Join the conversation: CFB Saturday Live

NCF Nation: Logan Paulsen

Pac-10 spring breakout players

February, 11, 2010
2/11/10
11:10
AM ET
Who will breakout and make a move toward stardom this season?

Most of these guys aren't "new," but they could make the next step up in their careers this spring.

Arizona
Juron Criner, WR, Jr
: Criner (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) is already a familiar name to Wildcats fans. Heck, he led the team with nine touchdown receptions in 2009. The reason he makes this list is this: It would be a surprise if he's not first-team All-Pac-10 at season's end.

Arizona State
Aaron Pflugrad, WR, Jr
: Hmm. Name seems familiar? Pflugrad is a transfer from Oregon, who left the Ducks after his father, Robin, was fired as receivers coach. He was expected to start for the Ducks in 2009, and he should be in the same position with the Sun Devils, who need help at receiver.

California
Ernest Owusu, DE, Jr
: Owusu looked like a budding star early last season when he recorded two sacks and three tackles for a loss against Maryland, but that was about it for his production in 2009. Still, he combines good intelligence and speed with special power -- he's the Bears' strongest player -- and that could all come together as he fights to break into the starting lineup.

Oregon
Diante Jackson, WR, RFr
: Many thought Jackson would offer immediate help to the Ducks' receiving corps as a true freshman, but, instead, he was a scout team star last year. The Ducks are looking for a dynamic, play-making presence at wideout and Jackson might be the guy.

Oregon State
The Unga brothers
: The Beavers lost Keaton Kristick to graduation and Keith Pankey may miss 2010 with an Achilles injury, so there are opportunities at linebacker. These twin brothers -- Kevin "Feti" Unga and Devin "Uani" Unga -- could fight their way into the mix.

Stanford
Shayne Skov, LB, So
: Skov started seven games last year as a true freshman and ended up third on the Cardinal with 62 tackles. The early returns are Skov will be first-team All-Pac-10 before he's done.

UCLA
Cory Harkey, TE, Jr
: With the departure of Logan Paulsen and Ryan Moya, Harkey will finally get his chance to take center stage. He caught eight passes for 41 yards and a touchdown in 2009. His production will be many times that in 2010.

USC
T.J. McDonald, S, So
: First off, the son of former USC legend Tim McDonald is listed at 205 pounds. Really? He looks bigger -- in a good way. And he's a hitter. He had seven tackles as a backup to strong safety Will Harris last year, but he could play either free or strong.

Washington
Talia Crichton, DE, So
: Crichton was forced into action last year as a true freshman -- he started four games -- because the Huskies lacked depth on the defensive line. With the departure of both starting ends -- and the questionable status of Kalani Aldrich's knee -- Crichton is almost certain to ascend to a first-team spot. Here's a guess he's better prepared in 2010.

Washington State
Travis Long, DE, So
: Back in the Cougars' glory days -- folks, it wasn't really that long ago, either -- they always had ends who were disruptive. Long led the Cougars with 6.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks as a true freshman in 2009. Those numbers will more than double in 2010.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

What's our preseason projection for the Pac-10? Probably not many shocks here. This mirrors my vote in the Pac-10 media poll.

1. USC: The Trojans are No. 1 until somebody knocks them off the mountain. With nine starters back on offense, including what might be the nation's best offensive line, there will be plenty of help for the new quarterback. And do you really think USC's defense won't be elite again in 2009? Come on.

2. California: The Bears have 17 starters back from a team that went 9-4 in 2009, including a Heisman Trophy candidate in running back Jahvid Best. The secondary will be one of the nation's best and the defensive line is as good as any in the Pac-10. Replacing three of four linebackers doesn't seem to be causing much stress in Berkeley. The only issue is how much the passing game improves. If it improves significantly, this is a potential BCS bowl team.

3. Oregon: Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and running back LeGarrette Blount give the Ducks a strong one-two punch on offense and an athletic corps of linebackers and cornerback Walter Thurmond and end Will Tukuafu will lead the defense. Both lines are questions that, if answered, could push the Ducks to the top of the conference.

