UCLA Bruins Football: A (Passion) Bucket List for the 2011 Season
To say that the 2010 season for UCLA football has been a disappointment would be an understatement.
When Rick Neuheisel strutted back into Westwood three years ago, he made some rather bold predictions, not the least of which was that the Bruins would be in contention for a good bowl game in Year Three after becoming bowl eligible in Year Two.
Well, Year Three is just about over, and UCLA needs a win at Arizona State on Friday if the Bruins are to have any shot at playing in a bowl game.
To be fair, most pundits anticipated Neuheisel's squad possibly improving this year without having a better record to show for it.
Then again, anyone who has followed the team this season knows that on-field improvements have been few and far between, if not completely chimerical. Such makes Slick Rick's projection of Pac-10 title contention in Year Four look foolish now, and not just because the conference's moniker is changing.
With an eye toward the future, here, in no particular order, is a wish list of chores, some feasible and some admittedly not, that the Bruins need to work on to have a successful season in 2011.
Quarterback: A Warm Body Who Can Complete a Pass (or Two)
Forget about having a Heisman Trophy contender or a first round NFL Draft pick under center. UCLA just needs someone who can put the ball where it needs to be without succumbing to injury every other play.
Harsh words, to be sure, but nothing that hasn't floated through the mind of every Bruins fan at least once or twice over the last four or five years.
Not since the Drew Olson glory days (who would've thunk anyone would ever say that?) has UCLA football had a quarterback who could hit his receivers with some consistency, with or without an abundance of time in the pocket.
Norm Chow, a supposed quarterback guru with a resume replete with spectacular tutees under center, will have another two years to make a competent field general out of Kevin Prince, Richard Brehaut and/or incoming freshman Brett Hundley, now that the university has approved a new contract for him.
Neuheisel will be counting on Chow to do just that.
Otherwise, he may find himself out from his alma mater after four years.
An Offensive Line That Can Pass Block
Now, it would be unfair to pin UCLA's failings at quarterback entirely on the fragile shoulders of Kevin Prince or the raw arm of Richard Brehaut.
Neither has yet had a strong and steady offensive line up front that can create a pocket from which to throw.
Not to harp TOO much on the one successful year that Karl Dorrell had as head coach, but no UCLA team has had a solid pass blocking group to work behind since Olson and Maurice Jones-Drew were running and gunning the Bruins to a 10-2 record.
This year's group earned the nickname "The Filthy Five" after leading UCLA's ground attack to some impressive early season performances, but has never really established any rhythm in the pass game.
Trying to groom a young quarterback is tough enough on its own, but having to do so without a solid unit up front makes that task nearly impossible.
Then again, with four of the five current starting linemen being seniors, rebuilding the offensive line again may prove to be Herculean.
An Offensive Scheme That Works Consistently
Even if the Bruins somehow manage to find a good quarterback and a consistent offensive line to protect him, the coaching staff will still need to figure out how to get the offensive to put up points.
Coach Neuheisel went out last offseason and gathered notes from Nevada's Chris Ault, determined to implement Ault's Pistol offense to help UCLA put some points up this season.
And while the Pistol has worked beautifully for the 19th-ranked Wolfpack, the Bruins have only managed to shoot blanks, at least of late.
As far as next season is concerned, the UCLA staff essentially has two options: stick with the Pistol and hope Brehaut picks it up should Prince and Hundley not be the answers, or try a more traditional style offense that a pocket passer like Brehaut might thrive in.
Either way, having the 111th-ranked offense in the country just doesn't cut it.
Depth on Defense
UCLA has had some success on defense from time to time, but only when the offense has held onto the ball for more than just three plays at a time.
Much of the blame for that, of course, belongs to the offense, but the rest has to do with a lack of depth on the other side of the ball.
As athletic and skilled as some of the Bruin defenders may be, they still need a chance to rest from time to time.
Without some decent back-ups and young players to groom, the starters will continue to lose their collective breath and give up big plays in the second halves of games.
Hence, it is imperative that defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough find more players to give his starters a play or two here and there to rest.
