Top 50 Countdown: No. 25 UCLA

Coach: Karl Dorrell | Staff
In 2006: 7-6, 5-4; Lost Emerald Bowl to Florida State 44-27.
Returning starters: Offense: 10. Defense: 10.
Key losses: WR Junior Taylor; C Robert Chai; K Justin Medlock; DE Justin Hickman.
2007 breakdown: Top 10 players | Outlook | Offense | Defense | Special teams | Coaching | Schedule

Breaking down the offense

Overview: Injuries and underachievers compromised the Bruins' offensive production a year ago. A knee injury sidelined QB Ben Olson for three-fourths of the season, and no wide receiver managed more than 31 catches. In response, the Bruins brought in Jay Norvell from Nebraska to recharge the offense. The return of running back Chris Markey, as well as four starters in the offensive line, should help accomplish that mission. So might a schedule that includes 10 opponents which ranked between 42nd and 97th in total defense last season.

UCLA TOP 10
Ben Olson must stay healthy if he is to live up to his potential.

1. DE Bruce Davis
2. OG Shannon Tevaga
3. S Chris Horton
4. QB Ben Olson
5. DT Brigham Harwell
6. CB Trey Brown
7. LB Christian Taylor
8. LB Reggie Carter
9. DT Kevin Brown
10. RB Chris Markey
Best player: G Shannon Tevaga has twice received honorable mention all-conference recognition for his play, and this year will push for first-team all-conference laurels. He's big and strong with a nasty temperament.

Most overrated: Olson. A five-star prospect coming out of high school in 2002, Olson didn't live up to billing last season. However, he only played five games before enduring a season-ending knee injury. In addition, he played significantly for the first time since high school because he redshirted as a freshman at BYU then spent two years on a Mormon mission. He shouldn't be judged too harshly.

Most underrated: What does a running back have to do to get All-Pac 10 recognition? Markey rushed for 1,163 yards and caught 35 passes for 261 more yards in 2006. Despite those numbers, he didn't make an all-star team. There were a lot of great backs in the Pac-10 last year, but Markey will make a run at honors in 2007 if a hairline fracture in his foot suffered in the spring doesn't become an issue.

Must step up: Olson completed 63 percent of his passes and threw for 822 yards and five touchdowns before getting knocked out for the season in the fifth game. If he plays to his considerable abilities, it could be a special year in Westwood.

Impact newcomer: UCLA is set at running back, but incoming freshman Raymond Carter should get some touches. The four-star prospect is so fast the Bruins may feel they have to find ways to get him on the field.

Battle to watch: Aleksey Lanis started at tackle last season but came out of the spring listed as a backup. Sophomore Micah Kia made a big move in the spring and projects as a starter. Whether he can hold off Lanis or any other challengers will be one of the more intriguing aspects of August.

New in 2007: That would be Norvell, who comes over from Nebraska. He'll be calling plays for the first time in his career.

Grade the units:
QB: B-: Olson was a little inconsistent last year and is coming off an injury, but he regained the starting job this spring. Patrick Cowan provides the luxury of an experienced backup.
RB: B: Markey is obviously proven, and Kahlil Bell rushed for 136 yards in the 2005 Sun Bowl victory. Also, the arrival of Carter gives the Bruins depth to envy.
WR/TE: B+: Marcus Everett, who had 31 catches a year ago, seems primed for a big year. Brandon Breazell, who made 21 catches in 2006, looks to improve as well. The Bruins will get another boost with the return of Joe Cowan, who had 35 catches in 2005 but sat out last season with an injury.
OL: B+: Four starters return from last year's line, and the Bruins will replace lost center Robert Chai by moving Chris Joseph from guard to center. As a result, Noah Sutherland will move from tackle to guard. Tevaga is the best of the group up front, and the Bruins are very optimistic about their depth at tackle. That is why they moved Sutherland in the first place.

Breaking down the defense

Overview: The Bruins made tremendous improvement last season - the first year under defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker. UCLA figures to build on that with 10 starters returning. The defensive line should rank among the nation's best, and the linebackers have the speed to make up for their lack of size. However, there are some holes in the secondary. Patching up a pass defense which ranked 87th nationally is a top priority.

Best player: Defensive end Bruce Davis was named to some All-American teams last season after posting 12 sacks and 47 tackles 17 of which went for losses.

UCLA Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 1 at Stanford
Sept. 8 BYU
Sept. 15 at Utah
Sept. 22 Washington
Sept. 29 at Oregon State
Oct. 6 Notre Dame
Oct. 20 California
Oct. 27 at Washington State
Nov. 3 at Arizona
Nov. 10 Arizona State
Nov. 24 Oregon
Dec. 1 at USC
Most overrated: Cornerback Rodney Van is a great athlete with excellent speed, but he needs to raise his level of play. He started all 13 games a year ago, but did not manage an interception. He did make 57 tackles.

