Talk about having perhaps the best kicking game in the country returning:
“That should be hugely comforting. But as coaches will do, we find other things to worry about. But you’re right, we have two of the finest kickers in the country. For both to be coming back and all the machinery returning, including holder and snapper, those are all huge comforts.”
How are Josh Smith and Kai Maiava doing academically?
“Josh had a great quarter academically. There’s no problems with Josh. He still has a few things this spring to make sure he meets his demands. I think he can do it. He’s proven he can do it. I know this close to the finish line he won’t let down. Kai I think has learned a valuable lesson. I know it was hugely embarrassing to him to miss the bowl game, and he’s made it a personal vow to never let that happen again. I know he had a good quarter last quarter as well, and I think it’s full-steam ahead.”
Talk about the guys returning with extensive experience?
“There’s a number of guys who have proven themselves and we’re fortunate they’re back. On defense, you point to Rahim Moore who has 13 interceptions in two seasons. Akeem Ayers has made countless big plays. Those two guys will be at the forefront of what we do defensively. David Carter has to pick up where he left off. Datone Jones has to do a great job up front. Those guys are going to help bring along guys with less experience so we can play our typical UCLA defense. Prince, Rosario, Embree have all made a lot of plays. Cory Harkey, even though he’s going into his second spring here, he has a lot of experience. Four-fifths of our offensive line is coming back. There is experience. But I think we are in a place in our development where we have to let our fur fly. We’ve got to see who can do exactly what needs to be done.”
In your third spring ball, does your approach change?
“The approach and structure are the same. It’s the intensity. That’s not to say we weren’t intense in the first two springs. There was a lot of teaching going on, a lot of explanation. Not that we won’t teach and explain, but we have to really find time for legitimate playing. Who can play this game at the intensity this conference demands?” Continue reading →
UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel took his first conference call with reporters today, a few days before the start of spring football.
Did I have to pull over at a Dairy Queen to make sure I got on the call during my drive back from the Bay Area? Yes, yes I did. Did I get a Blizzard? No, no I did not…unfortunately. Continue reading →
Does what’s happened at other schools off the field make you worried for your program?
UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel: “I always think when you’re dealing with 18-to-22-year-old kids, you’re going to be susceptible to poor decision-making. The best we can do as educators, coaches, teachers, is to give them all the pertinent information. Give them the skills and tools to make good decisions and have a disciplinary framework in place that they understand when they don’t make good decisions, what happens.”
What does ‘an improved program’ mean to you?
“UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel: We have to get more wins. We have to win more than we did last year. Eight or more.”
Is that your goal, or the program’s goal? Do you need that, or does everyone around you need that?
UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel: “Well, I haven’t been told I’d be fired if we didn’t win eight. But I want to keep the momentum going. The momentum of this program is tangible. By winning seven, by getting to a postseason game and winning it, we were an attractive entity to recruits, and it parlayed itself into a top class. Kids that in years past wouldn’t have even considered UCLA, came to UCLA. Not just considered UCLA, but came. We have to keep that rolling. If we go to the postseason again and win again and show improvement so you can look at the graph and it still looks like it’s climbing, that’s tangible evidence that this thing is going in a positive direction. That’s why I say eight. We have to win eight. I’ll be crushed if we don’t win eight. How do you win eight? You win every one you line up. It’s no different formula. It’s not like I’m saying, ‘OK, here are the four I want to lose.’ That’s not what I’m doing. It’s just that I want all signs to point that this thing is going where I said it would go. We can do that, if we get all hands on deck, because there is nothing given to us in this schedule. Nothing. Nothing. There is nothing out there where you can write down and say, ‘OK, we’ve got that one.’ That’s not the way it is. And that’s not true of most colleges. Most colleges can tell you right now they’ve got some wins scheduled in there. The argument will go on forever and ever which is the better way to go about it, and I can argue both sides. But it doesn’t matter. This is what we have – now let’s go make it work.”
