Post-Practice Update

* Sorry for the delay, had a bunch of stuff to take care of after Hurricane Irene stranded me in New Jersey – which is like being stranded in New Jersey, as you can imagine – but there wasn’t much to discuss anyway.

* Players were in shorts and shells and it was more of a mental practice than a physical one, and they’ll similarly go light tomorrow in preparation for Houston.

* Spoke to both Dalton Hilliard and Dietrich Riley about the starting safety flip-flop, and they both responded about how you would expect. Both have been told they’ll play a similar amount of reps, and with the pass-happy Cougars, I wouldn’t be shocked to see both on the field at the same time in some lineups.

* Most interesting news was probably the revelation that Neuheisel would make the kicker position a game-time decision. Kip Smith was looked sharper in sharper in recent days, Neuheisel said, but he’s still undecided. A reporter asked if the question marks at the spot would cause hesitation on Neuheisel’s part in the red zone, but he deflected the answer, saying it was more a “gut-feeling” deal. We’ll see about that. Maybe this will make Neuheisel take a few more chances on offense.

* During a recent sit-down interview – season preview comes out tomorrow, by the way – Neuheisel mentioned how far the receiving corps has come since his first fall camp by pointing out that two then-freshmen, Nelson Rosario and Taylor Embree, made important plays in his first game against Tennessee. With both still around and the competition pushing them harder than in the past, Embree is fired up for Saturday.
“The level of competition that we’ve had at this camp is unbelievable,” Embree said. “All over the board. We’ve always had the talent, we’ve seen flashes of it throughout my career, but it’s never been consistent. In practice, even when we have a bad practice, we see a lot of good things. Usually in the past, we have a bad practice on offense, we’re not even getting the ball off the ground. Balls fumbled, drops. But now, the foundation we’ve formed this camp is nothing we’ve seen before.”

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UCLA to go with two-quarterback system in Week 1

UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel had a conference call set for 6 p.m. on Tuesday night to announce his starting quarterback. He took to the phone at 6:09.
After waiting until four days before the Bruins open their season on Saturday afternoon at Houston, what’s another nine minutes?

Now, it turns out, what’s another week or so?

Neuheisel said that while junior Kevin Prince will start against the Cougars on Saturday, fellow junior Richard Brehaut would also see extensive action, and added that the competition continues as neither quarterback has separated himself.

“This is not so everybody feels good,” Neuheisel said. “It’s so that the competition continues. We’re going to play this position well. We’re going to play it consistently. Both kids are capable of doing that and I’m going to expect it from them. I’m excited to watch them both play.”

Neither quarterback was consistent last year, and rarely was their cause for much excitement, as UCLA’s passing game fell to historic lows. Behind Prince for five games – after being sidelined for much of fall camp by a back injury, he was lost midway through the year after knee surgery – and Brehaut for seven, the Bruins ranked 116th out of 120 FBS teams in passing offense at just 141.08 yards per game.

With Prince still recovering during spring practice and Brehaut switching between UCLA baseball and football, Neuheisel declared the competition open heading into fall camp.

Prince saw most of the first-team reps throughout camp, but Brehaut came on strong with his passing skills eclipsing Prince’s while he worked back into form. In recent practices, Prince has been much-improved in the throwing game and that, combined with his talents in the run department, will give him the first shot against Houston.

“I think that coach Neuheisel just saw that Richard is very capable and we both bring unique things to the table in terms of our ability and things that we’re able to do when we’re in the game,” Prince said. “So I don’t know if Richard won or I lost or however you want to label it. We’re both capable of playing the position well and that’s what we’re going to do on Saturday.”

Neuheisel said score and time would not dictate usage, and that he hoped to maintain a rhythm if the offensive was moving. He also added later that freshman Brett Hundley could see some action in a “small package.”

“I just believe both deserve to play, so both are going to play this weekend,” Neuheisel said. “We’ll start Kevin, and Richard will come off the bench and play. I’ve told both of them that I don’t know exactly when or how or why, because when you make promises of that sort, you end up setting yourself up for disappointment because you can never predict the ebb and flow of a game.”

