UCLA Football: Ten Benchmarks for Spring Progress
Despite an impressive recruiting haul leading up the 2010 season, UCLA squandered a golden opportunity to usurp the college football spotlight from their hated crosstown rival, the NCAA-sanctioned USC Trojans. While the Bruins’ 4-8 record left a bitter taste in many a fan’s mouth, there were so many more sources of frustration for fans in Westwood than simply the number of wins versus losses last year.
Injuries to key players, academic suspensions, felonious criminal activity and repeated drug violations all mounted to a forgettable season that resulted in the firing of defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough, as well as receivers coach Reggie Moore and defensive line coach Todd Howard. Iconic offensive coordinator Norm Chow was also replaced during the off-season coaching overhaul.
Bigger and better things were expected from the Bruins, considering 2010 was head coach Rick Neuheisel’s third year, a campaign in which he had most of his own recruits already in place on both sides of the ball. But lost momentum from last season's regression also translated to a disappointing list of prep signees for CRN. Rivals.com ranked UCLA’s 2011 recruiting haul seventh in the Pac-12, while Scout.com ranked their incoming class eighth in the conference.
The good news for UCLA fans is that hope springs eternal, especially with Spring Football on the horizon. Sure, the players in April’s practices rarely tackle, and they’re not even in full pads much of the time in the days leading up to the final scrimmage, scheduled for April 23 at Drake Stadium.
But this program is so desperate for something positive that even the most reluctant of Bruin fans can’t help but wonder if a bounce-back season is in store for UCLA as the Pac-12 welcomes newcomers Colorado and Utah to the expanded conference in 2011.
As March 29 (Day 1 of spring practice) approaches, we take a look at various facets of the 2011 Bruins, and what benchmarks for success need to be reached to reassure UCLA fans that they have a chance to contend in the increasingly-competitive Pac-12 this fall.
Neuheisel Needs to Communicate Team Strategy and Philosophy with New Coaches
After several recruiting seasons in Westwood coupled with the recent coaching turnover, Neuheisel now has “his guys” in place. With few personnel holdovers from the Karl Dorrell era left on the team, the gregarious Bruin head coach needs to effectively communicate his team philosophies and strategies to his new coaches and upperclassmen in March and April so that everyone on the team is on the same page from August through December.
The search for a new defensive coordinator lasted almost two months, but Neuheisel finally settled on Joe Tresey to replace Bullough in coordinating the defense. Tresey served under Brian Kelly as the DC at the University of Cincinnati in 2008, and has mentioned bringing multiple 4-3 packages to UCLA. Inoke Breckterfield, who vastly improved the Montana Grizzles’ defensive line play in 2010, will replace Todd Howard as the Bruins’ DL coach in 2011.
Last but not least, the popular Norm Chow will be replaced by a new offensive coordinator.
With former 49ers OC Mike Johnson set to replace Chow as well as coaching the wide receivers, one might have expected the Bruins to ditch the pistol offense that produced a ranking of 104 out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision programs in 2010. However, this does not look to be the case.
Jim Mastro was brought in to serve under Johnson as tight ends/F-Backs coach. Mastro comes to UCLA from the University of Nevada, where the pistol offense rose to national prominence under head coach Chris Ault in the last few years.
For now, Bruin Nation should surmise that, for better or worse, the Revolver will return to Westwood. If this option-style offense is again CRN’s philosophy in 2011, then he needs his players and coaches to buy in now.
Since Neuheisel will take over as quarterbacks’ coach, he’ll be able to closely monitor the maturation of the most highly anticipated UCLA football recruit in years.
Develop Brett Hundley as Much as Possible While Other QBs Nurse Injuries
Almost four months after the Bruins’ 2010 season ended, key quarterbacks are still sidelined with a multitude of injuries. 2010 starter Kevin Prince continues to recover from knee surgery, and will miss all of spring practice. Third-stringer Darius Bell is also out until fall as he rehabs from shoulder surgery. Backup Richard Brehaut is playing baseball, and will return to hardball duties after Spring Football concludes. Nick Crissman returns to practice after a second shoulder surgery, but is buried on the depth chart.
The unavailability of Prince and Bell provides a golden opportunity for Neuheisel to get true freshman Brett Hundley—a four-star recruit who matriculated early in an effort to get a head start on preparing for the 2011 season—some practice reps.
Bruin Nation was unimpressed with the collective quarterback play in 2010, but Hundley represents hope for improvement at the important position in the future. As the Chandler, Arizona native is blessed with fluid athleticism and a powerful throwing arm, CRN needs to spend as much time as possible prepping the dual threat QB for the speed of the college game. Although it’s unlikely Hundley will start under center anytime soon, he could wind up being the right fit for the pistol, and could be the savior to both UCLA's bowl hopes as well as Neuheisel’s job if he meets his potential.
