Fall Practice Preview: Offense

There are so many things to be watching for in UCLA's offense as it takes to Spaulding Field for the first day of fall camp on Monday. There is the new scheme, a revamped offensive line, freshman running backs, transfers becoming eligible and a blossoming sophomore quarterback...

In doing this preview of fall practice in previous years, I don't remember having so much "to watch" heading into practice than we do this season.

That's both good and bad.

Good on one hand that there are some key personnel developments that could greatly impact the offense's effectiveness.

Potentiailly bad that there are many questions to be answered.

Truly, it's not rocket science, however. It comes down to this: If UCLA can get good production out of its offensive line and quarterback, it will have a successful offense.

OFFENSIVE LINE

And one of those factors greatly impacts the other – and has become UCLA's biggest issue: the effectiveness of the offensive line.

Again, as it has been for many seasons, the offensive line is UCLA's big issue. It's truly not offensive line coach Bob Palcic's fault. After many seasons of not being able to put together a strong OL, it seemed that under Palcic and Rick Neuheisel the unit was going in the right direction. They were recruiting bigger and better prospects, and it was just a matter of them maturing.

So, you'd think that in year three of the Neuheisel era the OL would be close to being a talented, experienced unit.

But a few things happened along the way.

The biggest blow, by far, and perhaps to the entire program under Neuheisel, was the loss of Xavier Su'a-Filo to a Mormon mission after last season. Su'a-Filo started last season as a freshman at left tackle and was good -- as a true freshman. It's a bit painful for UCLA fans to think about how good he'd be as a true sophomore. He's a clear NFL prospect, and losing him, at the key left tackle spot, is like a dominoes effect on the offensive line. If UCLA had Su'-a-Filo this season, I would personally pick them to have at one or two more wins.

But then it also was a considerable blow when Nik Abele, a guy UCLA coaches projected to be a potential starter this season as a redshirt freshman, went down with a neck and back issue, which very well could end his playing career. We say that with some uncertainty because there are some in the football program that are holding out hope that Abele might be able to return, but it's unlikely.

Then, UCLA lost Stan Hasiak to academic issues, also. That isn't necessarily such a blow, while it does affect depth. Hasiak was expected to be an immediate impact guy and has turned out to be not nearly as good as they expected. His behavioral problems – and the academic issues – haven't helped. He'll practice with the scout team this year and try to return for next season.

UCLA almost lost an established starter to academics, too, (who will remain nameless). If that had happened, you probably could have blown taps over the offensive line for the season.

Palcic would like to have 10 able bodies for his OL – with five strong starters, and then five good back-ups.

The five starters heading into fall camp project to be:

Sean Sheller, LT, SR, 6-5, 300
Jeff Baca, LG, JR, 6-4, 305
Ryan Taylor, C, SR, 6-3, 298
Eddie Williams, RG, SR, 6-1, 329
Micah Kia, RT, SR, 6-5, 321

Everyone knows the story of Sheller, who was a very promising prospect but had his college career derailed by injury. He then was moved to DL on his return from knee surgery. But after last season he was brought back to the OL, and the coaches have been impressed. So much so he's penciled in at that LT spot. He's there because of his lateral quickness, but he's a guy who hasn't really played OL in a couple of seasons, much less the left tackle position.

Kia returns from his own knee surgery. He's done a lot of work in the weight room, looking mammoth. He's grown into a leadership role on the team, and the coaches are pleased with how he's progressed as a player. The issue will clearly be health, since Kia has never gotten through a season without some type of injury. It might not be his knee, but the long-running issue with his back, which the coaches will have to manage.

The interior actually looks to be more certain. Baca will be a three-year returning starter, and the coaches are expecting him to excel. Williams is coming off an injury where he missed more than half the season, but he's dropped 30 pounds and can move quite a bit better.

The competition at center will be interesting. Kai Maiava was the starter last season, but he's had issues – academics and others. He did, though, lose weight in the off-season and got stronger, to try to win the center job. Ryan Taylor stepped in for spring, and we think his reliability will win him the spot in fall.

That, though, makes Maiava a very valuable player. There aren't many programs in the conference that have a guy they can plug into play center with Maiava's experience and talent. He also can fill in at guard. In fact, if Maiava wins the center spot, Taylor also can play guard, having started two games at the position last season.

UCLA is also expecting senior Darius Savage to be a very serviceable interior guy off the bench. He, too, lost some weight, after coming off disk surgery on his back in the off-season. And, being a senior, he's had plenty of game experience.

Mike Harris, the two-year starter at right tackle, will battle with Kia for that starting spot, and it very well could end up a platoon situation, with the coaches trying to manage Kia throughout the season. Harris, after two years of starting, is thought to be at least a very solid option at the spot.

So, there you have eight. It would be great if UCLA never had to go deeper in its depth chart than those eight for the season.

But injuries are a bitch.

The coaches expect former walk-on, sophomore Brett Downey, to be a serviceable back-up at tackle. They thought he'd have a chance at a starting spot last spring, but other guys leapfrogged him. It's believed he'd be good enough for spot, back-up duty this season.

Greg Capella has been a bit if a slow developer, listed as the third-stringer at center. He struggled in spring with the shotgun snaps in the Revolver. From what we hear, he's just a temporary insurance policy at center, while some of the younger prospects coming into the program and currently committed in the 2011 class develop. With Maiava just a junior, UCLA believes it has the starting center spot covered for the next two seasons. Capella, then, will be a guy to watch this fall, to see if they try to develop him for depth at one of the guard spots, and if he does well.

The coaches were impressed with Wade Yandall, the 2010 prospect who came to UCLA early, for spring practice. He quickly earned respect in spring, coming in a doing pretty well, having only been in school a couple of days and knowing very little about the scheme. He projects as a potential starter down the line, but isn't expected to play this season.

There are also two true freshmen in Chris Ward and Cody Innes, two highly-sought recruits. Ward is quick for his size, and projects inside, at about 6-4 and 315. But just eye-balling him, he'll need time in the program to transform his body. Innes is leaner, at 6-4 and 280-ish, and just needs to take some time to bulk up and get stronger. The coaches see him at center or guard. So, really, neither is expected to play, and if they do, UCLA's OL is in trouble.

There is one JC transfer who was a late addition to the incoming class, Casey Griffiths. Griffiths is a good-sized kid, 6-5 and 285, and it's not sloppy. UCLA is hopeful that Griffiths, being a JC guy (who will have four to play three), is physically mature enough to be an insurance policy in case the OL is besieged with injuries.

There is also Connor Bradford, who has bounced from OL to DL, and now back to OL (and he's also listed at TE, which we'll get to). He's listed at 249 pounds so he's not going to be spending much time on the OL.

The OL does have some considerable experience going for it. Most of the projected starting five have at least one year of starter's experience. And then UCLA's top eight guys all have started at one time or another. For the first time in a long time, the OL is upper-classmen dominated, which means, at the very least, the players are older, stronger and wiser. The experience and maturity, alone, should give the UCLA OL a better chance at success this season than in recent years.

Also, the switch to the Revolver was done specifically to help out the effectiveness of the offensive line and the running game. The Revolver utilizes more of a zone blocking scheme, being less reliant on players being able to dominate one-on-one. It's a bit reminiscent of Tom Cable's scheme when he was the UCLA OL coach and, if you remember, UCLA actually ran the ball pretty effectively in 2004 and 2005.

So, the hopes rest on the new scheme, and the maturity and experience of the OL. Injuries, of course, could be the potential bugaboo here. Watch for whether Micah Kia can get through the season without losing significant playing time – that could be a key.

QUARTERBACK

There is a long-running debate about whether Kevin Prince is "the guy" or not. It rages on the BRO premium football message board.

Many of the critics site a mediocre season last year as a redshirt freshman, and that's a valid point.

But it's funny, because many UCLA fans have sustained blind faith over other things with far less going for it, but for some reason there is a great deal of skepticism when it comes to the UCLA quarterback position. Perhaps it's because UCLA has had one season with a good quarterback (2005) in ten years.

Usually I'm of the more skeptical persuasion myself, but I think there's enough evidence here to support that Kevin Prince, now as a redshirt sophomore, could be on the verge of a breakout season.

The evidence:

Prince played football for the first time in two seasons last year, having not played since his high school junior year.

Prince missed a great deal of time last season due to injury, including a broken jaw. You could make a decent case that, if Prince hadn't been sidelined for a number of games in 2009 and been set back by injury it might have resulted in one more win or two.

Prince has developed physically – now at about 6-2 and 230, with good wheels, running a 4.5ish 40 on Spaulding Field. His arm has gotten stronger and he'll be far more resilient.

The scheme should help. It will keep defenses guessing more, which should give Prince another second or two to make decisions. It would especially help if it could generate some yards on the ground, taking pressure off Prince having to throw the ball.

His receiving corps will probably be better than any UCLA has had in recent years.

And did we say that Prince will be one year older, and that it's tough to judge someone on their performance as a redshirt freshman? Not many quarterbacks look good playing as a freshman.

And most significantly, privately Chow tells just about everyone he thinks Prince is ultimately going to be very good. I'll go with what Chow says. So, when you're talking about things to watch during fall camp, all eyes will be on Prince.

But if you're looking for something else pretty significant to watch it will be the JC quarterback transfer, Darius Bell. Bell, from San Francisco City College, is 6-0 and about 215, and he's a dual-threat guy, which lends itself pretty well to the Revolver.

First, it's just good that UCLA has another decent body at quarterback, since depth was definitely going to be an issue. Secondly, it will be very interesting to see just how good Bell is, and that could drastically affect the quarterback depth chart (not just for this season), and how Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow employs the Revolver scheme.

Let's say Bell is at least good enough to be a viable back-up to Prince. That could enable UCLA, barring injury, to redshirt Richard Brehaut. That would be particularly significant since right now Prince, Brehaut, Bell and Nick Crissman are all sophomores.

Let's say Bell is actually pretty good, and Chow believes could be a weapon this season, it could truly expand what Chow could do with the Revolver. It's probably too much to think that Bell could supplant Prince, but if he's good enough to give the offense another dimension – that is, of a running quarterback, which is ideal for the Revolver – it definitely gives Chow another option. And, as Chow said in his recent interview on BRO, you could potentially have Prince and Bell in the game at the same time, and that would potentially burden opposing defenses with two quarterbacks in your backfield.

Brehaut showed flashes as a true freshman last season. The staff is hoping he'll show some maturity and development this season. It would be ideal to be able to redshirt him, but the quarterback position in college football is one that fraught with injury.

Crissman is a guy the coaches like and respect, for his toughness in returning from two surgeries for a torn labrum over the last year and a half. In the off-season workouts he seems to be throwing without being hindered. He does have that quirky throwing motion, but if you just pay attention to the ball it gets there more times than not. We've heard, too, that Crissman is a smart kid and gets what Chow is trying to impart. Hopefully he'll be able to develop into at least a very viable back-up option over the next three seasons in Westwood.

RUNNING BACKS

It's another significant spot to watch for fall, and one that should probably generate a great deal of excitement for UCLA fans.

UCLA has a couple of guys returning to the position that you'd have to think should be that much better after having another year of experience under their belt.

As of now, junior Derrick Coleman is penciled in as the starter, with sophomore Johnathan Franklin a step behind him.

The coaches are waiting for Coleman to break out. Being 6-0, 231 pounds and built like a house, you'd like to see him run over some people. He hasn't really happened yet, even though there have been signs, particularly in spring practice. So, now that he's in his third year in the program, it will be interesting to watch whether he continues to run how he did in spring or not. The new scheme will help him, since it's designed for running backs to go more north-and-south.

Franklin, everyone knows, had fumble-itis last season. He was the starter, then lost the job because of it. He, of course, has been working hard on the issue. He's also bigger and stronger at just about 200 pounds.

So, you have those two guys, and then you have two more true freshmen that will get thrown into the mix to make it very interesting.

Malcolm Jones was the Gatorade National Player of the Year as a senior in high school, and the thought is that he'll come in and immediately compete for playing time. He's a big boy, at 6-0 and 223 pounds, and probably physically ready. And in high school he was tough and resilient, playing both ways and seemingly getting stronger as the game went on.

Then, if it's not enough getting Jones, UCLA got another one of the elite running backs in the country in Jordon James. Even though he's just about 5-10, he's better built than he might appear, and he could be physically ready to play also (he weighed in at 191 pounds).

There is also Anthony Barr, who they are ostensibly calling a tailback. But at 6-5 and 228 pounds, it's unlikely he gets more than a few token snaps there.

