2011 Spring Fish Wrap – UCLA Bruins Edition

Whoa Nellie!  Four fishwraps in the can (Idaho State, UNLV, San Diego State and Colorado), and now we roll into opponent number five on the 2011 WSU schedule, and it’s none other than those Bruins of UCLA.  The Cougs hit the Rose Bowl for the second year in a row, due to something like the annual LA game promised to the P-12 North schools?  Something like that.  So, WSU goes back to Pasadena. 

Besides rocking the Daisy Dukes, bikini’s on top, sun-kissed skin so hot they’ll melt your Popsicle, how do the Bruins look, you know, on the field?  Is this the last stand for Rick Neuheisel as he hits year four of his dream job?  Or will another year of struggling to be bowl-eligible be the end of the line for the Slick One?  Let’s see….

To be quite honest here, things were supposed to be better by now.  Three full years into the Neuheisel era, the Bruins do have a bowl win.  That can’t be considered a complete disaster, right?  But on the other hand, the bar was set extremely high from day one, when Neuheisel decided to take on USC and the now-infamous “the Monopoly is OVER” campaign hit the papers.  Remember that, when Neuheisel boldly took the job and declared that USC’s grip on LA was done, finished, kaput? 

Across town, we all know that things took a big step back in the land of Troy.  Pete Carroll bolted for the great NW, and Lane Kiffin took over a probation-laden program in the midst of trying to win a difficult-at-best appeal with the NCAA.  So maybe it’s more like SC’s grip on the Pac-10/12 is now done, thanks to their step back coinciding with Oregon’s ascension to the top of the line.  But has UCLA capitalized on SC’s misfortunes?  Not exactly….at least not yet.

To be fair, it will probably take at least another two years before the effects of all the scholarship losses are felt at SC.  If UCLA has truly taken advantage of SC’s descent, we will probably know by then as the attrition will start to show itself when the thin recruiting classes become upperclassmen.  But last year, in the LA market at least, it really seemed like more of the same.  At least that’s the view from 20,000 feet from up here in the NW.  SC may have fallen, but they are still apparently ahead of where UCLA longs to be, and that’s top dog in SoCal!  

So is this it for Neuheisel if they don’t take that huge step forward?  It’s a difficult question.  But since Neuheisel’s a lawyer, let’s lay out the evidence, shall we? 

15-22 record overall, and just 8-19 in the conference.  Good for 8th place or worse in all three seasons.

Oh, and that team across town, the one where the monopoly in LA was supposed to be over?  0-3 vs. USC.  

Not good.

On the “keep him” side of things, he has won a bowl game a couple of years ago.  And he’s been able to cobble together some pretty decent looking recruiting classes, at least on paper, despite the losses on the field.  So whatever it is he’s selling in living rooms, some high-level recruits are buying in.  And finally, he didn’t sit still last year as both the offensive coordinator (Norm Chow) and defensive coordinator (Chuck Bullough) are both “pursuing other opportunities”. 

But from reading the tea leaves and rumors and coaching hot seat stuff this offseason, it does seem like 2011 is the tipping point.  He may be a UCLA alum, and he still has two years left on his contract, but isn’t it officially show-me time in Pasadena for Rick Neuheisel??

2010 RECORD:  4-8, 2-7 in the conference.  After starting the year at 3-2, including a huge blowout win at Texas, they lost QB Kevin Prince and then closed the year losing six of their last seven.

LAST TIME vs. WSU:  In maybe one of the more unexpected shootouts of the Pac-10 season last year, the young Cougs came into the Rose Bowl and hung tough with the Bruins, and actually took an 8-point lead in the second half.  But UCLA kept slamming it on the ground, and the Coug D never could stop the run in a tough 42-28 loss

2010 OFFENSIVE STATS:  Things were awful in the air after injuries shredded the QB position on the depth chart, as UCLA finished 116th in the nation in passing yards (141.1 ypg).  The running game was a real strength though, #32 nationally at 175.6 ypg.  But with those lower passing numbers, points were at a premium last year as UCLA averaged 20.2 ppg, good for 104th in the nation. 

OFFENSIVE SYSTEM:  Norm Chow is gone, as the so-called dream team of coaches just couldn’t get it done.   Norm Chow left for Utah, so Mike Johnson, former San Francisco offensive coordinator, takes over.  Johnson’s philosophy is a spread-em-out approach, so, UCLA will be going to a new system in ’11.

RETURNING STARTERS – OFFENSE:  UCLA returns 7 starters to the offense.

TOP RETURNING OFFENSIVE PLAYER:  It certainly won’t be a QB after last year’s performance through the air.  Kevin Prince looks capable, and he looked good at times over the last two years, but health is a major issue there (more on Prince later).  But a huge plus on the Bruins offense was running back Johnathan Franklin, so he gets the nod as the top returning offensive player for ’11.

Franklin really took off his sophomore year, almost doubling his rushing yards from his frosh season in ’09 (566 to 1,127 in ’10).  Franklin is strong and compact at 5-10 and nearly 200 lbs, and gets the job done with good balance and speed.   Check out a TD run he had against Houston last year:

Franklin had five games of at least 100 yards last year, including a season high 216 against the young, overwhelmed WSU defense a year ago.   For the season, Franklin averaged 5.3 yards per carry with 8 TD’s.  The question is, can he top those numbers in 2011?  The top seven rushers return for UCLA this year, and with a switch to more of a spread offense, his carries could actually go down next year?  I guess we’ll see, but it’s hard to argue against Franklin being the top player returning on offense. 

2010 DEFENSIVE STATS:  It wasn’t a great year on D for the Bruins, as even though they had some real talented individual players, they just didn’t seem to “gel”, I guess?  UCLA finished 94th in the nation in total defense, allowing just over 420 yards per game.  The rushing defense was especially bad, allowing 205 yards per game, ranking 108th in the nation (wow!).  On the bright side, the pass defense was good, coming at 53rd in the country (214.6 yards per game).  But overall, a tough year on defense.

2010 RETURNING STARTERS – DEFENSE:  Eight starters are back on D.

DEFENSIVE SCHEME:  New defensive coordinator Joe Tresey likes to get after it on defense, so they won’t exactly lie in wait for the opposition to do their thing.  They will run a 4-3, same as it was under Bullough, but things are promised to be different.  Tresey comes from South Florida and also coached at Cincinnati, and he preaches turnovers and tackles for loss as staples to what they will try to do on defense. 

TOP RETURNING DEFENSIVE PLAYER:  With some excellent defenders departing UCLA in Rahim Moore and Akeem Ayers, both second round picks in this year’s NFL draft, it now looks like the best defender coming back in ’11 is strong safety Tony Dye.

Dye led the Bruins last year with 96 tackles, ranking fourth in the Pac-10 with 8 tackles per game, and was tops with nine pass breakups.  Dye can play multiple positions in the secondary, but will be the ideal starter at strong safety at 5-11, 205, where he has started the last 25 games.  He was a co-winner of the top defensive player of the year award at UCLA last year, and definitely looks like a pre-season all-conference candidate for Pac-12 honors.  He has already been named to the Ronnie Lott Watch List for 2011, so the preseason accoldates should be there.  The NFL scouts really like him too, listing him by one site as the #2 strong safety for the 2012 NFL draft. 

TOP POST-SPRING QUESTIONS:  1)  NOT THE QB AGAIN!?!  Yep, the QB is a question – again.  In the Neuheisel era, this seems to be a recurring theme, no?  Anyway, they sure want to give the job to Kevin Prince, and he looked pretty good running the pistol offense early in the 2010 season.  But the guy just cannot stay healthy, and has basically taken a beating the last couple of years.  He did make it through the 2009 season in one piece – barely – as he even had his jaw wired shut after a helmet-to-helmet hit vs. Tennessee, missing a couple of starts.  He’s a tough SOB, and also was one of the best frosh QB’s in school history, throwing for over 2,000 yards in his initial campaign.  So as much promise as there appears to be in Prince, it’s hard to take his playing the position with complete certainty.  Prince missed spring ball as he recovers from injuries, but should be ready to go this fall.  But in his absence, others got a lot of reps. 

Meanwhile, Richard Breihut started seven games last year in place of Prince, and he was, well, OK I guess – 56% completions, six TD’s and seven INT’s with his first real run at playing time.  There are others in the mix though, including Darius Bell, who played briefly last year and missed spring ball due to a shoulder injury, but should be back and ready to compete in fall camp. 