4. Oregon State: Rebuild or reload? The Beavers have transitioned to the latter category, which is why most are overlooking a defense that needs to replace eight starters, including the entire secondary, and an offensive line that must replace three first-rate starters. There are two veteran quarterbacks in Lyle Moevao and Sean Canfield and the explosive Rodgers brothers -- James and Jacquizz -- leading the offense, while tackle Stephen Paea and linebacker Keaton Kristick lead the defense.

5. Arizona: Losing three offensive mainstays -- quarterback Willie Tuitama, receiver Mike Thomas and tackle Eben Britton --- hurts, but the Wildcats should be even better on defense in 2009, and the general feeling is the offense will be solid whether Matt Scott or Nick Foles wins the job. For one, tight end Rob Gronkowski is the best target in the Pac-10.

6. Stanford: The Cardinal have lots of guys back -- 17 -- from a team that fell just short of bowl eligibility in 2008. They also have seven home games after playing just five a year ago. The key is passing -- on offense and defense. Redshirt freshman Andrew Luck is supposed to be the answer for the offense, while an injection of young talent should improve the athleticism in the secondary.

7. UCLA: The Bruins have two big questions: quarterback and offensive line. The defense should be good, led by tackle Brian Price, linebacker Reggie Carter and cornerback Alterraun Verner -- all three are All-American candidates -- but it won't matter if the running game remains anemic. One big reasons for optimism: five offensive players are again available who would have started last year but were out for various reasons back: running back Christian Ramirez, tight end Logan Paulsen, center Kai Maiava, fullback Trevor Theriot and tackle Sean Sheller.

8. Arizona State: Not unlike UCLA, Arizona State has questions at quarterback and on the offensive line while the defense looks solid. Senior Danny Sullivan played well in the spring and looks to be the favorite at quarterback, while new faces could key dramatic improvement on the offensive line. If things fall into place, the Sun Devils could win eight or nine games, but it's hard to project that until the offensive line proves itself.

9. Washington: The good news is the Huskies could be the most-improved team in the conference. Of course, it's hard to regress from an 0-12 season. Moreover, Washington could play much better and still have little to show for it because the nonconfernce schedule features LSU and Notre Dame. Still, the return of 18 starters, as well as quarterback Jake Locker and linebacker E.J. Savannah, suggests the Huskies won't be anyone's patsy this fall.

10. Washington State: The biggest hope for the Cougars lies in a potentially improved running game that could keep a defense that is thin on talent on all three levels off the field. That didn't happen last year -- see an offense that ranked 118th in the country that surrendered 38 turnovers, tied for most in the nation. But there's experience on the offensive line and James Montgomery and Dwight Tardy give the Cougars a pair of solid backs. If either Marshall Lobbestael or Kevin Lopina provides adequate quarterback play, Washington State might surprise some folks.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Results of the annual Pac-10 media poll will be announced on July 30, but here's a guess at how most ballots will look:

1. USC; 2. California; 3. Oregon; 4. Oregon State... 9. Washington; 10. Washington State

And from five to eight all heck breaks loose.

Now, some -- such as Phil Steele -- think Oregon will tumble. Some have issues with Oregon State. And some think Washington will be a surprise team.

But a plurality figures to vote these six teams as they appear above and then throw the other four into the air and leave it to the college football spirits to decide.

So where do you rank Arizona, Arizona State, Stanford and UCLA?

I wouldn't be completely shocked if any of those four actually broke into the top four. I also wouldn't be astonished if any finished ninth.

I think I've written at various times that all four should end up bowl-eligible, even though eight conference teams with a .500 record or better is difficult to pencil out. (It did, however, happen in 2006 -- and Washington even finished 5-7).

I changed my own 5-8 a number of times. I won't tell you how I voted yet. My boss threatened to tear off my arm and beat me with it if I did. He's done it before so I believed him.

Why the difficulty?

For one, each of the Unfixed Four will break in a new quarterback, though Stanford and UCLA both have their starters back from 2008.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

If you just want to cut to the chase, he's the best offensive coordinator in the history of college football.

In 33 seasons at the collegiate level, Norm Chow has been part of three national championships, guided three Heisman Trophy winners, coached eight of the NCAA's top 30 in career passing efficiency and produced six first-round NFL draft picks at quarterback.

But UCLA's offense stunk last year.

 
  AP Photo/Ric Francis
  UCLA offensive coordinator Norm Chow is hoping to see improvement in his offense in 2009.

