Off-Season Talk: Rick Neuheisel

In our continuing series of off-season interviews, Head Coach Rick Neuheisel sat down for an exclusive, in-depth discussion about what the upcoming season means for the program, spring practice, the young defense, and the off-season position changes...

I know you had your eyes opened a little bit when you first got here and saw what you had to work with and where the program was, but going into year three …

‘'We're gaining on it. I feel satisfied by the progress that we've made from a roster standpoint. I felt good that we had made some improvement from the record standpoint from year one to year two, and my goal is to make the same progress again this year in that we keep moving in the right direction.

‘'So, what does that mean? It means we have to try to win eight … we have to try to win eight games, which is going to be a challenge given our schedule and given the fact that we still haven't really matured as an offensive line because, if Xavier Su'a-Filo were here, I would say we'd feel real good but that left tackle spot is still a question mark. Micah Kia hopefully can be back. Nik Abele is going to get a bunch of snaps this spring. I think that both of those guys are good players.

‘'How good? Our running game hasn't shown that it is capable of being the kind of running game you need to be to challenge for the top prizes. Now, we've recruited well. You can't say that we didn't go and get some good running backs. But we've got a combination of strength, scheme and ability to make sure that we can be an effective running team and if we can do that then I'll feel much better about our offense.

‘'But while we're gaining on it on offense, we've just had some attrition hit us on defense and there's not a defensive line that you could look at and just say is ready to play at this level. You know, we'll play, but how well we'll play remains to be seen. We don't have that lock down corner that Alterraun Verner gave us. We hope, I think, Sheldon Price has got all the numbers. He'll have better numbers than Alterraun had in terms of the measurables, but will he have the instinct, that savvy from year one to year two? Aaron Hester, is he going to return to form? You know, those guys are both prototypes of what you're looking for, but we've got to see. Rahim Moore, obviously, has played terrifically. Tony Dye has got to take the next step. But those corners are still a little bit of a concern and then without Brian Price, who is going to be that guy up front? Akeem Ayers I think is going to be fabulous. Datone Jones I think is going to be fabulous. But the rest of the guys have got to step up.

‘'With those question marks, along with the question mark of the running game, eight wins is achievable, but we've got to work our tails off and have guys come through to be in that category. That's not to say that if we hit it, we can't win nine, 10, 11. It just means that there's work to do. But, I say, we can be damn good this year but we're going to be where we need to be a year from now. With the class that's coming in with a year under their belt, then I think we're going to have what we need.''

Offensively, I know a lot of people were expecting a huge jump in production in year two, but when you look at the playmakers, the offensive line, the maturity level really wasn't there for it …


‘'It was still way down, especially when your quarterback is brand new, too. How do you do much? You're playing with three-fifths of an offensive line that had never played here before, a quarterback who had never played, two wide receivers who are second-year players, a running back who hadn't played. It was a tall order. But, we got better, and I think we'll see better this year.

‘'Can we stay consistent on defense and even move up a notch, that's the question mark because if we can, I'm going to feel great about our team. But our offense has got to pick up for our defense a little bit and our defense is going to be challenged, especially when you look at Kansas State, which has spread dimensions to it and zone-read dimensions to it; then you play Stanford, which brings a whole set of problems in terms of the way they come down hill at you, formation you; and then Houston, which spreads you out like none other and can throw for 700 yards; and then you go to Texas. That's a huge bite of the apple to do that to your defense in the first month of the season without a lot of the guys that you're counting on not having a lot of experience. That will be a challenge.

‘'But, other than that, I'm thrilled. I don't mean to sound pessimistic because I'm never pessimistic. I'm optimistic. But we've got to go out and play well to get out of the blocks and get off to a good start. At the end of September, if we feel good about ourselves, then I'm going to feel very good about how the season will end up.''

You would think that the guys, the young guys, who didn't quite have a grasp of what they were doing last year will move forward, that the offense can be a lot tighter. …

‘'Spring football, I don't remember a time when spring football was more important in terms of really solidifying some people – are they going to help or not? And, solidifying some scheme that we can use to be effective in all four of those games.''

With the scheme, I would think you had designs on using more stuff going into the season but actually only got to it maybe here or here …

‘'Yeah, but at the end of the day, coaches always have more scheme that they can really get good at. It's whether that scheme can sustain you through the course of a season, because when you try to add to it, your productivity goes down because you're just not as good at it. It's pivotal as to what scheme you choose, and can it sustain you?''

But you have to think you have more of a base there now …

‘'You're right, and that gives us a little bit more of a chance. And we're light years ahead of where we were two years ago … light years ahead. I mean, we've got better explosiveness, we've got some kids with experience, we've got a level of confidence and we've had an offensive staff that's stayed together into a third year now. That helps us. But we're going to have to be better to help that defense grow up, too.''