Neuheisel made a similar commitment to Brehaut last season, but Brehaut did not see any action until Week 2 in a 35-0 loss to Stanford, when he completed 5-of-9 passes for 42 yards and an interception. He didn’t play again until starting for Prince in a 42-28 win over Washington State in Week 5 as Prince nursed the knee injury, which eventually cost him the season after a one-game return in a 35-7 loss to Cal.

“I think things are a little bit different this year,” Brehaut said, when asked why he had faith that he’d play on Saturday. “I think I’ve proven myself a little bit more this year that I am capable. I think there might not have been that sure faith in me last year and maybe that was the reason why I didn’t go in there.”

Neuheisel opened the conference call referencing the belief that he’d made his decision long ago and was just playing coy with the media.
Instead, he said, he accomplished his goal.

“I didn’t reach this conclusion months ago and then decide today just to keep you all in the dark,” Neuheisel said. “I wanted to create competition. We did that. We created an atmosphere where both kids were going to be given ample opportunities and we wanted to create an environment where the best would be the guy.”

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Depth chart released

UCLA released a “tentative” depth chart today. Here’s an update on some of the interesting position battles.

*The strong guard spot lists Chris Ward or Albert Cid.

*Cory Harkey remains ahead of Joseph Fauria at tight end.

*The wide receiver position opposite Rosario lists Shaq Evans or Randall Carroll.

*Cassisus Marsh is ahead of Nate Chandler at right defensive tackle.

*Glenn Love beat out Jordan Zumwalt at sam linebacker.

*Dalton Hilliard beat out Dietrich Riley at strong safety.

“He was just really consistent,” Neuheisel said of Hilliard. “I think coach Tresey has shared with all of those kids that they’re all going to play. This competition doesn’t need to stop just because we’re going to play a game.”

*Jeff Locke is listed to kickoff, punt and hold with the place kicking spot listing all three candidates.

*Josh Smith is your kickoff return man while Taylor Embree is slotted to handle punt returns.

I asked special teams coach Angus McClure if Embree is the “safe” choice for returning punts.

“A lot of people are running what you call a shield punt in college football,” McClure said. “A shield punt is spreading everybody out and they don’t block. They release the guys downfield. You need a guy that’s sure handed because the coverage team is there much quicker than the traditional punt. You need a guy that has sure hands that can catch the ball in traffic. You don’t have more time to gather yourself anymore, the shield punt has changed a lot.”

Asked if Jordan James or Shaq Evans have sure enough hands, McClure said he expects two out of those three (James, Evans, Embree) to see action returning punts.

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Post-practice update: quarterback announcement tease

*No announcement from coach Rick Neuheisel on the starting quarterback. He did, however, say that he would talk to both Prince and Brehaut this afternoon, after which he will hold a conference call with media members. I was told the call will be at 6 p.m. and both Prince and Brehaut would be on the line. I’ll try to post as quickly as I can after the call. Looks like he’s going to clear his 48-hour deadline in plenty of time.

When asked why he wouldn’t wait until gameday since he’s dragged it out till now, Neuheisel had this to say.

“I don’t think Houston cares. I wasn’t doing it to befuddle Houston. I was doing it to get the most out of these kids and I don’t want it to become a distraction as we get closer to game time. I wanted to make sure everybody was continuing to compete and continuing to improve and I got that out of them.”

*Both still looked to be taking equal reps with the first team and throwing the ball pretty well. The receivers didn’t help either of their cases as the team struggled with hanging on to the ball. Cory Harkey dropped two catchable balls, one from each quarterback, and Joseph Fauria dropped a sure touchdown. Nelson Rosario was a victim of the drops as well.

*Datone Jones continues to impress. He came flying across the field from his left end position to pick off a Kevin Prince pass and head up the right sideline. Prince clearly didn’t see him coming, I’m not sure anybody did. That guy could do some really big things this year.

*The crowd noise continued today and the players seemed to respond well to it. With just two more practices until gameday, everything looks crisp and polished, leaps and bounds ahead of the first week of camp (with the exception of those drops, of course.)

