When Kevin Prince looks up this year, will he see an offensive line that can protect and receivers that can run crisp routes, get open, and hold on to the ball?
After the football program released the official tentative fall practice depth chart, we began a three part preview by discussing a special teams unit in flux. That was followed by an overview of a defensive unit going through leadership changes, both on and off the field, with changes to a more aggressive, attacking approach. Finally, we'll close out this three part fall football preview by taking a look at our constantly mercurial offense. Once again the Bruins will enter the fall with an injury-plagued offensive line, an unsettled quarterback battle, and a receiver corps with a lot of potential.
We all saw how that turned out last year: the offensive line fell apart and couldn't block anyone at times. Our QB play was inconsistent and no true leader emerged between Prince and Brehaut. Our supposed vaunted and deep receiver corps, made up of aerial threat Rosario, possession man Embree, speedster Carroll, and play-maker Smith was a major disappointment, running sloppy routes, dropping open passes, and being a model for inconsistency.
So, what makes anyone think that this year has potential to be different? Norm Chow is out and Mike Johnson is in. Reggie "Stone Hands" Moore is gone and Rick has brought in Jim Mastro to help implement pistol elements in the offense and better use our F-backs and tight ends. More importantly, Rick has the reins of the offense to himself.
Let's begin by talking about the personnel that Neuheisel will have at his disposal this season:
|WR (SE)||WR (FL)||TE|
|or||Josh Smith or|
|Jerry Rice, Jr.|
||Chris Ward||Mike Harris|
|Sam Saultz||Jay Barlow|
Not much has changed since spring camp, but let's talk about the changes on the offensive line and how this unit projects this upcoming season, after the jump.
On the offensive line, the major blow is losing starting left guard Jeff Baca to an ankle injury for an indefinite period. UCLA is hopeful that he'll return by the season opener, but with our luck, that is unlikely to happen. Once Baca does return, he'll be back to the starting line-up immediately. Baca's injury is compounded by the loss of Stan Hasiak (again). As a result, Sean Sheller has shifted back to LT, Baca was penciled in at LG, and Casey Griffiths, originally listed as Mike Harris' back-up at RT has been moved to LG, where he'll ostensibly be the favorite to fill in for Baca with Hasiak gone and his only competition being walk-on Sam Saultz.
What the depth chart doesn't take into account is the arrival of some key offensive line reinforcements, notably JC transfer Albert Cid, who the Bruins have to hope will be ready to step in and immediately contribute in the Ryan Taylor and Eddie Williams mold. In fact, given the lack of depth, Neuheisel may have to turn to talented incoming freshman linemen Jacob Brendel, Torian White, and Ben Wysocki to immediately contribute.
From the spring to now, nothing has changed for the frustratingly inconsistent UCLA receivers corps. For some reason, Rosario and Embree, despite doing little to nothing of note last season, are listed as the two starters. In the spring, Rosario has reportedly worked on making difficult catches in the air and Embree supposedly has worked on his hands. We'll see about that. One receiver who has shown remarkable improvement in terms of attitude, maturity, and preparation is speedster Randall Carroll. If Carroll can show consistency, the Bruins will finally have a true deep speedster threat. Now, if they can only find someone who can consistently throw the deep ball. Ricky Marvray should be able to build on what was a solid freshman campaign. Jerry Johnson, Notre Dame transfer Shaquelle Evans, return man Josh Smith, walk-on Jerry Rice, Jr., and incoming freshman David Lucien will round out the receiver corps.
Turning to the tight ends, things are more or less the same as they were during spring practice:
At the tight end spot, Cory Harkey held on to his starting job, on the strength of his blocking ability. If you've been watching UCLA football at all the last couple of years, you know Harkey doesn't have his job because of his hands. Since UCLA will need to generate a consistent running game, Harkey and his superior blocking ability have the edge over Joe Fauria. Behind both Fauria and Harkey is redshirt freshman John Young, who is supposed to be pushing to move up the depth chart.
The tight end corps will welcome Reeves Nelson's younger brother, Raymond Nelson to their ranks, but with Harkey, Fauria, and Young all in the mix, it would be a total shock for Raymond not to redshirt this season.
In the backfield, the Bruins are stacked with playmakers. At F-back, Jim Mastro will have two exciting options to work with: multi-tool athlete Anthony Barr and diminutive but speedy and shifty playmaker Damien Thigpen. Both guys showed some flashes of brilliance when they got the ball in space last year, but unfortunately under Chow, those flashes were few and far between as both guys struggled to get any action in Chow's offensive play-calling. With Mastro, that shouldn't be an issue any longer.
Barr and Thigpen are joined in the backfield by the most stacked position on the Bruins' offense, the running backs. Led by 1,100+ rusher, Walker and Maxwell Award watch list player Johnathan Franklin, the Bruins have a lot of options. Senior Derrick Coleman backs Franklin up, and as demonstrated against Texas, can provide back-breaking, bruising runs. Competing with Franklin and Coleman for carries will be the future runners for UCLA, Malcolm Jones, who came to UCLA with a lot of hype due to his talent, but had a disappointing and relatively ineffective freshman campaign, and Jordon James, who impressed on the scout team, and again during spring camp. James has absolute game-changing talent and is often compared to former Bruin tailback Maurice Jones-Drew for his ability to create big plays out of nothing. The biggest fear in this unit is that, due to depth and playing time issues, either Malcolm Jones or Jordon James will decide to transfer out, especially if Johnathan Franklin decides to return for his senior season.
Finally, it's time to discuss the biggest question mark for this football team. Kevin Prince? Richard Brehaut? Right now, officially it's dead even, although observers around the program have noted that Prince is the presumptive favorite to start the season opener, with Brehaut relegated to a back-up role this season. We don't often say things went right during the Karl Dorrell era, but when UCLA had both Drew Olson and Matt Moore on the roster, following Moore's injury against Colorado in 2003, the Bruins stuck with Olson and never looked back, with Moore transferring out, landing at Oregon State. Stability is something UCLA desperately needs at QB, and unless Prince suffers another season-ending type injury early, this season will once again feature a non-stop QB controversy. If Prince can stay healthy, he's shown he's the Bruin's best chance at signal caller. But, when has Prince (also known as the Glass Man) been able to survive a single season?
The new wrinkle this year is that Neuheisel has elite recruit Brett Hundley at his disposal and Hundley is ideally built for the offense that the Bruins run. Unfortunately for Rick, Brett tore his meniscus playing basketball during the summer and will be out for part of fall camp. Reportedly, Neuheisel was planning on using Hundley in certain formations and packages for a handful of plays per game, in the same way that Urban Meyer used Tim Tebow during his freshman year with Chris Leak at the helm. Obviously, no one is going to confuse Prince or Brehaut for Leak, a QB who led his team to a national title, but Rick knows he needs to win now, so if Hundley can get healthy, he'll play this season.
All-in-all, there are still major questions for this unit to address, but this season it will be entirely on Rick and new coordinator Mike Johnson. The funny thing is that, if those questions at QB and on the offensive line are answered (read: injury free and with stable, consistent play), the Bruins have a ton of playmakers in this unit. If Prince can stay healthy and lead his offense (and if Neuheisel and Johnson are a bit more aggressive and varied in their play-calling), the Bruin offense could surprise a lot of people this season.
It could also spectacularly fail. The difference between 8-4 and another 4-8 season lies in large part with this unit.
Let's just keep our fingers crossed.