We continue our look at the 2009 Pac-10 conference today with the UCLA Bruins, who are entering the second season of the Rick Neuheisel era. The last four years have seen the Bruins win less and less games each year--UCLA won 11 in 2005, and finished the 2008 season 4-8. Last year, there were quite a few things that went wrong, and it seemed to all start at the offensive line. UCLA allowed 35 sacks last year, causing quarterback Kevin Craft to get obliterated game after game. However, he took the beating "like a warrior", starting every game under center. He was mistake prone himself, throwing 20 interceptions, but that was largely due to the fact he didn't have much time to throw. The rushing game wasn't very good either, as the Bruins had the worst ground attack in the conference. Their top rusher, Kahlil Bell, averaged just under 40 yards per game.
The good news? Seventeen starters return in total, nine of them on offense. And the offensive line should be better, but it's still a concern.
"The line is a major area of concern for us," Neuheisel said. "We did not play well as a unit a year ago, but the good news is we have a lot of guys who gained valuable experience as starters and that should help us as we move forward."
A more drastic change comes at the quarterback position, where redshirt freshman Kevin Prince has already been named the starter for the 2009 season. Prince, despite faring poorly in some scrimmages, is still considered an upgrade over Craft-- and possesses some of the intangibles that the coaches are looking for in their signalcaller. There will still be growing pains, however-- in the Spring Game, Prince missed on his first six passes, throwing one interception. However, he finished that game 11-of-24 with 124 yards. Kevin Craft should fall into back-up duties this season.
The success of the rushing game will have a lot to do with how the offensive line fares. Kahlil Bell is gone, but sophomore Derrick Coleman and fullback Chane Moline return. Coleman averaged just under 30 yards per game last season, and Moline checked in at just under 10 yards per game. Sophomore Raymond Carter, who appeared in seven games last season, figures to also be in the mix.
Senior Terrence Austin returns as a proven weapon at receiver, as he led the team in receptions last year with 53. Sophomore Taylor Embree, who earned second-team Freshman All-America honors last season, should recover from an offseason shoulder surgery to be a viable threat as well. Junior Dominique Johnson and Gavin Ketchum should also be in the rotation for offensive coordinator Norm Chow. All-in-all, it's a tall group with the exception of Terrence Austin, which should give Prince some forgiveness in the passing game.
UCLA is very deep at tight end, where seniors Ryan Moya and Logan Paulson return as proven options. Sophomore Corey Hurley and Jeff Miller did a nice job for the Bruins last season. But the unproven option here is freshman Morrell Pressley, who was the No. 1 tight end in the 2009 recruiting class. Coach Neuheisel on Pressley: "He's a great addition to our team and it will be fun to make mis-matches with him".
As discussed above, the offensive line is the major area of concern for the Bruins this season, but a lot of players have been able to gain valuable experience. Will they be able to put it to use? Sophomore left guard Jeff Baca, sophomore senior Kia Maiava, and junior left tackle Sean Sheller are the leaders of the group. If the offensive line can be somewhat successful, the Bruins will be able to move the ball easier, which means less reps for the defense, which could go a long way to getting UCLA back to the .500 mark.
The defense is clearly the strength on paper, and they proved it on the field throughout spring practice and in the Spring Game. Six starters return in the group, and there is an All Pac-10 player in every unit. The departure of coordinator DeWayne Walker to take the head coaching job at New Mexico State means that Chuck Bullough will assume the defensive coordinator duties, but the overall scheme will remain the same for the fourth year in a row.
All Pac-10 junior tackle Brian Prince headlines the defensive line, and has 21 tackles for loss in his two-year career. Senior end Korey Bosworth is the other anchor of the line-- he led the team with 7.5 sacks last season and 55 tackles. Senior Jerzy Siewierski should fill in at right tackle, and it will likely be Reggie Stokes or Datone Jones at left end.
Senior Reggie Carter will anchor the defense as middle linebacker, moving over from the strong side, which he occupied a year ago. He'll be flanked by returning starter Kyle Bosworth on the weak side and sophomore Akeem Ayers on the strong side.
The secondary is a relatively young group, but they'll be an asset. Senior Alterraun Verner returns as one of the best lock-down cornerbacks in the country, and sophomore Rahim Moore is another returning starter. Glenn Love should start at free safety, joined by fellow first year starter Aaron Hester. Guys like Aaron Ware and Tony Dye give the Bruins depth, but the loss of E.J. Woods due to misconduct (he eventually transfered) hurts a little bit.
The Bruins have proven to be an improved team on defense, and the players are feeling the improvement as well.
"I think we can be very good," Verner said of this veteran group. "We know what we're doing now; all we have to do is go out and play."
Their coach echoes the same sentiments, and recently said, "They run like a Pac-10 team now."
The Beavers beat UCLA last year largely because the OSU defense was able to shut down the Bruin offense long enough for Sean Canfield to get going under center. (It was tied 3-3 at halftime, the final score was 34-6.) Similarly, the defense will be the strong point of the Bruin offense again this year, so it will be necessary for either (a) the Beavers to run past the Bruins out of the gate, or (b) shutdown the UCLA offense long enough for the OSU offense to put some points on the board.
We know this: the Bruins will be better. But how much better?
Find everything you need to know on the UCLA Bruins over at Bruins Nation.