But the future looks extremely bright at the position, and that’s because of one guy – true frosh Brett Hundley (#17, pictured above).  Hundley looks like the “real thing” so far, a big youngster at 6-4, 225 lbs, who moves well and has a strong arm.  The gem of UCLA’s recruiting class this year, Hundley graduated early and was in for spring ball, and looked pretty good, even throwing for a TD in the spring game.  Rated as the #3 QB coming out by Scout.com, there is little doubt he’s the guy for the future.  But for the guy right now?  It still looks like a healthy Kevin Prince will be running with the one’s in fall ball, but Breihut and Hundley will get at least a shot at the top spot.   

2)  CAN THE DEFENSE RECOVER FROM THE LOSSES OF NFL’ers LIKE MOORE AND AYERS?  Losing Moore and Ayers opens up some holes at linebacker and free safety, but, it’s not the end of the world.  UCLA still returns some pretty good talent in the back end of the defense in guys like Tony Dye and also linebacker Sean Westgate.  Westgate was second on the team with 90 tackles last year, eighth in the Pac-10 overall in tackles and even got some honorable mention honors in the conference.  Overall the linebackers look strong with Westgate, Patrick Larimore and Jordan Zumwalt all back for 2011 and each guy with significant experience.  And not all hope is lost in the secondary either, of course with Dye coming back.  But overall three out of four starters are back, and there are talented kids in the mix to step in at free safety in Dalton Hilliard and Dietrich Riley.  But above all the individual performances, overall they just needed to make changes on D.  With the talent last year also came serious underachievement according to many who follow the program.  The change to Tresey and his new attacking scheme is a welcome addition to the defensive side of the ball! 

3)  OBLIGATORY SCHEDULE QUESTION?:  The road games look tough, but overall it’s not the most difficult schedule around.  A balanced schedule with six home games and six road games, but they do have to play three of their first five on the road.  They open at Houston, which could be tough, but then come home for San Jose State.  Week three looks dicey though, as Texas comes to town looking for revenge after last year’s blowout loss at home to the Bruins.  In the Pac-12, they miss Oregon and Washington, both schools they lost to last year (and missing Oregon this year isn’t necessarily a bad thing!).  From a Coug P-O-V, after their showdown with Texas, they have to go to Corvallis and then probably the toughest game on the entire schedule – @ Stanford – on 10/1 before WSU comes calling. 

POST SPRING RAMBLINGS, DOT-DOT-DOT STYLE.….While the defense definitely needs to improve, and there are some good players who have moved on, one position that looks pretty good all of a sudden is the defensive line, always a huge key for defensive play.  They return six players on the D-line with starting experience, and also get back Datone Jones, who returns from a foot injury after missing 2010…..Much is made of Neuheisel’s recruiting prowess, and for good reason, at least for the first couple of years under his control.  They were no worse than 10th in the NATION in each of Neuheisel’s first three classes (10th in ’08, 5th in ’09, 8th in 2010).  But 2011??  Not so much, as maybe the losing on the field and the uncertainly over Neuheisel’s future starts to become an issue.  UCLA tied for 52nd in the country per Scout.com’s recruiting rankings, and that is including the five-star special at QB, Brett Hundley.  They did only sign 16 players for the class, as they just didn’t have the room to add more than that, but overall the recruiting rankings took a step back…..Even though a new offensive coordinator is in town in Johnson, one can probably expect a lot of different things out of UCLA’s offense early on.  With a newfound strength in the running game which saw them average 60 yards more per game in 2010 compared to 2009, one shouldn’t expect them to just ditch it in favor of a wild passing attack.  But at the same time, there will be changes to improve the passing game, but the foundation of the offense should be the running game.  The good news for the passing game is that a TON of experience is back in catching the football.  In fact, the top 10 players who caught passes last year are all back in 2011, including the wideouts, the starting TE, and the running backs.  No matter who the QB happens to be, there will be serious game experience on the receiving end…..Often overlooked and under-appreciated, punter looks strong for UCLA.  Jeff Locke led the Pac-10 last year at 45.8 yards per punt, good for fifth in the country.  However, Locke missed spring ball due to a hip injury, but he should ready by fall camp…..One sore spot the last several years has been the play of the UCLA offensive line, but there is some new hope this year.  Two starters are back up front from 2010, but there are also a couple of other starters from 2009 who missed last year and are slated to come back this season, in Jeff Baka and Kai Maivai……Some of the top UCLA websites around include BruinsNation.com, part of SB Nation; The OC Register UCLA section; BruinBlitz.com, part of Rivals.com; and finally, BruinReportOnline.com, part of the Scout.com network.

All for now.  Enjoy your Tuesday and as always, GO COUGS!