Tuesday, August 5, 2008

2008 Preview: UCLA Bruins

Rebuilding... It's a term you'll hear a lot this season. After losing a bevy of seniors and most of the starters from last season, UCLA will be forced to play a lot of new faces this fall. Considering how average this team has been recently, that might not be a bad thing. With a new coaching staff, a new offensive scheme, and a new attitude, the 2008 season should be considered an opportunity to gain some experience for the future.


The Bruin offense has had its share of struggles the last few seasons. This year should be no different, with one big exception... the man calling the plays from the press box. Norm Chow takes over the reigns as offensive coordinator and a simpler, leaner, and more effective playbook is now in the hands of the players. We can't expect Chow to work miracles in his first season, but the play calling on game day should be markedly better.

Let's start with the bad news first. The offensive line is a patch work group with very little experience. Micah Kia and Micah Reed are the only returning starters from last season and Reed is a former walk-on moving from guard to center. With the loss of Sean Sheller during the off season to an ATV accident, this unit went from dangerously thin to running on rails. Mike Harris, Nate Chandler, and Nick Ekbatani will battle to replace Sheller wiht Ekbatani likely backing up a number of spots along the line. New coach Bob Palcic will also rely on defensive line convert Darius Savage and former tight end Scott Glicksberg to round out this unit.

It's not that the offensive line is without talent. Savage and Kia both have the potential to be NFL caliber lineman. Nate Chandler will be intriguing as a converted tight-end who has great athleticism. They just lack experience, in some situations size, and there is very, very little depth here. The Bruins absolutely can't afford any injuries during the season. If this squad can improve and gel as the year progresses, then they Bruins stand a chance of winning some games.

The QB situation went from bad to worse when Pat Cowan and Ben Olson suffered injuries during the spring. Pat is done for the year and Ben is slowly coming back from surgery on his right foot. Olson wasn't exactly known for his mobility before his injury and he could be in trouble this year with an offensive line that will likely force him to run often to avoid the pass rush. I've basically given up on Olson ever becoming a productive quarterback for the blue and gold. Too many injuries and too much time has passed since his stellar high school days.

Olson is tagged as the starter, for now, but how many of us think he'll make it through the whole season? That is why all eyes are on junior college transfer Kevin Craft. I don't think Craft will be the savior signal caller this team needs. Most reports are that his arm strength isn't that good. He had a so-so spring game. I don't think the Bruins are going to win a lot of games with Kevin at the helm, especially with a suspect offensive line. But given the alternatives, he might be our best bet. Forcier is way too raw. The incoming freshman are complete unknowns. Unless Olson does a complete 180 from his prior stints behind center, then the quarterback spot looks to be a liability again this season.

The running back position, on the other hand, looks intriguing. Some reports coming out of the summer 7-on-7 drills, state that Kalil Bell might be back with a vengeance this fall. I'm sure the status of his torn ACL will be a popular topic in the weeks leading up to the season, but if he is anywhere near 100% then the Bruins should have their starting tailback. Bell was poised to have a 1000 yard season in 2007 before going down with a knee injury. I think this could be his time to shine.

The full back spot should morph this season into a more versatile role. With Pitre not getting a 6th year of eligibility, the Bruins will turn to smaller, but more athletic, replacement. Chane Moline is being targeted as a hybrid back who can switch between full back and a short-yardage tailback specialist. Trevor Theriot is also back in the mix and he has good hands.

The other running backs are all fresh faces, but that's a good thing for the future of this team. With Christian Ramierez academically ineligible this season, that pretty much guarantees that Raymond Carter and Aundre Dean will be seeing some significant playing time. It's going to be hard for this group to gain many yards behind an inexperienced line, but the experience they gain will pay dividends down the road.

The Bruin receiving corp has been a much maligned group the last few seasons. It doesn't help that the quarterbacks have been terribly inconsistent, but this squad hasn't produced a real super star either. This year looks to be a good mix of experience and freshman talent. Dominique Johnson emerged as a reliable receiver at the end of the last campaign and he could become a go-to target in the red zone. Marcus Everett is back and he'll also be a constant, if not particularly flashy, contributer. Terrance Austin and Gaving Ketchum will add depth.

Some of the true freshman could jump right into the rotation as well. Antwon Moutra has already started generating a buzz during the summer. He has break away speed and at 6'3", he could be another J.J. Stokes. Nelson Rosario also draws favorable comparisons to Stokes and his massive wing span will scoop up any passes sent his way. It looks like this group has some big upside over the next few seasons.

