LOS ANGELES -- Rick Neuheisel and Mike Johnson are on the same page this spring. We know this because the UCLA coach and his new offensive coordinator are both repeating two main ideas.
First, they both point out that the "pistol" offense, which the Bruins adopted last year with decidedly mixed results, ultimately is just a formation. It's a marriage of the traditional shotgun and single-back sets, with the quarterback lining up four yards behind center with the running back behind him.
Did we mention marriage? That might be because that's the second idea: Marrying the pistol running game, which new running game coordinator Jim Mastro was hired away from Nevada to implement, with the passing game that Johnson brings from his years in the NFL.
"Mike is learning the pistol running game from Jim, and Jim is learning passing concepts from Mike," Neuheisel said. "We're trying to marry the two together to create an offense."
Of course, scheme only goes so far. Players matter, too. The Bruins search for a quarterback won't be resolved this spring, while injuries have been an issue on the offensive line.
Some notes based on conversations this week with Neuheisel, Johnson and new defensive coordinator Joe Tresey.
At quarterback, Kevin Prince has been running around but he won't be ready to rejoin the competition until preseason camp because he's still recovering from a knee injury. Touted true freshman Brett Hundley has flashed ability but is adjusting to the speed and complexity of the college game. Richard Brehaut has played well at times but has yet to win over Neuheisel or Johnson. In other words, the quarterback competition is far from over. "It's to be continued," Johnson said.
Neuheisel called running back "Maybe our best position." Johnathan Franklin is a clear No. 1, but Jordan James has been a standout this spring. Derrick Coleman and Malcolm Jones also are in the mix. As for Franklin's fumbling issues, Neuheisel leaned forward to knock on the nearest piece of wood furniture: "Not one this spring," he said.
While the receivers dropped too many balls last season, Neuheisel called it "a position of strength," led by Nelson Rosario. Said Neuheisel, "Nelson has the ability to be a break-through performer."
Johnson coaches the receivers. Of the dropped balls in 2010, he said, "The main culprits lacked confidence." So he's rebuilding that confidence by drilling fundamentals. But he's also demanding more: "We have a rule with the backs and receivers: If you touch it, you catch it. There is no other way," he said.
Tight end is solid with Cory Harkey, a good blocker, and Joseph Fauria and Morrell Presley, who are both big targets. But Neuheisel said incoming freshman Raymond Nelson, brother of UCLA basketball player Reeves Nelson, could end up in the mix.
While the quarterback position has been getting the headlines, the questions on the offensive line may be just as critical to answer. Injuries have exposed uncertain depth. The big issue is tackle Jeff Baca, who broke his ankle, and it's unclear when he'll be ready to play again. Said Neuheisel, "His return is critical to us ... to not have him would be a bitter pill to swallow."
The top F-backs -- not unlike the old wingback position -- are Anthony Barr and Damien Thigpen. Barr, in particular, figures to have an expanded role next fall: "He's a great player who needs to have the ball in his arms more than he did a year ago," Neuheisel said.
Kicker Kai Forbath needs to be replaced, and that task falls to Kip Smith, whom Neuheisel said has had a "good, but not great, spring."
On defense, the players said that Tresey's scheme is simpler than what they've used the past few years. Tresey described it as "attack and react."
Neuheisel on the D-line: "That might be our biggest place of improvement from last year." Neuheisel and Tresey mentioned 10 linemen who are in the mix, topped by end Datone Jones, who's back from a foot injury that killed his 2010 season. Tackle Donovan Carter, of whom little was expected, has been "a surprise this spring," said Neuheisel.
At linebacker, Patrick Larimore is out with an injury but he flashed skills in 2010; he'll be the starter inside with Isaiah Bowns the backup. Jordan Zumwalt is playing Mike 'backer while Larimore is out, but he'll likely move to the strong side to compete with Glenn Love this fall. Sean Westgate is a returning starter on the weakside, but he'll be spelled by Eric Kendricks and Ryan Hofmeister. Of Westgate, Neuheisel said, "He's a real steady football player. He doesn't look the part because of his size but he makes more plays than almost anyone else on our defense."
Strong safety Tony Dye leads the charge in the secondary. Dietrich Riley, Tevin McDonald, Alex Mascarenas and Dalton Hillard, who's sitting out with injury, are competing at safety. Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price are returning starters at cornerback, with Anthony Jefferson, Courtney Viney and Andrew Abbott in the mix.
Asked to list young players who have stepped up, Neuheisel includes S McDonald, LB Kendricks, RB James and QB Hundley. His biggest concern? "The offensive line," he said. "We've got work to do."