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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. 81: U.C.L.A.

This is pure ugliness, and U.C.L.A. fans shouldn’t stand for it anymore. I’m not just talking about Rick Neuheisel, though he’s on the list: I’m going back to Dec. 6, 1998, the last time the words Bruins and national picture were issued in the same phrase – that’s the day U.C.L.A. departed the title scene, and we’ve seen only sporadic periods of good play in the years since. Doesn’t U.C.L.A. deserve better? Why not? This is a proud program, one with a nice history and the annual potential for good things, could the Bruins ever get out of their own way. Many thought Neuheisel was the missing piece – a coach who could coach; that hasn’t been the case. Ch-ch-ch-changes: coaching changes, quarterback changes, offensive changes, defensive changes, changes made for the sake of change in an effort to revitalize a program and, perhaps, buy him more time at his alma mater. See, Neuheisel isn’t all that different from the fan annually grasping at straws in an effort to find something, anything to get excited about – “Maybe if I do (strange decision), things will turn around.” Well, they haven’t, and they probably won’t, is my guess, and U.C.L.A. will soon turn to another would-be savior to salvage its spiraling football hopes.

Conference
Pac-12, South

Location
Los Angeles

Nickname
Bruins

Returning starters
16 (8 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 40

2010 record
(4-8, 2-7)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 84

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    at Houston
  • Sept. 10
    San Jose St.
  • Sept. 17
    Texas
  • Sept. 24
    at Oregon St.
  • Oct. 1
    at Stanford
  • Oct. 8
    Washington St.
  • Oct. 20
    at Arizona
  • Oct. 29
    California
  • Nov. 5
    Arizona St.
  • Nov. 12
    at Utah
  • Nov. 19
    Colorado
  • Nov. 26
    at U.S.C.

Last year’s prediction

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. 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.

2010 recap

In a nutshell U.C.L.A. beat a pair of nationally-ranked opponents in successive weeks in late-September, and added a third straight win when it knocked off Washington State to open October. That pushed the Bruins to 3-2 upon entering the heart of Pac-10 play, at which point the bottom dropped out. Please ignore the fact that those two wins, over Houston and Texas, ended up not being over two title challengers but two five-win teams. The team’s fourth and final victory came over Oregon State, another five-win team. So it was not a banner year for Neuheisel and the Bruins, to put it lightly. So what went right? Well, while the offense finished 100th nationally in yardage, the defense finished merely 94th. While the offense finished 104th in scoring, the defense tied for 85th. While the Bruins dropped games to Stanford by 35 points and Oregon by 47 points, they lost to Arizona by merely eight and rival U.S.C. by merely 14. When you go 4-8 without any conception of what you’d like to do offensively and have a defense that played far below its potential, you look for silver linings wherever they can be found. Hey, here’s a silver lining: Neuheisel and company may not be in town next year if things don’t improve. So it’s not all bad news as we look towards 2011.

High point The win over Texas. It was thought at the time that U.T. was still on the verge of competing for the Big 12 title; it was also thought that U.C.L.A. was bowl-bound, but regardless. Close at halftime, the Bruins took control with a power running game over the final 30 minutes, outscoring the Longhorns 14-3 in the third quarter en route to a 34-12 victory.

Low point The utter lack of competitiveness against Oregon was distressing. U.C.L.A. wasn’t the only team to fall victim to Oregon’s offensive onslaught, but the nationally-televised mauling did illustrate just how wide the gap was – and is – between the Bruins and the conference’s best. To indicate how tough the schedule was, take note that U.C.L.A. lost to only one losing team, California, all season.

Tidbit U.C.L.A. has had two  eight-win seasons since 1999: the Bruins went 8-5 in 2002, Bob Toledo’s final season, and rode five close conference wins to a 10-2 finish under Karl Dorrell in 2005. That total is tied, along with Arizona, for the fewest among the current denizens of the Pac-12 – though Arizona has its two eight-win seasons over the last three years, which points to the direction of the program under Mike Stoops. Oregon and Utah lead the way with nine each, though Utah’s came in the Mountain West. U.S.C. also has nine, technically, but the program’s 2005 results have been wiped out by an N.C.A.A. ruling, leaving the program with eight.

Former players in the N.F.L.

