April 2, 2009

Neuheisel needs to solve anemic offense

Rick Neuheisel's first season as coach of his alma mater was like a grossly underthrown pass: It started out well enough but ultimately fell woefully short of its goal.

Actually, there were a lot of underthrown passes for the Bruins, who were among just 12 Football Bowl Subdivision teams to average less than 20 points per game.

Putting together an offense capable of reaching the end zone with consistency is job one this spring. That will require making tremendous improvement at quarterback and in the offensive line.

Here's a look at the Bruins as they prepare for spring drills.

Rick Neuheisel needs to address UCLA anemic offense this spring.
Coach: Rick Neuheisel
Last season: 4-8, 3-6 Pac-10
Spring dates: April 2-24
Offense (9): WR Terrence Austin, T Jeff Baca, QB Kevin Craft, C Jake Dean, G/T Nick Ekbatani, TE Cory Harkey, T/G Micah Kia, FB Chane Moline, G Darius Savage.
Defense (6): E Korey Bosworth, LB Reggie Carter, FS Rahim Moore, T Brian Price, LB Steve Sloan, CB Alterraun Verner.
Special Teams (1): K Kai Forbath.
Positions of strength

The top three wide receivers from last season return and all had more than 30 receptions. Terrence Austin had 53 catches, the most by a Bruins receiver in six years. Meanwhile, sophomore Taylor Embree led the team with 531 receiving yards last season, but shoulder surgery will keep him out of spring practice. Junior Dominique Johnson had 34 catches last season. Linebacker looks to be the strength on defense.

Help is needed

The Bruins' running game was among the worst in the nation in '08. UCLA also allowed an average of three sacks per game. Clearly, upgrading the offensive line is a must. Five linemen who started at least seven games are back, so there is some experience for the coaches to work with. Better quarterback play would help the running game. Kevin Craft threw almost three times more interceptions (20) than touchdown passes (seven) last season. That's unacceptable. A new starting tailback is needed, too.

Keep an eye on

OT Nate Chandler: Chandler, a sophomore, came to UCLA as a tight end but has bulked up to 290 pounds. Last season, he played both tackle and tight end. This spring, he'll be given a chance to concentrate on tackle and will be looking to distinguish himself there.

TB Derrick Coleman: Coleman, a sophomore, is the leading returning rusher, but will he be able to snag the starting job? The competition should be intense. Redshirt freshmen Milton Knox and Johnathan Franklin and sophomore Aundre Dean will be the challengers.

OT Sean Sheller: Sheller, a junior, was expected to start last season, but he wrecked his knee in an offseason accident and missed the season. He's back and ready to make up for lost time. He'll contend for a starting job at left tackle.

His time is now

Much has been expected from Micah Kia since he arrived in 2006. He has started 15 games over the past two seasons, but he still has been somewhat of an underachiever. His progress might have been stunted by coaching changes. This season will mark the first time he's had the same line coach for two consecutive years. The Bruins are counting on Kia to significantly raise his level of play in his final go-round. Another to watch on the offensive line is center Kai Maiava, a sophomore transfer from Colorado who is expected to win the starting job.

The buzz

As is the case throughout the Pac-10, the quarterback competition at UCLA will dominate discussions this spring. Craft will have to make substantial progress to hold off redshirt freshman Kevin Prince and true freshman Richard Brehaut for the starting job. Just as important is a need for a stronger offensive line. The Bruins frequently were physically whipped up front. Spring scrimmages should give an indication of the effectiveness of the offseason strength and conditioning program.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.


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