First a look at the offense.
The Bruins have had two seasons under Rick Neuheisel and Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow, and had very limited success offensively. There were definite signs of improvement from the 2008 to the 2009 season, but they were fairly modest.
The offense has had a built-in excuse – a very justifiable one – that the cupboard was left bare when Neuheisel and Chow came into the program, and they've had to make do with limited talented or very young, inexperienced talent. Over the last couple of seasons, UCLA has had to use many players that simply weren't ready to start or play as many downs as they were, at the most critical positions on offense.
But in 2010, that excuse is just about exhausted.
In 2009, seven of UCLA's 11 offensive starters were freshmen or sophomores. One of the juniors, too, was a JC transfer in his first year playing D-1 ball. And, the experienced players UCLA did have were at positions that don't necessarily have the biggest impact on the offense's effectiveness, like tight end, fullback and one wide receiver spot.
But in 2010, UCLA will probably have four or less players that are either sophomores or redshirt freshmen starting on the offense.
And the two most critical aspects of the offense – quarterback and offensive line – will now have considerably more experienced talent, with the 2009 season under its collective belt. UCLA doesn't lose anyone from those six spots to graduation, even thought it will lose a potential star at left tackle in Xavier Su'a-Filo, the true freshman who announced after the bowl game that he'll be going on his Mormon mission.
On the offensive line, UCLA will have the other four starters returning, anchored by center Kai Maiava, who will be a junior. Maiava had a good season in 2009, and it's believed he has a chance to be an all-conference level player by the time he leaves UCLA. Eddie Williams will return from injury after starting most of the season at right guard, and Jeff Baca will be a true junior and return at left guard. These three are thought to be pretty much solidified as the interior OL, except if, perhaps, offensive line coach Bob Palcic, in an effort to get his best five on the field, moves Baca to a tackle spot. That could happen if a guy emerges as a potential impact player at guard by next fall.
There are a few candidates to make a run at one of the inside positions. Ryan Taylor, who got some significant reps at guard when Williams went down and then playing time at center when Maiva was hurt, will be considered one of the first off the bench inside. It's not believed that he'll compete for a starting spot, but if UCLA can't find a guy to step up at left tackle and need to move Baca to the spot, Taylor could be the first option at left guard. Darius Savage will be a senior and there's no indication that he'll be anything but an experienced back-up. The coaches believe Greg Capella, who was a true freshman this season, has a chance to be pretty good, but he's trying to get in better physical shape. More than likely he projects to a back-up role next season.
One wildcard on the interior is Stan Hasiak, the true freshman this year who began the season as the starting left guard but then ended it with some uncertainly whether he would actually be here in 2010. Hasiak has had some behavioral problems that have caused some run-ins with various people in the program. He's been asked to go home to Hawaii twice this season, and the second time it appeared pretty clear it was for good. He did return to class Monday, but he is still suspended indefinitely from the team while the program tries to decide whether they want to take him back. We have heard his locker had been cleaned out. At this point, it's completely uncertain if the coaches will let him back on the team.
If Hasiak does get his act together, and can keep from angering coaches, players and administrators and does, in fact, return to the team, we've heard he will have a very good chance of being granted a redshirt for the season. It would be granted as a medical redshirt, a result of his behavioral issues, which is something we've never heard of. So Hasiak would be a redshirt freshman next season.
If Hasiak does return and is of the right mindset to play, he'd definitely compete for an interior position, which could get Baca moved to a tackle spot.
The other wildcard is Micah Kia, the senior who suffered a knee injury that knocked him out of the 2009 season. Kia has played just about every OL position while he's been at UCLA. The word is that he's recovered well from then injury, and that he would have a chance to be among the top five linemen. There were issues with Kia, though, during his junior year – that of motivation and focus. He seemingly had matured going into the 2009 season, but was still somewhat in the doghouse with the coaching staff. From what we've heard, the work he's put in rehabbing his knee has been respected, and he'll have a clean slate to earn a spot this fall. It's completely uncertain, though, how he might fit in. Since he has played both inside and outside it's thought that either he or Baca could possibly play tackle. It would be ideal if Kia could be good enough to take over the left tackle spot; it would certainly lessen the blow of losing Su'a-Filo.
