Rick Neuheisel's next step
As the Bruins' coach heads into his third year, expectations have risen
LOS ANGELES -- UCLA enters the 2010 season with one goal in mind: improvement.
Especially on offense.
Last season, the Bruins were particularly inefficient in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on only 13 of 37 trips inside the 20, ranking last in the Football Bowl Subdivision. In an effort to fix those numbers, coach Rick Neuheisel and offensive coordinator Norm Chow will use a version of the Pistol offense borrowed from Nevada.
It's a modified shotgun set designed to make the running game more efficient and open up passing plays downfield. It's a good plan, but the personnel running it is a jumble as game week begins.
Kevin Prince, the returning starter at quarterback, has not been throwing much in camp because of a strained oblique and may not be ready by the season opener. The offensive line is a merry-go-round with returning starters Kai Maiava, Mike Harris, Jeff Baca and Xavier Su'a-Filo all out for the Sept. 4 opener at Kansas State because of injury, suspension, academic ineligibility and a Mormon mission.
Still, there is reason for optimism. Backup quarterback Richard Brehaut, who did not respond well when thrust into duty last season, appears vastly improved and ready to take charge should Prince be unavailable.
Johnathan Franklin, the leading rusher from 2009, has looked great in camp and is determined to prove that his eight fumbles last season were a fluke. The running back slot is as deep as it's been in a while with highly touted freshmen Malcolm Jones and Jordon James in the mix. And leading receivers Nelson Rosario and Taylor Embree, both big targets, return and are joined by Colorado transfer Josh Smith, a quick and athletic big-play threat.
The Bruins' defense, long the hallmark of UCLA, returns All-American safety Rahim Moore, the nation's interceptions leader last year with 10, to lead a very good secondary. The defensive front seven is inexperienced but has a forceful playmaker at linebacker in Akeem Ayers.
Special teams, an afterthought for most teams, are a valuable weapon for the Bruins. Kicker Kai Forbath, the 2009 Lou Groza Award winner as the nation's top kicker, and Jeff Locke, a freshman All-American at punter, both return and would become invaluable should the offense sputter. Smith, the receiver, is also a dynamic return man.
Continued forward progress in Neuheisel's third season is the name of the game. The Bruins poked over .500 by going 7-6 last season and won a bowl game for added measure, a big step forward from the 4-8 mark they put up in Neuheisel's first year.
Improving upon last season is going to be difficult with early nonconference games at Kansas State, against Houston and at Texas. But the real improvement must come in Pac-10 play. UCLA was 3-6 in the conference last season and finished eighth.
Difficult Pac-10 road games at California, Oregon, Washington and Arizona State await the Bruins, so becoming a factor in the conference will be that much more challenging.
"We feel that we have made a lot of progress in our program over the last couple of years and, we are anxious to get back into a conference title race," Neuheisel said. "Easy to talk about, but now we have to go execute."
The quarterback, whoever that may be.
Prince was the clear-cut leader when fall camp opened, but his injury may mean the inexperienced Brehaut will have to take the lead. Brehaut has impressed coaches and teammates as the primary signal-caller in practice but has yet to prove he can deal with the pressure and speed of game days.
The Bruins are deep at running back and are experienced at wide receiver, but none of those players has established himself as a star, so it will be up to the quarterback to lead the team.
"Any offense needs that from the quarterback, and I think I've definitely grown as a leader," Brehaut said. "I've tried to go in there and gain those guys' confidence and trust and make them believe in me."
It's a toss-up between Moore and Ayers.
There is no doubt that the loquacious Moore, an All-American who led the nation with 10 interceptions last season, is the vocal leader, but Ayers is the only returning starter among the defensive front seven and will be relied upon heavily to lead the muscle.
"Leading by example and becoming a vocal leader to the young guys is something I'm personally working on," Ayers said. "Just becoming a leader and stepping up on defense."
Finding a leader on that side of the ball is paramount. The Bruins lost plenty of experience on defense, including Brian Price and Alterraun Verner, who were both drafted by NFL teams.
"We all are going to step up," Harris said. "All of us. We don't have those other guys anymore, so we have to now. We're older, we're stronger, we're better and it's our time now."
Camp surprise: Redshirt freshman receiver Ricky Marvray and true freshman safety Dietrich Riley have made their share of highlight-reel plays and have worked their way into the regular rotation despite each playing a position that has two returning starters.
True freshman Anthony Barr may already be the best all-around athlete the Bruins have and seems to have found an ideal position at F-back, a mix between receiver, tight end and running back.
Neuheisel has said from day one that the Bruins "have a chance to be a good football team." To which a cynic would say that the Bruins also have a chance to be not-so-good.
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Certainly, there are questions: Will the quarterback position sort itself out and contribute solid play and leadership? Can the offensive line overcome its numerous personnel issues? Can the freshman class make an immediate impact? Is the defensive front seven up to the challenge of losing six starters from last season?
If the answer to all those questions is yes, the Bruins will indeed be a good team, and nine or 10 wins would not be out of reach. That would take a perfect storm, however, especially considering the brutal schedule UCLA faces this season.
A 7-5 regular season and another low-tier bowl game seem more likely.
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