So, the expectation would be that you'll be able to open up things a little more next season, given that experience level, that maturity …

‘'I want the expectations to be high. I want the people to be excited. I look forward to that. I know our players are excited. I've had meetings with every kid on the team this quarter and to a man, they love our team, think we're going to be damn good, are excited about the chance to recapture the city. All of the things that have gone on in this last quarter of time have given everybody this, ‘Hey' let's go take it …' and that's where we need to be.

‘'But we've got to be really thorough in the steps that we take and make sure that they're well thought out so we're not having to take two steps back to get back to where we were, you know what I'm saying? It's a very important time for us to really do the hard work of making sure what we do in the next month is exactly what we need to do, so we leave April 24 from the Rose Bowl going, ‘All right, now we know exactly the course that needs to be plotted so when we hit August we are not looking back.

‘'We know who the guys are. We know what needs to happen in the offseason, whether it be strength and conditioning, whether it be spending more time understanding, you know, all the different nuances that go into being a good football team. We just have to identify exactly what we're doing. We can't afford to squander any time because of the challenges of that first month and what it will mean to the psyche. If we were, just for arguments sake, 4-0, we'd be a top six or seven team in the country. If we won the three and then gone to Texas and beat Texas at Texas … Now, that's a hard job to get all that done, but it's an exciting prospect.

‘'But, we also have to be mentally tough enough that if we do get derailed in any of that, we come back and still beat a really good football team the next week. That's going to take some real thorough coaching and some tough-mindedness from everybody involved.''

Playing at Texas can be a real trampoline game for this program …

‘'Yeah, as Tennessee was a year ago. You know, Tennessee, say what you will, the five opening games of the Pac-10 weren't very good for us, but that Tennessee win still was a critical win from a national standpoint, that you could go on the road, into an environment like that, and beat a marquee name in front of a throng. And then the other things you take, we won on the road and won two games in cold weather, which usually takes tough-mindedness.

‘'So, there are some things we can point to that, ‘Hey, we're there. We're just young.' And each of those five losses in conference play to open the deal, we were in the game. As a matter of fact, even the ‘SC game, we're in the game. We have chances to win. We weren't good enough.

‘'We weren't good enough against Stanford. We had chances – the opening drive of the game we're down there, 2nd-and-4 and we don't make the first down, but at the end of the day they win the game. We weren't good enough to get them off the field. They killed us with time of possession. The Oregon game we've got them. We're up 3-0 at halftime, should have been 10-0. We don't block a couple of plays correctly and then that lightning in the bottle kickoff return, interception return, and then a third touchdown off of another turnover. So, they score three touchdowns in the span of two minutes and we're done. We hold them to 24 points and two of them were on returns. I know they didn't have (Jeremiah) Masoli, but still … we had a nice plan. Then we play Cal, we had a good offensive day, but our defense has the worst half of the year and they get 35 points in the first half. We do a good job of shutting them down, we're going to get back in the game, have Logan Paulsen wide open down the middle of the field and Kevin Prince just doesn't put enough air under the ball and the guy picks us off and goes the other way and the game is over. But we're right there. Go on the road at Arizona, the defense does a nice job of getting some turnovers, but they've had our number. We can't move the ball against Arizona these last two years. We've got to figure out how to get that hurdle cleared. And then Oregon State, we fight our way all the way back into the game, 19-19, kind of discover ourselves, you know, Nelson Rosario, Taylor Embree and Prince all of a sudden become guys, have an epiphany, got it 19-19, and our best corner has it right there … he makes that play all the time.

‘'That's just where it was. We weren't good enough. But, we're there. And I think we're improving. I think the recruiting is improving – I think we've proven that we can recruit. We've got to coach these guys. There will be some freshmen that will come in and help. But we're gaining on it. Now we have to get the mental toughness to win those games, because our conference is always going to be like that.

‘'Those games are going to be swinging. At Washington, I won those games. Right? But I had an experienced team. I had Marcus (Tuiasosopo) and, I mean, we won those late deals and found ways to come back and win the game. That's where we have to go, that's why it's this tough-mindedness, because we're going to play out of 12 games next year, you've got to imagine that 10 of them are going to be right on the cusp, going either way, with six minutes left.''

As a coach, how do you develop that, because tough-mindedness is not something that UCLA football has been known for the past few years …


‘'You know, it was interesting. Last year, now, Washington State was not a good football team last year and struggled, but it was brought up a number of times about the cold weather, going up there … We just faced that. We talked openly about that – as a matter of fact, we had our team meeting out in the parking lot with the snow coming down just because, ‘You know what, let's face our demons, let's say what this is, are we tough enough, can we concentrate in this weather, can we be excited to play?' And, really, that's what it comes down to – are you excited to play? Is football important enough to you?

