Three years into coach Rick Neuheisel’s tenure, the UCLA Bruins are a mess.
Starting quarterback Kevin Prince, who is out for the season with a knee injury, has proven to be as durable as tissue paper.
In Thursday’s 24-7 deflating defeat to the Washington Huskies, Richard Brehaut’s passes were so inaccurate, he’d have had problems hitting the Space Needle if he were standing next to it with a bag of balls.
The (third-string, junior college transfer) Darius Bell experiment was a colossal failure. His only caught pass was a fourth-quarter touchdown…off an interception return, which put the game out of reach for the Bruins.
Is Clayton Tunney, the walk-on currently serving as the fourth quarterback, UCLA’s best shot under center at advancing to the 2010 postseason?
Questions like the previous one have distraught Bruin fans in hiding. 16 season-ending injuries (and counting) to scholarship players, in addition to multiple suspensions for team rules violations, have decimated talent levels to the point that UCLA has, for the time being, usurped the title of laughing stock of the Pac-10 from Washington State, who is coming off a recent upset over Oregon State.
But there is reason for optimism, Bruin fans.
Even if the Bruins have a mathematical chance of advancing to a bowl game, 2010 feels like a wash with two games left. But Neuheisel has assembled a talented corps of underclassmen who will serve as a staunch fixture on the defensive side of the ball in 2011 and beyond.
As poorly as the Bruins’ No. 104-ranked offense has played the last two weeks against Oregon State and Washington, UCLA’s defense and special teams have been their most notable assets for several years.
Let’s take a look at some of the key defensive personnel who should restore pride to Bruin Nation in 2011:
The cerebral sophomore has displayed as much improvement as any defensive player in 2010.
Before he suffered a season-ending shoulder dislocation against Oregon, Larimore had climbed to the top of the linebacking depth chart. He will be a key veteran member of the UCLA front seven moving forward.
He has already demonstrated an ability to take over games while causing fits for opposing offensive coordinators.
In the Bruins’ upset victory over then-No. 23 Houston on Sept. 18 at the Rose Bowl, Larimore recorded 11 tackles, including three for a loss as well as a forced fumble.
Having drawn effusive praise for an intelligent approach to his position from Bruin linebackers coach Clark Lea, Larimore will likely return to a starting role in 2011, unless the starter happens to be…
…Zumwalt, who has exceeded expectations after a battlefield promotion thrust the true freshman into the starting lineup at middle linebacker.
Although preseason starter Steve Sloan has returned from a hamstring injury, Zumwalt continues to practice with the first team.
Before Zumwalt became a starter, he had been Akeem Ayers' backup at outside linebacker. Assuming the All-American talent skips his senior season to go pro, Zumwalt’s presence will help to offset the tremendous loss once Ayers matriculates to the next level.
While the true freshman's decapitation of Jacquizz Rodgers has been well documented all over the Internet, Riley brings so much more to the Bruin defense than just a reputation for big hits.
Blessed with a high football IQ, Riley has a tendency to fly towards the ball. Furthermore, the highly-touted freshman has proven to be adept in pass coverage, and disciplined enough to not draw careless penalties.
Having played on both sides of the ball as a prep athlete, Riley has the soft hands of a wide receiver who plays defensive back.
The safety and his ballhawking skills will be a boon to the Bruin defense in the coming years. Once Riley starts getting starters’ reps, the entire nation will not only know about the talent out of La Canada St. Francis High School, college football fans will wish their university had landed Riley instead of UCLA.
Another true freshman who has made his presence felt on the Bruins’ defensive side of the ball is the man they simply call “Owa.”
Perceived to be a five-star recruit and a future fixture in the NFL, Odighizuwa needed barely half a season before he cracked the starting lineup at left defensive end.
His impressive upper-body strength is matched only by his uncanny ability to drive offensive linemen off the ball and gain penetration into offensive backfields.
2010 has provided an excellent opportunity for Owa to hone his skills and adjust to the speed of the game at the college level. His best work came against Washington State, Texas and Oregon State.
His athletic presence has helped UCLA to maintain some stability on a defensive front that has been beset by injuries all year long.
Odighizuwa has proven to be quite good as a part-time freshman. Once he gains more seasoning and continues to fill out physically, the Oregon native will mature into a beast for the Bruins.
The burly defensive tackle out of Westlake Village hasn’t even finished playing out the final string of his first season.
Yet he already reminds teammates of former UCLA All-American and second-round NFL draftee Brian Price.
Bruin defensive line coach Todd Howard has noted how Marsh made strides with regard to his improved technique. The 6’4”, 285-pound lineman has always demonstrated an ability to get low enough to push offensive linemen off the line of scrimmage.
Marsh won a starting gig only nine games into his college career. He is sure to start at least a couple dozen more before he thinks about preparing for the next level.
When asked about the freshman’s future beyond college, Howard replied, ““When you have (outstanding ability and a good motor) and you’re playing good technique and you have prototypical size, it’s not a matter of if that guy is going to play in the NFL; it’s only a matter of time.”