The Tight End position was one of the few offensive units that had depth coming into the season. It's ranks were raided by the coaching staff when Chandler and Glicksberg were both moved to fill in gaps along the offensive line. However, he remaining players still form a very talented group. Ryan Moya is back in the lineup after missing last season due to injury and personal issues. Logan Paulsen will be the other big target and he's been named to the Makey award watch list. Freshman Corey Harkey will also see minutes this season. Expect Norm Chow to work the ends into the game plan more this season.


The Bruins have been a defensive team the last few seasons and that should continue under 3rd year coordinator Dewayne Walker. He'll have a lot of open positions to fill this season and expect coach Walker to utilize many of the incoming freshman, especially in the secondary. UCLA may not have the dominant defense it had the last two season, but they have the potential to be a very good squad.

The deepest and most talented unit on the team is the defensive tackle position. Brigham Harwell and Brian Price could be one of the best duos in the conference and possibly the country. Some of that depends on how well Harwell comes back from a season ending injury last year. When Harwell was healthy, he was considered one of UCLA's best tackles, at least until Brian price put on the blue and gold. Price was a freshman all American last season and he's NFL bound for sure. Jeff Ward, Jerzy Sierwierski, and Chase Moline add some quality depth and both have played some significant minutes over the last few years.

It will be hard for the Bruins to replace departed senior Bruce Davis. Tom Blake and Korey Bosworth both played opposite from Davis and they were reasonably productive. However, without Bruce receiving double teams, these two will have to prove that they can hold their own out on the field. There is not much depth here and the two incoming freshman, Dantone Jones and Damien Holmes, could make their way into the rotation this fall. UCLA will need an effective pass rush from the ends to help take the pressure off of a very young secondary.

With the departure of the senior backfield, the Bruins will see a lot of new faces taking up corner and safety positions this fall. Only Alteraun Verner returns with any significant experience. Michael Norris is taking up the other spot across from Verner but the perenial backup may not stay in the starting lineup long if he doesn't prove he can handle the pressure. Brett Lockett has been suspended for the season opener, so the strong safety spot could be up for grabs as well. Looking to take over some minutes is a host of young freshman. Red shirt freshman, Cortney Viney and Glen Love had strong springs. In coming freshman Rahim Moore will challenge for playing time as well. This group has big play potential but will likely get burned a few times as they cut their teeth adapting to the college game.

The final squad on defense is the linebackers, and this team will miss the steady pressence of senior capitan Christian Taylor. Reggie Carter takes over the reigns in the middle and he'll be asked to lead this team. Carter has shown great talent and athleticism, but it remains to be seen if he can handle the added responsibilities of a team leader. John Hale and Kyle Bosworth will man the outside and Josh Edwards will challenge for playing time after missing most of the spring and summer due to injury. This squad isn't very experienced but they have some talented depth with red shirt freshman Steve Sloan and Akeem Ayers.

Special Teams

The Bruins have excelled in recent years on special teams and this season should continue that tradition. Kai Forbath has a booming leg. As his accuracy and consistancy continue to improve he should become an All American before his days in Westwood are over. Aaron Perez is in his final season and he has seen a steady improvement in his punting each season. This duo should give UCLA a fighting chance in close games.

The kick-off and punt return units continue to be in flux every other year. In 2005 the Bruins relied on the amazing skills of Maurice Drew to bedazzle fans. In 2007, Matt Slater salvaged an otherwise disapointing season with his heroics. It doesn't look like anyone will be able to fill those shoes this season but Terrance Austin should continue as an inconsitant if not sometimes brilliant punt returner. The kick return role is completley up for grabs.

The Outlook

Overall the Bruins have an uphill battle going for them this season. Without a solid and reliable line, the offense will likely stall and sputter. You can count on Chow to use bootlegs, quick passes, and misdirection to try and minimize that weakness. If anyone can make this team look good, you know Chow and Neuheisel can.

Even with a suspect line, the Bruins can still excell. Last year, Arizona State had statistically one of the worst lines in the conference yet they captured a PAC-10 co-championship. Of course, the Sun Devils had Rudy Carpenter and UCLA... well UCLA doesn't. If the skill positions can make some progress, especially at quarterback, then the Bruins have a fighting chance in many of their games.

The defense should be good, but likely not great. The run defense in particular should be very strong with the trinity of Price, Harwell, and Carter in the middle. Inexperience on the sides and secondary will probably cost UCLA some points against the better passing teams on the schedule. But if the offense can take a few steps forward this season then the defense can likely steal a game or two away.

It won't be a hallmark season and the Bruins will be lucky to make it back to a bowl game this season. But progress isn't always measured in wins and loses. If this team can improve each week and add some much needed experience to it's young and talented roster then this season can be viewed as a step in the right direction.

In my next post, I'll break down the schedule and make my predictions for the 2008 season.

No comments: