-- UCLA travels to Manhattan, Kansas, Saturday to take on Kansas State.
-- Game time is 12:30 PT, and it will be televised regionally on ABC, with Carter Blackburn, Brock Huard and Mike Belotti in the booth.
-- It is, of course, the first game of the season for both teams.
-- Last season, UCLA was 7-6 and 3-6 in the Pac-10, while Kansas State was 6-6 overall and 4-4 in the Big 12, with a second-place finish in the Big 12 North.
-- KSU did win five of its six home games in 2009.
-- The Wildcats came to the Rose Bowl last September 19th and the Bruins won the game, 23-9.
-- In that game, UCLA kept KSU to 268 total yards and just 69 yards on the ground.
-- Daniel Thomas, the leading rusher in the Big 12 in 2009, who ran for 1265 yards for the season, was held to 54 yards on 15 carries.
-- Last season was the first time the two programs had played each other in football in their history.
-- UCLA has started its last five seasons in a row with a win. The Bruins are also 3-1 in this decade when opening the season on the road.
-- UCLA is 23-19-1 all-time against the Big 12.
-- Kansas State's coach is Bill Snyder, who is 70 years of age. The long-time KSU coach had retired, but then returned to the Wildcat program last season. He coached the Wildcats from 1989-2005 and then resumed last season. Snyder, in his first stint at KSU, did a remarkable job, turning one of the perennial losers in college football into an annual contender in the Big 12. Within ten years of Sports Illustrated naming KSU the worst program in the country, Snyder in 1998 posted an undefeated, regular-season 11-0 record, and Snyder was named national coach of the year. He was 136–68–1 at Kansas State in those 17 seasons, and is now ranked #8 in career victories among active BCS coaches.
-- The promotional line you always hear about Snyder is that he's "the architect of the greatest turnaround in college football."
-- After Snyder "retired" in 2005, they named the home stadium after him. It's now called the Bill Snyder Family Football Stadium.
-- Kansas State has been pretty successful in non-conference games recently, winning 12 of its last 18 games. Of course, the knock on the program is that that they always schedule a cupcake non-conference schedule.
-- Less than 1,000 tickets remain available for the game. The stadium holds 50,750.
-- The weather is forecast to be a bit milder than you might expect, 81 degrees and moderate humidity.
KANSAS STATE'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE
It's the first game of the season, so predicting how a unit is going to perform against another unit is just a random crapshoot.
At least in Kansas State's case, it's pretty clear exactly what they're going to attempt – and that's run the ball with the Big 12 Player of the Year in 2009, senior Daniel Thomas (6-2, 228). Thomas ran for 1,265 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry last season. He's not only a big load, he's quick,; last season he played through an injured shoulder and still gained a majority of his yards in YAC. He'll touch the ball in more than 1 in every 3 plays from scrimmage, and half of their running plays.
Redshirt freshman John Hubert (5-7, 182) won the #2 tailback spot, and he'll provide a different pace. Expect him to get at least 7 to 8 carries Saturday, since it's going to be a pretty hot day and KSU would like to keep Thomas as fresh as possible.
This all worked with Thomas last season because KSU had a decent offensive line, and it has three returning starters and plugs in two new JC tackles. Right tackle could be a bit of an issue since projected starter Clyde Aufner (6-5, 300) is a question mark due to injury, and JC transfer Ethan Douglas (6-6, 300) is projected to get most of the reps. The other JC guy, left tackle Manase Foketi (6-5, 300), has gotten good reviews in fall practice.
The line paved the way for Kansas State to gain 180 yards per game on the ground last season.
Last year, when UCLA and KSU faced off in the Rose Bowl, the Bruins limited the Wildcats to 69 yards on the ground, and Thomas just 54, his second-worst game of the season.
It was, of course, just the third game of the season, and Thomas and the KSU offense hadn't really gotten in that groove quite yet.
|Quarterback Carson Coffman.|
What Kansas State wants to do is become less one-dimensional, desperately trying to develop a passing game in the off-season. So much depends on senior quarterback Carson Coffman (6-3, 211) and the complete uncertainty of whether he can get the job done. He began last season as the starter, but then was benched. Bill Snyder threw open the competition for the starting QB job last spring and this fall, and Coffman won the job a few days ago. Reports from the KSU practice is that Coffman is greatly improved, and you'd have to probably expect some improvement.
