After a successful recruiting offseason and a somewhat shaky spring featuring an offense in philosophical transition, the UCLA Football team has finally donned pads and helmets for summer practice. The weather is hot, recruits are being pitted against upperclassmen in drills, and the Bruins’ first test on September 4 in Manhattan, Kansas versus the Wildcats looms on the horizon.
Depending on whom you debate, the Bruins have been picked to win anywhere from four to eight games in 2010. Based on their daunting out-of-conference schedule which includes Top 25 teams Texas and Houston, an eight-win season would be a triumph. Four or even five wins, however, could cost head coach Rick Neuheisel his job.
UCLA features some serious talent all over the defensive side of the ball, especially in the secondary with all Pac-10 safety Rahim Moore (a member of the Bednarik Award watch list), fiery cornerback Aaron Hester, and four-star recruit Dietrich Riley. The latter looks like anything but a freshman, and consistently demonstrates why he was deemed Rivals.com’s #9 prep safety in 2009.
The Bruin linebacking corps is as strong as it has been in years. Junior OLB Akeem Ayers, also on multiple Award watch lists, brings unique big-play ability that has already yielded three defensive touchdowns, and is expected to serve more of a leadership role to the underclassmen also competing at linebacker.
Although Steve Sloan is the incumbent starter at middle (or “Mike”) LB, Patrick Larimore was one of the stars of Spring Ball at the same position. The Bruins’ “Mike” position takes on added importance as a run-stuffer now that All-American DT Brian Price left for the NFL. While Sloan and Larimore are still battling for one starting linebacker position, Glenn Love continues his seamless transition from safety to OLB opposite Ayers.
The defensive line was an area that bore relatively little concern from the coaches or fans until starting defensive end Datone Jones suffered a broken foot that will sideline him 10-12 weeks. Fortunately, versatile Nate Chandler has handled yet another position switch from interior lineman to defensive end quite well, and could help to fill the void left by Jones until his November return. Sophomore Damien Holmes is expected to start at DE in place of Jones opposite Chandler.
Otherwise, Neuheisel’s recruiting efforts wrought a fruitful harvest of three-technique tackles that should plug holes and pressure passers for years to come. Seali’i Epenesa, Owamagbe Odighizuwa, Wesley Flowers and Cassius Marsh are each expected to make significant contributions as Bruins down the road.
Neuheisel indicated that Marsh and Epenesa could provide immediate help in 2010. However, until these freshmen get more heavily rotated, fifth-year senior David Carter, Donovan Carter (who switched from linebacker a year ago), and Justin Edison will vie for two starting DT roles.
The Bruin defense and special teams have been the team’s strengths for a couple of seasons, but after watching Tuesday’s scrimmage, there is some hope for the offense as well.
The training camp hype surrounding WR Ricky Marvray is legit, as this kid is for real. Not only is he a precise route-runner who caught ball after ball from a myriad of quarterbacks in practice, but his positive attitude exudes a love for football as well as being a Bruin. Marvray wasn’t on my radar after he redshirted his first year, but he is now.
Josh Smith, the transfer from Colorado who fought knee problems during spring ball, returned to practice after battling a groin issue for the first week of camp. After watching Smith handle punt returns and catching balls in scrimmage, he looks like he should be an asset to the Bruin passing game. Fellow wideouts Nelson Rosario, Taylor Embree, and Randall Carroll also figure to contribute since they looked good hauling in passes. Kyle Slowey and Jerry Rice Jr., however, played as though they could use a little more seasoning at the college level.
TE Corey Harkey, returning to Spaulding Field after recovering from a concussion, was clad in a red non-contact jersey his first day of practice. His aggressive style of play indicated he didn’t need to avoid contact, and made several great catches in traffic. The talented junior is expected to serve a significant role for the Bruins in 2010, especially since Notre Dame transfer Joseph Fauria (groin) is sidelined.
Although Fauria is not expected to miss significant time, UCLA is rather thin at tight end as training camp gets underway. TE Kevin McDermott, who serves primarily as the team’s long snapper, made a nice catch in drills. However, I’d be surprised to see McDermott get extensive action at tight end once the season starts. If the tight ends cannot stay healthy, that will weaken blocking schemes and take away a potential safety valve for the quarterback under pressure.
Speaking of quarterbacks, the other Bruin signal callers have gotten extensive reps while Kevin Prince recovers from a strained oblique (sources close to Prince told me he should be back in full practice without the red jersey in a few days). Richard Brehaut has the best arm of the backup QBs, and, for the most part, did a fine job hitting his receivers in stride. Darius Bell is an athletic specimen who can create plays with his legs, and might be a better overall fit for the Pistol given his skill set.
Unfortunately, Bell’s throws don’t have the same zip as Brehaut’s or Nick Crissman’s, but Khalil’s younger brother is fun to watch as he makes the transition from playing at City College of San Francisco to Division one football. Bell hasn’t quite “arrived” as a passer yet, but his legs might be needed for survival if the offensive line isn’t able to protect the pocket.
Crissman, a quarterback whose recovery from multiple surgeries on a torn labrum provides an inspirational story about never giving up, is listed as the Bruins’ fourth quarterback. Regardless, the sophomore played pretty well, but isn’t likely to see significant game action unless drastic circumstances ensue. If the quarterbacks are unable to take over the offense, perhaps the skilled cadre of running backs should shoulder the load of moving the chains.
True freshman Malcolm Jones did a great job of running between the tackles, and demonstrated the ability to recovery quickly from a quad contusion sustained earlier in camp. Johnathan Franklin showcased his typically impressive burst, and figures to start at tailback against Kansas State on Sept 4.
Derrick Coleman, who lost a fumble during scrimmage, is a load to bring down at 231 pounds, and should thrive in goal-line situations if he can maintain ball control. If not, the F-Back might have to be implemented as a short-yardage weapon that keeps defenses honest.
For those unfamiliar, the F-Back is an unusual position in the Bruins’ Pistol offense that acts as a motion receiver, and can confuse defenders based on where he lines up. The F-Back might catch a short pass, take a handoff or pitch from the QB, or simply block. Although Morrell Presley was initially a tight end, he is now one of UCLA’s F-backs along with Christian Ramirez and Anthony Barr, who were both tailbacks in high school. Presley and Ramirez are more seasoned Bruins, but the 6’5”/230 Barr looks like he has the highest ceiling of playmaking ability out of the trio. Based on his practice, one wouldn’t know that Barr is only “90-95%” recovered from a broken ankle that caused him to miss his senior season of high school football.
Lou Groza award winner Kai Forbath remains sidelined with a groin injury, but the all-American kicker doesn't think it will be a big deal moving forward. Kip Smith, the heavily-recruited freshman and Forbath's eventual replacement, worked in his stead.
Punter Jeff Locke looked crisp as he booted balls to Ricky Marvray and Josh Smith in drills, and appeared upbeat on the sideline. Locke landed a couple of beautiful coffin corners, which drew praise from Neuheisel.
While there are a lot of fresh faces and a new offense in Westwood, 2010 should be an exciting final season for the Pac-10 before Colorado and Utah join the conference next year. As training camp continues to unfold, Bruin Nation needs to hope that their playmakers and linemen stay healthy through two-a-days and the sweltering August heat so that they are properly prepared for the likes of Texas, Houston, Oregon, and those dastardly Trojans across town.
* LT Jeff Baca was ruled academically ineligible for the upcoming season, but is appealing the ruling. Fifth-year senior Sean Sheller is slated to start at left tackle instead of Baca.
* RT Mike Harris suspended for opener @ K-State for “violating team rules”. Senior Micah Kia is expected to start in his place.
* Cornerback Marlon Pollard has announced that he will transfer from UCLA to a university yet to be determined. He will be ineligible for the 2010 season. Coach Neuheisel said the decision was “amicable”, but Pollard felt he would have a better chance to land significant playing time with another program.
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