It ranked 116th in the nation in rushing, 111th in total offense, 109th in scoring, 109th in passing efficiency and 110th in sacks allowed.

Bad. Very bad.

The good news for Bruins fans, however, is that it seems almost impossible to imagine things not getting better. A lot better, in fact.

It's hard to bet against Chow, 63. His head coach, Rick Neuheisel, also owns a highly respected offensive mind -- though it often appeared that mind was about to explode as TV cameras zeroed in on his reactions to the offensive foibles last fall.

The question is: What are realistic expectations in 2009?

Improving from bad to merely below average might get the Bruins enough juice to win six games, particularly with a defense that should be very good.

But going from bad to average might boost UCLA back into the top half of the Pac-10.

So we thought nothing of calling Chow during his annual Hawaiian get-away to see what he's thinking this off-season.

Taking a quick look backwards: Is there anything you'd change about how you guys ran the offense last year?

Norm Chow: No. I think we were obviously all disappointed. I'm not so sure there was much else we could have done as far as personnel went. We were down to our third quarterback. We started 10 different combinations on the offensive line. Obviously, we were disappointed we didn't do better with just what we were doing. I don't think we could have made dramatic changes. That wasn't our style. We just didn't play well enough and coach well enough.

Considering how successful you've been running offenses, how tough was it for you watching your players struggle to get much of anything going?

NC: It was hard. But it's not about me. It's about our players and their willingness to work, which they did. They played as hard as they could and they did everything we asked them to do. It just didn't work out. It's not their fault. We as coaches have to take the major part of the blame because we didn't get it done. The guys are working hard now and we're looking forward to everything. We've been together for a year now. Prior to us getting there, the quarterbacks told me that we were their fourth different offensive style of ball in four years. What we called 12, [former coach] Karl Dorrell called 92. You go through that four times and it's hard on young guys. Perhaps we should have gone a little slower. We just didn't do what we should have done.

Obviously Rick Neuheisel, a former UCLA quarterback, is an offensive guy. And he's a hands-on head coach. Did you guys ever butt heads during the season?

NC: Not at all. We have respect for each other. We're both trying to get the same things done. We have very similar ideas about offense. No, it was a joy. This past year, of all the years I've ever coached, was the first time I worked with an offensive coach, an offensive-minded head coach. I've always worked with defensive-minded head coaches, both in college and the NFL. They kind of have a tendency to leave you alone. But Rick was very good about suggestions and thoughts. All you're trying to do is get better. We got along very well. In fact, it was fun. He was a joy to work with. He's a nice guy. He's a fun guy. He's an intense guy. He's perfect for the head coaching position at UCLA.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

We've discussed positions of concern a lot. But where are teams (almost) worry-free?

Here are some spots.

USC's offensive line: The Trojans welcome back all five starters, including the nation's best center, Kristofer O'Dowd. And, oh by the way, super-sophomore Tyron Smith might displace returning starter Butch Lewis at tackle. The Trojans averaged 195 yards rushing per game last year and surrendered only 18 sacks, fewest in the conference.

California's secondary: All four starters are back, including first-team All-Pac-10 cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson, from a unit that finished third in the nation with 24 interceptions and ranked sixth in pass efficiency defense. And the backups are so good that a couple of returning starters are hearing footsteps.

USC's secondary: Start with Taylor Mays and Josh Pinkard, the best safety combination in the nation -- though Pinkard played corner last year. Sure, two starters -- Kevin Ellison and Cary Harris -- are gone. But three players -- safety Will Harris and corners Shareece Wright and Kevin Thomas -- have starting experience. And a couple of the youngsters turned in impressive springs.

Oregon State's quarterbacks: The Beavers have two successful starting quarterbacks in Sean Canfield and Lyle Moevao, though Moevao is coming back from shoulder surgery. They also have an impressive No. 3 in redshirt freshman Ryan Katz, and Virginia transfer Peter Lalich is a wildcard who had disappeared before coming up big in the spring game. His questionable attitude won't help him climb the depth chart, though.

UCLA's tight ends: Ryan Moya earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors last year, and he was Logan Paulsen's backup until Paulsen's season ended with a foot injury in the opener against Tennessee. The Bruins also like sophomore Cory Harkey, and then there's touted freshman Morrell Presley, who's more a hybrid receiver-tight end. Lots of options here. Just got to get them the ball.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Let these links brush your rock & roll hair. 