But make no mistake: When you have Thomas in your backfield, you'll only need Coffman to throw an occasional pass to keep the defense honest.
What could be a challenge is to find someone to throw the ball to. Not one of the three starting wide receivers caught a pass last season. Senior Aubrey Quarles (5-11, 200) might be the best; he had 37 receptions in 2008 but sat out all of last season due to injury. Minnesota transfer Brodrick Smith (6-2, 212) is expected to produce, and there is redshirt freshman Tremaine Thompson (5-7, 164) and Oregon transfer Chris Harper (6-1, 232).
Kansas State is also replacing its starting tight end from a year ago with sophomore Travis Tannahill (6-3, 249) who caught just two passes in 2009.
The Wildcats utilize the Wildcat, snapping the ball directly to Thomas – pretty much removing all deception. Thomas actually threw four passes last season, but when the ball is snapped to him in the Wildcat you're pretty certain he's running it.
UCLA's defense will obviously be trying to replace the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, defensive tackle Brian Price, and another DT starter, Jerzy Siewierski. It's trying to do so with David Carter, a 5th-year senior who was the third guy in the rotation last season, and junior Justin Edison. Carter, at 6-5 and 300, is a monster physically inside, and UCLA defensive line coach Todd Howard has said he believes Carter has pro potential.
With the injury to strongside end Datone Jones, the Bruins will have two new starters at defensive end, in junior Nate Chandler and sophomore Damien Holmes.
Chandler is a bit of an athletic freak, at 6-5 and 295 – playing the defensive end spot. Having come into UCLA as a tight end, he still moves with considerable agility.
UCLA also will field two new starters at linebacker – in sophomore Patrick Larimore at middle linebacker and Sean Westgate at the weakside spot.
So, UCLA will put six new starters on the field among its front seven Saturday.
There will also be some inexperience at cornerback, with true sophomore Sheldon Price and redshirt sophomore Aaron Hester. Both are considered big-time talents, but will experience some learning curve. Price put on some weight and muscle in the off-season and needs to prove that he can hold his edge and not get pushed around on running plays.
UCLA's D will be led by three veterans, safeties Tony Dye and Rahim Moore, and strongside linebacker Akeem Ayers. Moore and Ayers, of course, have received a bunch of pre-season accolades, and they're probably deserved. Ayers is truly an elite player, and will be utilized by UCLA Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bullough in many different ways. Moore is the returning national interception champion, and will be ball-hawking again all over the field.
There are some stories among UCLA's two deep. With the loss of Jones and having to move Chandler from DT to DE, UCLA gets a bit thin at DT. True freshman Cassius Marsh is clearly going to get some back-up reps.
Something to watch for is at the weakside, rush end spot, where redshirt freshman Keenan Graham or elite true freshman Owamagbe Odighizuwa could provide UCLA some pass rushing prowess.
Advantage: Even. If you use last season's game as a benchmark, you'd have to think that UCLA's defense would get the best of KSU's offense. But KSU's offense should be a bit better and, while UCLA's defense might overall be more athletic than last season, it could be a bit rough in its first game of the season on the road. UCLA's defensive line is inexperienced in terms of actually playing at their positions together, but there is game experience there among the four, and they are the strongest defensive front in UCLA's weight room in quite some time. This is no longer the scrawny UCLA defensive line from a few years ago – these guys go 290, 290, 301 and 265 across the front four.
The front four should get some help against the run, too, because UCLA's game plan has to be to stop the Wildcat running game and make Coffman beat you through the air. You'd have to think that Bullough is going to sneak some additional guys up into the box.
Kansas State, while they gained a good amount of yards on the ground last season, struggled a bit to turn that into points. UCLA's defense, especially under Bullough, is notorious for allowing offenses to gain some yards but be stingy about allowing points on the board.
Overall, too, as we've been maintaining, UCLA's roster is now populated with more talent. The Bruins might not have great experience on D, but they have better athletes than they've had in a while.
Watch for Bullough to add some more wrinkles to the defensive scheme, with some different alignments, use of personnel and pressure coming from different points from last season, even against the run.
UCLA'S OFFENSE V. KANSAS STATE'S DEFENSE
Again, our best frame of reference in predicting this match-up is last year's match-up.