*Transfer offensive lineman Albert Cid came late to practice. Neuheisel said they were clearing up a paperwork issue but that he’s good to go now.

*No sign of Brandon Willis today. Neuheisel said he couldn’t comment on him yet.

*Neuheisel announced that he awarded long snapper Kevin McDermott a scholarship. Apparently, he didn’t notify the depth chart people because he’s still listed as a non-scholarship player there.

“It’s always a fun thing to be able to put somebody on scholarship that has earned their spot on this roster and has become a frontline player,” Neuheisel said. “Kevin has certainly done that and he’s very deserving. Hopefully he’ll have an outstanding year as we’ve been lucky here to have a great long snapper in the program. I’m excited for him.”

Videos of Neuheisel and Taylor Embree coming later today along with the quarterback announcement.

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Neuheisel and his QBs

Good morning. Here’s today’s piece on how Neuheisel is enjoying running the quarterbacks show again, how Kevin Prince felt about their relationship last year and how Richard Brehaut deals with Neuheisel yelling at him. Read on.

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Quotables: Houston coach Kevin Sumlin

I thought everyone might enjoy reading a few things from the Conference USA teleconference yesterday. Houston coach Kevin Sumlin talked about sixth-year senior quarterback Case Keenum and what he expects to see out of UCLA.

(Opening statement on how camp has gone so far.)
“It’s been hot. We’ve got a lot of things done. Things have gone pretty well. We’ve had one serious injury Phil Causey. We’ve had nicks and bruises but we’ve stayed relatively healthy which is always a plus. We’re just trying to get the best 22 on the field and it’s an ongoing process. With Case coming back, managing him during two-a-days has been fun. We’ve learned a lot about where we are on the perimeter. Our offensive line has been a question marks as far as experience but for ability and talent, we’ve more depth and size than we’ve ever had. We’ve got some new faces but more so on the offensive line than anywhere else.”
“It’s game week and we’re excited to hit somebody else instead of our own guys.”

(On what he expects to see out of UCLA.)
“UCLA has an extremely talented team. They’ve recruited very well in a great area. They’ve got tremendous tradition. They’re full of players who have bought in. They had some struggles last year with injuries last year that hurt them. They’ve got a big strong offensive line and a couple 260-pound tight ends. Embree and Rosario are 6’5″ and 6’3″ and they have arguably one of best running backs in country in Johnathan Frankin. They’re going to be talented and defensively it’s the same deal. They’re going to have a hieght advantage. They’ve been to Texas and they know how to play in the heat. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”

(On Case Keenum’s health.)
“I don’t know that you ever get completely back to where you were in less than a year. I’ve said many times that he has stuck to a rigid schedule. He went through rehab in the summer and into two-a-days. With the 25 practices that we’ve had, we’ve only held him out of two or three. He didn’t want to be held out so from that standpoint, that’s the kind of guy you’re dealing with. He’s got the majority of reps the first couple weeks and this week, we’ll get it to how we do it on game week with our backup qb situation. We’re still training both of those guys too. I’ve been pleased with how he’s progressed this camp and I think he has too. It’s a matter of where he is mentally. Physically, we can’t say he’s completely back to where he was. I think he’s there mentally and I I like where he is and how he’s throwing it around. He feels good about it and so do we.”

(On what he expects to see out of UCLA schematically.)
“They’ve got new coordinators and new coaches on both sides of the ball. We’ve watched a bunch of different video defensively from the new coordinator at different schools. Offensively, you’ve got the traditional spread offense that Mike has been used to and we’ve watched a bunch of Nevada video too from some coaches that we’ve hired. We don’t know a lot but what we have assumed is that they’re not going to abandon the pistol attack too much. They’ve got quarterbacks who have been in that system, they’ve got a great running back, they’ve got a big, strong offensive line and tight ends. They’ll probably add a little more spread to it but look for the same pistol attack that we had problems with last year. They had success running it right down our throats and I don’t know why that would change a whole lot coming into this year.”

