At the conclusion to last year's debacle against Lame Kiffin and the Southern Cal Cheaters, BlueReign wrote up an absolute "To Do List" for Neuheisel for the following season. In short, his list is absolutely spot on. There are five major areas Rick must succeed at or show significant improvement from the last three seasons to get a passing grade for this season. As BlueReign broke those down, they are:
- UCLA football's identity
- An improved offense with fresh blood at offensive coordinator
- A staff of coaches that can get the job done, recruit well, and inspire confidence in the fan base
- The development and progression of the talent on the roster rather than the stagnation we've seen (such as in the WR corps), and;
- Stability and intelligent play at the QB position
I think everyone can agree that last year was a major disappointment. For me, this season is either put-up or shut-up: if Rick can't get it done this year, as much as I want Rick to stay in Westwood and succeed, it's time we start looking for another head coach.
Or, as BlueReign put it at the end of last season:
[Neuheisel] has [one] more year to fix things. We’ve all been pointing to 2011 as the year we break through. I don’t want to hear anymore excuses or rah-rah stuff. Get it done. If [Neuheisel] doesn’t deliver, it’s time for a new [head coach].
Spot on. Now that spring practice is over, now is a good time to check-in on the program and see how Rick has done on this list of things that he must do to keep his job in Westwood.
Let's break each one down after the jump.1. UCLA's Football Identity - Grade: Incomplete
One of the biggest problems surrounding UCLA football is our lack of identity as a program. Well, that's not entirely accurate: we're seen as a bunch of soft, West Coast, pot-smoking laid-back hippie chumps who don't like to hit hard, don't want to get dirty, and aren't willing to play tough, smash-mouth "reach down and find a pair" football for the full 60 minutes. That has to change. Only when we start playing football like men will we get any respect from the rest of the college football universe, and as long as we're seen as a teddy-bear soft program, we're always going to be second-fiddle in recruiting.
Unfortunately, our identity issues aren't even limited to a general concept: we have no identity on either side of the ball. On offense, we tried the West Coast offense under Karl, which failed, we then tried Chow's stock offense, which also failed, then we went to Nevada's Pistol offense, which failed (absent the rushing game). Typically, keeping other team's guessing as to what you'll do on offense is a good thing; it's not such a good thing when you're keeping yourself guessing as well. On defense, our identity was "bend a lot, break sometimes, but pretend you're bend-but-don't-break" under Chuck "Base D" Bullough. There's more than enough posts on our defensive failures that I don't need to re-hash them here. Suffice to say, it's been pathetic.
All that being said, it's still too early to say whether Neuheisel has made any progress on this front. With only spring practice behind us, we still don't know if this team will show up to every game, play tough, hit hard, play smart football, maintain discipline on both sides of the ball, and show the fire and passion to win.
2. Improved Offense with Fresh Ideas - Grade: B
So far Rick gets a decent grade. Yes, Norm Chow was a legend, but for whatever reason Norm just was not working out in Westwood. Whether the game has passed him by at this stage of his career, he needs more elite talent to make his system work, or he was just apathetic working for Rick, the Chow era was a failure. Realizing that the F-back was extremely neglected last season, Rick brought in Jim Mastro from Nevada to specifically coach that position, which should hopefully lead to an increased role and productivity for super-talented (if we can get him the ball) sophomore Anthony Barr. With anemic being a generous description of last year's passing attack, Rick brought in Mike Johnson, an offensive coordinator with NFL experience running a passing offensive attack, who will also focus on developing our WR corps, a group of players who have been totally stagnant the last few seasons.
Most importantly, the early indicators is that our offense has a much more aggressive philosophy than in year's past. It was no secret that the last few seasons were marked by a soft, pathetic, conservative offensive philosophy. As we've noted before, Mike Johnson is bringing in a more aggressive, attacking philosophy, which has the players excited. However, despite the excitement, it still appears that executing that aggressive, attacking philosophy is still a problem, as Patroclus noted following the spring scrimmage. At least the mindset is finally there. For that, Rick gets a solid, but not spectacular B.