25 WR Terrence Austin (Washington), LB Brendon Ayanbadejo (Baltimore), LB Akeem Ayers (Tennessee), DE Dave Ball (Tennessee), RB Kahlil Bell (Chicago), LB Korey Bosworth (Detroit), LB Kyle Bosworth (Jacksonville), DT David Carter (Arizona), LB Brandon Chillar (Green Bay), DE Kenyon Coleman (Cleveland), LB Bruce Davis (Oakland), TE Spencer Havner (Green Bay), S Chris Horton (Washington), RB Maurice Jones-Drew (Jacksonville), P Chris Kluwe (Minnesota), TE Marcedes Lewis (Jacksonville), CB Bret Lockett (New England), S Rahim Moore (Denver), S Jarrad Page (New England), 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

N.C.A.A. men’s basketball coaches not named John Wooden
1. Dean Smith (North Carolina).
2. Mike Krzyzewski (Army, Duke).
3. Bob Knight (Army, Indiana, Texas Tech).
4. Adolph Rupp (Kentucky).
5. Roy Williams (Kansas, North Carolina)

Coaching

Rick Neuheisel (U.C.L.A. ‘84), 15-22 after three seasons back at his alma mater. His Bruins took a dip last season after rebounding in 2009, when the Bruins won seven games. Neuheisel’s first year was an unquestioned struggle, as the Bruins stumbled in their effort to grasp Neuheisel’s offensive system — as it stood then. The team’s 4-8 finish was then 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. 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 1995-98, and at Washington, from 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 as entering the national title conversation. The first three seasons of the Neuheisel era have not gone as well, of course, and hopes are dimming that Neuheisel will eventually have the Bruins in prime contention for a Rose Bowl berth. I’m pretty sure U.C.L.A. would settle for consistent bowl berths, let alone a Rose Bowl berth; it’s been that bad, sloppy and discombobulated, and there’s no reason to think that things are going to get significantly better in 2011.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Neuheisel reshuffled his coaching staff, but it took time. The Bruins didn’t fill their final vacancy until mid-February, when Neuheisel added Montana defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield to the same position. He joins new offensive coordinator Mike Johnson, hired away from the San Francisco 49ers, and defensive coordinator Joe Tresey, who has led defenses at Cincinnati and South Florida but was most recently seen in the U.F.L. coaching defensive backs. Perhaps the biggest addition is former Nevada assistant Jim Mastro, who will coach the U.C.L.A. tight ends but will surely play a big role in streamlining the Pistol offense. Johnson and Neuheisel will lead the offense in tandem, with help from Mastro and others. Tresey will implement a far more aggressive defense than the one used by his predecessor, which fans will absolutely love.

Players to watch

There’s depth at running back and a new voice to impart some much-needed wisdom in Mastro, which should only increase U.C.L.A.’s production at the position. Last fall saw the Bruins notch their first 1,000-yard back since 2006 in junior Johnathan Franklin, who rushed for a team-best 1,127 yards along with 8 scores. He’ll again be the focus of this ground game, and should only improve thanks to his experience in the system. Senior Derrick Coleman (487 yards) is the team’s biggest back, and thanks to that unique quality should continue to have a role in the running game. But his carries might decrease a tad thanks to the presence of a few youngsters, such as sophomore Malcolm Jones and redshirt freshman Jordon James. But it’s still Franklin and Coleman leading the way.

The big news for the U.C.L.A. offensive line is the return of left tackle Jeff Baca, who was due to start last season before being ruled academically ineligible. Was the return of Baca, I should say: he broke his ankle during the spring, putting another year in jeopardy for the hard-luck junior. He might be back by September, though it seems like a long shot; it’s more likely he’s back during conference play, though whether he’ll be ready to contribute is another question. Without Baca, U.C.L.A. will keep sixth-year senior Sean Sheller at left tackle, where he spent last fall. That presents an issue: experienced depth. One would think that Sheller’s move would push either sophomore Stan Hasiak or redshirt freshman Sam Saultz into a starting role, and both are meant to be reserves at this point in their careers.

The onus is really on senior center Kai Maiava to deliver. He’s good enough to do, but he’ll need to become a real leader for this group, joining Sheller in this regard. In terms of talent, the former Colorado transfer is one of the Pac-12’s best. But injuries are an issue, as he missed nearly all of 2010 with an ankle injury. The Bruins know they’ll get consistency on the strong side, especially at tackle: that’s where Mike Harris does his thing, as he has for the last three years. Sophomore Chris Ward is the leading contender to start at right guard. Offensive linemen love to play in the Pistol for a reason: you can wear down the opposition, which makes a lineman happy. There are horses here but losing Baca hurts, and I wonder if the line can stay together despite some shuffling.

