Between last year’s Eaglebank Bowl victory and the stellar incoming recruiting class of 2010, head coach Rick Neuheisel has done a commendable job since the end of the Bruins’ regular season.
As Neuheisel can only do so much for UCLA football without putting on pads and a helmet, the onus for success in the upcoming season falls on key offensive and defensive players for a variety of reasons.
Let’s take a look at five Bruins that need to step up big this year for UCLA to be mentioned in the same breath as the Pac-10 elite.
2010 is put up or shut up time for Prince.
As a redshirt freshman, he spent the 2008 season being groomed as the program’s quarterback of the future while occasionally practicing with the first team.
With a year of starting experience in ’09 under his belt and no injury issues headed into Spring Practice, 2010 will be the year that dictates whether Prince is a king-to-be or a frog.
If Prince can make defenses respect the UCLA passing game, the running game will open up, allowing top recruits Malcolm Jones and Jordon James to thereby take pressure off Prince.
The junior missed all but one quarter of one game of his senior year of high school with a knee injury. Having started only one season in the past three in addition to missing a couple of games in 2009 with a broken jaw, Prince will need to play every single game this year to drive home the notion that he is a bonafide leader and not a just a quarterback with a, um, glass jaw.
After letting his teammates and coaches down by being declared academically ineligible from the Eaglebank Bowl at the end of 2009, Maiava needs to own up for his absence in the December postseason game, set the tone with spectacular play in Spring Ball, and establish a leadership role that is not only embraced by each of his fellow linemen in the trenches, but it also sends a message to the entire offense that UCLA will put points on the board.
As a redshirt junior who started as a true freshman at Colorado in 2007 before transferring to Westwood the following year, Maiava carries both experience as well as two more years of eligibility to rally the Bruins through 2010 and beyond.
The position of center is viewed by football players as the captain of the offensive line and is often the key element of maintaining a successful blocking scheme.
If Maiava is going to fully embrace his role as starting center, he will need to keep his grades up and set an example for the rest of the team by opening up holes for the running game, protecting Kevin Prince, and smacking defenses in the mouth.
In spite of limited starts in his career, the playmaking Ayers served as a valuable addition to the defense with four interceptions and two returned for touchdowns in 2009.
His supreme athleticism can’t be taught, but he can provide valuable tutelage in terms of awareness and anticipation to talented incoming linebacker recruits such as Josh Shirley, Aramide Olaniyan, Jordan Zumwalt, and Anthony Barr.
If Ayers can make plays worthy of Sportscenter highlight reels like he did last season, the next generation of linebackers will know that the bar of success for UCLA linebackers has been raised and that the freshmen will have a lot to measure up to.
The 2010 Bruin linebacking corps looks fantastic...on paper. If it performs as well as advertised, these talented athletes can contain just about any running attack in the Pac-10.
UCLA, having finished 2009 in eighth place, needs all the help it can get to climb the ranks of the cutthroat Pac-10.
One aspect of the program that doesn’t require any improvement for 2010 is the kicking game spearheaded by Kai Forbath.
Winner of the Lou Groza award (for best kicker) and first-team All-American, Forbath needs to essentially do what he did last season not only to give the Bruins a fighting chance in the conference this season but to also bolster his NFL draft stock.
His talented leg aside, Forbath possesses a mental fortitude that enables him to effectively handle pressure situations. Perhaps he can impart some of his wisdom to the younger Bruins before he goes pro.
The son of the Hall of Fame legend walked on at UCLA in 2009 and redshirted his freshman year. As Rick Neuheisel didn’t recruit heavily for receiving talent this offseason, he evidently has enough confidence in his existing crop of wideouts to prioritize the strengthening of other facets of the football team.
It’s too early to assess exactly what Jerry Junior inherited from Jerry Senior, but anyone who is a fan of the elder Rice knows that he rose from humble beginnings at Mississippi Valley State to become the greatest wide receiver in football history.
Aside from Taylor Embree and Nelson Rosario, the UCLA receiving corps is a bit of a mixed bag where the depth chart is anyone’s guess. If Rice Jr. steps up and has a good season, let alone a great one, he’ll attract substantial peripheral attention to the program and increase UCLA’s exposure.
In other words, Rice Jr. can singlehandedly get casual fans excited about Bruin football.
No pressure, kid.