How good will UCLA be this season?
Let's look at the talent returning. Begin with starting players. There are 13 from last year's team that won the Pacific 10 title and rolled over Iowa in the Rose Bowl game. Eight of those starters played on one of the nation's best defenses. But as usual, there's also something else returning.
Those would be the notes of caution sounded by Coach Terry Donahue, who for every silver lining finds a cloud. Here is one coach who starts the football race every season under the yellow caution flag. This season isn't any different for Donahue and UCLA, who in the early going are showing a balanced attack.
The Bruins are rated as high as No. 4 in the nation:
"I've never placed any credence in the preseason polls," Donahue said. "I've never thought they were based on any accurate information whatsoever."
The Bruins, with Gaston Green and Eric Ball at tailback, are six-deep at the running back position:
"I wish we had seven," Donahue said. "I'm very anxious about that situation going into the Oklahoma game."
On defense, the eight starters returning come from a squad that last year led the nation against the run:
"But we're not very big," Donahue said. "We don't have a dominant player."
The consensus is that the Bruins are going to win the Pac-10 in a breeze:
"I don't know how that translates into wins and losses," Donahue said.
And so it goes. What's it all supposed to mean?
Is UCLA actually as good as a lot of people believe, and is a sly Donahue merely trying to make sure that each Bruin head fits nicely inside each Bruin helmet? Or is UCLA really not as wonderful as its press clippings would indicate and is doomsayer Donahue trying to cushion the fall before it occurs?
Donahue's cautious remarks aside, the Bruins certainly seem to deserve the publicity they have been accumulating as the class act of the conference. Last season, they finished 9-2-1, won the Pac-10 title for the third time in the last four years and finished with their fourth bowl victory in four New Year's Day appearances under Donahue.
With so many talented players back, the season ought to look pretty bright, but Donahue is putting on his sunglasses.
"I always temper optimism with some caution," Donahue said. "I don't say 'This is the best team I ever had,' or, 'If something doesn't happen, we should win every game.' I've been around the block for too long. I've seen too many things happen. So I'm going to reserve any kind of judgment. We're going to see when we see it.
"I know I have a tendency to fret and to worry, but that's my job. I'm just being me. Every year, I've gone into the season concerned and anxious. To me, I'm right on schedule. I can hardly see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I do see a little flicker of brilliance down there and now I'm just digging down to get it."
The excavation begins on offense, where six players who were starters last year won't be in the lineup Saturday in Norman against the defending national champion Oklahoma Sooners. Split end Mike Sherrard is gone, replaced by Flipper Anderson. Both guards, Mike Hartmeier and Jim McCullough, have been supplanted by a pair of seniors, 6-foot 4 1/2-inch, 259-pound Jim Alexander and 6-5, 261-pound Onno Zwaneveld. At left tackle, 6-5 1/2, 258-pound junior Russ Warnick replaces Rob Cox.
When two-year starter Derek Tennell became a scholastic casualty, the Bruins, already thin at tight end, got even skinnier. Neither of Tennell's two replacements have ever caught a pass in a college game. Joe Pickert, a 6-4, 235-pound junior, moves up to No. 1, with freshman Charles Arbuckle backing him up.
As a group, the offensive line is showing a lot of progress, Donahue said, with 6-5, 264-pound senior center Joe Goebel anchoring the unit. But the absence of McCullough and Hartmeier leaves a void in toughness and competitiveness that must be filled by Alexander and Zwaneveld, Donahue said.
"They need to come up to the standard of the players they replaced and they need to fill that role if we are going to be as good as we were as a group last year," Donahue said. "We're progressing, but I just don't know how far along we are."
Matt Stevens, a fifth-year senior, returns as quarterback, a position with which he had an on-and-off relationship last season. Mostly, it was David Norrie's position, but Stevens took over for Norrie in the Rose Bowl and he begins this season as the unchallenged starter.
Although Stevens is not particularly mobile, he has a strong arm, perhaps an even stronger disposition, and ball-handling skills. Maybe the best thing Stevens will do all season long is hand the ball off to one of his talented running backs.