Most underrated: MLB Christian Taylor is undersized and underappreciated. He hasn't received all-conference acclaim, but he's among the best linebackers in the Pac-10. Taylor made 83 tackles last season.

Must step up: As a group, the linebackers must play well in a system that's designed to feature them. They're all undersized but athletic. Taylor is the most consistent of the group, though sophomore Reggie Carter is coming off an excellent freshman year. Aaron Whittington needs to improve on the 29 tackles he recorded in 2006, although he was hampered by an ankle injury that forced him to miss three games.

Shoes to fill: Defensive end Nikola Dragovic must replace all-conference performer Justin Hickman. Last season, Hickman ranked fourth nationally with 12 sacks. Dragovic started the first four games of 2005 before he was felled by a season-ending knee injury.

Impact newcomer: Three-star freshman prospect Courtney Viney could get a chance to contribute at corner in his first season if some veterans don't improve.

Position battle: As a freshman cornerback, Alterraun Verner made a big splash with 59 tackles and two interceptions returned for touchdowns in a backup role. This year he'll likely challenge Van for a starting role.

New in 2007: There isn't much new with 10 returning starters. However, there is a new level of experience and expectation after a full season under defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker.

Grade the units:
DL: A: The Bruins were ninth nationally against the run and get back one of the best pass rushers in the nation in Bruce Davis. He joins defensive tackles Brigham Harwell and Kevin Brown as returning starters up front.
LB: A-: Small, but productive. The trio of Taylor, Carter and Whittington also was a major factor in UCLA's success against the run.
DB: B: Trey Brown is an excellent cover corner, and strong safety Chris Horton is a big hitter. Both have all-conference potential. Either Van or Verner will be solid at the other corner. Free safety Dennis Keyes is entering his third season as a starter.

Breaking down the special teams

Overview: An area of strength became an area of uncertainty with the graduation of all-conference kicker Justin Medlock. He converted 28 of 32 field-goal attempts in 2006, including 7-for-10 from beyond 40 yards. The Bruins must also replace their primary return men on kickoffs, but won't have any shortage of candidates for that role. They will have no worries at punter, and their coverage teams were respectable last season.

Season outlook with bowl forecast
The volume of returning starters fosters feelings of great optimism in Westwood. So does a schedule which brings opponents BYU, Washington, Notre Dame, California, Arizona State and Oregon to the Rose Bowl. The Bruins expect to have one of the best defenses in the Pac-10. If injuries are avoided and quarterback Ben Olson plays to his ability, UCLA could duplicate its 10-victory season of 2005. However, with a trying non-conference schedule and an improving Pac-10, eight victories would seem a better bet.
Best player: Reserve safety Matt Slater excelled on special teams and was a big hitter as the gunner in punt coverage. He had nine tackles, including six solos.

Grade the units:
K: Incomplete. Redshirt freshman Kai Forbath will replace Justin Medlock. Forbath was erratic all spring. This has gone from a strength to a big question mark.
P: C+: Aaron Perez is good, and could be better. He improved last year in his second season as the No. 1 punter. He averaged 42.6 yards, which was fourth in the Pac-10. However, he shanked a few, too.
KR: Incomplete. Last year's top kickoff returners - Derrick Williams (concussion) and Jeremy McGee (transfer) - are gone, so it's uncertain who will handle those duties. Marcus Everett and Bell are possibilities. So is Terrence Austin, and maybe even Raymond Carter.
PR: B+: Austin averaged 13.8 yards on eight returns as a true freshman last season. Ryan Graves is also a candidate to handle those duties.

Breaking down the coaching

Overview: Karl Dorrell is 29-21 as UCLA's coach, and some fans in Westwood are growing impatient for him to take the Bruins to another level. He did lead them to a 10-victory season in 2005, but the other three seasons haven't produced more than seven victories. He did preside over the Bruins' upset of USC last season, and he made a brilliant move in hiring Walker.

Grade the coaches:
Head coach: B-: Dorrell has taken the Bruins to bowl games each year he has been at the UCLA helm. However, UCLA is just 1-3 in those bowl games.
Offense: B: Nebraska ranked 14th nationally in total offense last season with Norvell as offensive coordinator. Wide receiver coach Eric Scott is entering his first year coaching at the collegiate level.
Defense: A+: Walker orchestrated a dramatic upgrade in his first year as UCLA's defensive coordinator. Under Walker, the Bruins climbed from 113th nationally in total defense to 35th. The Bruins reduced the number of touchdowns surrendered from 48 to 27. They were also ninth nationally against the run. Now, if they can do something about the pass defense

Special teams: Incomplete. Although in his fifth year at UCLA, Gary DeLoach will serve as special teams coordinator for the first time this season. He has to break in a new kicker and settle on a kickoff returner. The punt team, however, shouldn't be a problem.

Olin Buchanan is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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