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Going One Step at a Time

UCLA: Determined to avoid repeating last season's collapse, Bruins are refusing to look beyond next game and are stressing unity.

September 01, 2002|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Maybe it's revisionist history, but UCLA coaches and players say problems last season began long before tailback DeShaun Foster and quarterback Cory Paus went through their well-chronicled troubles.

Enumerated on a chalkboard, they were disguised as those most fundamental of motivational tools--team goals.

No. 1 was to go undefeated. Next came a national championship. After that, the Pacific 10 Conference title.

Admirable and lofty aspirations all. So lofty, in fact, that they became unattainable in a single afternoon, a 38-28 loss to Stanford that ended a season-opening six-game winning streak.

To hear the current Bruins tell it, the 23 seniors promptly began sizing up their NFL prospects.

"A lot of guys started thinking about the next level as soon as it was obvious we couldn't reach our goals," tackle Mike Saffer said.

One loss soon became four in a row and even a season-ending victory over Arizona State could not blunt the disappointment of a 7-4 record and no bowl game.

A new season brings new goals. This time Coach Bob Toledo--not the seniors--chose them. And they are decidedly more mundane.

"Team unity and win the upcoming game," he said. "Those are our only goals."

A foundation for unity was established by conducting the first week of training camp at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. The setting was tranquil, distractions minimal.

The blue skies didn't last long, though. Three days after returning to Westwood, senior cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. was arrested on felony assault charges. The cloud that hung over the program the second half of last season was back.

The only sure way to lift the gloom is to get off to a strong start. A national magazine rated the UCLA schedule second in difficulty only to USC's. According to preseason polls, Colorado is the Bruins' only ranked nonconference opponent, so a 3-1 record starting Pacific 10 Conference play is possible.

The Bruins will be the last Division I-A team to open, Sept. 7, when they play host to Colorado State, which played in the earliest opener in major college history Aug. 22 and defeated Virginia, 35-29. On Saturday, the Rams defeated Colorado, 19-14.

UCLA will be without all those seniors apparently afflicted with attention-deficit disorder. But among them were some excellent players, including All-American middle linebacker Robert Thomas, Foster and starters in every other position group.

"We lost a lot, but the cupboard is not bare," Toledo said. "We've got a lot of good football players who have waited for an opportunity."

QUARTERBACK

Paus is a fifth-year senior whose 2001 season mirrored that of the team. He threw zero interceptions in the first six games--all victories--then threw eight interceptions and zero touchdown passes in the four losses. He says a thumb injury that nagged him all last season is healed and he has exhibited clear-eyed leadership during camp.

Drew Olson, a freshman from Piedmont, won the second-string job with a strong camp. However, he has looked confused during full-speed scrimmages and would have difficulty avoiding rookie mistakes should he be thrust into a pressure situation.

John Sciarra, a redshirt freshman whose father was a UCLA quarterback in the 1970s, lacks big-time skills but has learned the offense and is improved. Matt Moore, a freshman from Hart High, probably will redshirt.

RUNNING BACK

The quick, elusive Akil Harris took over at tailback when Foster was suspended and rushed for 375 yards, averaging 4.9 yards a carry and finishing the season with a career-high 138 yards against Arizona State.

At 6 feet 3, 240 pounds, Manuel White is a bruising runner listed as the No. 1 fullback on the depth chart. He will also split time with Harris at tailback. White is a good receiver and blocker who is most effective close to the goal line.

Three freshmen--Jason Harrison, Wendell Mathis and Tyler Ebell--have impressed offensive coordinator Kelly Skipper. Harrison, who can play tailback and fullback, is a fine receiver. Ebell, although small, is perhaps the best breakaway threat.

Pat Norton is a blocking specialist at fullback, although he has been slowed because of an ankle injury. In a surprise, freshman J.D. Groves beat out sophomore Ray Cassaday as backup fullback.

RECEIVER

Tab Perry, Craig Bragg and Ryan Smith form an experienced and talented group. Perry is a big, fast NFL prototype flanker who averaged 19.8 yards on 21 catches last season. Bragg is a fleet multiple threat who led the team with 29 receptions and also gained 100 yards on reverses. Smith is a reliable possession receiver who averaged 15.1 yards on 18 catches.

Freshman Junior Taylor has great potential. Senior Jon Dubravac figures to contribute after sitting out last season because of a back injury, and former walk-on Garrett Lepisto is a favorite of coaches.

TIGHT END

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