  • Former Arizona coach Dick Tomey, now San Jose State's head coach, remembers his former rival at Arizona State, Bruce Snyder, who died Monday. It still makes me smile that such a bitter rivalry featured two of the truly nice guys in coaching. A heartfelt column on a writer's falling out with Snyder. Monte Poole does a good job of describing the human cost of writing opinion, which often means criticizing people whom you like and respect. More thoughts on Snyder's passing.
  • There are some questions in Oregon's secondary.
  • Oregon State might start the biggest cornerback in the Pac-10. And the Beavers might be reloading instead of rebuilding their defensive line. Checking in on Monday's lackluster practice.
  • Jon Wilner with some nice info/insights from Stanford's spring game, including an observation that Richard Sherman appears ready to contribute as a cornerback and receiver next fall.
  • Still no final word on UCLA tight end Logan Paulsen's new foot injury. Coach Rick Neuheisel comments on the Bruins halfway through spring.
  • Some of the players who have stood out -- good and bad -- at USC's spring practices.
  • Washington coach Steve Sarkisian drops the hammer at practice and some Huskies respond. Washington receivers need to refine their game. And catch the ball. Jim Moore, with a new, more serious mug shot, allows Washington fans to vent about his latest hatchet job on the Huskies.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Go on failing. Go on. Only next time, try to fail better.

Happy 103rd birthday to eternal optimist Samuel Beckett!

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Ten big issues as we gambol into Week 2.

1. Willingham must win: The heat already was on Washington coach Tyrone Willingham before his Huskies went belly-up at Oregon. Now rumblings about his job security are registering on the Richter scales by Mount Rainier. He needs an upset win over No. 15 BYU to regain some footing, with No. 4 Oklahoma next headed to Seattle. The schedule is unforgiving, yes, but so suddenly are Huskies fans.

2. Put '55' to bed: A 41-3 victory doesn't raise many fretful eyebrows for a winning team, but Arizona State bludgeoned Stanford by that count in its 2007 Pac-10 opener, while -- eyebrow arch now! -- giving up five first-half sacks. Thus commenced a storyline that continues today with the oft-repeated stat of 55 sacks yielded last year by the Sun Devils OL. Stanford's defensive front is stout, winning the battle at the line of scrimmage last Thursday against Oregon State. If the rebuilt Sun Devils offensive line, however, can at least reach a stalemate, then...

3. Given time, Carpenter will shine: If Arizona State QB Rudy Carpenter isn't running for his life against Stanford, he will pick apart the Cardinal secondary, which won't match up with the Sun Devils skill and depth at WR, even if Michael Jones is limited by a toe injury. Oregon State and its outstanding WRs piled up over 400 yards passing; Carpenter could equal that.

4. They do call it 'Beaver' Stadium: Oregon State's pattern is struggle early, or at least lose a couple of winnable games, then surge over the second half of the season. But many of us also recall the Beavers going down to LSU in the 2004 opener and losing 22-21 in overtime, a game in which three missed extra points made the difference. So it's not a matter of being good enough to play with the so-called Big Boys, even in one of their overflowing venues. Penn State suspended two starters on its D-line; can OSU take advantage? The Beavers have the skill on offense and speed on defense to shake up the Nittany Lions and notch the upset.

5. Jahvid Best will live up to his last name: The California running back piled up 277 total yards in the win over Michigan State, including 111 yards rushing on 24 carries. No one on the Washington State defense will be able to keep up with him, so don't be surprised if he meets or exceeds last weekend's numbers. And, if he does, how long before he starts getting some national love?

6. Tuitama is No. 1 with a Rocket: Arizona QB Willie Tuitama threw for three scores vs. Idaho to establish a new school career record for TD passes with 47. He should get Nos. 48, 49 and 50 (51 & 52?) against Toledo. It will be interesting to see if the Wildcats maintain the intensity they displayed on both sides of the ball while dominating overmatched Idado 70-0. Arizona basically scheduled itself a preseason with the Pac-10's softest nonconference slate, but there's no reason these games shouldn't be useful tune-ups.