‘'And, I feel like, we were always excited to play, we just weren't quite ready to play at the high level that you need to be successful. We are going to continue to cultivate the excitement to play – let's go get it – and only those who are excited are going to be playing and then the leadership, the Rahims, the Akeems, the Datones, the Princes, those kids who have been through a little of it, now have to carry that swagger that, ‘Yeah, we're going to win this game. We're going to find a way.'

‘'And all of those kids that I mentioned were freshman starters. You know? They were freshman starters, and you throw Rosario and Taylor in there, freshman guys that are now kind of getting into year three and it's time for them to go be the best players in the conference and take their team on their shoulders, which is what teams do. You look at (Sean) Canfield last year, from Oregon State. The Rodgers brothers, they burst on, but now they've carried teams. Masoli at Oregon. Those guys help win games because of their confidence. That's what we've got to have from these guys.''

Defensively, obviously, you lose a lot of guys. Experience is going to be a huge question. But overall, you're getting more athletic on that side of the ball, faster …


‘'I think that's exactly right. We just now have to have leadership that brings that stuff to the table. I'm excited about watching Cassius Marsh and Dietrich Riley and Tevin McDonald and Anthony Jefferson and I'm not meaning to leave anyone out … you know, Jordan Zumwalt, Aramide Olaniyan, Owamagbe Odighizuwa … I'm excited about watching those guys run around on defense.''

With that speed and athleticism, does that allow you at some point to be more aggressive schematically with what you do defensively?


‘'Yeah, and I think we got there. You know, you saw some just with the use of Akeem Ayers. He's a SAM linebacker but all of a sudden he started playing end. Guys like Owa, guys like Josh Shirley, guys like Derrick Bryant, the big kid from Columbus, Ohio, they all will give us those kind of chances and they all are athletic enough to drop back, so you never know who is coming and who is backing off into coverage and that's all great stuff. As our corner speed becomes even more, you can trust things outside and you can bring more stuff and you can create more havoc for opposing offenses.''

There were times last year, and obviously you had some great players on the field, but when Chuck (Bullough) did try to blitz it was maybe 50-50 to whether the guy gets there or not …


‘'Yeah, and we probably relied on zone pressures more than necessary to try to disrupt and try to create pass rush. You really want zone pressures for run stopping. But, we'll have a pressure package that will (be effective) because of who comes, not so much because they're going to come untouched but because of who is coming and how much aggression and speed and tenacity they have to get home. Hopefully we'll have a higher percentage in that regard.''

All part of the process of growing up, I guess …


‘'All part of the process. And, remember, Chuck was a first-time coordinator, too, so there was a lot of learning going on last year and I'm just thrilled that we got to a post-season game and then that we won it, because it sets the tradition for this group of guys, who will pass it on, that this is what we're about. We're going to get this thing rolling. The fact of the matter is in the first two years we were 3-6 in the conference. We have to be better than that. We have to have to get to a winning record in the conference and I'd be disappointed if we didn't do it this year.''

Kevin Prince, his development this offseason physically has been dramatic … How do you see that helping him next season?


‘'He's kind of blown up. It's a remarkable thing. I don't think of Kevin Prince in my head as a 230, 235-pound kid. He's maybe even grown a half inch, to where he's almost 6-3. And he ran 4.5, 4.5 and change, but still sub 4.6, which is, you know, you don't see him as that kind of athlete. That's Jake Locker. You know, that's who Jake Locker is right there. And we all know how we feel about Jake Locker. If Kevin can have that kind of ability and that kind of impact on the game, then just imagine … you know, because I think we have some real weapons outside for him. And he's played with them, with Nelson and Taylor and now you add Josh Smith to the mix, who I think is an explosive player. I'm excited to see Jerry Johnson and Ricky Marvray, see if they can kind of take the next step. Joe Fauria is a real weapon, a 6-foot-7 tight end. Normally you see 6-7 and think, ‘He's not really …' This guy is really 6-7, and has made plays. Morrell Presley is a year older and we'll see if we can get Morrell untracked, because he ran sub 4.5 at 219 pounds. That's exciting. I don't know if they bought off the guy with the stop watch … I wish I would have run that day. I might have had the time that I wouldn't be ashamed for anybody to look at.

"But there has to be a real steely-eyed mental toughness to this next six months of time so that when we get ready to play, we understand the challenges that lay ahead.''

