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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 40: U.C.L.A.

The Rose Bowl. U.C.L.A. hopes to play in Pasadena in January, when the game matters.

Opportunities come in all shapes and sizes, in all forms, often when you least expect it. Opportunity is knocking, U.C.L.A. Your Los Angeles neighbors, the mighty Trojans, have shown weakness: N.C.A.A. penalties, of course, and its ensuing ramifications; as well as new coach, one who can’t — can’t possibly — match the success of his predecessor, the bane of U.C.L.A.’s existence since 2001. There is an opportunity to make up ground on the recruiting trail, evening the tally in talent-rich Southern California. There is an opportunity to show that while you are on the upswing, U.S.C. has dark days ahead. Most importantly, there is an opportunity to make your move in the Pac-10. Opportunity is knocking. Will U.C.L.A. answer the call?

Conference
Pac-10

Location
Los Angeles

Nickname
Bruins

Returning starters
12 (7 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 52

2009 record
(7-6, 3-6)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 65

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    at Kansas St.
  • Sept. 11
    Stanford
  • Sept. 18
    Houston
  • Sept. 25
    at Texas
  • Oct. 2
    Washington St.
  • Oct. 9
    at California
  • Oct. 21
    at Oregon
  • Oct. 30
    Arizona
  • Nov. 6
    Oregon St.
  • Nov. 18
    at Washington
  • Nov. 26
    at Arizona St.
  • Dec. 4
    U.S.C.

Last year’s prediction

Still, the offense has me concerned. Will the defense be good enough to propel U.C.L.A. to, say, eight wins? It’ll be good, but not that good. Neuheisel is building a program here, and if the past two recruiting classes are any indication, help is on the way. But I’m not crazy about this team’s chances at cracking the top four in the Pac-10. Instead, I’ve got the Bruins just about tied with Arizona and Stanford for fifth in the conference: 6-6, 4-5.

2009 recap

In a nutshell It’s still a work in progress, this rebuilding job. Progress was made last fall, however, beyond merely the all-important three-game improvement in the win column. Improvement was made on both sides of the ball. U.C.L.A. scored 286 points, not a good number — only 22 points per game — but more than a four-point improvement over its 2008 output. The Bruins allowed 21.2 points per game, down from 29 points per game the year prior. Better yet, U.C.L.A. seemed to locate a quarterback; play from this position was horrendous in 2008, particularly in terms of its penchant for turnovers. This improvement, steady as it was, did little for U.C.L.A. through five games in Pac-10 play: the Bruins opened 0-5, failing to score more than 20 points four times and holding no opponent to fewer than 24 points. The season was made with a solid start and a solid finish, with U.C.L.A. winning its first three games and three of its last four. Improvement was surely made, even it wasn’t pretty.

High point Knowing that U.S.C. was looming, the Bruins entered the month of November with full knowledge that only a 3-0 mark against Washington, Washington State and Arizona State would allow them to reach bowl eligibility. U.C.L.A. answered the call, squeezing past Washington, blowing past the Cougars and using a opportunistic defense to outscore the Sun Devils. Actually, the high point of the season may have been a game that didn’t feature the Bruins at all: only a Navy win over Army in the final game of the season gave U.C.L.A. its much-desired bowl birth.

Low point Another loss to the Trojans, to be sure, but an 0-5 start to Pac-10 play placed this program, this team and its coach under a microscope. Still, let’s give U.C.L.A. some credit: the Bruins were pesky enough to hang around far more mature opponents, losing four games by 14 points or less.

Tidbit What’s one way a four-win team can reverse its fortunes? By placing an emphasis on winning the turnover game; as mentioned, this was a major issue for the Bruins in 2008. In that season, U.C.L.A. turned the ball over 29 times while forcing 10 turnovers. That landed the Bruins a turnover margin of -0.83 per game, ranking the team 105th nationally. Last fall, U.C.L.A. committed 24 turnovers to go with 30 takeaways — a turnover margin of 0.46 per game, the 26th-best total in the country.

Tidbit (Super Bowl edition) Six former U.C.L.A. quarterbacks have played that position in the Super Bowl, the most in the country. The six? Troy Aikman, Steve Bono, Billy Kilmer, Tommy Maddox, Tom Ramsey and Jay Schroeder.

Former players in the N.F.L.

26 WR Terrence Austin (Washington), LB Brendon Ayanbadejo (Baltimore), DE Dave Ball (Tennessee), RB Kahlil Bell (Chicago), DT Ryan Boschetti (Oakland), LB Korey Bosworth (Jacksonville), DE Kyle Bosworth (Jacksonville), LB Brandon Chillar (Green Bay), DE Kenyon Coleman (Cleveland), LB Bruce Davis (Denver), TE Spencer Havner (Green Bay), S Chris Horton (Washington), RB Maurice Jones-Drew (Jacksonville), P Chris Kluwe (Minnesota), TE Marcedes Lewis (Jacksonville), S Bret Lockett (New England), FB Chane Moline (Oakland), S Jarrad Page (Kansas City), TE Logan Paulsen (Washington), DT Brian Price (Tampa Bay), WR Matt Slater (New England), CB Alterraun Verner (Tennessee), S Matt Ware (Arizona), WR Matt Willis (Denver).