7. Oregon will Roper some Aggies: Ducks QB Justin Roper was knocked out with a concussion in the first half against Washington, but coach Mike Bellotti said he should be good to go Saturday against a Utah State team that has no hope. Will Roper: 1) stay healthy, something Ducks QBs struggle to do; 2) play well? While Oregon has way too much athleticism for this one to be interesting, at some point offensive coordinator Chip Kelly is going to want his Ducks to develop some continuity, particularly with a visit to Purdue ahead the following weekend.

8. What about Gerhart's encore?: Stanford running back Toby Gerhart ate up Oregon State with 147 yards on 19 carries and two TDs. The 230 pounder has the speed to get to the corner and the size to make things difficult once he breaks the line of scrimmage. He shredded the Beavers typically rugged run defense, so what will he do against the Sun Devils? If there's not a lot of room for Gerhart and the Cardinal running game, then things will be much harder for Stanford, which struggled to establish its passing game against the Beavers and is thin at receiver.

9. Look sharp in L.A.: It's a weekend of rest in the City of Angels -- or the City of a Challenged Football Monopoly. Of course, everyone knows No. 1 USC is working itself into a froth with No. 3 Ohio State coming to town. But the No. 23 Bruins, perhaps even more than the Trojans, who are accustomed to a big stage, need to stay sharp and focused during their bye weekend. They head to BYU next, which figures to get a challenge at Washington. A 2-0 start no one saw coming would show the nation that UCLA wasn't just a flash in the pan.

10. Staying healthy is the key (knock on wood): To a person, college football writers will tell you their least favorite thing to do is catalog injuries -- and to endure the irritation from coaches as the writers try to figure out just how "questionable" or "doubtful" a player is. Injuries can wreck a season -- or a young man's career. Lost amid UCLA's big win over Tennessee was three senior offensive starters going down to significant injuries, particularly TE Logan Paulsen (at least eight weeks), who likely would have been a key weapon for QB Kevin Craft this season. Recall how the trajectory of Oregon's season changed when QB Dennis Dixon went down. Writers don't root for teams, but I will certainly admit to rooting for each team being able to start its best players.

Pac-10 internal affairs

September, 3, 2008
9/03/08
12:35
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

A look inside the Pac-10 this week.

Washington: The heat is on coach Tyrone Willingham, and his likely tall order is producing an upset victory over No. 15 BYU at Husky Stadium this weekend in front of an increasingly disgruntled fan base. It's obvious that the Huskies defense can only do so much with schemes to mask talent gaps. But it's the offense that severely underachieved at Oregon. That should improve this week inside a home stadium where calling audibles at the line of scrimmage will be far easier than inside boisterous Autzen Stadium. The offensive line, which was surprisingly bad against the Ducks, also should feel challenged this week, and a less athletic BYU defense should help. Moreover, offensive coordinator Tim Lappano told reporters he plans to expand the playbook after holding back with so many freshmen in the playing rotation.

Arizona State: The Sun Devils offensive line -- picked apart during the preseason -- mostly passed its first test against Northern Arizona. Give them a gentleman's C, considering the absence of a running game while yielding only one sack. Stanford will offer a far stouter test. For one, the Cardinal feature a veteran defense with nine starters returning. Second, that defense was strong against the run vs. Oregon State but gave up 404 yards passing, which means ASU QB Rudy Carpenter will be firing away. But will he be safe in the pocket? This won't just be a test of the OL, either. It will be a test of whether Carpenter will stick to the plan to get rid of the ball quickly instead of trying to wait for a big play to develop downfield. It's notable, though, that the Beavers rebuilt offensive line only gave up two sacks in 54 pass attempts to the Cardinal.

Oregon State: It's interesting how so many appear to be expecting Penn State to roll through the Beavers. That gets a big "hmmm" here. Are folks supposed to be impressed with the Nittany Lions bludgeoning Coastal Carolina 66-10 with 334 yards on the ground and six rushing TDs? If so, why isn't Arizona getting more hype for its 70-zip win over Idaho, which would beat Coastal Carolina, a team that, apparently, is located on the coast of one of the Carolinas? I see an Oregon State team that will shock Penn State with its speed on the perimeter. If the Beavers maintain something approaching parity in the trenches, this will be a close game. The return of safety Al Afalava also will substantially help the Beavers run defense, which was so porous against Stanford. One caveat: It's also possible that some of OSU's younger players will be wide-eyed playing in front of 107,000-plus at Beaver Stadium, so that could lead to early and critical mistakes.