You’re not going to find a U.C.L.A. receiver with big numbers in 2011, which is fine. You’d prefer to have more balance on offense, as Nevada has illustrated, but the Bruins aren’t going to set the world afire through the air, thanks to average quarterback play and a receiver corps devoid of big-play potential. It’s rather a by-committee approach, as U.C.L.A. brings back four receivers who made at least 15 grabs in 2010. Yet you can’t shake the feeling that this group could do far, far more.

Nelson Rosario (29 catches for 309 yards) has the size and skill-set to be a weapon, but he’s inconsistent. Maybe the light turned on down the stretch last fall; he made 15 catches for 172 yards over his last three games. I think we know what we’re going to get from Taylor Embree: about 30 receptions, about 400 yards, a score or two. That’s what you’re going to get. Maybe the Bruins will get a big play or two from another Colorado transfer, Josh Smith, though he was a bit of a disappointment in his first season out West. An addition from Notre Dame, Shaquille Evans, has plenty of talent; Randall Caroll has speed to burn; and Jerry Johnson has potential. U.C.L.A. would love to have a new face pop up and breathe some life into the passing game, but this position is a question mark.

The defensive line is strong outside, thin in the middle. As on the offensive side of the ball, the Bruins will need some young faces to be there if needed as reserves. Cassius Marsh is locked in as one starter, but it was a bit surprising to see Justin Edison, not Nate Chandler or Donovan Carter, leap to the top of the depth chart at the end of the spring, starting alongside Marsh. Maybe that will last, maybe it won’t; Chandler and Carter will both play, so both need to be ready. But there’s nothing proven beyond this quartet, which is a concern.

This isn’t the case at end. The Bruins are athletic, experienced and deep on the outside, so much so that sophomore Owamagbe Odighizuwa is on the second team, though he’s sure to play early and often. He’s too good not to feature prominently, especially on passing downs. For now, however, it’ll be Datone Jones and Damien Holmes (28 tackles, 1 sack) as the starters. Jones will look to recapture his 2009 form after missing last season due to injury. Keenan Graham and Iuta Tepa provide more depth.

U.C.L.A. lost some star talent in linebacker Akeem Ayers and safety Rahim Moore, and both are nearly impossible to replace. That’s the nature of college football, of course, and the returning Bruins need to chip together to recoup the lost production. But the defense will miss the big play ability each brought to the table – that’s the hardest thing to replace.

Five of the seven starters on the back end of the defense are back, led by cornerbacks Aaron Hester (26 tackles, team-best 3 interceptions) and Sheldon Price. Andrew Abbott also sees plenty of action as the nickel back, so it’s almost fair to say that he’s a returning starter in his own right. U.C.L.A. has recruited well here, so a second-year player or two is bound to make an impact. Moore’s departure means leading tackler Tony Dye (96, 3.5 for loss) will move over from strong to free safety, which is a good move. Sophomore Dietrich Riley takes his old spot, which he should solidify for the next three years.

The two returning linebackers are good  but not game-changers like Ayers, though few are. The Bruins hopes to get a full season out of middle linebacker Patrick Larrimore (42 tackles), who played in only seven games a year ago. Senior weak side linebacker Sean Westgate had a breakout 2010 campaign after contributing on special teams early in his career, finishing second on the team in tackles (90), first in tackles for loss (11) and tied for first in sacks (four). This is his linebacker corps now, so he needs to deliver. Sophomore Jordan Zumwalt is projected to start on the strong side, where he made four starts a year ago. But Glenn Love gave him a run for his money during the spring; he might start, but Love will at worst be the first linebacker off the bench.