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The luck…starts…here?

When it comes to college football, throw strategy out the window.
Take talent and kick it to the curb.
Coaching, skill, speed, size – toss ‘em out.

When it really comes down to it, could this game really just come down to…luck?

Ultimately, I believe success in college football comes down to two things above all: luck and depth. Yes, talent matters, obviously. But healthy talent matters. Yes coaching matters. But they need healthy players to coach.

So, to luck and depth.

Depth is self-determined, accomplished by good recruiting and favorable transfers, both of which UCLA has maintained at a far better clip under Rick Neuheisel than his predecessor.

But luck? Luck is fickle, unfair, often unkind.

Perhaps Spaulding Field was built on an Indian burial ground, construction workers walking under a thousand ladders while smashing a hundred mirrors in the process, all while a herd of black cats scooted on by. Perhaps Neuheisel spilled an entire crate of salt and didn’t have the foresight to shovel it over his left shoulder. Maybe he just didn’t look a friend in the eye while toasting.

There’s little doubt that the Bruins have been downright downtrodden in the fortune department during Neuheisel’s tenure, a dead albatross away from utter catastrophe. Pat Cowan and Ben Olson in 2008. The three freshmen (bad choices made by them, but still, bad luck for UCLA and Neuheisel). Eddie Williams breaking an ankle in 2009, Kai Maiava and Datone Jones lost for the season in 2010 and joined by an academically ineligible Jeff Baca. Kevin Prince’s numerous calamaties. There’s Nik Abele (lost for his career) and Patrick Larimore (lost for half of last year). I’m forgetting numerous more.

What bad luck couldn’t do to the Bruins, defections – legal, religious or otherwise – has done. All that depth, all that forward progress halted by a witch with a broomstick in one hand and an axe to grind in the other.

Look at the stats: As Phil Steele so intricately studied, UCLA lost 59 starts to injury last season, 22.35 percent on the year, third most in the country. That means more than one out of every five UCLA starters didn’t start on a given day. The Bruins were far behind North Carolina in the bad luck department – the Tar Heels lost 89 starts last year! – but far, far ahead of every other Pac-12 school. The closest conference opponent? Oregon State, with 21 starts lost, or 7.95 percent. Meanwhile, Chip Kelly must’ve worn all bunches of green on St. Patrick’s Day, as Oregon lost six – SIX – total starts to injury in their charmed 2010 season.

But could that luck be turning?

With the news today that Baca might be almost three full weeks early in his return from a broken ankle suffered in spring ball, the ever-present football gods seem to be smiling on UCLA right now. The Bruins emerged relatively unscathed during fall camp, with only an injury to Jamie Graham of the major variety. Guys who were bothered throughout camp with minor bumps and bruises and strains appear to be on the mend.

And then there’s depth.

For the first time in Neuheisel’s tenure, the Bruins are legitimately two-deep at most positions, not just some. In some cases over the last few years, the drop-off from first-team to second-team has been a nose-dive. Sometimes, it was like falling off a cliff. Think about when Larimore and Steve Sloan got hurt last year and the starting middle linebacker job went to a true freshman, talented or not, in Jordan Zumwalt. Or when Olson and Cowan were hurt on the same day, forcing Kevin Craft into the starting lineup. Or when Prince got hurt and gave way to Craft in 2009 or a still-maturing Brehaut in 2010. Or when the losses of Baca and Maiava stripped the Bruins of their two best linemen, forcing not only Darius Savage and Ryan Taylor into the starting lineup, but robbing any and all depth.

Now, aside from question marks at cornerback (which might be assuaged by moving Tony Dye over in some situations, or by getting Anthony Jefferson and Graham back relatively soon), tight end and the offensive line, the Bruins are surprisingly stable everywhere else on the field.

So when other reporters or fans of rival schools scoff at my contention that UCLA could potentially go 8-4 or so, I just point to this: luck and depth. If the Bruins can avoid a few broken mirrors this year and can wait for that depth to kick in, I don’t think I’ll be scoffed at by the end of the year. But it’s a big if.

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