USC: Which is more important a RB's foot or an LB's finger? While most eyes are on Ohio State RB Beanie Wells' injured foot in anticipation of the Buckeyes Sept. 13 visit to USC, it might be as important to pay attention to Trojans LB Rey Maualuga's broken finger, which he aggravated vs. Virginia while turning in a performance well below the All-American's standards. The thing with a RB's foot -- it becomes obvious when it's injured and the back can't play. With a finger, the feeling is tape it up and go. But it's often worse to play with a seemingly minor injury because it can lead to major mistakes. Recall QB John David Booty playing with an injured hand in the upset loss to Stanford and tossing four interceptions. What if a RB or TE escapes a Maualuga tackle and transforms a routine play into a TD? Moreover, USC has been quietly hit by injuries to its LB depth, most particularly Maualuga's talented backup Chris Galippo (back). At present, Maualuga's backup is true freshman Uona Kaveinga, though Galippo could be back for the Ohio State game.

UCLA: If we can step away from the glow of an upset win over Tennessee for a moment, the present and future reality is the Bruins need to replace three injured offensive starters. Recall: This offense already has a patchwork line and is using its third QB. So who steps in for TE Logan Paulsen (broken foot), WR Marcus Everett (toe) and TB Kahlil Bell (ankle)? Well, Paulsen's replacement Ryan Moya didn't look like a lightweight after leading the Bruins with seven receptions for 65 yards against the Vols -- including the go-ahead 3-yard TD pass with 27 seconds left -- but Paulsen's absence hurts the viability of two-TE sets. With Everett out a few weeks, junior Terrence Austin steps in. He caught five passes for 37 yards against the Vols. Sophomore Dominique Johnson and freshman Taylor Embree both played well against Tennessee, so there's encouraging depth there. And at TB, Raymond Carter jumps to the first team, but count on Rick Neuheisel tapping into his talented freshman class, including Aundre Dean.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

PASADENA, Calif. -- From the Rose Bowl press box ...

Craft starts the second half.

TB Kahlil Bell will try to play with a sprained ankle.

TE Logan Paulsen (fractured foot) and WR Marcus Everett (toe) are out.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

PASADENA, Calif. -- There's a reason Kevin Craft remained the UCLA quarterback after tossing a couple of early interceptions.

His coaches believe he gives the Bruins the best chance to win.

But after he threw his fourth of the first half, which was returned 61 yards for a TD in the waning moments before the break -- giving Tennessee a 14-7 advantage -- it's hard to say that could still be true.

Changing QBs is not only about giving redshirt freshman Chris Forcier a shot. It's about not allowing Craft to completely destroy his confidence.

At this pace, Craft will set a school record for interceptions. He had seven completions and four interceptions in the first half.

The Bruins' offense managed just 85 total yards. There's no way the Bruins D can hold up its impressive pace.

We shall see who starts the third.

As a side note, whoever does apparently will be without three key offensive starters: TB Kahlil Bell (ankle), TE Logan Paulsen (foot) and WR Marcus Everett (toe)

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

 
 AP Photo/Nick Ut
 Coach Rick Neuheisel says UCLA might not be as far away from catching USC as many people think.

LOS ANGELES -- New UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel was a Rose Bowl MVP for the Bruins, but he's also stirred controversy just about everywhere he's coached.

Fair or unfair, his career and behavior have been relentlessly picked over and microanalyzed.

He owns an impressive 66-30 record and won a Rose Bowl at Washington, but some folks view him as a rogue coach -- "Slick Rick" -- a guy who cuts corners and tries to talk his way out of every corner.

But figuring out who Rick Neuheisel really is won't be that difficult in coming years. His legacy surely will be tied to whether he leads UCLA back to the top of the Pac-10 and challenges USC for supremacy of Los Angeles.

I caught up with him this week; this is part I of a two-part interview.

Have things settled down and allowed you to just be UCLA's football coach after all the static about your past history?