On the outside, with the loss of Su'a-Filo, there is a lot of uncertainty. If you had Su'a-Filo the critical left tackle spot would be locked down and it'd just be a matter of opening up the competition at the right tackle spot. But now, it's a whole new ball game. The guy who emerges as the best tackle on the team will probably plug into left tackle and, at this point, it's uncertain whom that might be. We know that the coaches love Nik Abele, the true freshman. He is 6-7 and looks like a tight end, but does in fact weigh about 285 pounds. He has very good quickness and athleticism but is still learning technique. UCLA was thinking their two bookend tackles for the next three seasons would be Su'a-Filo and Abele, but that little dream has been dashed.
Mike Harris started at right tackle the entire season, where he did okay. He doesn't have the quickness to play left tackle, and it was thought Abele and others would compete to possibly unseat Harris at right tackle in 2010. With Su'a-Filo's departure, though, it probably gives Harris a renewed chance of keeping that right tackle spot.
Brett Downey, the walk-on redshirt freshman, is a big boy at 6-7 and 290, and came to UCLA without much strength and very little knowledge of how to play. But he moves well, and in the past two years he's worked hard. The coaches like Downey and believe he could actually compete for a starting spot next season.
As we said, Kia will probably also be a candidate at tackle, just because, without Su'a-Filo, UCLA actually looks a bit thin at tackle.
Sean Sheller, who will be a redshirt senior next year, will probably return to the OL in spring camp after spending the season at defensive tackle on the scout team. Sheller, after he blew out his knee, and with so much competition on the line last fall, was given a shot at DT. And even though DT is pretty thin for next season, if he could show that he could contribute on the OL that's where he could end up.
It's thought that all three of the currently committed OLs in the 2010 class – Chris Ward, Kody Innes and Wade Yandall – could get a shot at tackle. It's very possible that whoever among the three emerges as the most ready to play could possibly not redshirt and make the two-deep.
UCLA will be fairly well stocked at tight end, even after losing seniors Logan Paulsen and Ryan Moya. Cory Harkey will be a junior, and he improved his pass-catching skills this season while growing into a good blocking tight end. The 6-8 Joseph Fauria, the transfer from Notre Dame, was a standout on the scout team all season, and UCLA expects him to be an impact player next season as a redshirt sophomore. Nate Chandler is a solid third guy at the spot, able to block, having spent time as an OL, with decent hands.
Morrell Presley is a bit of an enigma. He's very talented, clearly, but he struggled with the dropsies as a true freshman and couldn't get up to speed in his assignments to really earn significant playing time. UCLA used him as a slot guy – more like a receiver than a tight end. But regardless of what you call him, he's a match-up problem for opposing defenses, and UCLA hopes that he'll come back to spring practice with more polish and focus.
UCLA currently has a commitment in the 2010 class from John Young, who is a solid prospect that would more than likely redshirt. As we reported, however, UCLA is getting an official visit from the #1 tight end in the nation, Xavier Grimble, this weekend. Grimble is currently verbally committed to USC, and there is a long way to go for him to actually decide to de-commit and become a Bruin. Grimble, though, would be a huge addition, and is easily talented enough to garner playing time as a true freshman next fall.
The receiving group should be in very good shape, especially with the expected establishment of a couple of guys from the scout team. UCLA loses Terrence Austin, but replacing him will be the Colorado transfer Josh Smith, who absolutely lit up practice since coming into the program in late fall. He is fast and shifty and very athletic going up for the ball. It's believed he'll immediately compete for a starting spot and probably have a spot won by August.
The other guy who spent the year on the scout team that is expected to be in the rotation is freshman Ricky Marvray, who consistently showed good play-making ability all year in practice.
Taylor Embree, who will be a junior, will be a starter, but he could get a great deal of competition for the spot. He's a possession receiver, and he hasn't really asserted himself as a go-to guy. Nelson Rosario, the 6-5, 215-pounder, showed flashes of greatness this last season, along with flashes of ineptness. UCLA is hoping the off-season will get him some more maturity and consistency.
Then there is Randall Carroll, the extreme speedster who showed considerable potential in practice that never translated to the games. By the end of the season he was getting in on very few plays per game. UCLA is hoping he'll make advances this spring and be able to be UCLA's speed threat next season.
Those five, with just a modicum of development, really give UCLA the potential for a great rotation for 2010. The potential star is Smith, if he's even close to what he's been in practice, not only being a guy who can get you a first down but the guy who can get you the home run.
Jerry Johnson has everything it takes to be a big-time receiver – size, decent speed, athleticism, good hands – but just hasn't been able to bring enough effort and focus. He still has a chance, being a redshirt sophomore next year. Time is running out on Antwon Moutra, who will be a junior and has been pretty non-descript in the last year. Moutra has a redshirt to use, so there is speculation he could transfer. There are others close to the program who feel he should take a shot at safety.
