UCLA's Harwell only optimistic with Tennessee in town

August, 31, 2008
8/31/08
6:37
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

PASADENA, Calif. -- Hopeless? Beaten down? Overmatched? Don't tell UCLA defensive tackle Brigham Harwell about lost causes. He doesn't believe in them. He'll probably know better than anyone else on the field Monday when Tennessee visits the Rose Bowl that there's always hope for those who refuse to surrender.

Harwell, as detailed in this 2004 LA Daily News story, spent time homeless and living in a car with his mother and two youngest brothers growing up. He also lived in foster homes, separated from his siblings, while his mother struggled with personal issues.

Yet he still found his way to UCLA, became a standout defensive lineman, a good student and an NFL prospect.

Then he blew out his knee two games into the 2007 season.

Did he shake his fist at the heavens and wonder why, after all he'd been through, his life had taken another downturn due to no fault of his own?

No way. If there's a UCLA player who can match new coach Rick Neuheisel's philosophy of relentless optimism, it's Harwell.

He busted his rear rehabilitating his leg and then applied for a medical hardship waiver. He arrived in camp in the best shape of his life, a chiseled 290 pounds.

Now, he will team with sophomore Brian Price to make one of the Pac-10's most formidable DT combos.

So if you think Harwell is buying into the doom-and-gloom scenarios that project a blowout loss to the 18th-ranked Volunteers being merely prelude to a lost season for a program that has precipitously slipped in the national esteem, well, Harwell will politely announce that you're cracked.

Sure, he's just happy to be here. But that doesn't mean he's satisfied.

"Before camp started, I talked to the whole defense," Harwell said. "I told them how last year went for me and how one play could take the season away from you. I constantly remind them how grateful we should be to play college football."

The general theory -- and little controverted it during preseason practices -- is that UCLA's offense will struggle terribly with an inexperienced, patchwork offensive line protecting quarterback Kevin Craft, a JC transfer whose elevation to the first team was precipitated by injuries to experienced veterans Patrick Cowan and Ben Olson.

That means if the Bruins are going to win games, they are going to have to do so with the defense and superior special teams keeping things close.

Even Neuheisel, commencing his own comeback from a dark time in college coaching purgatory, admits subscribing to this notion.

"We've got a great punter [Aaron Perez]," he said. "If we don't make it on third down, we don't make it. We've got to keep from turning the ball over and keep from having the big negative plays that affect field position... We feel like we're stout enough up front that we can play a field position game and give our offense some chances with [shorter] fields."

Tennessee might not cooperate. It features, perhaps, the SEC's best offensive line, with four starters back -- 62 combined starts -- who gave up an NCAA record four sacks in 2007.

"We noticed that," Harwell said of the sack total. "It's going to be a challenge for us to get to the quarterback. It's going to be a great challenge for us to hold them down and contain them but I think we have the defense to do it."

If the Bruins can thwart Arian Foster and the Vols' running game, that could put pressure on new starting quarterback, junior Jonathan Crompton. A few mistakes here and there and things could get interesting.

Of course, the Bruins are going to have to eventually figure out how to score with four new starters on a line that couldn't block Harwell and his fellow defenders over the past few weeks.

No worries, Harwell said.

"Our offense is going to be just fine," he said. "[Offensive coordinator] Norm Chow does a lot of great things. I've heard people say defense will have to carry this team. I don't feel that we have to carry this team. I have confidence in the O-linemen, and not just because they are my teammates. I know how hard they worked this offseason and how hard they worked in practices. I believe in them."

Belief doesn't typify much of the UCLA fan base, which was apparently unmoved by a Los Angeles Times advertisement that proclaimed in block letters, "The football monopoly in Los Angeles is officially over" over a picture of a pointing Neuheisel. Only 65,000 fans are expected Monday in the Rose Bowl (capacity 91,500).

So if Harwell and Neuheisel, who fought hard to get back to challenges just like this one, sound a bit like candidates during this election season, that's because they are unabashed purveyors of Bruins hope.

"We want to impress our constituency so they know this program is on the rise," Neuheisel said.

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