3. Improved Coaching Staff Able to Win, Recruit, and Inspire Confidence - Grade: C+
This off-season saw some major changes to the UCLA coaching staff. Obviously, Mike Johnson is Norm Chow's replacement at the offensive coordinator spot. The big move, albeit it one that dragged out in dramatic (and frustrating) fashion, was Joe Tresey replacing Chuck Bullough. Sure, Neuheisel and the lackeys at Morgan Center tried to sneak Seto by us, but in the end, we got a coordinator with a reputation of attacking, hard hitting defenses. In addition, Inoke Breckterfield (defensive line) and Jim Mastro (F-backs and tight ends) have also joined the program. All of these moves are solid and bring in fresh perspective into the coaching staff. Breckterfield has, thus far, been a relentless recruiter for the Bruins (a major plus, especially with Polynesian football players). That being said, we don't know yet if Johnson can call an offense that will actually put points on the board and/or if Tresey can call a defense that plays hard, plays disciplined, and keeps us in the game. Breckterfield's recruiting ability is a plus. On the flip side, Rick tried to hire complete failure candidate Rocky Seto and the process for replacing Bullough was a long, painful, unnecessarily dramatic search. We'll see how they do this year, but even considering Seto makes me question Rick's judgment, a bit. We'll see how it shapes up: for now, a C+ is all Rick gets here. He's on the right track, but we'll need to see a lot more of the same.
4. Player Development and Coaching Talent Improvement - Grade: Incomplete
One of the keys to watch as the season progresses is whether the players are getting better. As we've seen in the past and often noted here at BN, talent development has been minimal under Neuheisel's reign. The most glaring example is at WR, where we've seen promising talent (Carroll, Smith, Rosario, Embree) stagnant. In fact, in some cases (Embree), the talent has regressed. That has to stop. Bringing in 4 and 5 star recruits doesn't mean anything if they stay at the same development level their junior or senior year as they were when they arrived on campus.
In fact, only one position has seen players come into the program and develop into better players: the offensive line. Ryan Taylor developed nicely during his relatively short stay in Westwood. Jeff Baca and Chris Ward have both come along nicely. So far, it appears that only Bob Palcic knows how to take young men and improve their skill level. This year we'll see if Mike Johnson, Jim Mastro, Inoke Breckterfield, and Jim Tresey can develop our talent. The WR corps will be key: by the end of the season, players should be dropping the ball less, running crisp routes, and make a play with the ball in space (esp. Carroll). It's still early and the team is getting adjusted to our new offensive and defensive schemes, so for now, Rick gets an incomplete.
5. Stability and Intelligent Play at Quarterback - Grade: D-
This might be the most important key and one that Rick is doing the worst in. What our offense needs to maintain any kind of rhythm and remain effective is stability and intelligent play at QB. We don't need the second coming of Troy Aikman, Gary Beban, or Cade. We need someone who can go out every week, play smart, play within the offense, minimize interceptions, and have the ability to throw the deep ball every so often to stretch the defense. Kevin Prince showed some of that ability as a redshirt freshman, before injury after injury set his UCLA career off the rails. Richard Brehaut has, at times, shown the same ability. The problem is that with Prince being injury-prone, UCLA has gone back-and-forth between the two, destroying any sense of continuity at QB.
Rick needs to pick one QB, one that will stay healthy and can stay at the helm the entire season. Is Kevin Prince the best QB on the roster, right now? Probably. Is he the answer? Probably not. The smart move would be to spend fall camp developing Brehaut and grooming him as the starter. He has the ability and, unlike Kevin, has shown the uncanny knack for being able to finish a game without landing on the trainer's table. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate Kevin sacrificing his body for UCLA and I think that makes him a great Bruin and he deserves all of our praise and appreciation. That being said, he's a kid who has been injury-prone, ever since his senior year in high school.
Another quick note for the fanboys: Brett Hundley is not the answer this year. He's a freshman who is still getting used to the speed of the college game. He's shown the talent and the ability that will one day lead him to be UCLA's starting QB during spring camp, but that day isn't this season. With Crissman emerging as a viable third option back-up, Rick needs to redshirt Hundley, start Brehaut, and use Prince and Crissman as his back-ups.
That being said, Rick has instead decided to say the QB competition is wide open and that Prince is will be tough to beat once healthy. Maybe he's trying to light a fire under Brehaut, but so far, all he's done is put our QB situation in doubt and without any stability at QB, this Bruin offense will go nowhere this season. We'll see how it goes early in the season, but for now, Rick gets a D-.
With that, fire away with your thoughts.