Pac-12 South Preview: UCLA

The Year That Was

The good news? UCLA’s road upset of then-No. 7 Texas gave us this great viral moment.

Other than that, there wasn’t much to smile about in Westwood. The football monopoly in Los Angeles still isn’t over — not even close, despite the Bruins’ competitor being downsized. And if the goal was to deliver signs of progress in 2010, UCLA’s campaign did little to inspire confidence.

The Bruins finished ninth in the Pac-10 at 4-8, delivering the second bowl-less season in three years under Rick Neuheisel. Things quickly got off on the wrong foot, as the team got humiliated by Stanford, 35-0, in its Rose Bowl home opener. That Texas win lost its luster in a hurry — the Longhorns ended up being terrible and the Bruins’ new-look Pistol offense turned out to be largely one-dimensional.

For Neuheisel, a former star quarterback for UCLA, it must have been hard to watch as Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut commandeered the nation’s 116th-ranked passing attack.  Even Paul Wulff has managed to find a consistent passer before Neuheisel.

Key Departures and Returnees

For all of the Bruins’ offensive struggles, their key losses come on the other side of the ball. Safety Rahim Moore and linebacker Akeem Ayers, UCLA’s best defensive playmakers, are off to the NFL. So is kicker Kai Forbath, who was often the team’s best hope of scoring points last year.

The coaching side has gone through drastic changes. Coordinator Norm Chow, who could do little to save the team’s offense, is gone across the division to Utah. He was replaced by Mike Johnson. Neuheisel has also hired a new defensive coordinator and special teams coach.

Juniors Brehaut and Prince are back, along with all their top receivers, but running back Johnathan Franklin is the Bruins’ key returnee. Franklin had a breakout sophomore year, finishing fifth in the Pac-10 with 1,127 rushing yards and scoring eight touchdowns. He could make an effective combo once again with senior Derrick Coleman — assuming Coleman has gotten over his Mychal Kendricks nightmares.

Player to Watch

Freshman Brett Hundley. Unfortunately for UCLA fans, the heralded quarterback’s status is uncertain right now. Thought by many to be the program’s future star under center, Hundley has undergone surgery for a torn meniscus and will be out three to four weeks. How much will that slow down his progress? Can he come back to make an impact, or will the injury result in a lost season?

Key Questions

1. Can Neuheisel save his job? If last week’s Pac-12 media day was any indication, the embattled coach knows his clock is ticking. Given the level of staff restructuring, he wants change and he wants it now. The question is, what level of progress can douse Neuheisel’s ever-sweltering hot seat? Obviously, a bowl game is a must. Moreover, some impressive wins would be nice — Houston and/or Texas? Arizona State? At Utah? At (dare we say it) USC? Significant improvement on offense couldn’t hurt, either. Speaking of which …

2. Who is the quarterback? This decision may very well determine the Bruins’ season. There’s Prince, who has had trouble staying healthy but did lead the Bruins to a bowl game as a freshman in 2009. His paltry passing numbers last year were partially skewed by a rush-first offense — UCLA beat Texas with Prince throwing just eight times. If he remains injury-free, Prince should have the inside track, given his experience. Brehaut, meanwhile, showed flashes against Arizona, Oregon State and Arizona State last season.

Outlook

Right now, things don’t look good for Neuheisel’s future. Only Colorado was picked to finish lower in south division, and that’s simply not going to cut it. The defense could be a bright spot but it’s not good to have questions about your quarterback and O-line depth if you’re trying to make strides on offense. Just getting to .500 will be a fight this fall — San Jose State, Washington State and the Buffs (all at home) are the only sure-fire wins.

That means Neuheisel better pull out some surprises.

Image source: DaBruins07 under creative commons