew Abbott a junior. But then you'd have to think that at least one of this year's true freshmen will also step up and be a strong candidate. Sheldon Price might be the guy, being 6-2 and fast, and just needing to add strength. But Marlon Pollard is very athletic, and just needs some seasoning. There is also Brandon Sermons, who has looked pretty good in his first fall camp also.
Again, this isn't taking too much into consideration the extent of the talent coming into the program from the 2010 and 2011 classes. On the other hand, you have to consider shake-out and attrition – that some guys on the roster who project as strong contributors two years down the line could leave the program.
But overall, with how many sophomores and freshmen UCLA has on its roster, it's unusual that you can project such a filled-out two-deep two years in advance.
So, without getting too far ahead of ourselves, Bruin fans, enjoy the 2009 improved Bruins. Then, you possibly have to understand that, in 2010, UCLA will be looking to replace some key starters it's losing after this season, and then get through the tougher 2010 schedule (at Texas in the non-conference). The 2010 Bruins could end up being just as good a team as the 2009 Bruins but might not post as good a record.
But then, it appears that the stars are aligning for the 2011 season.