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Wholly Un-Toledo

Dorrell takes over and gives UCLA new offense and new attitude

August 24, 2003|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

Karl Dorrell's odd refrain during his first weeks as UCLA's coach: "We are a young team."

Memo to Dorrell, who spent the last three years as a Denver Bronco assistant: College teams are always young.

Dorrell's words are meant to be cautionary, to temper expectations. Yet they also reflect his genuine reaction to meeting his players and evaluating their talent and knowledge.

There is no Ed McCaffrey. No Rod Smith. No Shannon Sharpe.

Elder statesmen on college teams are fifth-year seniors, guys who recently celebrated their 22nd birthdays. Guys considered young by almost any other measure.

Youth is eternal on campus, something Dorrell, a rather youthful-looking 39 himself, will learn soon enough.

As it happens, UCLA has few standout seniors but is not without experience. Seven starters return on each side of the ball from a team that went 8-5. Many other key components are back as well.

Several seniors are battling for positions, but the only ones assured of starting are linebacker Brandon Chillar and defensive linemen Rodney Leisle, Dave Ball and Mat Ball.

Last year's freshman class made an imprint that grew as the season progressed. From tailback Tyler Ebell to center Mike McCloskey to safety Jarrad Page, first-year players became indispensable.

Perhaps that's what Dorrell meant. Many key Bruins will be back next season, and the season after that. Misleading in such an outlook is the inference that this is a rebuilding year.

A similar message was sent by the media, which picked UCLA to finish sixth in the Pac-10. And the Bruins did not get a single vote in the preseason Associated Press top 25 poll.

"There is always a beginning point, and usually that doesn't matter a hill of beans," Dorrell said. "It's where you finish. They could have picked us 10th and, obviously, we'd still have a shot to win the conference."

Which wouldn't be a bad finish for a young team.

Quarterback

Sophomores Drew Olson and Matt Moore have been waging a battle for the starting job in training camp, but Dorrell said Moore was in the driver's seat after a strong performance in Saturday's scrimmage at Cal State Fullerton.

Olson, who started five games last season, emerged from spring practices with a slight edge and continues to carry himself with confidence. He also has learned the offense quickly.

Moore, however, is taller, has a stronger arm and might have more long-range potential.

Whoever wins the starting job, the other candidate figures to get a lot of work.

John Sciarra, another sophomore, is perhaps the most improved quarterback. Although he is not challenging for the starting job, he could develop into a solid backup.

Running Back

The elusive Ebell and powerful, versatile Manuel White Jr. form the backbone of one of the Bruins' best units.

Although he didn't become the starter until the sixth game, Ebell rushed for 994 yards in a staggering 234 carries last season. He might have fewer carries in an entire season in Dorrell's pass-oriented West Coast offense, but he should catch more passes than the dozen he caught last year.

White will start at fullback, giving UCLA two strong running threats. Despite sitting out four games because of injuries, he rushed for 381 yards and five touchdowns last season, averaging 14 yards on 17 receptions.

White also will play some tailback, especially in short-yardage situations. J.D. Groves is a strong blocker at fullback and senior reserve tailback Akil Harris is dependable, despite a tendency to fumble.

Freshman Maurice Drew of Concord De La Salle High could make a strong impact. He is shorter than even the 5-8 Ebell, but has powerful legs and great acceleration.

Wide Receiver

Because returning starter Tab Perry is academically ineligible, Craig Bragg probably will draw double-teams until another receiver proves a threat. Bragg had 55 catches for 889 yards and eight touchdowns last season.

Junior Taylor displayed flashes of big-play capability as a freshman and could be poised for a breakout season.

Senior Ryan Smith was a dependable possession receiver as a sophomore before ankle and foot injuries slowed him. He appears fully recovered and has impressed coaches.

Former walk-on Garrett Lepisto will battle unproven Jacques Lazarus, Idris Moss and Antwuan Smith for playing time.

Tight End

The door is open for sophomore Marcedes Lewis to take hold of the position because projected starter Keith Carter is expected to sit out the first several games while recovering from a hip injury suffered during a spring motorcycle accident.

The 6-foot-6 Lewis could be a frequent target of the short passes that will be a mainstay of Dorrell's offense.

Senior Blane Kezirian and redshirt freshman J.J. Hair should contribute, at least until Carter is at full strength.

Offensive Line

The Bruins allowed 37 sacks last season, although players and coaches alike whispered that the slow feet of senior quarterback Cory Paus and the inexperience of Olson and Moore were the primary reasons.

Still, Dorrell considers the line the biggest question mark.

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