So, while they only have four tailbacks, they have other guys who could definitely fill in if needed. Jayson Allmond has been moved to tight end to begin spring practice because of a lack of depth at the spot, but he spent the spring at tailback. There is Damien Thigpen, who is now an "F" back, who was a tailback last season. And there's Christian Ramirez, now also at the F back spot, who spent a few seasons at tailback.

Talking about the F-back position, the competition there will be wide open, and Chow will probably utilize any number of guys in different situations. The position is a hybrid of a fullback and a tight end, and UCLA has personnel that are more of either, so it's difficult to really talk about a starter and the hierarchy in the depth chart.

The speedy Thigpen will be utilized there, along with Ramirez. Morrell Presley is considered an F back now, and obviously fills more of the tight end version of the position. Allmond will be used there, too.

With so many different types of players with different bodies and skill sets, the position really becomes a very dynamic one, as opposed to the old fullback position. You could actually see Presley get a pitch out of the backfield, in fact.

We've heard that the coaches really like Ramirez at the spot. So, in his redshirt senior year, after attempting to make it at safety and then running back, Ramirez might have found the perfect fit for himself. In many situations, the position requires the player to be a good blocker, which Ramirez is, and it could have you catching passes out of the backfield, and Ramirez is good at that.

It seems like a position that could be good for Barr, too.

RECEIVERS

As we said above, UCLA could have its best collection of receivers in quite a while for the 2010 season.

First, at wide receiver, it has two former starters returning in juniors Taylor Embree and Nelson Rosario. Embree is the dependable guy, and Rosario, at 6-5, has shown flashes of being a big-time difference-maker.

Then, the big wild card is Josh Smith, the junior transfer from Colorado. To be blunt, in practice, Smith has looked like the best receiver on Spaulding Field since Freddie Mitchell. He's very fast, and very athletic, and does spectacular things in the air and on the ground to make the catch and advance the ball. He had surgery on his knee and missed some of spring practice, and has since been practicing in the off-season with a brace, but he doesn't look like it's affecting him much. He also had some academic issues, but the word is that more than likely he'll be fine academically for fall quarter.

There is Randall Carroll, the sophomore speedster, who had somewhat of a breakout spring practice. He showed that world-class speed in being able to get behind his defender, but caught the ball well on other routes, too.

With those four, UCLA's receivers satisfy just about everything you need in a wide receiving group.

Then throw in Ricky Marvray, the redshirt freshman who is very talented, but just needs some seasoning. He can do something very well on one rep, and then forget his assignment on the next. Jerry Johnson, the big sophomore, hasn't delivered on expectation just yet, but he's shown signs of coming into his own, particularly in spring.

There is also Jerry Rice, Jr., the walk on, who has impressed the coaches.

Presley will also be lined up as a receiver in some formations. And he gives UCLA another dimension of size and speed.

At tight end, Cory Harkey, the junior, is the every-down kind of guy, who can block and catch passes.

Joseph Fauria, the transfer from Notre Dame, was a standout on the scout team and in all the scrimmages, and he's now eligible. He was dinged up during spring practice, so the coaches are anxious to see him. The word is that he's still not 100% for the start of spring. If he is healthy, he's a potential difference-maker at 6-8.

Presley will also be utilized as a tight end.

With the injury to incoming freshman John Young, depth is an issue, that's why Allmond was moved there. There is also Kevin McDermott, the walk on, who the coaches like. Connor Bradford might actually see some time at the spot in blocking situations.

This is just our own speculation, but we wouldn't be surprised if Barr ended up at tight end.

SCHEME

If you're talking things to watch for fall, the new Revolver scheme is definitely near the top of the list.

The coaches have said that they might not use it exclusively, but privately the plan is for just that. They took it for a very basic trial spin in spring, and now the coaches hope to install more elaborate uses of it, especially with the personnel Chow has to play with at receiver, tight end and F back.

And if Bell actually becomes an option at quarterback.

UCLA has confidence in its passing game, with Prince and the talent at receiver. It put in the Revolver to enhance the running game, and it looked like it definitely did just that in spring. That's the main thing to watch in terms of the offense for fall camp: Will the scheme help to give UCLA a running game?

If it does, UCLA has a shot at having a very good, multi-dimensional offense – the innovative kind that recruits actually go to a program for.


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