- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel understands the media and more than most coaches he's willing to help.
For example: Say you wanted an update Tuesday on the status of his quarterback Kevin Prince, who's missed nearly all of preseason camp with a small but bothersome tear in his back muscle. Neuheisel provided a eyewitness, play-by-play to reporters during the weekly Pac-10 coaches teleconference.
"I'm standing right here watching him practice," said Neuheisel, with the typical practice chatter clearly audible through the phone line.
"He's going to throw this ball. I'll tell you after this throw... Oh, it's perfectly thrown. It's outstanding! I think he's going to be fine."
The verdict: Prince is "rusty but healthy." He will start at Kansas State on Saturday. Probably.
Neuheisel is all about optimism. His catch-phrase upon getting hired to rebuild the Bruins in 2008 was "relentless optimism." That optimism has been tested, however, by an 11-14 record his first two years and a fairly stunning array of injuries.
The current challenge to Neuheisel's power of positive thinking isn't just about getting Prince to the opener in one piece. His offensive line is in pieces.
All five starters from last year were projected to return this season, including 13 of 14 players on the 2009 depth chart. Yet guard Eddie Williams is the only returning starter who will be in the lineup at Kansas State, and even he missed half of the 2009 season with a fractured ankle.
Talented left tackle Xavier Su'a-Filo, who won a starting job as a true freshman, opted to go on a two-year Mormon mission. Then the chief candidate to replace him, Nik Abele, was forced to retire because of neck problems. Center Kai Maiava fractured his ankle during preseason camp. Guard Jeff Baca is academically ineligible. Right tackle Mike Harris is suspended for the Kansas State game. Toss in guard Stanley Hasiak's academic ineligibility, and Jake Dean ending his career a year early, and you have a lot of attrition from what might have been a greatly improved line.
This probably won't surprise you a bit, but Neuheisel is undaunted: "They're terrific," he said of his new lineup.
He even spots for reporters a potential feel-good angle with his makeshift line.
"It's kind of a neat story -- hopefully it will be one that's told for years and years after because of the success they have," Neuheisel said. "We have five seniors who've gotten here in kind of a round-about sort of way. Each has their own unique road they traveled to get here."
Those five are: right guard Williams, a junior college transfer; left tackle Sean Sheller, a fifth-year senior who spent much of his injury-riddled career on the defensive line; left guard Darius Savage, who started seven games in 2008 but fell out of favor last year; center Ryan Taylor, a JC transfer who started two games at guard and one at center in 2009; and right tackle Micah Kia, who started seven games in 2008 but missed last fall with a knee injury.
Despite the questions on offense, the Bruins visit to Kansas State probably comes down to something else: How a rebuilt front seven on defense handles Wildcats running back Daniel Thomas, who rushed for 1,290 yards last year. Thomas will be running behind a veteran line. Combine that with a new and unproven quarterback, and you can expect the Wildcats to try to challenge the Bruins with a physical, run-first attack.
In last year's game, the Bruins dispatched K-State fairly easily, 23-9. But this will be Year Two of coach Bill Snyder's return to where he produced perhaps the greatest rebuilding jobs in college football history, which explains why his name is on the stadium: "Bill Snyder Family Stadium." The Wildcats should be a much more finely tuned team, despite just 11 returning starters.
"He's a team builder, no question about it," Neuheisel said.
By the way, the Wildcats have won 20 home openers in a row.
Of course, Neuheisel is optimistic that his quarterback will be healthy and sharp, his offensive line and defensive front-seven will be stout and that winning streak is about to end.