More Consistency from the Offensive Line
The Bruins’ offensive line was a source of concern headed into the 2010 season. Tackle Xavier Su'a-Filo embarked on a two-year Mormon mission and isn't slated to return until 2012. Guard Jeff Baca was ruled academically ineligible, tackles Mike Harris and Sean Sheller had missed time due to various suspensions and center Kai Maiava, captain of the O-line, suffered a broken ankle on the third play of last season’s first scrimmage.
Offensive line coach Bob Palcic, one of the few Bruin football coaching holdovers from last season, deserves credit for the emergence of the new-look O-line dubbed by the media as “The Filthy Five”.
The surprisingly cohesive unit comprised of guards Darius Savage and Eddie Williams, tackles Sheller and Micah Kia, as well as center Ryan Taylor, exceeded expectations to open up holes in the Bruin running game. As a result, Bruins tailback Johnathan Franklin rushed for over 1,100 yards and eight touchdowns in 2010.
If only the pass blocking were as effective as the run blocking, UCLA would stand to dramatically improve in terms of moving the chains more consistently.
Maiava’s return to health will fill the void at center, given that Taylor is set to graduate. Savage and Williams are also both outgoing seniors, but Baca will try and regain his starting guard job. Sheller was recently granted a sixth year of NCAA eligibility since he missed all of the 2006 and 2008 seasons due to injury and may move from tackle to left guard.
Factoring in the departure of four starters, the Bruins’ offensive line still has substantial experience but will need to improve its pass protection in the event UCLA is trailing an opponent and becomes forced to throw the ball more to play catch-up.
Return to Health for DE Datone Jones
UCLA returns 18 starters from last year’s squad to action in 2011. In addition to these players is the aforementioned Maiava and defensive end Datone Jones, who also didn’t play a single snap in 2010. Despite his absence from the team in 2010, Jones is expected to play an integral role on the defensive side of the ball in 2011.
Having started all 13 games as one of UCLA’s key defenders in 2009, Jones was expected to make a big impact containing opposing quarterbacks and running backs in 2010. However, the senior broke his foot in August and ended up requiring surgery that caused him to miss the entire year.
Given the early departure of OLB Akeem Ayers for the National Football League, the Bruins desperately need another veteran on their defensive front seven to not only step up and make plays, but to also assume a leadership role and maintain consistent intensity that will trickle down to the underclassmen and scout team once they get their shot at some playing time.
Finding Effective Replacements for OLB Akeem Ayers, S Rahim Moore
While Ayers’ exit from the program leaves a void at outside linebacker, the Bruins are encouraged by the development of incumbent replacement Jordan Zumwalt. The true freshman turned heads filling in at middle linebacker after starting MLB Patrick Larimore went down with a season-ending shoulder injury.
Larimore should return in time to start in the middle come fall, meaning Zumwalt looks likely to slide outside to his original position and replace Ayers on the strong side. Despite his promising level of play, it remains to be seen as to whether the La Habra native can replace the world-class athleticism that Ayers brought to the position.
Rahim Moore was the vocal leader of the Bruins’ secondary who collected 11 interceptions his last two seasons in Westwood and also declared for April's 2011 NFL Draft. Slated to replace the outgoing safety in the defensive lineup is sophomore safety Dalton Hilliard, who impressed last spring, but has played mostly on special teams in his Bruin career.
Another candidate in the Bruins’ secondary who could prove to be a defensive leader is freshman Dietrich Riley. Not only has the safety from Pasadena inspired his teammates with highlight-reel hits, but his decision to spurn USC for UCLA during the 2010 recruitment process cemented a spot in the hearts of Bruin fans forever.
Ayers and Moore will undoubtedly be missed dearly by the defense, but the continued development of talented underclassmen like Zumwalt and Riley should help to keep the Bruins’ defense competitive for the next several years provided the new coaches' personalities gel with the players.
Build K Kip Smith’s Confidence
All-American kicker and two-time Lou Groza award winner Kai Forbath leaves a legacy in Westwood, along with a huge void on the Bruins’ special teams. The senior did the program a favor by sticking around for one final season in 2010, which gave freshman Kip Smith a season of experience to acclimate to the college kicking game.
Smith carries impressive credentials as the No. 1 rated prep kicker of 2009, according to Rivals.com. If he can pick up for the Bruins where Forbath left off in terms of providing a powerful, reliable leg for an otherwise unreliable offense, then UCLA might very well have a shot at the postseason despite the increased competition from conference expansion.
