Ryan Rosenblatt of Bruinsnation.com was kind enough to supply some insight into questions Buildingthedam.com had about UCLA as Oregon St. gets ready for this Saturday's visit to the Rose Bowl to take on the Bruins.
Ryan also invited me on to their weekly podcast, and you can check that out here.
1. Richard Brehaut is settling in at quarterback, and in the three games he has started, his QB rating has climbed by a significant amount each game. What aspect of his game has he made the greatest improvement in?
More than anything, Brehaut has just gotten comfortable with playing Division I football. Last season, Brehaut was completely overwhelmed by the playbook and by what opposing defenses were doing. This season, he has shown a better grasp of the playbook each week and despite not doing a great job of reading the pass rush and knowing where the blitz is coming from, he is better at it. With the comfort in what's going on, Brehaut has been able to relax and just sling the ball around. Norm Chow has responded by opening up the playbook as well, something that was much-needed and is giving Brehaut more of a chance.
2. Coach Rick Neuheisel has a number of critics across the west, and it's a familiar theme whenever his team is struggling that he isn't doing anything about it. I don't see that. In watching several games closely, whenever a player doesn't do something right, I see Neuheisel in discussions with the player, and usually at the first opportunity. Yet the results are clearly mixed, and with a roster that is of above average talent. Do you sense there might be an issue where a percentage of players are sometimes less than receptive to coaching, possibly not convinced what has always worked for them needs adjusting?
I don't think that has been as much of a problem. The way that the staff, particularly Neuheisel deals with the players hasn't appeared to be much of an issue. The game planning has been a major issue, some horrific tackling on defense has been an issue, injuries before the season to the offensive line have been an issue and not having a healthy quarterback has been an issue as well as a host of other things, including the lack of development from some players, but I don't think I would chalk those problems up to an issue with the way Neuheisel deals with the players. He, and the entire staff do need to change things up, but that's not near the top of the list, in my opinion.
3. You have a freshman defensive end from Oregon, Owamagbe Odighizuwa, who I covered as a high school player. We expected he would probably red-shirt, but he has worked his way into the starting lineup. What can you tell us about his progress?
I don't think anyone down here exepected Owa to redshirt. It's rare that one of the top recruits at his position redshirts and with UCLA hardly stacked along the defensive line, Owa was always expected to play this season. A physical monster for a freshman, Owa hasn't had a ton of trouble adapting to the college game physically, but his technique can use some work. That said, he has made some big strides since earlier in the season with his hand work and getting off of blocks, while his bullrush has been an effective go-to move for him. He has hardly been dominating, as no freshman would, but he's played well enough to cause some fans to clamor for him getting more snaps.
4. Nelson Rosario is scheduled to return to action this week, but even before he injured his ankle, he was not having the kind of season we expected, based on how well he played last year. What did you see that accounted for that, and how well has his rehab gone? Should we expect to see him return to last year's level of performance?
It's hard to judge how Rosario's rehab has gone. As we all know, ankle sprains are a nuisance and you're never quite sure when they're gone. Just when you think you're good to go, you tweak it again so how healthy he is is less day to day and more snap to snap, as is the case with most ankle sprains. Before he was injured, he was on his way to a disappointing year. Some of it was his own doing as he dropped a few balls and didn't run the crispest of routes to get the necessary separation. He was also let down by an offensive line that didn't give the quarterback time to throw and a quarterback in Kevin Prince who was having a dreadful year passing the football. If he is near healthy, Rosario is still a weapon because of his size and speed, plus Brehaut throws a better ball than Prince, but Rosario has been known to float in and out of games mentally so nobody really knows what to expect from him anymore.
5. Continuing with the theme of receivers, I expected Taylor Embree to also have a huge year, but he too has been slowed, and though he has started to do better in the Bruins' last three games, he still hasn't had a "big" game, quite a surprise given those games were when Rosario was out. What's happening with Embree, and is this a case where defenses have been able to capitalize on injuries to over-load coverages on remaining receivers?
Embree has been hamstrung by the same thing that has hamstrung Rosario and that is a sub-par blocking and quarterback play, but that doesn't excuse what has been a terrible season on his part. Embree as never overly fast and nobody ever saw him as a major deep threat, but he appeared to be the ideal possession receiver. With a dad who is a NFL receivers coach, it's no surprise that Embree came to UCLA technically sound and he used his good size to shield defenders. All of a sudden this year, Embree runs sloppy routes, drops passes and that doesn't play well when a receiver doesn't have great speed. It's been confounding for UCLA fans, but Embree took his average skills and lost his fundamentals to become what we have seen of him this year.
6. Last year, a tough middle of the season started to turn around late in the Oregon St. game, when the Bruins mounted a rally. That momentum carried UCLA to a 3 game winning streak, and the Bruins won 4 of their last 5 games. You were much more competitive last week against a very good Arizona team than the two road games before, against Cal and Oregon. Are the Bruins making a similar rally this year, and right now?
I don't know if UCLA is going to make a similar rally to the one they made last year, but they're going to take a step forward in their quality of play. Last year, getting Prince healthy and comfortable was a key part in the turnaround of the team late in the year. Brehaut is getting comfortable and the offensive should continue to progress, but unlike last season, the defense has been unreliable. Without Brian Price and Alterraun Verner, defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough hasn't been bailed out by incredible talent on his team and are getting killed. While I expect the offense to pick it up and give UCLA a chance to finish strong, but I really don't have much confidence in our defense stepping forward.