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Saturday, March 26, 2011
UCLA spring football primer: The offense

By Peter Yoon

UCLA officially begins spring football practice Tuesday with an eye toward improving on a disappointing 4-8 season last year.

We'll break down the Bruins' depth charts and coaching staff over the next few days and take a look at the positions that are up for grabs and well as those that are solidified. Yesterday we went through the defense. Today, we look at the offense.

LAST YEAR

UCLA's switch to the Pistol had its moments, but created an unbalanced offense that had trouble throwing the ball as well as scoring. The Bruins finished 116th out of 119 Football Bowl Subdivision teams with 141.08 yards passing per game and were 104th in scoring at 20.17 points per game. The Bruins topped 200 yards passing only three times and scored more than three touchdowns only three times.

The Pistol dramatically improved the running game, which ranked No. 30 in the nation with 175.58 yards a game, though that number fell to 113.57 yards per game (which would have ranked 101st in the nation had it been the season average) over the last seven after teams began scheming against UCLA's run and forced them to try and pass.

THIS YEAR

Former San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Johnson steps in to replace Norm Chow, who left the Bruins for Utah. Johnson will also coach the receivers and coach Rick Neuheisel will take over for Chow as quarterbacks coach as the Bruins look to revamp their passing game.

Johnson spent two seasons with the 49ers, where he helped develop quarterback Alex Smith, was the receivers coach with the Baltimore Ravens in 2006 and '07, and was quarterbacks coach with the Atlanta Falcons from 2003-05, when he tutored Michael Vick.

Jim Mastro also joins the offensive braintrust this season as tight ends/F-backs coach and running game coordinator. Mastro comes from Nevada, where he helped develop the WolfPack's Pistol offense and he will be counted on to help fine-tune UCLA's use of a similar scheme.



QUARTERBACKS

Inconsistency at quarterback was the Bruins primary nemesis last season with starter Kevin Prince (6-2, 230) unable to fully practice in fall camp and then going out for the season just as it seemed he'd gotten the offense in gear. Richard Brehaut (6-2, 225) stepped in and was forced to learn on the job, but seemed to turn a corner and passed for 321 and 230 yards in the last two games.

Prince is still recovering from knee surgery and is unable to compete in spring practice, so that leaves Brehaut as the man to beat this spring. Third-string Nick Crissman (6-3, 226) will be limited as he recovers from a shoulder injury and fourth-string Darius Bell (5-11, 230) is out for the spring because of shoulder surgery.

That will give incoming freshman Brett Hundley (6-4, 225) plenty of opportunity to show what he can do. Hundley is a highly-touted quarterback out of Chandler, Ariz., who enrolled early so he could participate in spring practice. He's a dual-threat signal caller who passed for 2,348 yards and ran for 856 as a high school senior. The Bruins have high hopes for him and he will essentially slide to No. 2 on the depth chart this spring because of all the injuries, sand he's looking to compete for the starting job once fall rolls around.

RUNNING BACKS

The top seven rushers return for the Bruins, including leading rusher Johnathan Franklin (5-10, 198), who rushed for 1,127 yards and earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors. He had five 100-yard games last season and enters this spring as the No. 1 back. Derrick Coleman (6-0, 233) is a bruising backup who improved greatly as the season went on last year and finished with 487 yards, including a career-high 185 against Washington State.

Malcolm Jones (6-0, 227) played sparingly as a freshman last season, but showed the kind of tough running that made him the national player of the year as a senior in high school. Nagging injuries limited him some last season and a couple of early-season fumbles seemed to sap his confidence a bit, but he averaged 3.6 yards a carry for the season and had 52 yards in seven carries against Stanford. He may not be ready to supplant Franklin as the starter but could slide past Coleman on the depth chart by the end of spring.

Jordon James (5-11, 193) is a speedy back who couldn't sake the injury bug last fall and ended up redshirting. Once he got healthy, he really opened some eyes as a scout team player and won the team's outstanding offensive scout team player award. Look for him to get a lot of looks this spring and force himself into the rotation by fall.

RECEIVERS

A seemingly very talented unit that was hamstrung last season by the passing game woes, but everybody who had a reception last season returns except for Christian Ramirez.