Arbitrary top five list

Pac-10 quarterbacks since 1998
1. Matt Leinart, U.S.C.
2. Carson Palmer, U.S.C.
3. Cade McNown, U.C.L.A.
4. Marques Tuiasosopo, Washington.
5. Aaron Rodgers, California.

Coaching

Rick Neuheisel (U.C.L.A. ‘84), 11-14 after two seasons back at his alma mater. Last season was a fine rebound to 2008, Neuheisel’s first season, when the Bruins slipped to a 4-8 mark. That first year was an unquestioned struggle, as the Bruins stumbled in their effort to grasp Neuheisel’s offensive system. The team’s 4-8 finish marked only Neuheisel’s second losing season — joining a 5-6 record with Colorado in 1997 — and the first time in three stops that he had not won at least seven games in his first season with a new program. Neuheisel went a combined 17-7 in his first two seasons at Washington and Colorado. Prior to being hired by the Bruins, Neuheisel served three years as an assistant with the Baltimore Ravens, first as quarterbacks coach — from 2005-6 — then as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. His college head coaching experience includes stints at Colorado, from 1995-99, and at Washington, 1999-2002. Neuheisel’s best season with Washington came in 2000, where he led the Huskies to a Pac-10 championship, a Rose Bowl victory and an 11-1 finish. With the Buffaloes, his 10-2 season in 1995 was the best finish for a first-year coach in Colorado history. At both stops, Neuheisel was able to rapidly put forth a team capable of competing — if not winning — conference championships, as well entering the national title conversation. The first two seasons of the Neuheisel era have not gone as well, of course, though hopes remain high that Neuheisel will eventually have the Bruins in prime contention for a Rose Bowl berth. A former U.C.L.A. quarterback, Neuheisel led the Bruins to the 1983 Pac-10 championship and a 45-9 victory over Illinois in the Rose Bowl. His performance in the bowl win — 298 yards passing, 4 touchdowns — led to his induction into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 1998. He was also an assistant with the Bruins from 1988-93, the last four seasons as wide receivers coach.

Tidbit (coaching edition) U.C.L.A. will alter its offensive philosophy in 2010. It hopes to, at least. If the spring is any indication, the Bruins will go from a West Coast, pro-style attack to the Pistol, an offense with which I’m sure we’re all familiar. Run to great effect at Nevada, the Pistol has the quarterback line up in a short shotgun snap, roughly three yards closer to the center than in a traditional shotgun set. This gives the offense the option of adding more designed quarterback runs to the playbook, among other things. It also takes pressure off the offensive line: while allowing for traditional running plays, the quarterback is farther back from the line of scrimmage. Any Pre-Snap Read loyal readers with Nevada ties can surely go into further detail.

Players to watch

The offensive line returns four starters, with the lone lost starter, left tackle Xavier Su’a-Filo, departing for his Mormon mission one year after a strong true freshman campaign. His departure leaves a hole on the blind side, one U.C.L.A. hopes will be filled by redshirt freshman Nik Abele. Fifth-year senior Micah Kia is also an option at left tackle, where he’s started in the past. Kia, however, must prove he’s back at full health after missing all of last season with a knee injury. The rest of the line remains intact. The Bruins will be solid at center and right tackle, where juniors Kai Maiava and Mike Harris started 12 and 13 games last season, respectively. Former JUCO transfer Eddie Williams, a senior, will serve at right guard, where he started the first six games of 2009 before being sidelined with a fractured ankle. Junior Jeff Baca, whose 21 career starts leads all U.C.L.A. linemen, returns at left guard. The hope is this: after two years in the system, this still-young group is ready to take a step forward. The ability is there.

Give sophomore Kevin Prince one thing: he wasn’t a turnover machine. His predecessor sure was, but Prince threw only eight interceptions as a redshirt freshman starting in the Pac-10. That he threw only eight touchdowns is easier to believe, of course, but Prince also illustrated some of the ability that makes him a potential four-year starter. He also showed toughness, missing only two weeks with a broken jaw suffered in September. While Prince went through the typical rookie struggles last fall, look for last season’s experience to begin to pay dividends in 2010. His season totals — 173 completions, 2,050 yards passing and 2,229 yards of total offense — were good for second among freshmen in U.C.L.A. history.

