Fall Practice finally begins, and it follows that it would be the final Fall at UCLA for a crestfallen Neuheisel if he can’t lead the Bruins past the pitfalls that have befallen them for the past three Falls (Did you follow that?)

The following is not hard to follow, but it may be hard to swallow, especially for Neuheisel’s followers:  This Season could be Rick’s Last Hurrah.  The effervescent, omni-positive Head Coach of the UCLA Bruins has drained his supporters’ passion buckets, and is now living on borrowed time — But guys like Rick THRIVE on this kind of pressure, and often come up with their best efforts when all the chips are down.

As a Bruin QB, he shined brightest in his biggest game:  A classic and unforgettable Rose Bowl triumph.  And now, as a Bruin Coach with his back to the wall, his sense of urgency has been disseminated to his team, who is now preparing to save their Coach’s job.

Fall Practice started today at Spaulding Field in Westwood, and every single player on the team understands what’s at stake: The Man who recruited them is fighting for his life, and they are not going to let him get buried.  Heaven Can Wait, and so can Rainier Beach High School, or wherever Neuheisel might have volunteered his services if he was no longer employed by UCLA.

Sometimes players need to mature to reach their potential, and sometimes they need extra motivation.  This year, the Bruin players are older and more experienced as a group, and they have the ultimate motivation, of saving their fearless Leader’s career.

As today (Monday, 8/8) was the FIRST practice of the Fall, not too much can be gleaned from the performance.  Obviously, the QB’s and Receivers do not have their timing perfected, and since no pads are being donned yet, the Defense is not hitting yet.  Of course, over the last several years, the lack of hitting has not always kept the Bruins from suffering injuries.  But today, the only limping was due to one player suffering leg cramps, and he was fine before the session ended.  SO… that makes Day 1 a raving success in my book.  No stretchers?  No problem!

The Bruins have new Coordinators this Season, but I wouldn’t say that the practices are vastly different from previous years.  You will hear all the same rhetoric about how this year is going to be different, and how these Coordinators are motivating better, and pushing harder.  But with only 1 practice in the can, I think it’s okay to be skeptical.  Basically, it’s just too early to tell if anything has changed.

According to some insiders, the Bruin staff will be giving more opportunities to the reserves this year in practice.  Everyone will get a chance to perform and earn more playing time.  This will inspire the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th stringers, and will also have the 1st stringers going “all out,” all the time, knowing that they have capable players breathing down their necks.  This more competitive environment should improve the depth of the team, as back-ups will be more seasoned as the Season arrives and wears on.

The new Coaches may be a little more “hands on” and a little more directly vocal, and may possibly be developing a better rapport with the kids, becoming known more as “Players’ Coaches,” compared to their predecessors… according to the players themselves.  That’s great, and should lead only to more productivity, but that didn’t make the Day 1 Offense click any more than in previous years.  Too many passes still hit Blue (Defensive) jerseys, or just missed the targets.  But like I said, on Day 1, you would be foolish to expect the timing of the passing game to be stellar.  The good news is that Kevin Prince was NOT favoring his recuperated knee, and looked as mobile as he will need to be.

And on Day 1, you shouldn’t read anything into the play selection.  But if you want to do so anyway, then you would possibly be thinking that the Bruins are going to throw a lot of QUICK passes, with one-step drops.  After seeing the Offensive Lines of the past few years struggle to provide ample time to the QB’s, the Coaching Staff has devised plays for the QB’s to get rid of the ball as soon as possible, often on “long” passes — to the sidelines.  I said “long,” not “deep.”  Some passes travelled 30 yards in the air, but were being caught right near the line of scrimmage, by Receivers and by Running Backs.  They were designed and executed so that the Backs could get some good forward momentum as they turned the corner and caught the balls.  Jordon James especially was able to hit the afterburners and blow through the defenders with the ball.

James may have been the flashiest guy on the field, which would explain why he was added to the short list of Punt Returners.  Unfortunately, he misjudged and dropped the two punts that I saw come his way.  I’m sure he’ll improve with more practice, at which point he just might challenge Josh Smith, Taylor Embree, and Ricky Marvray for those duties.  If not, it will be even that much more imperative for Neuheisel to get him on the field as a Running Back, running Swing patterns where he can open it up in the open field.

The problem with that plan is that James will have to find time behind Jonathan Franklin, Derrick Coleman, and Malcolm Jones, who are all worthy of getting plenty of opportunities themselves.

The Bruins didn’t try too much “long ball” today, but when they DID take shots downfield, it was often to Tight End Joe Fauria.  It looks like they are going to try to take advantage of Fauria’s height advantage, which he will have over every defender he faces.

To repeat:  Despite some of these generaliztions I’m making and conclusions I’m drawing, it is IGNORANT to make any assumptions based on one day of practice.  It’s not like they were showing us their entire playbook;  They were just working on a select few items, and it doesn’t mean that those will be the staples of the attack during the season.  Tomorrow they might try completely different things… with entirely different players.  The good thing is that they have LOTS OF WEAPONS for opponents to worry about, and no team will succeed by just keying on one facet or one weapon of the Bruin Offense, which will definitely be more imaginative than last year (how could it NOT be?!).

One thing’s for sure:  As far as Neuheisel is concerned, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.  He’s going to have to EARN it this year.  But for ME, there IS such a thing as a free lunch, courtesy of a VERY COOL Bruin fan.  After thoroughly enjoying the company and insight of the Father of Alex Mascarenas (the Bruins’ new HOLDER for kicks AND back-up to Tony Dye at Safety), I met a Bruin Zone regular who conversed Bruin Sports with me for the rest of the afternoon and evening.  On BruinZone he is known as ROCBruin, and now, he’ll be known to me as a Bruin friend.  This soft-spoken gentleman has class, manners, and a POSITIVE attitude towards UCLA Athletics.  I agreed with all of his comments, including his take on UCLA Basketball’s recent problem child (who should be someone ELSE’s problem now, barring a remarkable, heretofore unknown explanation).  Anyway, I guess he was enjoying my company too, because he offered to buy me dinner after the practice, as we waited for the Freeway traffic to subside.  So we walked over to Panda Express, where we did NOT see Norm Chow, but we did dine among several Bruin football players.  All in all, I had a great time with a quality human being, who is a TRUE Bruin.  Thanks, ROC!!

And now, 22 photos from today’s initial practice of the Fall…


One response to “FALL O’ THE LEADER”

  1. UCLADal Avatar

    Great article as usual T-H! Here’s to some good times this season… they’ve been few and far between over the years and we’re due.