Taylor Embree (6-3, 205) has led the team in receptions the last two years and is a good possession receiver who makes up for a lack of speed with good rout running and solid fundamentals. Nelson Rosario (6-5, 218) was second on the team with 29 receptions despite missing three games with an ankle injury and his size and leaping ability make him a difficult matchup. Those two enter the spring as the starters.

Ricky Marvray (5-11, 190) made a good impression as a freshman with his high motor, good leading ability and fearlessness. He had 20 catches and tied for the team lead with two touchdown receptions and enters the spring looking to crack the starting lineup. Randall Carroll (5-10, 186) emerged as the team's top big-play threat late last season with scoring plays of 68 and 46 yards. He had only two receptions for 13 yards through six games, but had 13 for 229 over the last six and figures to be much more involved this spring. Josh Smith (6-0, 229) also has big-play ability, demonstrated by his 49-yard touchdown reception against Arizona and a couple of nice runs on reverse plays. With a year of familiarity under his belt, he should be able to challenge for more playing time this spring.

Jerry Johnson (6-4, 213) was starting to develop into a reliable backup before his fractured his ankle last season. He will miss spring practice as he recovers from that injury. Notre Dame transfer Shaquelle Evans (6-1, 199) figures to make an impact this fall, but will be limited to non-contact drills for the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery last fall.

F-BACKS

With a new offensive coordinator coming in it's difficult to say how this group will be utilized next season but last season, the F-backs were sorely under used.

Anthony Barr (6-5, 238) is a fundamentally sound player with toughness, smarts and excellent size, but only got 15 touches all last season. Look for the coaching staff to find more ways to get him involved this spring. Morrell Presley 6-4, 245) is in a similar boat as Barr,boasting unquestionable physical talent but not getting used enough. Presley's confidence was shot by some early-season dropped passes and he'll use this spring to try and regain that confidence and recapture the abilities that made him a top recruit out of high school.

Damien Thigpen (5-8, 183) is among the fastest players on the team and his size makes him hard to find and tackle. He makes a good compliment to Barr and Presley as he changes the look and the pace at that position. Look for him to retain that changeup role out of spring.

TIGHT ENDS

Cory Harkey (6-5, 273) returns as the leading receiver at the tight end, but Joseph Fauria (6-7, 258) had a strong finish to the season with touchdowns in each of the last two games and the two will be battling all spring and fall for the starting spot. Harkey is the better blocker, but had issues with dropped passes last year. Fauria brings a huge height advantage that makes him a very difficult matchup, especially in short-yardage situations, but has trouble with run blocking.

John Young (6-4, 205) will return to the mix after sitting out last season because of injury and F-backs Presley and Barr could also get some time at tight end this spring as the coaches develop their offensive schemes.

OFFENSIVE LINE

This unit had the best offseason of any on the team and it had nothing to do with anything anyone did on the field or in the gym. Jeff Baca (6-4, 304) regained his academic eligibility and will resume his starting spot at left guard. Sean Sheller (6-5, 315) was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA and is slated to start once again at left tackle. Kai Maiava (6-1, 318) returned to health after breaking his ankle in the fall scrimmage last year and will return to anchor the line at center.

With 10-game starter Mike Harris (6-5, 334) also returning at right tackle, the Bruins figure to have the best, most experienced offensive line in Rick Neuheisel's tenure.

Chris Ward (6-5, 325) had an impressive freshman season last year and finished especially strong so he enters the spring as the starter at right guard and gives the Bruins a potential staring five who are all over 300 pounds.

Stan Hasiak (6-5, 301), a strong and feisty competitor, returns after missing much of the last two seasons with personal and academic issues. Look for him to make some noise at one of the guard spots this spring. Greg Capella (6-4, 310) got valuable experience as the backup center last season and hopes to use the spring to show his shotgun snapping woes are behind him. Connor Bradford (6-5, 278) returns to the offensive line after spending part of last season as a defensive lineman. He and Brett Downey (6-7, 305), one of the hardest workers on the team, will offer depth at tackles.

Youngsters Wade Yandall (6-4, 329) and Kody Innes (6-4, 285) sat out last season as redshirts, but will be looking to make an impact on the line this spring and should add some valuable depth. Casey Griffiths (6-5, 292) also sat out last season and will miss spring practice because of back issues.