The Bruins will miss Chane Moline, who chipped in 26 receptions to go with his 207 yards rushing, but return their two leading rusher from a season ago. As was the case last fall, look for sophomore Johnathan Franklin to earn the brunt of the action on the ground. He led U.C.L.A. in rushing last fall (566) while adding five touchdowns, which tied Moline for the team lead; his rushing output was the sixth-most by a freshman in school history. He’ll again be spelled by junior Derrick Coleman, the team’s second-leading rusher, with speedy sophomore Damien Thigpen, as well as a pair of incoming freshmen, ready in reserve.

U.C.L.A. has a productive underclassmen pair to lead the receiver corps. Unfortunately, juniors Taylor Embree and Nelson Rosario are the only returning Bruins to make at least 10 grabs last fall. This duo can do much of the heavy lifting, but will need some help. On the year, Embree led U.C.L.A. in receptions (45); that gave him at least 40 catches as both a freshman and sophomore, a program first. Rosario was the team’s big-play threat, leading the Bruins in receiving yards (723) and yards per catch (17.2) despite making only two starts. The hope is that former Colorado transfer Josh Smith can provide a spark, as with another transfer, tight end Joseph Fauria.

The Bruins must rebuild their defensive line, as I’ll touch on below. If — and it’s a sizable if — the line can put forth a capable effort, U.C.L.A. will remain stout on defense. That’s due to a strong back seven, which despite the loss of three starters remains among the best in the Pac-10.

The secondary is led by junior free safety Rahim Moore, a reigning first-team all-conference and second-team all-American selection. He paced the country in 2009 with 10 interceptions, a total good for second in school history, and enters his third season with 13 career picks, seventh-most in U.C.L.A. annals. Moore will again be joined at safety by junior Tony Dye, who finished fourth on the team in tackles (73).

It will be difficult for U.C.L.A. to replace all-conference cornerback Alterraun Verner. The Bruins do return one starter, however, with sophomore Sheldon Price an 11-game starter in 2009. Another sophomore, Aaron Hester, is the favorite to step into spot formerly held by Verner. His debut campaign, which included a single start — he began the season in the starting lineup, ahead of Price, I might add — was dashed by an early-season leg injury which limited his availability after mid-September. U.C.L.A. could also turn to another sophomore, Andrew Abbott, or junior Courtney Viney at cornerback.

Yes, the Bruins must supplant a pair of starters at linebacker. Even with this lost duo — both of whom earned all-conference recognition — U.C.L.A. will continue to receive solid production from its linebacker corps, largely due to the return of junior Akeem Ayers. The strong side starter was an honorable mention all-conference pick last fall, when he made 75 tackles (14.5 for loss), 6 sacks and 4 interceptions. Ayers really came on strong down the stretch, making 30 tackles, 4 sacks and 3 picks in U.C.L.A.’s final four games; he also scored a pair of touchdowns during the team’s 3-1 finish.

Junior Steve Sloan will step in at middle linebacker, where he’ll replace Reggie Carter. Sloan has experience at the position — nine starts in 2008 — even if he didn’t play a large role a season ago. Sean Westgate, also a junior, is poised to ascend to a starting role on the weak side after contributing mainly on special teams over his first two seasons. He’ll be pushed for time on the weak side by Glenn Love, a converted safety.

Position battles to watch

Defensive line U.C.L.A. must replace three key starters up front, losses highlighted by the departure of tackle Brian Price, the 2009 conference defensive player of the year. Price, along with end Korey Bosworth — also an all-conference selection — and tackles Jess Ward and Jerzy Siewierski, were integral cogs in the Pac-10′s third-ranked defense. The Bruins do return junior end Datone Jones, who finished third on the team in sacks (three) and fourth in tackles for loss (11). While he mans one side, the Bruins may rely on highly-regarded true freshman Owa Odighizuwa to make an immediate impact. Hampering Odighizuwa’s chances at the starting role is the fact he will not arrive on campus until the fall; I remember when this was the norm. In that case, senior Reginald Stokes — should he make a full recovery from knee surgery — should be the favorite to enter the season in the starting lineup. Stokes, a five-game starter in 2008, is joined at end by redshirt freshman Keenan Graham. There’s no replacing Price on the interior of the line, of course. The Bruins can take some solace in the fact that a few experienced interior linemen do return, such as senior David Carter, a key reserve last fall. He’s a definite starter at one tackle spot. As U.C.L.A. prepares for the fall, it looks like junior tackle Nate Chandler, a converted tight end, will round out the starting lineup. This is cause for concern: for all his physical gifts, Chandler brings no experience to the table. Depth will come from junior Justin Edison and sophomore Donovan Carter, a converted linebacker. Both should be ready for significant action. There’s talent on the line, particularly in terms of young recruits added during the brief Neuheisel era, but this group looks to be a year away from reaching its potential.

