13The College Football Zealots web site has posed 6 questions about the upcoming UCLA Football season, and here are my answers, which will be published on that site for a National audience to get a preview of the 2011 Bruins
1. UCLA had a rough time offensively last year as they finished 9th in the conference in points scored. What has been done this off-season to address this opportunity?
Easy question to answer. They fired Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow. Whether it was a decimated Offensive line, QB injuries, and a lack of talent at the skill positions, OR, bad schemes, Chow’s Offense was a disaster throughout his tenure in Westwood. His Offensive squads were SO bad that he was actually accused of being a Trojan plant. Nothing that his units showed at UCLA was even remotely reminiscent of his glory days at USC.
Chow has been replaced by former San Francisco 49er O.C. Mike Johnson, who is unproven, but has nowhere to go but up for the Bruins. Johnson will have the luxury of older, more mature players, an undoubtedly healthier and deeper Offensive Line, and three potential options at QB.
2. Last year, UCLA gave up an average of 205 ypg on the ground. Who needs to step up this year in order to help UCLA plug up its opponents on the ground?
Last season’s struggles were due to injuries — especially a major one suffered by Defensive End Datone Jones – and subpar performances from stars Akeem Ayers and Rahim Moore. Also, the Bruins had to rely on some Freshmen. Two of those Freshmen — LB Jordan Zumwalt and DT Cassius Marsh — did well, but they were still Freshmen. This year, Zumwalt and Marsh will be impact players. So will the returning Jones, as well as Patrick Larimore, a Linebacker who is also returning from injury. Weakside Linebacker Sean Westgate, although undersized, has a nose for the ball and will be one of the team’s leading tacklers. And the actual leading tackler will probably be Strong Safety Tony Dye, who was much improved last season, and will be the most reliable player in terms of stopping runs from becoming really big plays. And there is one other important factor: This year the Bruins welcome a brand new Defensive Coordinator, Joe Tresey, whose previous squads have put up impressive, Nationally-ranked statistics. A more risk-taking, attacking scheme should translate into better performance against the Run (as well as against the pass).
3. Who are some newcomers or under the radar players that you think will contribute this year (other than QB)?
Running Back Jordon James, a Redshirt Freshman, has already been bumped up the depth chart to sharing 2nd String, after an impressive Spring Practice Session. His shifty moves allowed him to consistently get past the Defensive Line and find daylight. Another player listed at 2nd String but poised for a breakout year is Joseph Fauria at Tight End. Fauria has the physique, hands, work ethic, and leadership abilities to be a game-changer this year, especially if his High School QB Kevin Prince earns the starting spot behind Center.
On Defense, Free Safety Dietrich Riley will ring some bells this year. Riley is a hard-hitting Sophomore that seems to have a good feel for the game. His back-up, Dalton Hilliard, is coming off an injury but should see plenty of action, and could create some Turnovers. Another 2nd-stringer, Defensive End Owamagbe Odighizuwa, has great range and is able to chase down ballcarriers, so his name will be called often… but the announcers will just call him “Owa.” Finally, Linebacker Eric Kendricks had a productive Spring, and has earned substantial playing time, maybe even a shot at a starting role.
4. The QB position seems like it is a huge question mark this year for the Bruins. Who are the contenders to win this job and who would you like to see under center in game one?
There are three possibilities for Quarterback this season. Kevin Prince is coming off knee surgery, but if he is healthy enough to play at 100%, he will have a good shot at starting. Prince’s detractors say he is simply too injury-prone to last a full season as a starter, and so far, history backs them up. He has been sidelined a few times already in his first two years, sometimes a victim of his own courageous confidence. He has yet to show the maturity to protect himself when necessary. Detractors will also state that his arm is not strong enough or accurate enough to warrant a starting gig. But with more experience now under his belt and a more solid O-Line in front of him, he should be more relaxed in the pocket, and able to justify the confidence that Chow and Rick Neuheisel have had in him for the last two years. The two things about Prince that no one doubts are his mental toughness and his ability to RUN the ball. UCLA will still retain aspects of its Pistol Formation Offense, which looked at its best last year when Prince proved to be a legitimate threat to run the ball upfield.
Prince’s main competition will be fellow Junior Richard Brehaut. Brehaut was behind Prince on the Depth Chart last year due to being less able to run the ball, and also due to a weaker grasp of the Playbook. His decision-making was routinely questioned by his Coaches, but seemed to get better as he got more and more reps. He provided a couple of big-yardage passing games, and showed that he wasn’t incapable of throwing deep and connecting. Many people think that Brehaut has a superior arm to Prince and that once he masters the Offense, he should be the starter. However, the Arm Race might be too close to call, so the Leg Difference and the Mental advantage should keep Prince in the lead… barring another injury.
The third option at QB is highly-regarded incoming Freshman Brett Hundley. If the Bruins want to be a predominantly Pistol Formation Offense, Hundley may end up being their best bet. He looked like Michael Vick in Spring, easily avoiding the rush and consistently sprinting for big gains. However, his knowledge of the system isn’t close to what Neuheisel requires, and his arm was not as effective, so it looks like Hundley will have to be patient before getting his opportunity. Nonetheless, he is the FUTURE for the Bruins, and that future looks bright.
5. Rick Neuheisel has one of the hottest seats in America among college coaches. What does he need to do this year to get off the “Hot Seat” list?
Several things. First of all, he needs to avoid any embarrassments, on or off the field. Any type of NCAA violations, or more players getting caught smoking pot, and he is probably doomed, barring a BCS Bowl appearance (which is ridiculously unlikely). And even if he wins more than he loses, if those losses are blowouts, especially to USC, he probably will be gone. With both his Coordinators replaced, he will have no one to blame, and the Injury Card has been played too often (even if valid), so he will have to win at least 8 games this year to keep the wolves at bay. Of course, a win over Southern Cal, or a Bowl win against a name school could grant him another year, even if he wins only 7 total.
Unfortunately, a tough schedule, along with new Coaching chemistry and installing new systems on both sides of the ball will probably NOT allow this to happen. It is possible that this new set of excuses will allow him to keep his job, but the natives are very restless, so I doubt that they will.
6. What is your gut feeling on the final record for the 2011 season and what makes the season successful in your eyes?
Final record: 5-7; 5-1 at Home, but 0-6 on the Road, with no Bowl. The Bruins have not been exactly what you would call Road Warriors during Neuheisel’s tenure. This more experienced group could change that, but I’ll believe it when I see it. To be qualified as a “success,” they would have to win 7 regular season games, INCLUDING a win at USC. If they lose to the RIVAL Trojans, they would have to win 10 other games including a Bowl, in order for me to reluctantly call it a good year.
[The following photos are being stored here solely for use on the bruinzone.com Football Forum Countdown to the 2011 UCLA Football Season]