Akeem Ayers and Rahim Moore: Stay Another Year!
Of course, it doesn't matter how deep the defense is if there aren't talented players at the top.
With that in mind, the Bruin faithful need to start a campaign of some sort to keep Akeem Ayers and Rahim Moore around for their senior years.
Moore has regressed somewhat this year, giving up some big plays in the secondary and seeming a step slow at times after leading the nation in interceptions last year.
Ayers, on the other hand, has absolutely blown up this year, using his athleticism and keen football sense to wreak havoc all over the field.
If the Bruin defense hopes to improve on this season's effort, it'll need these two to resist the NFL's overtures and stick it out for another year as the pillars around which UCLA will build.
A Return To D-Line Dominance
Is anyone else pining for the days when Brian Price wrought havoc in the trenches at the Rose Bowl?
Finding an adequate replacement or two for the Tampa Bay second round pick has been tough for defensive line coach Todd Howard, and not simply because Price was so dominant, though that's definitely part of the equation.
Though the Bruin defensive front hasn't exactly performed poorly without price, it has struggled at times to put enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks to make a difference.
Not to mention the occasional lack of run-stopping ability, as demonstrated in the season-opener against Kansas State, when the Wildcats' Daniel Thomas tore up UCLA's D for 235 yards and two touchdowns.
However, with star defensive end Datone Jones due back from a foot injury he suffered in fall practice and freshman talents Owa Odighizuwa and Cassius Marsh getting some serious playing time, the Bruins' defensive front could be a force to be reckoned with in 2011 and beyond.
More Experience For The Underclassmen
The defensive line is far from the only area where UCLA has talent lacking in experience.
The rest of the defense is littered with precocious youngsters, from linebacker Jordan Zumwalt to Dietrich Riley at safety.
The Bruins' offense isn't exactly lacking young talent either, with underclassmen like running back Malcolm Jones, F-backs Anthony Barr and Morrell Presley, and wide receiver Randall Carroll all over the Neuheisel's depth chart at the skill positions.
Oh, and let's not forget about Brehaut and Prince at quarterback, both of whom are sophomores.
Of course, like any group as green as this one, this one needs a fair amount of seasoning before it can actualize its potential into wins on the field.
And with more experience will come greater on-field discipline from all of the talented, young players.
But not on its own.
False starts, offsides, and personal foul penalties are as much a product of inexperience as they are a lack of discipline in practice.
Again, discipline will come in time, but it is imperative that Coach Neuheisel and his staff spend plenty of time and energy in practice making sure the youthful Bruins don't shoot themselves in the foot with mental mistakes.
The physical mistakes. Well, again...ummm...they're young?
Poaching More Recruits From USC
The one (supposedly) good thing Coach Neuheisel and his staff have done while at the helm in Westwood is recruit.
And not just recruit talented kids, but recruit them away from that other school across town.
It began with Morrell Presley and Randall Carroll in 2009 and continued with Dietrich Riley in 2010.
Neuheisel has thus far brought the fight to USC on the recruiting trail, even if his team hasn't exactly done so on the field just yet.
However, if the UCLA staff can continue to compete for high school talent in the recruiting hotbed of Southern California, the Bruins may just surprise some people and contend in the Pac-10.
Still a big IF.
Some Healthy Players...Please!
At the end of the day, even if Coach Neuheisel gets the right players in and coaches them up the right way, there is still always the risk of injury striking.
UCLA football seems particularly prone to injury, especially in practice, leading some to speculate that the artificial turf at Spaulding Field may be to blame.
Regardless, the Bruins have been plagued by health problems in recent years, from Datone Jones' foot to Patrick Larimore's shoulder to Kevin Prince's...well, just about every football-related body part Kevin Prince has.
Fans often forget that players don't just miss games when they're injured; they also miss valuable practice time, where young players like Jones and Prince can correct their mistakes and develop into solid contributors to the winning cause.
More than anything else, some consistent health at the most crucial positions would do wonders for UCLA's football team going forward.