Game(s) to watch

Start with Kansas State. It’s the most winnable of U.C.L.A.’s tough non-conference stretch, even if the game comes on the road. The Bruins have the good fortune of landing five Pac-10 tilts at home, though the biggest games of the conference season may come away from Pasadena: with the rivalry game with U.S.C. to end the year, U.C.L.A. will need to beat Arizona State and Washington on the road to duplicate last season’s hot finish.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I may be in the minority, but I think we’ll continue to see improvement from the Bruins in 2010. Will that reveal itself in the win column? With this schedule — the non-conference slate is jaw-dropping — perhaps not. That doesn’t mean the Bruins won’t be improved, nor does it mean the Bruins aren’t a Pac-10 dark horse. They will be, and they are. Well, on that second point… it’s a very dark horse. Still, I like the direction of the program under Neuheisel: last season illustrated that progress has been made, and there’s little reason, despite some losses on defense, to expect any step back in 2010. The continuity on offense will only aid U.C.L.A.’s scoring attack, particularly under center. Is Prince ready to take the next step? No, he’s no quite an all-conference quarterback, at least not yet. But he’ll be improved, and will do a better job of stringing together successive solid performances. The defense does face issues up front, where three starters must be replaced. If that group can round together, joining a talented linebacker corps and secondary, the U.C.L.A. defense should again rank in the top third in the Pac-10. Helping matters further are five Pac-10 games at home, as well as a road game against Arizona State, a game U.C.L.A. should win. Can we put U.C.L.A. in the same breath as Oregon, U.S.C. and Oregon State when discussing potential Pac-10 champions? No, not in 2010. But the Bruins are beginning to round into form, leading me to believe the future is bright.

Dream season U.C.L.A. shocks the conference, losing two of three in non-conference play before rolling off eight wins in nine tries against Pac-10 opposition. Of course, one of those wins comes against the Trojans.

Nightmare season The Bruins are still not ready for prime time: 4-8, 3-6 in Pac-10 play. That’s would mark the second four-win finish in three seasons for Neuheisel.

In case you were wondering

Where do U.C.L.A. fans congregate? A handful of solid fan sites: Bruin Report OnlineBruin BlitzBruin Gold and The Bruin Zone. For constant coverage of U.C.L.A. sports, look no further than Bruins Nation and, to a lesser degree, the Web site of The Los Angeles Times. Actually, please do check out The Times, in a show of support for our friend Josh Penrod. For a better take, check out Adam Maya’s blog at The Orange County Register.

Up Next

Who is No. 39? Our next program has won at least eight games in three consecutive seasons. Last season’s output allowed its head coach to finally push his career record over .500.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. NUwildcat09 says:

    No. 39 is UCONN.

  2. george howley says:

    UCONN and Randy Edsell are an interesting story. They have suvived the transition to “division 1″ but the question is can Edsell lead them to a national contender status-Point A. I have my doubts but I thank the powers to be that he is still at Connecticut. He was Notre Dame’s back up choice if Kelly had not accepted the job. We’ll know more about UCONN and Edsell this year with a veteran quarterback running the team

  3. Zaboo says:

    Wow… high on Cal much?

  4. dc4azcats says:

    Seriously don’t get this one. When was the last time ucla had a good offense? 4 years ago? Norm Chow has done nothing since his arrival at ucla and they still don’t have an o-line to speak of. Can you go out on any more of a limb?

    Add to that – they’re breaking in a new offense – the so called pistol offense. Obviously I’m bias but you take a ucla team with no offense and the best players gone from a solid defense over an Arizona team?

    Can you make a bigger reach? Ucla beat nobody LY and got crushed by teams with winning records – I see the same thing happening this year.

  5. Burnt Orange says:

    Your returning quarterback suffered a broken jaw, separated shoulder and a concussion last year. You open with Kansas State, Stanford, UH, and Texas. So you go to the Pistol ?

  6. [...] the country heading into the season opener. Today’s team, No. 40, is U.C.L.A. You can find a larger U.C.L.A. preview [...]

  7. Jack Metcalf says:

    As a former starting Bruin lineman ’58,’59,’60, and we all know linemen don’t know squat, I will go out on a limb and say all the Bruin critics are overlooking team speed, strength and good old Bruin desire. The major factor overlooked by opposing team critics is what I call the X factor, this coaching staff. They have been working their tails off and have become a very cohesive group who have demanded a lot from this young but extremely talented group with another wave coming in. Granted they are limited in experience but that can be offset by a take no prisoners attitude. Here it is: 9-3 including an upset win over Texas.

  8. manuel says:

    how out of touch are you if you are still listing nick abele? dude is retired for medical reasons…come on now…

  9. Al. Lubel says:

    Just incase UCLA is going to switch coaches, can they please get an ex pro-guy. How ’bout Steve Mariuchi (49rs). I saw him coaching the Under Armor highschool game. The guy was great with the kids.

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