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The Big Questions

September 01, 2006|Lonnie White

Five questions facing UCLA going into the season:

1) With Drew Olson, Marcedes Lewis and Maurice Jones-Drew gone, who will be the Bruins' key players?

Everything will start and finish with redshirt freshman quarterback Ben Olson, who has not started a game since his senior season at Thousand Oaks High in 2001. Olson has the potential to be a star if he can duplicate the success that Drew Olson (no relation) enjoyed in 2005. But he can't afford to learn on the job and make mistakes to cost the Bruins' victories as his predecessor did in 2004. The other key players will be on defense, starting with defensive ends Bruce Davis and Justin Hickman and members of the Bruins' secondary. Coordinator DeWayne Walker's aggressive style should create sack opportunities for Davis and Hickman and interceptions for cornerbacks Trey Brown and Rodney Van and safeties Chris Horton and Dennis Keyes.

2) What's an X factor that might be overlooked?

Senior kicker Justin Medlock, punter Aaron Perez and freshman kick returners Terrence Austin, Jeremy McGee and Alterraun Verner should give UCLA an edge in field position. Medlock has one of the strongest legs in the Pacific 10 Conference, so the Bruins will be a threat to score not long after they cross midfield. Perez, who struggled with consistency last season, has improved and seems willing to give up distance for hang time, helping to limit return yardage. Although UCLA will miss Jones-Drew, who led the nation in punt returns last season, Austin, McGee and Verner are potential game-breakers.

3) What will determine whether the Bruins are better on defense?

UCLA had done a terrible job tackling the last two seasons, prompting new defensive coordinator Walker to stress fundamentals since the start of spring drills. Junior linebacker Christian Taylor will be counted on to make run-stopping plays in the middle. Safeties Horton and Keyes also will have to make tackles for the Bruins, who are more athletic as a defensive unit than they were last season.

4) Which freshmen will be impact players?

In UCLA's preseason scrimmage, no one played more than offensive tackle Micah Kia, a product of Hawaii's Mililani High. Kia worked with the second- and third-team offenses, and he'll be counted on to play a valuable reserve role. Chane Moline, at 238 pounds, has more size than Chris Markey and Kahlil Bell, and will probably be used in short-yardage situations. Austin will get a chance at receiver and as a kickoff and punt returner. On defense, Verner is already being counted on in the Bruins' pass-defense packages. He also will return kicks.

5) What are the key games on the schedule?

No game will set the tone more for UCLA than its opener against Utah at the Rose Bowl. If the Bruins play well and win they will gain much-needed confidence and could roll through a favorable early-season schedule. Arizona, which crushed UCLA last season, will be a good test at the Rose Bowl, but the Bruins will play maybe their most important game the next week at Oregon. UCLA's nonconference game at Notre Dame will be interesting, but again, the Bruins will face a more crucial test at California two weeks later. If UCLA is still in the hunt for the Pac-10 title, its final two games -- at Arizona State and against USC at the Rose Bowl -- will determine the Bruins' bowl game.

-- Lonnie White

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