In last year's game, UCLA gained 359 yards and, most significantly, 173 yards on the ground, the most of any game besides the one against Washington State.
KSU's defense, especially it's rushing defense, improved as the 2009 season progressed, but it now has to replace all but one of its starting defensive linemen and linebackers. The secondary has some returning talent and experience, but the KSU coaches are basically piecing together the front seven (or six, depending on what you want to call their hybrid position – a safety or linebacker).
It sounds very much like UCLA's defense, with a talented and experienced secondary and unproven linemen and linebackers.
But KSU's front two units are more a patchwork situation than UCLA's, and not nearly as talented. And they don't have anyone close to the caliber of Akeem Ayers.
The big news for KSU is the return of sophomore Brandon Harold (6-5, 258) to defensive end. Harold was a freshman All-American who missed all but one game last season due to an injury. Senior end Antonio Felder (6-1, 243) is the returning starter, and he's solid. Senior Prizell Brown (6-2 284) was a back-up defensive end who was pressed into playing DT last season at 260 pounds and has since bulked up. JC transfer Ray Kibble (6-4, 296) won the nose tackle starting spot in fall.
The linebacking unit is a question mark. Junior Alex Hrebec (5-11, 247) has the most experience, with 10 starts last season. Converted running back Jarell Childs (6-1, 225) won a starting spot in fall.
Then there is the safety-linebacker hybrid, senior Troy Butler (5-11, 197), who also worked as a cornerback this fall.
|Safety Emmanuel Lamur.|
KSU has been trying to find some depth at linebacker, but it's pretty thin and unproven.
Like UCLA, KSU's most proven defensive unit is the back four. Free safety Emmanuel Lamur (6-4, 215) led the team in tackles a year ago (68). His counterpart, strong safety Tysyn Hartman (6-3, 206) is a good one, with a nose for the ball, leading the team in interceptions last year with 5. Senior corner Stephen Harrison (5-11, 180) had a good season in 2009 and is expected to be a strong coverage guy this season.
UCLA's offense is the biggest unknown on the field in this game. UCLA, of course, went from the pro-style West Coast Offense to the Pistol, in an effort to improve its running game, which was abysmal last season, and give the passing game some advantages.
The key, obviously, is going to be the quarterback position. If Kevin Prince were completely healthy and not rusty, we wouldn't have any qualms about predicting a big game in Manhattan from him. He looked close to spectacular when he started fall practice in early August before being sidelined with a strained muscle in his back.
It's still uncertain whether he or Richard Brehaut will get most of the snaps. Brehaut improved over the course of fall practice, benefitting from the increased reps, and he could do a serviceable job. But there is a considerable drop-off from a healthy Prince to Brehaut.
The other key, as everyone knows, to UCLA's offense is the offensive line. UCLA has taken some considerable hits on this front since the end of last season, losing four projected starters to injury, academics or a Mormon mission. And throw in another one out for the KSU game due to suspension.
What's surprising, though, is that UCLA's offensive line has had its best fall camp in many years. It could be that all the guys who are now starters are all seniors and have extensive playing experience. Sean Sheller is a pretty big story: He suffered what might have been a career-ending injury in an off-road accident two years ago, was relegated to the scout team defensive line last season, only to make a huge comeback and be the starter at the left tackle spot.
Even if UCLA's offensive line turns out to be good, the depth chart is thin, and probably one injury away from playing a true freshman, Chris Ward. He's the first off the bench at left tackle and left guard.
What could make the difference in this game is that UCLA has probably its best collection of offensive skill players it's had in some time. The running backs that return from last season – Derrick Coleman and Johnathan Franklin – have looked the best they ever have in fall practice, and they're joined by two of the best running back prospects in the national prep class of 2010, Malcolm Jones and Jordon James. James got a good number of reps in practice this week, but you'd have to think that UCLA will try to keep the rotation down to Coleman, Franklin and Jones.
UCLA has an excellent collection of wide receivers, which starts with Nelson Rosario. The 6-5, long-armed athlete showed flashes of brilliance last season, and looked dominating in practice in spring and fall. The other starter is proven possession receiver, Taylor Embree. The #1 tight end is another proven commodity, physical Cory Harkey.
