Those of you who have been wishing the summer away with pigskin dreams can pinch yourselves and wake up. Football is finally back, and the UCLA Bruins face one of the most unique seasons in the history of the program.
First, 2010 will be the last season that the historic Pac-10 will exist. Next year the Utah Utes will join, and in 2012 Colorado will come onboard to form the new Pac-12. This once-in-a-lifetime change will likely generate realignment, increased television revenue for each school, newfound rivalries, scheduling changes, and increased competition to advance to the postseason. Of course, not every team, regardless of record, is eligible for bowl contention.
USC, the Bruins’ arch nemesis across town, faces sanctions for the Reggie Bush investigation (for starters), and will have zero chance of being invited to any bowl game until 2012. In spite of the postseason ban, UCLA may still struggle to finish the season with more wins than the hated Trojans. But if they do finish ahead of Southern Cal in the Pac-10 standings, it will be because of great coaching from Rick Neuheisel and Norm Chow, who have installed a new offense, the Pistol.
With the Bruins having literally taken a page from the University of Nevada playbook, the Pistol is an option-style offense designed to keep the quarterback mobile and opposing defenses on their heels.
Fans ranging from self-proclaimed “realists” to admitted optimists are respectively projecting anywhere from four to 10 victories for the UCLA football team in 2010. Here are five reasons for the latter fans to smile, as well as another five reasons for these same loyalists to worry.
Let’s start with the positive:
UCLA’s Prince in shining armor has been recovering from a slightly torn back muscle that he sustained in practice back on Aug. 10. The starting quarterback’s injury has prevented him from throwing the ball more than 20 yards for most of training camp. The latest reports from Westwood have him practicing in limited drills early in the week.
However, the coaching staff said that if Prince isn’t taking snaps in full pads with the first team by Wednesday, then Richard Brehaut will start under center against Kansas State on Saturday, Sept. 4.
Anthony Barr (F-Back)
The local freshman out of Loyola High School in Los Angeles is turning heads at the new position in the Pistol offense. Although Morrell Presley is currently penciled in as the starter, expect the athletic Barr to flourish with additional reps down the road.
Malcolm Jones (Tailback)
The highly-touted recruit has soared up the depth chart since he arrived on campus, and in addition to impressive burst, has proven that he isn’t afraid to churn out tough yards between the tackles. Jones will be a valuable member of the Bruins’ tailback rotation for the next several years.
Josh Smith (WR/KR)
This junior transfer from Colorado will be featured early and often in both the punt and kick return game. He put up impressive numbers as a Buffalo, and is fully recovered from training camp injuries (knee, groin) that have plagued him thus far.
Darius Bell (QB)
If Kevin Prince can’t stay healthy and backup QB Richard Brehaut is unable to take the Pistol to the next level, then Neuheisel and Chow may call on the younger brother of former Bruin Khalil to line up under center. Bell, a junior college transfer, brings more athleticism to the new offense that emphasizes and facilitates quarterback mobility, but Bell’s throwing arm pales in comparison to Brehaut’s ability to hit receivers downfield.
Ricky Marvray (WR)
The redshirt freshman stood out as one of the team’s premier playmakers with dazzling play and a diligent work ethic over the summer. Although he is slated to back up Taylor Embree at flanker, Marvray will make his presence felt soon enough once he gets on the field.
Rahim Moore (Free Safety)
One of the top safeties in the nation, Moore exhibits both excellent coverage skills as well as leadership abilities. Named to many a preseason All-American list, Moore is the face of the 2010 Bruin secondary. As one of the most vocal people on the team, the junior has been most instructive with recruits and underclassmen, especially with his understudy in…
He has made strides in his recovery from knee surgery a year ago. The Hawaiian sophomore earned the praise of his coaches during training camp, should bolster depth at free safety, and serve as a formidable heir apparent once Rahim goes pro.
Dietrich Riley (Strong Safety)
It didn’t take long, but the true freshman is already a force in scrimmage who is gaining confidence from coaches, players and fans. If starter Tony Dye suffers an injury, Riley should be able to step in with practically zero downgrade in coverage ability.
Aaron Hester (Right Cornerback)
The fiery sophomore should help to infuse the secondary with solid cover skills, as well as a psychological swagger that stands to intimidate UCLA’s opposing wideouts. Hester looks 100 percent recovered from last year’s broken fibula.
Akeem Ayers (Strong Side Linebacker)
If Rahim Moore is the face of the secondary, then Ayers represents the front seven. By now, you’re well aware of his incredible athleticism that was responsible for three defensive touchdowns in 2009, but in order for UCLA to have a successful season, Ayers must live up to the sky-high expectations placed before him.
The junior begins the season on the watch lists for the Nagurski Trophy, Lott Trophy as well as several preseason All-American watch lists. His instincts have improved in the recent training camp, as he now plays within himself and as a better teammate. Not only does Ayers serve as menace to opposing offensive coordinators, but he has been a great role model for recently recruited linebackers like his backup, freshman Jordan Zumwalt.
Kai Forbath (Placekicker)
Although he suffered a pulled groin in training camp, Forbath is expected to be back to full health in time for Kansas State. Of all the concerns the Bruins may have headed into 2010, the kicking game is one facet that UCLA can gloss over as long as Forbath is wearing powder blue and gold. The 2009 Lou Groza award winner looks to repeat that feat before he sets his sights on the NFL. However, if Forbath’s injury lingers, top recruit Kip Smith is a rare breed whose powerful leg could replace King Kai’s. Depth is a rare commodity in the placekicking world, but the Bruins have it.
Jeff Locke (Punter)
As the only freshman semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award in 2009, Locke is one of the best punters in the nation. Blessed with a powerful yet accurate leg, Locke can boot anything from a 50-yard booming punt with hang time to a coffin corner inside the 10-yard line. Similarly to placekicker, punter is not an area of concern for the Bruins.
Josh Smith (Kick/Punt Returner)
The aforementioned junior transfer is expected to bring ample punt and kick return experience from his days in the Big 12 to Westwood, and has impressed with his abilities since he’s returned to full practice. WR Taylor Embree is the other return man, but Smith is ahead on the special teams depth chart since Embree plays flanker with the first-team offense.
Six of the Bruins’ 12 games in 2010 are nationally televised on either ESPN or ABC throughout the season. This means UCLA football will be seen in more homes across the nation than ever. At the very least, there should be a spike in national “water cooler talk” regarding the Bruins, and the university stands to benefit from gaining broad exposure in harder-to-reach markets.
With some luck and skillful coaching, the national chatter will escalate to which bowl game UCLA will get invited to, and how much they’ll beat USC by when the rivals meet on Saturday, December 4.
While being nationally televised is exciting, it adds an air of urgency to UCLA's season. If the program tanks in front of millions of viewers, a string of blowout losses could set the program back many years in terms of its reputation.
Much has already been written about UCLA’s difficult out-of-conference schedule what with offensive powerhouse Houston, Kansas State, and BCS runnerup Texas on tap for 2010. In addition to these tough games, the Bruins must also save their strength for AP Preseason Top-25 team Oregon State, as well as road matchups in Oregon, Washington, and Cal.
Oh, and don’t forget about that last home game against the Trojans on Dec. 4. Southern Cal will treat their last game of the regular season as if it were the Rose Bowl game on Jan. 1, so they’ll likely look to make a statement about their BCS omission by embarrassing UCLA in Pasadena.
The Bruins haven’t played a single snap this season, yet have already lost most of their starting offensive linemen to various reasons (injury, academic ineligibility, suspension, Mormon mission). Part of the logic for the switch to the Pistol was to compensate for potentially lackluster pass protection, so Bruin Nation is hoping this new offensive installation won’t be greatly affected by the fact that five redshirt seniors are starting together for the first time ever against Kansas State.
The current linemen slated to start are big (averaging 317 pounds each) and experienced, but whether they’ll flourish as starters after serving as backups for most of their collegiate careers remains to be seen. RT Micah Kia is the only offensive lineman with substantial starting experience, but he’s merely filling in for the suspended Mike Harris against KSU.
The health of UCLA’s starting quarterback is the difference between this team going 8-4 versus 4-8. Although backup Richard Brehaut has made strides practicing with the first team offense while Prince recovers from a slightly torn back muscle, Brehaut isn’t yet ready to lead the Bruins to a successful 2010.
Prince has loads of overall talent, reads defenses well, and represents the future of the program. But the wait for a return to full health has been agonizing for the sophomore, as well as coaches, players, and fans. If Prince proves to be this gimpy all season long, then the Bruins will have to hold out hope that 2011, not 2010, is their year to shine.
The ultimate question that has yet to be answered is whether the Pistol will protect Prince, or place him directly in harm's way?
Throughout UCLA’s spring scrimmage in April, the Pistol was stuck on safety while the defense dominated the offense throughout the matchup. Prince needs to get healthy, well, yesterday in order for Neuheisel and offensive coordinator Norm Chow to determine whether this new philosophy will work. Brehaut’s pocket-passing skill set isn’t well-suited for the option-esque Pistol, and junior college transfer Darius Bell, albeit a more mobile quarterback, is still too green to handle Division I competition.
Make no mistake: Coach Rick Neuheisel has made some great accomplishments with regards to recruiting talent from all over the country to Westwood while inspiring confidence in his team and its fanbase. But his charismatic coaching style will only take the program so far if UCLA tanks its 2010 season.
Many building blocks have been set up for this team to succeed, especially on defense. Since this is his third year, Neuheisel is running out of excuses since he recruited most of the existing players on the roster.
By all accounts, the defense looks skilled enough to keep them in the majority of games played this year. Given his history with the school as a player, Neuheisel won’t be replaced as Bruin head coach if he goes 6-6 but beats Texas and/or USC. But anything less than a .500 season could push UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero to make a change up top if the alumni become restless after another mediocre season from the Bruins.
Let's hope shoddy offensive line protection doesn't cost the man his job.