Pac-12: Ryan Taylor
UCLA was 0-2 in a bad way four weeks ago after having lost to Kansas State and then being humiliated by Stanford in front of a stunned crowd at the Rose Bowl. The general feeling in the media and among much of the fanbase? The Bruins were doomed. There were a scattering of grumbles about the pace of the development under third-year coach Rick Neuheisel.
Ah, but inside the locker room it appears Neuheisel's oft-cited -- and sometimes mocked -- mantra of "relentless optimism" still echoed.
"Those two losses were a blessing in disguise because they brought us together," UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin said. "Through adversity, you build strength. I told everybody we have to play as a family. We weren't playing together."
At his moment, it seems appropriate to note that Franklin has aspirations to become a motivational speaker.
Franklin, however, admitted the transformation wasn't all rainbows, roses and red velvet valentines. There was some speaking truth to power. Franklin was careful about providing details, but he did say blue-collar players like center Ryan Taylor and tight end Cory Harkey provided some unflinching assessments to certain teammates (as well as of themselves).
"Sometimes you have to call people out and we did that. As a man, sometimes you have to call somebody out when they make mistakes," Franklin said. "We had people who took responsibility, who had made mistakes, who weren't playing to their potential. We all put our egos to the side."
Franklin and the Bruins figure to face a tough test Saturday at California, a team with plenty of talent that is reeling from consecutive defeats to Nevada and Arizona. UCLA hasn't won in Berkeley since 1998.
Moreover, the Bears have their own bit of adversity that could become a positive this weekend: They got sliced and diced by Nevada's pistol offense, 52-31, therefore they know exactly what not to do against UCLA's version. Further, the Bears faced the Wolf Pack on a short week; it was a Friday night road game. They face the Bruins after a bye.
In other words, Franklin and the Bruins pistol won't provide a shock to the Bears system.
"I think those are huge advantages," Neuheisel said. "Getting ready for a different kind of offense is difficult... It's not the way I would have drawn it up."
Neuheisel said he believes the pistol scheme has helped optimize Franklin's skills. The 5-foot-10, 198-pound redshirt sophomore has great vision and quickness and stresses a defender forced to make a one-on-one, open-field tackle. Further, Franklin's bigger backfield mates, Derrick Coleman and Malcolm Jones, tip the scales at 231 and 223 pounds. They add a power elements that softens things up for Franklin.
The only thing holding Franklin back? Ball security. It was an issue last year, and he's had one fumble in each of the past two games.
Franklin isn't claiming that he or his team has arrived. He noted it's been a long time since UCLA won four in a row (2005). They won three in a row to start the 2009 season and everyone was talking transformation. Then the Bruins opened Pac-10 play with five consecutive defeats.
The Bruins have admirably emerged from a low point. But they haven't climbed very high just yet.
"We won't turn this program around until we have a Pac-10 championship," Franklin said. "Right now, we're just an average team. We're nobodies. We haven't done anything yet."
Bruins center Ryan Taylor and linebacker Sean Westgate earned offensive and defensive honors, while Stanford place kicker Nate Whitaker earned the nod for special teams.
Taylor, a senior from Denison, Texas, keyed the Bruins running attack that accounted for 264 yards against the nation's No. 1 rushing defense in the 34-12 win at Texas. UCLA’s ground game was instrumental in the Bruins eating up 35:29 on the clock, compared to 24:31 time of possession for Texas. Taylor is the first lineman to earn the Pac-10 weekly offensive honor since Oregon tackle Adam Snyder claimed the award on Sept. 20, 2003.
Westgate, a junior from Oak Park, Calif., collected a career-high and team-high 11 tackles (seven solos) and forced a fumble on a punt to set up UCLA’s first touchdown of the game. The Bruin defense limited Texas to 85 yards rushing and 264 yards passing (85 passing yards came on Texas’ final possession of the game). Westgate leads the team with 32 tackles and ranks tied for seventh in the Pac-10, averaging 8.0 per game.
Whitaker, a senior from San Diego, Calif., matched a single-game Stanford record with five field goals. He was successful on all five attempts: 24, 41, 36, 33, and 29 yards. He added two PATs to tally 17 points in the Cardinal’s 37-14 win at Notre Dame.
Also nominated for offensive player of the week honors were wide receiver Juron Criner of Arizona, and running backs Deantre Lewis of Arizona State and Shane Vereen of California, quarterback Darron Thomas of Oregon, and running backs Stepfan Taylor of Stanford and Stanley Havili of USC. Also nominated on defense were defensive tackle Justin Washington of Arizona, defensive back Chris Conte of California, linebacker Casey Matthews of Oregon, linebacker Shayne Skov of Stanford, and cornerback Nickell Robey of USC. Also nominated for special teams play were punter Trevor Hankins of Arizona State, punter Jackson Rice of Oregon, wide receiver/returner James Rodgers of Oregon State, punter Jeff Locke of UCLA and defensive end Wes Horton of USC.
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.
"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.
Sounds great, eh? Sure, the Bruins' line has struggled in recent years, but those struggling young guys now will become salty veterans. And there will be depth.
Insert sigh from UCLA fans, players and coaches here. Things have certainly changed since the Bruins won the EagleBank Bowl.
The Bruins lost another lineman -- perhaps their best one -- early in Saturday's scrimmage when center Kia Maiava went down with a fractured left ankle. The junior almost certainly is done for the season.
The hit list on the line in addition to Maiava goes like this:
- Talented tackle Xavier Su'a-filo opted to go on a two-year Mormon mission after starting as a true freshman.
- The leading candidate to replace Su'a-filo, Nik Abele, was forced to retire because of neck problems.