But also behind those three, UCLA has some serious weapons. Josh Smith, the transfer from Colorado, could be the most talented receiver on the roster, with the speed to go deep and the moves to make things happen. Randall Carroll is one of the fastest football players in the nation. Jerry Johnson is a big boy who's had a good spring and fall. And redshirt freshman Ricky Marvray looks like a budding star.
Then there is the talent at the F-back spot. Morrell Presley, despite his slow start at UCLA, is immensely talented, with size and speed. And if you're talking size, speed and talent, there might be no one who can touch true freshman Anthony Barr, who can run the ball like a tailback at 6-5 and 223. Senior Christian Ramirez has found the perfect position for himself at the F-back, and will probably surprise many this season.
A particular weapon at tight end is Notre Dame transfer Joseph Fauria who, at 6-8, can catch fades like no one else.
Again, that's a huge arsenal of weapons.
Advantage: UCLA. Maybe it's because I had the advantage of watching UCLA's offense and Prince's development this fall while other prognosticators didn't, I think the Bruins' offense should be much improved.
If UCLA were capable of running for 173 yards last season against KSU, with an improved running scheme, and better personnel, you'd have to think they'll be able to do just about the same in this one.
KSU's 4-2-5 defense, too, shouldn't be a surprise for UCLA, who saw it last season and are now a year older and wiser.
KSU's defense looked better as the 2009 season wore on since the Kansas State offense really established its ground game, and really dominated possession of the ball. It wasn't necessarily that KSU's defense was better, it was just a matter that they weren't on the field as much.
They'll probably be on the field quite a bit in this game. With a questionable front two units, and UCLA really putting in the work to improve its running game, UCLA will do everything it can to gain yards on the ground and own the ball.
Significant, too, was a lack of a pass rush from KSU last season, with only 20 sacks on the season, which had them ranked 10 in the Big 12th. The KSU defensive coaches put in some work to try to improve their pass rush, but it doesn't appear that they really have the personnel to make a significant improvement. If Prince – or Brehaut for that matter – can get time, you can expect them to be effective throwing the ball.
KSU, also, really doesn't know what it's going to get from UCLA's Pistol. Sure, they've probably studied hours of Nevada film, but that's really not going to fully prepare them for it.
UCLA could have the best combination of kick and punt teams in the nation, if Lou Groza winner Kai Forbath is healthy. We're hearing he'll be ready to go by Saturday.
Kansas State is solid at placekicker and punter, with Josh Cherry and Ryan Doerr, respectively.
A big factor could be the addition of a big-play guy returning kicks for the Bruins, and a loss of one for the Wildcats. UCLA's Josh Smith led the Big 12 in kick-off returns in 2008, and he's a big-play threat. KSU lost Brandon Banks, who was one of the best returners in the nation, having returned four kick-offs for touchdowns last season.
In the past three recruiting classes, Rick Neuheisel has drastically upgraded the talent on the Bruin roster. The two-deep is no longer populated with guys who probably shouldn't be playing at UCLA, but now it has guys like Dietrich Riley, a freshman safety who could be a future star, or Odighizuwa, who has the potential to be a beast at DE, or Marsh, a potentially elite freshman DT, or Keenan Graham, a pass-rushing athlete.
Upgrading the overall talent in the two-deep is a huge step, and will have an impact on the field. Football is game that demands depth – and talented depth – and UCLA has a clear advantage over Kansas State in those terms.
Daniel Thomas got in a groove in the second half of the 2009 season, and we'd expect him to pick up right where he left off, especially against a UCLA defense that doesn't have a great deal of experience up front. They are athletic and talented, but young and inexperienced, so there should be some mistakes in this game that lead to big gainers for the Wildcats.
Bullough, too, will probably stick with his M.O., that of playing it pretty safe in the first half and then making some effective second-half adjustments.
You can probably expect a game with a good amount of points, from both sides, since both defenses might struggle a bit. Thomas will create enough points for KSU, while UCLA's defense gets its feet under it, and KSU's defense will be trying to figure out the Pistol, while still not having enough talent to match up with UCLA's skill guys.
BRO writer Robert Kuwada is predicting Josh Smith will run back one kick-off for a touchdown, and UCLA's special team is probably worth 13 points alone.
Kansas State 24