Incoming freshman Paul Richardson is talented while he lacks strength, but if one of the top five falters he could easily work his way into the rotation as a freshman.
In the backfield, the competition at running back will be one of the most interesting things to watch next fall. Johnathan Franklin, as a redshirt freshman, won the starting spot this season, only to lose it because of a tendency to fumble. He'll begin spring practice at the starting spot and they'll see how it goes from there. While there is much speculation about Derrick Coleman, who will be a junior, about moving to fullback, there is very little talk about it around the program. There has been some idle talk about Christian Ramirez, who will be a senior, moving to fullback. He's actually a pretty good blocker, and a good pass catcher, and those two talents could lend themselves well to the fullback position.
The speedy Damien Thigpen, who got some carries as a true freshman, will probably continue to be used as a situational back.
As we reported Monday, there is talk that Milton Knox intends to transfer. He might very well be hearing the footsteps of the incoming freshmen from the 2010 class.
The two running backs coming into the program could be the best two at their position to come into UCLA in 5 or 6 years, and they're doing so in the same year. Malcolm Jones, who was named the Gatorade National Player of the Year, has a very good shot to be UCLA's pound-it-out, every-down back. But then, on the other hand, UCLA has perhaps one of the best scatbacks in the nation in Jordon James, who proved worthy of the praise at the recent UnderArmour All-Star Game. It's believed by many close to the program that both of these guys are talented enough to immediately come in and get significant playing time, and possibly even take over the #1 and #2 spots in the tailback depth chart.
At fullback, UCLA loses two seniors – Chane Moline and Trevor Theriot – both of whom weren't necessarily irreplaceable, but they were steady and did provide the offense experience at the position. You have to give Moline his due, too, since he took over the tailback spot in the last third of the season and performed well.
UCLA now might have more talent at the spot in what will be the redshirt freshman Jayson Allmond, who is a load at 6-0 and 266 pounds, but not the experience. We've heard that the offensive and defensive coaches have been fighting over him and that Chow loves him. Toby Umodu will be a senior but isn't expected to really contribute significantly. UCLA wants redshirt freshman Demetrius Papadakis to be on the fullback depth chart. He came into UCLA at 6-2 and 200 and the word is that he's up to 220.
Even though, as we said, we haven't heard much about it, Coleman and Ramirez potentially moving to fullback will be something to watch for in spring.
At quarterback, Kevin Prince returns from a somewhat tumultuous redshirt freshman year. He suffered a number of injuries, had some poor games and then some fairly good ones.
The word around the UCLA program is that they're expecting Prince to be improved quite a bit next season. He hadn't played in a football game since his junior year in high school, so this last season was a big transition for him. Chow thinks Prince has a chance to be very good, and you tend to trust Chow's opinion on quarterbacks.
Richard Brehaut, who was a true freshman last season, is also expected to make a big jump in improvement by next fall. With it being his first year in the program, Brehaut was still learning the offense, getting used to the speed and athleticism of the college game, and UCLA believes he has the tools to be a high-level D-1 quarterback, it's just a matter of development. There's no secret that Neuheisel wants Brehaut to have a valid shot at the starting spot, and the word is that he'll get a good share of reps this spring.
Nick Crissman sat out the bowl practices with another injury, and we're uncertain about his current status. In December, during those practices, the coaches thought Crissman would be fine by spring practice. He'll be a redshirt sophomore next year, and while he still has those unorthodox mechanics, the coaches think he easily has enough talent, savvy and toughness to be a strong back-up in the Pac-10 at least. There has been speculation that Crissman would transfer out, but we've never heard anything substantive regarding it.
The incoming freshman quarterback is Brett Nottingham, currently ranked the #20 quarterback in the nation by Scout.com. Nottingham proved in his senior year that he had the tools to be a very good Pac-10 quarterback, with good arm strength and particularly good accuracy. In fact, Stanford has been recruiting him over the last several months, trying to steal him away from UCLA, but Nottingham, according to sources close to the recruitment, is sticking with his commitment. It's believe that Nottingham is talented enough that, once he gets up to speed with the scheme and gets acclimated to the college game, he could compete for at least the #2 spot on the depth chart. That might not be until his redshirt freshman year. But down the line, the Bruin coaches see Nottingham as the successor to the position after Prince and Brehaut.