- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- President Ronald Reagan loved to tell the story of the little boy who, taken to a room full of manure, gleefully began digging through it.
"There must be a pony in here somewhere!" the little boy said.
Judging by his reaction to the state of the UCLA offense, that little boy grew up to be Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel.
Though UCLA fans would prefer not to remember, the 2008 Bruins set back the cause of offense decades. Third-string quarterback Kevin Craft, shoved onto the field without the benefit of spring practice after injuries to the seniors on the depth chart ahead of him, threw 20 interceptions and seven touchdowns. That's pretty much the reverse of the preaching of his legendary offensive coordinator, Norm Chow.
UCLA averaged 283 yards and 17.7 points per game, and it remains a mystery how the Bruins climbed to a 4-8 record. Well, maybe not a mystery -- two victories came against Washington and Washington State (which went a combined 1-23), one came against Tennessee in overtime and the other came with :10 to play against Stanford.
In the spring game on Saturday night at the Rose Bowl, UCLA played without three starting offensive linemen. Two freshmen quarterbacks played their way ahead of Craft. The first-team defense dominated the scrimmage, as it dominated the offense all spring. Redshirt freshman Kevin Prince, Richard Brehaut, a freshman who enrolled in January, and Craft combined to go 18-for-43 for 181 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
No one in blue and gold is quite sure whether the defense is really good, the offense is not, or both. But Neuheisel continues to believe he's one shovel-full closer to finding the pony.
"I believe we can be very competitive in the conference, and I believe the goal is to make postseason," Neuheisel said.
He wore a headset mike during the spring game, and when he addressed the crowd at the end, he guarded his optimism.
"I want you to know," Neuheisel said, "there's a lot to be done before we play [the opener against] San Diego State. We know that, and we're going to get the work done."
The truth is, the defense probably is the real thing. Junior tackle Brian Price came out of nowhere to make the All-Pac-10 team last season, leading the Bruins with 14 tackles for loss. Middle linebacker Reggie Carter shifted to the outside when Kyle Bosworth got hurt.
"Middle linebacker is more his natural position," linebackers coach Chuck Bullough said of Carter. Bullough took over as defensive coordinator when DeWayne Walker left to become head coach at New Mexico State.
"He's very strong, can bench-press the world. He's very good at getting off blocks. He's not as fast as other outside backers. This fits him more. He enjoys the middle. They can't run away from you there."
Carter and Price lead a front seven that has an effective mix of size and athleticism. Depth is nonexistent, so much so that Neuheisel will comb the junior-college ranks this summer in the hope of finding a player or two.
"I think our defense is going to be a heck of a deal," Neuheisel said. "Now I think we need to get an offense to give them some hope, and get them off the field, and let them fly around so they're not playing so many plays."
The offense deserves an incomplete grade for the spring because of the injuries. Chow, who has sent more quarterbacks to the NFL in the last 30 years than a few conferences, believes so much in Prince that he regrets the decision not to take his redshirt off in the middle of last season.
"We talked about it for a long time, and we decided to save him," Chow said. "He would be so much farther along now."
Prince is 19, 6-foot-2, 226 pounds, and hasn't played a full game in nearly three years. As a senior at at Crespi Carmelite High in Encino, Calif., Prince injured his knee in the first quarter of the season opener. There is a lot of tread on his tires.
"It would have helped me," Prince said of playing last season, "but who knows how I would have played? I could have laid an egg and come out here with zero confidence."
At each milepost of the spring, Prince overcame the jitters brought on by two seasons of inactivity.
"Going into the first practice, I was a little nervous," he said. "What if I can't make good decisions? I hadn't run with the ones [starters] when you're out there, you figure it all out."
The only Bruin to catch one of Prince's first six passes in the spring game was senior corner Alterraun Verner, one of the best defensive backs in the league. After the slow start, however, Prince completed 11 of his last 18 passes for 134 yards. There was, dare it be said, an air of competency.
"Kevin Prince has shown he's got the stuff to be the guy," Neuheisel said.
If UCLA's front-line players remain healthy, and if the offense beats the opposition as effectively as it beat itself last fall, the Bruins will be much more competitive this season. It's no surprise to hear Neuheisel say that it could happen.
"You know, I'm optimistic. Of course, I always am," he said.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com. His book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.
UCLA doesn't know whether its defense is really good, the offense is not, or both. But spring is the time for optimism, and Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel has plenty of it.