Burning Questions

Going into fall camp, UCLA has questions on both sides of the ball, and to a lesser extent, on special teams. No, Kai Forbath and Jeff Locke aren’t going anywhere.

Here’s the first set of burning questions for the UCLA offense going into Monday’s first practice of the fall, and they need to be answered quickly.

Take a look at the list, and then add a couple more, or respond to the poll, and tell me what THE most pressing question is for the 2010 UCLA offense…

Will Kevin Prince become a top-half quarterback in the Pac-10?The most important single player on the UCLA roster for the 2010 season is Kevin Prince. There’s no getting around it. UCLA hasn’t had a statistically solid season by a starting quarterback going back to Drew Olson in 2005. They have not won more than seven games since 2005. There is a direct correlation between both of those facts.
For UCLA to even take a marginal leap, given their schedule and the rest of the offense, Prince needs to come into his own. As of right now, I’d put Prince about sixth, behind Locker, Luck, Foles, Barkley and Riley and ahead of Tuel, Threet, Costa, and Katz. If the Bruins are to have the season they desperately hope for, Prince will need to leapfrog one or two of those quarterbacks, at least statistically. Given Cal’s and USC’s losses, it could happen, but don’t bet on it.
Crystal Ball: Prince will improve as a quarterback, but the stats won’t shock anyone. The real leap happens next year.

Will one running back blow away the competition?For everything that plagued UCLA last season, the lack of a dominant back hurt the most. Johnathan Franklin at times was fantastic. Derrick Coleman looked very good in spurts. Even Chane Moline was effective in certain situations. But a successful offense has a feature back for a reason, if only for consistency, and the Bruins have certainly lacked consistency.
All indications are that Coleman will get the first crack at the position, followed by Franklin, Malcolm Jones and Jordon James. Can Coleman establish consistent five-to-six yard runs, though? Forget lacking breakaway speed; a lot of running backs are chased down by 5-10, 175-pound cornerbacks. The question is, can Coleman toss out the zero- and one-yard gains (or even the losses), and get regular four-yard runs? That’s what plagued him last year. His rushing stats would often look like this: 3 yards, 4 yards, 3, 1, 1, -1, 15, 2, 0. Or course, this is a product of the line in many ways, but it is also a reflection of Coleman.
Franklin, of course, had the fumbling issues, and he “appears” to have put them behind him. He is in a good frame of mind entering the season, and I think he knows that this year is really do-or-die for him. If he can leapfrog Coleman and fend off Jones and James, Franklin could start the next couple of years. If he can’t, I don’t think he can ever get back into the mix.
Jones and James, meanwhile, are two highly touted backs who certainly have the size to make immediate impacts. Jones has been D-1 ready for five years, and James is much, much bigger than I anticipated. Of anyone, I think James can open the most eyes.
Crystal Ball: Franklin emerges from fall camp as the top back but has to fend off the competitors throughout the year.

Will Josh Smith add a downfield element to the passing game?Nelson Rosario and Taylor Embree emerged last season as legitimate 800-1,000-yard threats. Both are firmly established in the offense, both know what they’re doing, both have Prince’s ear and the coaches’. Rosario emerged down the stretch last year with 526 in his last six games, and Embree had five games with over 50 yards.
Smith comes in now, adding a downfield element that both Rosario and Embree lack. Rosario is fast, but seems to lack the ability to really separate, and I’m not sure Embree has that fifth gear. Smith does. He was nicked up during spring ball, though, and while he appears to be well on his way back to 100 percent, I’m sure the coaches will be cautious.
Crystal Ball: If he stays healthy, Smith will become a legitimate threat.