Position battle(s) to watch

Quarterback I know Kevin Prince is going to start the season opener, and I know he’ll remain the starter as long as he produces. I’m not entirely convinced he will, for starters, but his history with the Bruins suggests that at some point during the year, Prince will be lost due to injury. So U.C.L.A. needs to find a competent reserve, one it feels comfortable with not merely as the backup but also as a potentially long-term starter should those pesky injury issues pop up. Everything we’ve read points towards true freshman Brett Hundley being that guy: he’s made for this offense in ways Prince isn’t, primarily in the athleticism he can provide this Pistol attack. Prince is a gamer and a leader, it seems, but he is not quite the prototypical quarterback in this system. Hundley is, but you wonder how quickly he can take on the mantle of being a starter in the Pac-12. If he’s ready, I have no doubt that he’ll push Prince for snaps whether injuries play a role or not. If he’s not, we’re looking at more of the same: Prince and Richard Brehaut, who combined to give U.C.L.A. the conference’s worst quarterback play in 2010. Hundley’s progression is a major storyline for this team as it enters the heart of the summer, especially since he did experience his share of growing pains during the spring. But he’ll be better for his spring travails come September, and U.C.L.A. hopes he’s prepared for what awaits – if he’s the backup, not Brehaut – during Pac-12 action.

Game(s) to watch

Rematches against Houston and Texas will have both teams looking for revenge. The Bruins have the good fortune of missing Oregon out of the Pac-12 North, but the schedule does ask for conference road games against Stanford, Utah and U.S.C. – five Pac-12 road games altogether, four games at home. That’s not a great thing for a program with a spotty recent track record of success away on the road.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I’m not optimistic. To me, this is where U.C.L.A. is slated to land: outside of bowl eligibility, in the five-win range, though I don’t think four is anywhere close to out of the realm of possibility. It all starts at the top, and Neuheisel’s hold on this ship is very, very unsteady. The whole program is unsteady; sure of what it wants to do offensively but lacking the pieces to really do so, talented on defense but still thin at some very key spots. So what is U.C.L.A. going to do? Rally together around a coach with a dim future and a staff full of new faces? That’s the only thing the Bruins can do if they wish to return to bowl play, but I’m not entirely sure if this staff is one that instills confidence with another tough schedule on the docket. This is basically the same team as a year ago, one that couldn’t beat a winning team and was often taken behind the woodshed during conference play. Houston and Texas will be much, much better, so a 2-1 mark outside of the Pac-12 will be more difficult to come by. When it comes to the Pac-12, I’m utterly unconvinced that the Bruins can score enough to keep pace with the teams on the schedule, and while the defense will be more aggressive I’m worried that it won’t be able to do enough to lead the Bruins to wins on its own. From top to bottom, I’m really not happy with the direction of the program as it currently stands: U.C.L.A. seems to be at best treading water, which is a troubling trend when compared to a conference full of teams on an upswing. Is there a silver lining? Of course. As mentioned earlier, another down season might lead to a coaching change, which I feel might be the best thing for the program. Now watch U.C.L.A. go 4-8 and Dan Guerrero decide to bring Neuheisel back for one more go.

Dream season The light turns on for U.C.L.A. and the Pistol offense, thanks to the staff changes, and the Bruins score enough points to finish 8-4 despite the rough and tumble schedule.

Nightmare season More of the same offensively and defensively. The Bruins top San Jose State and Washington State, but that’s it: 2-10, 1-8 in the Pac-12.

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 consistently illuminating coverage of U.C.L.A. sports, look no further than Bruins Nation. The passion from those in charge of that site oftentimes leads them to question the direction of U.C.L.A.’s athletic department and director, which makes me respect their editorial decisions all the more. To a lesser degree, check out the Web site of The Los Angeles Times. For a better take from the print media, check out Adam Maya’s blog at The Orange County Register. One regrettable omission: Jonathan Gold covers U.C.L.A. football for the L.A. Daily News.

Word Count

Through 40 teams 111,329.

Up Next

Who is No. 80? Coverage of a religious kerfuffle in the city housing tomorrow’s university was front page news in The New York Times in the early fall of 1931.

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Comments

  1. Eksynyt says:

    Arkansas State is next. National Guard had to be deployed in Jonesboro because of a “church war” in the Baptist Church.

  2. Burnt Orange says:

    Kerfuffle ? Never heard that one.

    Joe Golding’s Wichita Falls Coyotes caused quite a kerfuffle by running through the Irving Tiger’s spirit sign before their district showdown Friday night.

    Hmm. I just can’t see it replacing or even supplementing shit storm in my lexicon.

  3. Dykstra Hall says:

    I think you left out one important local media source, The Daily News’ Jonathan Gold covers UCLA very well for the paper and in a blog hosted by the paper. The Los Angeles Times and the OC Register are both very pro-SC and are hostile to Ucla, in football or anything else. They have been debunked on Bruins Nation many times and we have no use for them or their coverage.

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