WRs Need to Step Up and Gel with New Coach
Despite the Bruins’ switch to the Revolver offense in 2010, the passing game was worse than any UCLA fan could have feared. Quarterbacks Kevin Prince, Richard Brehaut and company mustered a team passing efficiency that ranked 118th out of 120 FBS programs.
While the arrival of freshman QB Brett Hundley inspires hope for the future of the pass attack, UCLA will need much more production from the receiving corps than it got in 2010 if the Bruins are to boast a competitive offense next fall.
Aside from four-star talent Devin Lucien (Encino, CA), the only other prep wide receivers that Neuheisel was able to lure to Westwood on National Signing Day were two-star recruits Chance Early (San Diego, CA) and Dwayne Brown (Fontana, CA).
In 2010, Taylor Embree led the Bruins with 32 catches and 409 receiving yards. Three players tied for the team lead with just two receiving touchdowns. If new OC/receivers coach Mike Johnson is to balance out UCLA’s offense, then he will need to expand the downfield attack to prevent defenses from loading the box to stuff the running game.
Even if the Bruins run the pistol in 2011, their passing game doesn’t necessarily need to be outright dreadful. Nevada features the same offense, and Wolfpack quarterback Colin Kaepernick threw for over 3,000 yards in 2010 while the program’s passing stats ranked a respectable 55th in the FBS.
If the Bruins hope to draw an invite to a bowl game, they’ll need receivers Randall Carroll, Ricky Marvray, Nelson Rosario and Embree to help facilitate the quarterback development, catch more balls and make an impact this season.
Continued Development of Defensive Line
Defensive end Iuta Tepa has recovered from the torn pectoral muscle that he suffered in last year’s victory over Houston, and the redshirt sophomore will participate in spring practices. 2009 four-star recruit Keenan Graham will get more consistent playing time as a redshirt sophomore, and needs to take the next step in his development in order to reach his potential. First, though, he needs to fully recover from hip surgery.
Defensive tackles Cassius Marsh and DE Owamagba Odighizuwa each won the 2010 John Boncheff Jr. Memorial Award for Rookie of the Year and will surely make larger impacts in their second seasons.
When factoring in the arrival of 2011 four-star prospect Kevin McReynolds, UCLA has the foundation of a talented D-line that has the potential to compete with the majority of teams on their schedule this season.
However, the critical question remains whether new defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield can improve the Bruins' front four the same way he bettered Montana’s in 2010, or whether Neuheisel acted hastily in sweeping Todd Howard out with the other ex-UCLA coaches.
New Coaches Need to Instill Locker Room Discipline: No More Suspensions
With all the suspensions and time missed by various UCLA football players over the course of the 2010 season, it became apparent that maintaining discipline was becoming a problematic challenge for the Bruin coaching staff. With the dismissal of several key coaches and assistants, the culture inside the locker room needs to change. If the Bruins are to be taken seriously by the rest of the Pac-12, then it’s imperative that the team takes itself seriously first.
This means avoiding academic ineligibilities by ensuring players are keeping their grades up, maintaining a drug-free atmosphere and making sure knuckleheaded offseason activity (like last June's alleged theft by three ex-Bruins) never happens again.
Coaches Tresey, Breckterfield, Johnson and Mastro need to work with Neuheisel and the other coaches to make sure that discipline and excellence replace the culture of mediocrity that had previously permeated the Bruin locker room, starting on March 29 at Spaulding Field.
Return to Full Health for Injured Bruins in Time for Fall Practices
Even though we’re three-plus months removed from the Bruins’ season-ending 28-14 loss to USC at the Rose Bowl on Dec. 4, UCLA still has a lengthy list of players still recovering from injuries who will miss spring practices.
- Quarterbacks Kevin Prince and Darius Bell are improving from their respective surgical procedures, but won't take any snaps during the spring.
- Defensive end Keenan Graham is out as he recovers from hip surgery.
- Safety Dalton Hillard is rehabbing from knee surgery and will also be out until August. With Rahim Moore projected to be an early round selection as one of the top safeties available in the NFL draft, Hilliard will have big shoes to fill in the Bruin secondary in 2011.
- Middle linebacker Patrick Larimore was one of the most improved Bruins in 2010, but is still on the mend from shoulder surgery and will be forced to watch Spring Football from the sidelines.
- Cornerback Anthony Jefferson also went under the knife to repair a broken ankle he suffered against California early last season. He won’t suit up in April, but he’ll remain a redshirt freshman with four years of eligibility remaining once he returns to action.
- Reserve wide receiver Jerry Johnson is nursing a broken ankle he suffered making his first career start last October and will be sidelined until after spring practice concludes.
- Wide receiver Shaquelle Evans and linebacker/special teams player Jared Koster are both recovering from shoulder surgery, but each be available for non-contact drills throughout spring practices.