Will the offensive line be reliable?Seems that UCLA has issues on the line every year, and they were not immune this offseason. First, Kai Maiava lost to grades to end last year, then Xavier Su’a-Filo leaves on his LDS mission, Nik Abele suffers a career-ending injury and Stan Hasiak is lost to grades for the season. Not exactly what Bob Palcic had in mind.
Going into fall camp, the depth chart looks as follows: Sean Sheller/Jeff Baca/Kai Maiava/Eddie Williams/Mike Harris; however, I’ve heard rumbles about Baca switching to tackle and Micah Kia getting a starting nod. It will take a few weeks of camp to determine who ends up in the first unit.
The key, however, will be to stick with that unit for a lengthy period. UCLA found some success last season with consistency, but the musical chair at right guard – Williams, Ekbatani, Taylor, Savage, Dean, Ekbatani – was no help.
This year, there appears to be more two-deep depth, but the loss of Su’a-Filo is a killer.
Crystal Ball: There will be the typical year-to-year improvement for the starters, but as a whole, the line is only marginally improved.

Will the Revolver offense work?A quick caveat: While I am just as culpable as all the other media members, I think we’ve made a bit too much out of the WHOLE NEW OFFENSE!!!
Norm Chow has tried to hammer it home a thousand times and people (again, me included) just don’t want to listen – UCLA is not reinventing the wheel here. Yes, the Revolver will look a little different, but it’s not as if the team is going into the Wing-T.
The key, as Rick Neuheisel pointed out at the recent Pac-10 media day, is understanding when to deploy the creative avenues gained from the Revolver formation. Don’t expect Kevin Prince to be Michael Vick, but yes, he’ll be incorporated into the running game more freely.
Crystal Ball: People will quickly realize that the offense is pretty simple, and the questions will stop by Week 3.

Last one: Will Norm Chow and Rick Neuheisel open up the playbook?The common complaint from UCLA fans last season was that the Bruins were a bit too predictable, too often throwing short screens or quick outs. They wanted to see more razzle-dazzle, displayed at times, but often harnessed.
Now, though, with the F-back position and more dangerous weapons, we’ll see a more nuanced offense, with more wrinkles and twists and turns. At least, that’s what they hope.
The key will be the emergence of one of the following players: Morrell Presley, Randall Carroll, Damien Thigpen or Anthony Barr. For the most part, the coaching staff knows what it’s going to get from Rosario, Embree, Smith, etc. But they really have no idea about Presley, Carroll, Thigpen and Barr. If just one of them becomes a reliable option in the offense – and not just for reverses and quick screens – then you’ll see some more excitement.
Crystal Ball: Carroll solidifies himself as the fourth wide receiver and Anthony Barr becomes every UCLA fan’s new favorite offensive player.

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  • Reformed Droog

    “People will quickly realize that the offense is pretty simple, and the questions will stop by Week 3.”

    …but will it “work?” Is it going to be more effective than last season’s offense?

  • MichaelRyerson

    Your best column in 6-8 weeks. Thanks.

  • INawe

    Great write up! I think you have hit the most important questions right on the nose.

  • cliq

    agreed. didn’t expect this write up. especially from the jump. thanks.

  • UCLA ’64

    Will Norm Chow and Rick Neuheisel open up the playbook?

    If the answer to that last question is not, “Yes,” the answers to the other questions don’t matter. Recently, Coach Neuheisel said that they brought Kevin Prince along slowly last year, meaning they didn’t give him more than he could handle, meaning they didn’t open up the playbook.

    I expect that things will be different this year in that area, very different. No one ever writes about it, but Coach Neuheisel has left all the clues.

  • Flexmonk

    “Will the Revolver offense work?”
    The questions continue about the Revolver because there seems to be some conflicting info on this. Are Chow and CRN downplaying the Revolver to the media? They make it sound as if they are only going to run some Pistol Formations, but creating a new position (note F-back on the roster) would seem to allude to a Pistol Offense, or no? What types of plays will actually be run? It would be nice if someone knew this info, but maybe it’s top secret.

  • Never Enough WRs

    When CRN was a UCLA assistant WR coach in the early 90s, he had 3 receivers one year who had 600+ yards each, Reggie Moore being one of them, LaChapelle also, and I think Jordan.