Rick Neuheisel: Yeah, most of that is in the background, behind me. I'm sure every now and then it will resurface, especially with Washington being in the same conference. But things are enough in the rearview mirror that I don't have to worry about it on a daily basis. Now it's up to us as a staff and me personally to make sure nothing happens in the future that would drudge it all back up.

Do you feel like the important people at UCLA -- the administrators, boosters and fans -- don't care about the external static?

RN: I think that they're at that place. Don't care is probably too strong, but I think they are mindful there are two sides to everything and are comfortable that it is in the past.

Give me your impressions, after going through spring practices and now a few weeks into preseason camp, of the overall talent level here.

RN: There are some positions with terrific talent. It's just that we're not going to go out and win any games based on talent. It's just not the way it is. That doesn't mean someone isn't going to emerge here and become a 10-year NFL vet. I would never discount that opportunity for any of these kids. But we are who we are and now we have to play to that and make sure that we don't expose kids who are probably going to have matchup issues. That's the key. A lot has been said about our offensive line. We are who we are. We've got to do what we can to help them.

The offensive line: I was going to ask you about that. Everybody is talking badly about it. How do you handle that? Do these guys need to be built up after hearing over and over that they aren't good enough?

RN: Yeah. They need to be championed. There have been lots of offensive lines with average talent that have been on winning teams. It's up to us as coaches to find a way to get the most out of them because they are all high-effort guys. When you've got high-effort guys, you've got a chance.

How many years away are you guys from competing at the highest level?

RN: I hate to quantify it because it always makes it seem like you're saying you're not capable of doing it now. I don't ever want to sell these guys short. I told the seniors here that talking about rebuilding is just a coach-saver. That's what coaches say to give themselves time and keep expectations down, blah, blah, blah. We're at UCLA. We're going to play for first place. Our record is the same as everybody else's right now, so we're going to go out there. The good news about winning games is you don't have to win them 42-0. You get to win them 3-2 and 42-41. So we've just got to find ways to get one more point.

Who's stood out for you during camp -- play and leadership?

RN: I feel good about our defense and the leadership there. The Bosworth boys [LB Kyle and DE Korey] are tenacious guys. [DT] Brian Price is a bona fide big-time player. [CB] Alterraun Verner is a bona fide big-time player. If those guys do a great job of leading -- and [LB] Reggie Carter and [DT] Brigham Harwell, who's been voted captain -- do a great job of leading, then we're going to play good, solid defense. It doesn't mean we're going to play error-free, but we're going to play good defense.

Now we've got to get the same kind of moxie from the offense. [RB] Kahlil Bell can bring that, but he's coming off an ACL so he's not out there every practice. But when there's a QB competition and you've lost your first two senior guys [Patrick Cowan and Ben Olson], it's hard for the next guy to just go in and be a [expletive]-chewer because he's trying to win the job. [TE] Logan Paulsen, Kahlil Bell -- they have to lead. Now I need an offensive lineman who rises to that challenge. [C] Micah Reed and [OT] Micah Kia, those are the two guys who come to mind. But right now that is a challenge for them.

Recruiting. You go to USC's camp and it's like, 'Wow, these guys have got a lot of players.' How do you recruit against them; what do you say to a Southern California prep superstar to get him to choose you over the Trojans?

RN: There are three things you can do. First of all, you sell UCLA. Fortunately for me, I don't just sell it, I get to share it because I went here. I lived this. It has a lot just on its own merits to entice the very best. Second, you point out our depth compared to their depth in terms of opportunity. Third, you point out: Where did [USC] begin? With a bunch of guys who decided that this is where they were going to go. You try to get a group of guys to decide the same thing over here and be the ones who start the thing. There's some allure to that. I think there's enough kids out in the country who, once they get to see this campus, once they get to see these coaches -- the resumes of the coaches out here are at least impressive enough to bear mention -- and then they see what can be. They get to go to school here and start their own deal in California, knowing that while USC is certainly king of the mountain right now, in the last 29 years since I was a freshman, the record [between the teams] is 14-14-1 between UCLA and USC. So it isn't so far-fetched that it's too far away. We can get it done. But we have to be relentless in recruiting and our energy has to be at least equal if not beyond the very best in the country.

In part II, Neuheisel talks about USC and how he wants people to think about him.

SPONSORED HEADLINES