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Getting Closer

How well the Bruins blend their substantial talent will determine whether they can turn it around

September 02, 2005|Lonnie White | Times Staff Writer

If winning records were decided only by talent, UCLA would finish well above .500 this season.

Tight end Marcedes Lewis, running back Maurice Drew, kicker Justin Medlock and linebacker Spencer Havner are award candidates, and center Mike McCloskey, safety Jarrad Page, defensive end Justin Hickman and linebacker Justin London are on national "to watch" lists at their positions.

The key for UCLA will be getting its talent to work together. Starting with their season opener at San Diego State on Saturday, the Bruins will get a chance to see if they finally have everything in place to make a run at a conference championship.

"You're going to see a much closer team out there this season," senior receiver Junior Taylor said. "We feel that this is our time."

UCLA's calling card will be its offense, which has 14 players who started a game last year, including linemen Ed Blanton, Shannon Tevaga and McCloskey.

After the Bruins improved to second in the Pacific 10 Conference in rushing and third in scoring and yards a play last season, Coach Karl Dorrell predicted a "lights out" 2005.

"It's all about efficiency for us," running back coach Eric Bieniemy said. "We have guys who have been in the system now for a number of years. We expect them to go out and execute. ... Last year, we were great at times, and then we would fall off. Our goal is to be the most consistent team. We do that, everything will take care of itself."

Three-year starter Drew Olson will open at quarterback against the Aztecs after surviving a strong challenge in training camp from redshirt freshman Ben Olson.

Drew Olson has started 26 games for the Bruins and has passed for 5,334 yards. But he's coming off major knee surgery and has yet to win a big game. If he falters, the backups are David Koral, who played well in last season's loss in the Las Vegas Bowl after Olson was injured, and Ben Olson (no relation), a highly touted recruit who spent the last two years on a Mormon mission after a redshirt season at Brigham Young. Ben Olson was a close No. 2 until an injury to his throwing hand sidelined him for the opener. His play to that point during practice -- and Drew Olson's reaction to the competition for his starting position -- had the Bruins feeling good.

"It obviously feels a lot better having that confidence under your belt," fullback Michael Pitre said. "During the off-season, we really worked hard and you can see it start to pay off now by knowing what you're doing out there on the field."

In Maurice Drew, UCLA has a game-changing runner who rushed for 1,007 yards last season, including a school-record 322 yards in a 37-31 victory over Washington. Drew finished 17th in the nation in all-purpose yardage at 146 yards a game.

Sophomore Chris Markey rushed for 350 yards last season in limited time behind Drew and then-senior Manuel White.

At tight end, Lewis is hoping to improve off a season in which he led the team with seven touchdowns in 32 receptions. At 6 feet 6, 256 pounds, Lewis presents matchup problems for defenses, and the Bruins have added more plays to get him the ball.

Taylor and junior Joe Cowan are the most experienced and reliable wide receivers. The Bruins also plan to give plenty of time to freshman Gavin Ketchum and sophomores Brandon Breazell and Marcus Everett (although Everett will open the season on the sidelines because of a separated shoulder) and walk-ons Andrew Baumgartner and Matt Willis.

McCloskey and Tevaga are the forces on the offensive line, which is expected to be more athletic than last year's group. If sophomores Brian Abraham and Chris Joseph can learn quickly on the job and the Bruins get more consistency from Blanton, Dorrell may have his "lights out" offense.

"You look at our record from last year and it reads 6-6; that's what we earned," said Drew, who was a second-team All-Pacific 10 Conference selection. "The last two years, I think we kind of thought that we were better than everyone else because we had more athletes. But that's not how the game is played. No matter how good a team is athletes-wise, if you play like a whole bunch of individuals, a team that plays as a team is going to win."

A year ago, UCLA's defense gave up 441 rushing yards and 31 points in a season-opening loss to Oklahoma State, then slowly improved with each game.

Getting better play up front is key. The Bruins will miss their most experienced lineman, Kevin Brown, who will be sidelined until October because of an ankle injury. But Hickman has been dominant in camp and Nikola Dragovic's strong play made him a starter at the other end ahead of senior Kyle Morgan.

Tackle Brigham Harwell needs to control the middle and help Kenneth Lombard, Nathaniel Skaggs and Chase Moline until Brown returns.

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