You have to have some confidence, just from the way that these guys have hit the offseason conditioning and weight program, the way they look physically …


‘'We are improving. The athleticism of the program is definitely on the come and I know that these kids that are just coming in, I don't know that they would have been at UCLA three or four years ago ... had considered UCLA. So the way that we're being received out there is a good thing. It's marching where we want it to go. Now we have to deliver. I don't need to be afraid about not delivering, I just want everybody to understand what it's going to take to deliver so you are being held accountable.''

Do you think they know that?


‘'I think they understand it. You know, my first two years here, it was about making everybody believe that this was going to happen. Now it's about, OK, I think people believe, now I have to give them the formula for how it's going to happen and here's how. And it's going to be … we have to be tough-minded. This is going to be a let-the-fur-fly type of spring.''

What can you tell me about Stan Hasiak coming back?


‘'I'm excited for Stan. You know, at the end of the day he was a freshman. He made some bad, poor choices with respect to his behavior. There were some issues that I just couldn't tolerate as the head football coach and just like anybody else, he had to take a seat, view his own personal situation and then decide, you know, is this what he wants?

‘'I kept him away from the team the entire quarter. He still asked to do all the things that the team was doing, but not as a member of it and I wanted to see how he responded to that. And, thankfully, I think for both of us, he handled that with a great level of maturity and he understands what was wrong. He understands if he does it again I've got to move on – there's no one person who is bigger than the team.

‘'But I'm thrilled that he's as excited as he is to come back. And the other thing that is important is that his teammates also are excited for him to come back, especially the offensive line, which means that he has kind of grown in this deal.

‘'We want to get to be a program where freshmen don't have to play. You know? We want them always to compete and if they're ready they can, but they don't have to. It's just a better way to go about it. But I love it when someone is ready and can challenge because that energy and enthusiasm that they bring is always helpful. Stan wasn't ready – emotionally, physically. And because he was in there because of our situation, I think the expectations and the pressures got to him. Fortunately, we were able to take a step back and we'll go again and see how it goes from here.''

Did you say he was asked to do the things, or he asked to do the things?

‘'He was asked. I said, ‘You're going to lift. You're going to make sure you make all these appointments. But you are not doing it with the team.' And he did it. I went and did my due diligence to make sure that everybody was satisfied that there was no recurrence of the issues that had plagued him in the fall and so I'm excited that he's going to hopefully redeem himself.''

With Morrell, does he stay at tight end now?

‘'
He's going to stay at what we call an ‘H' or hybrid position. You know, it's that moving tight end, what we call in our offense a fullback, because a fullback can be wherever. Will he be an iso fullback? No ... maybe as an occasional thing, just to keep defenses honest. And, I would not be shocked if people played nickel when Morrell is in the game, until he proves that he can do it and we can prove that he can do things other than have him be a wide receiver. We have to prove to ourselves, and he has to be capable of sustaining blocks so that we can run the ball when he is in the game.''

When he had to move outside last year, it wasn't the best …


‘'Well, he couldn't do the blocking so we said, ‘He gave us this energy, can we get him out there?' But, frankly, he wasn't ready to play. He came in with this notion that he had to play, but there's a lot going on when you move from high school to college and as a mid-year guy and trying to learn everything and get grades and be on your own for the first time, it's hard. But he has also matured, as is the process, and I think we can hope for better results from him both on and off the field.''

Randall Carroll and Sheldon, are they going to be in spring football?


‘'They will both be in spring ball. I know they're going to have some meets, but it's football first. That's the deal, you know?

Good deal …


‘'It is a good deal. But they think Randall can eventually win the Pac-10s.''

Going over the position-change guys …


‘'Nate Chandler, he's an explosive athlete, like Brian (Price) is. He came in and said, ‘I want to try d-line,' and I said, ‘What are you weighing?' He says, ‘291.' And he looks lean. Just, you know, watching him block both as an offensive lineman and as a tight end, he's a gifted guy. I actually was even thinking about using him at fullback, just because he's such an explosive player. Well, with Brian's departure, this might be a great answer and we're going to get to find out, which will be cool.''

‘'Glenn Love to linebacker, because he certainly is that frame. That was the big thing that Nebraska did years ago, when they went from getting their tails waxed in bowl games when they went and played those fast teams. They just started moving their faster guys closer to the line of scrimmage and it paid off for them, hugely. Christian Ramirez is going to try safety again. Sean Sheller is back to offensive tackle, and I'm going to watch carefully about my running back position, because if I see a guy who can help us at corner, you know, then I'm going to make that switch.''

A running back to corner? Damien Thigpen?


‘'Thigpen. Johnathan Franklin. They're good players. They're fast. They have to be on the field somewhere. I'm not going to have a long line over here (at running back) and not get guys into positions. And, both of them I think can be great tailbacks. But, if they're not, and they're not in the first two positions, then I want to see where I can find more playing time for them because they are gifted guys.''

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