- Right tackle Mike Harris is suspended for the opener at Kansas State because of a violation of team rules.
- Left guard Jeff Baca has been ruled academically ineligible, pending an appeal with the NCAA, and even if he wins his appeal he's nursing a stress fracture in his right leg.
- Right guard Eddie Williams has missed practices due to a concussion, though he should be ready to play by the season opener.
Barring any more issues, the starting line probably will look like this at Kansas State on Sept. 4: Sean Sheller and Micah Kia at the tackles, Williams and Darius Savage at the guards and Ryan Taylor at center.
Understand: That's not a woeful lineup. Sheller, who's battled injuries and position changes, is the only one with no starting experience. Taylor replaced Maiava in the EagleBank Bowl last year, and Kia started 15 games before missing 2009 with a knee injury. And Harris will return after the opener.
Still, there isn't too much remaining margin for error if anyone else -- knock on wood -- pulls up lame.
- UCLA's season will be determined by both lines. There's plenty of speed and skill and quarterback Kevin Prince looks ready to take a significant step forward, but the lines -- particularly the offensive line -- continue to be works in progress.
- That said: The Bruins running game -- dormant the past few seasons -- showed signs of life. For example, on a third and 7 play, Milton Knox converted with a tough run on a draw play. Offensive coordinator Norm Chow said the tailback job is down to three candidates: Johnathan Franklin (nine carries, 37 yards in the scrimmage), Derrick Coleman (9-25) and Knox (7-24). In the fall, a strong recruiting haul of freshmen arrives who immediately will jump into the mix.
- The Bruins new "pistol" offense, which features some spread-option elements, has inspired some skepticism, but Prince ran a version of it in high school and he's got good speed -- he ran a 4.53 40-yard dash during testing. There were some intriguing moments, but a couple of bad shotgun snaps surely will concern the coaches. Coach Rick Neuheisel said: "There's a lot of moving parts in this stuff. If we're going to be in this stuff and we're going to say that this is who we are and try to get to that point, we've got to be a heck of a lot better at it than this. If we can't get that done in 15 practices, then we have to ask ourselves if it's prudent to stay in it and that's where we are.''
- Backup QB Richard Brehaut went 3 of 11 in the Bruins first scrimmage, but he was much better Friday, completing 11 of 17 passes for 106 yards with touchdowns of 16 and26 yards. Prince was 7 of 11 for 87 yards with a 37 yard TD.
- The Bruins are looking for receivers to step up behind Taylor Embree, Nelson Rosario and Josh Smith, who's out with a knee injury. Randall Carroll and Ricky Marvray both had good scrimmages and perhaps made statements. Carroll's grab of a 37-yard TD pass from Prince despite tight coverage from Sheldon Price was the play of the day. Runnerup: Morrell Presley got behind coverage for a 44-yard reception. And Jerry Johnson had a fancy leaping reception on the scrimmage's first drive.
- Kicker Kai Forbath will be one of the best weapons in the Pac-10 -- he's darn near automatic. The first-team All-Pac-10 kicker and likely preseason All-American was good on four field goals attempts from outside 40 yards, with a long of 46.
- Defensive end Datone Jones had a sack and a tackle for a loss on a reverse. He looks like a potential All-Conference player, along with linebacker Akeem Ayers and safety Rahim Moore. Defensive tackle Nate Chandler, a converted tight end, had two sacks.
- There was a scare when center Kai Maiava, who's battling Ryan Taylor for the starting job, went down with a knee injury. He walked off, though, and Neuheisel described the injury has a "sprain."
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Things are always interesting with Rick Neuheisel, and his first season coaching UCLA was no exception.
The Bruins opened with an overtime win over Tennessee. Then went splat, 59-zip, at BYU. And so started a decidedly inconsistent season.
With poor play at quarterback, no running game and a porous offensive line -- and that's sugarcoating things for the woeful offense -- UCLA finished 4-8 and in eighth place in the Pac-10.
|Joe Nicholson/US Presswire|
|Rick Neuheisel was 4-8 in his first season at UCLA.|
But Bruins fans felt a lot better after Neuheisel fetched a highly rated recruiting class, which reignited whispers that -- just maybe -- USC should start looking over its shoulder and worrying about its football, er, monopoly in Los Angeles.
Spring practices don't crank up until April 2, but it seems like a good time to check in.
Let's look back on 2008: What were you happy with and unhappy with?
Rick Neuheisel: I thought our team played hard, but we lacked the proficiency to be a good team. We never got any consistency as an offense. Defensively, we hung in there most games, but we weren't stout enough to be a three-and-out type team. Our kickoff situation put us in a field position deficit because we weren't able to kick the ball off very far. We'd end up having to go long distances with respect to field position. We've got a lot of things to get better at if we're going to be a better football team. But the influx of new, young talent, the great effort in weight room and so forth, I think is going to lead to that.
How exited are you that the whole 'Neuheisel is back' won't be the big story this year?
RN: I'm excited the focus will be on our football team. Obviously, this was a program that needed a kick start with respect to the recruiting and excitement and that stuff. We were fortunate to have a big win at the start of the season that reminded folks how fun football can be. Now it's up to us to deliver that on a more regular basis. Obviously, if we could get to a bowl game this year, that would be a step in the right direction. I think a year from now, we're going to be a team that can compete for the top prizes.
You guys got a lot of publicity about your recruiting success on signing day.
RN: Recruiting went well. Recruiting went really well. It was kind of a validation of what I thought all along: That you can recruit at UCLA. That if you do it the right way and go after the right guys you can deliver. I was pleased to see that was possible.