The Rick returns to the Pac-10. And the countdown is now on to see when he appears before the various NCAA infractions committee's, such as the picture above. I'd give the over-under at, what, 3 seasons? Too high perhaps? Maybe 2.5 seasons. Anyway, you just know what's coming down in Westwood.
The last we saw of Neuheisel after the '02 AC, he was dodging bottles of 151 as he ran off the field at Martin Stadium, flipping off the WSU student section in the process. I am pretty sure I yelled something at him as he went to the tunnel, but I really can't remember. It's all such a blur. But does the thought of Neuheisel returning to the Pac-10 at UCLA worry you? He was 33-16 at UW and led them to a bowl game in all 4 years at the school. He got himself in a lot of hot water by pissing on the NCAA rule book, time and again, and just couldn't stay out of the coaching rumor mill whenever a hot job opened up. He takes the brunt of the blame for UW's situation, and his passion for finesse really turned the team into a shell of what they used to be in the 90's. Yet here he is, with one more chance to make things right at his alma mater.
The best news for UCLA is who exactly Neuheisel has chosen to hire as his coordinators. DeWayne Walker is regarded as one of the top defensive coordinators on the west coast, if not the nation. Tyrone Willingham and company pushed as hard as they could and according to one report, they had him as the next UW defensive coordinator. Walker was even a head coaching candidate this winter, interviewing for the UCLA job and a rumored candidate at several other schools. But the moment Neuheisel took the job, he claimed his #1 recruit was DeWayne Walker, and sure enough, he kept him on the staff. That's a strong enough move. But to also nab Norm Chow as the OC?? Now that is impressive. Chow was the architect of all those great USC offenses with Pete Carroll. Of course it helps that Carroll gave him Heisman trophy winners to run said offense, but, Chow's rep is as a brilliant offensive mind and a guy who has done great work with QB's. Many from the SC days claim it was his arrival that turned Carson Palmer from an inconsistent, "toolsy" QB into a Heisman winner and top NFL draft pick because of Chow's guidance.
Here's a look at the post-spring state of UCLA:
2007: A disappointing 6-7, but 5-4 in the Pac-10. Still it wasn't enough to keep Karl Dorrell around, and he was quickly shown the door after the season. Except for one breakthrough season in 2005 and an upset of USC in 2006, Dorrell was basically a .500 coach, and that doesn't fly down there for very long. The most disappointing thing about last year was because of yet another late-season fade. UCLA started 5-2 and looked certain to be headed for an upper-division bowl game, but would go on to lose 5 of their last 6, including the Las Vegas bowl. In fact, the 27-7 loss in Pullman started their annual tailspin into the abyss.
Offensive Scheme: Chow's a versatile offensive coach, employing tons of different looks in his USC days. Some one-back with triple WR sets, some power or offset-I formations, some shotgun. Pretty much everything. The big difference here though is that UCLA is NOT one of the read-option, shotgun-exclusive offenses that are the rage right now. They are much more of your traditional, sophisticated NFL-style attack. This is a WELCOME CHANGE to a UCLA offense that was basically putrid last year. How bad was it? #92 in scoring offense, #101 in passing offense, and #99 in total offense. Peeee-U! However their offensive skill positions were devastated with injuries down the stretch last year, so some of those numbers are deceiving.
Defensive Scheme: Walker employs a 4-3 attack and will blitz when necessary, but they aren't the biggest gambling defense around. They have had a lot of talent in recent seasons, and last year they were a top-30 defense, including 14th against the run. UCLA has become much more of a defensive team over the last several years.
Top Offensive Player: Make no mistake about it, UCLA is thin in the skill-position player department. But they do have Kahlil Bell back from last year, although he is coming off a knee injury. They are hopeful he will be OK to start the season. Bell led the team with 795 rushing yards, 5 TD's and an impressive 5.6 yards per carry. He actually had 34 LESS carries compared to starter Chris Markey, who is now out of the program. If healthy, Bell has size, speed and moves. Check it out:
Top Defensive Player: The defense has some strong talent back, including DT Brian Price and his 7 sacks, LB Kyle Bosworth and his 74 tackles, or corner Alterraun Verner and his 75 tackles, 4 picks and 15 pass break-ups. But overall, LB Reggie Carter looks like the top impact player on D for UCLA in '08. Carter had 62 tackles last year, not an overwhelming amount by any stretch and is good for third on the team among returning players. But he did have 12 tackles for loss last year, including a couple of sacks. At 6-2, 221, he runs extremely well and will now move from weakside to the middle. The junior will likely be in the 100-tackle range and will handle all the defensive calls in the middle of the defense.
Top Spring Questions:
1) What up with the QB injuries?
A good question after spring practices. Starter Patrick Cowan tore his left ACL and is already done for 2008. Backup Ben Olson broke his right foot late in the spring and will be out for several months. However UCLA does believe that Olson will be back as the starter by the opener. At least they hope so. If Olson is ready to go, he's got to get better in a hurry. He was underwhelming in 7 games last year, completing only 48% of his passes with 7 TD's and 6 INT's. Olson has all the tools coaches dream of, 6-4, 235 and a rocket for a left arm. But he just hasn't put it together despite all the hype of his arrival a few years ago, and all of a sudden he's a senior and regarded as a reclamation project for Norm Chow. It's now or never for Olson.
2) If Olson is OK, Who Will Protect Him?
That's the scary part for UCLA's offense. Just two starters are back on the O-line in tackle Micah Kia and center Micah Reed, but Kia is the only returning starter back at his original position. Reed is sliding over from guard to start at center. Even worse, eight of the top ten in the post-spring two-deep roster on the O-line DIDN'T PLAY A SINGLE SNAP in 2007! They are young, young, young up front, and that is a potentially lethal situation for any QB.
Bottom Line: The Bruins begin with a tough slate, including Tennessee to open the season and then travel to BYU on 9/13. This will be the third time in a year that UCLA plays BYU (kind of weird). Anyway, after the road game at BYU they host Arizona and Fresno State before the Cougs raid Pasadena on 10/4. That makes for 4 home games out of their first 5. Not to suggest that they will be looking past WSU, but UCLA does go to Oregon the following week. But 4 of the first 5 at home could set up some momentum as they get into the meat of the season.
Believe it or not, UCLA is starting to look like a rebuilding job more than anything else. But despite the losses of so many skill position guys, the young, thin O-line, the injured QB's, etc, the first year might be better than people think. Neuheisel's M-O is to basically show up and win immediately with the prior staff's players. UCLA has recruited well over the last few years, so there is talent in the pipeline, even if it isn't experienced. Neuheisel usually wins people over early in the game, like a breath of fresh air, and immediately things improve. But then things start to deteriorate, as you realize he recruits wide receivers, running backs and QB's every recruiting class and basically ignores offensive and defensive linemen. He's a sucker for the skill-positions and will load up on guys like that. But maybe this time he's learned his lesson. Maybe the dynamic combo of Walker and Chow will be the forces behind UCLA's resurgence. Time will tell, but this is regarded as Neuheisel's last stand in the college ranks.