How important is it to have returning guys in key positions with extensive experience? Guys like Taylor Embree, Jeff Baca, Rahim Moore, Nelson…
UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel: “All that should be advantageous. All of that should be. We’re at a place now where, Day 1 of spring ball this year as opposed to Day 1 two years ago is going to be light-years ahead. But what does that mean? Will we be better on Saturdays in fall? Able to help a defense that now has to go through some growing pains? That’s what remains to be seen given the schedule we have. We have arguably one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country, and we all know we have the toughest conference schedule in the country. All of that remains to be seen. But, I would be disappointed if we aren’t an improved program in year three over year two.”
Forget the young players for a moment; how are the established guys handling their offseason and their roles?
UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel: “I think all of them are on schedule. It’s difficult to know where they are until we play again. You can look at their productivity in the weight room and say, ‘They’re engaged, they’re working.’ I mean, we don’t have a guy in the program who was climbing the ladder and was on schedule, or even ahead of schedule, and is now turned and is going south. We don’t have that, ‘What’s wrong with him?’ Whether they’ll take the next incremental leap as players, a lot of that now is how much time will they spend to really become an expert at their position? Because we can’t spend with time with them talking ball until spring starts, we don’t know. We’ll have to watch and see. Are you really making this more than just something you do well? Is this going to be something that you really are craving to know everything there is to know about? Those are the special players. They say about the NFL, it’s a league of overachievers. It’s kind of strange-sounding because it always seemed like it was just the best athletes. And certainly it has a ton of great athletes. But the ones that stay around for a long time are the ones who make this the most important thing. They’re going to know everything there is to know. How many experts are there in this profession? That’s where you hope guys will gravitate towards, and that’s what my coaches have to do, create an eagerness to always want to know more.”
Speaking of strength and conditioning, how has the off-season been?
UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel: “It’s every bit as important as your offensive coordinator or defensive coordinator. Now Mike Linn will read that and say, ‘Where’s my bump in pay?’ But in terms of the amount of time and the amount of energy expended and the importance of these kids having the physical tools to be capable of playing successfully on Saturdays, it’s huge. And by rule, he gets more time with them than any other one of us. It’s a hugely, hugely important position, and he’s done a fabulous job.”
Compare where the program is at right now to other points in your career at Colorado and at Washington.
Rick Neuheisel: “Both of the other jobs I was fortunate to have, Colorado and Washington, were further along. The cupboard was more full. Both had strength and conditioning programs that were farther along. Both had quarterback situations that were in better shape. To get things going quickly, you gotta have that triggerman. Both had offensive line situations that were much more healthy. Because of that, you have chances to be more successful when you’re looking at wins and losses.
This situation is the best situation, because we’ve got to fix it without the feeling that the world’s going to end if it’s not done right away. We have seen improvement, and I think the sky is the limit here, as opposed to capping out at some of the places where we already were. I won 10 games each of my first two situations in Colorado. It was a heavy heart to do better. Even though they won a national championship a couple years before, they needed five downs to do it. We were pretty much on all cylinders. Washington, we got to 11-1 and then went back the next two years and won eight and seven games. I thought we had a chance to go back up, yeah, but this place I think has a real upside. One that can be fun for years and years and years.”
An old editor of mine used to say that when he got the job, he was just trying to put the puzzle together. First you pour the pieces on the table. Next step, flip them right side up. Then the corners. Then the edges, and the middle. Each step was crucial. What step are you at?
Rick Neuheisel: “We’ve got the edges. We’ve got the edges. But different than that puzzle, is that things are splintering off all the time. You can feel like you’ve got pieces in place, and then all of a sudden your left tackle goes on his mission, Carnell Lake wants to be with his family…as unexpected as it is, it’s expected. You have to continually be re-working the puzzle. It doesn’t ever end. Those magical years where it looks like it’s completed, you just enjoy those, because pretty soon it’s going to splinter again. Brian Price going early… Do you have to anticipate that? Sure. You anticipate all of it.
“But with recruiting classes, you’re trying to predict the future. Why do you put Brett Downey on scholarship? Because you had to assume that Xavier’s leaving. Which then raises the question to other walk-ons like Andrew Abbott who wants a scholarship – why not? Well, I’ve got corners… I can’t predict. All those things play into it as you’re trying to put together your puzzle.”