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Neuheisel lets seniors know where he stands

April 12, 2008|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

Day One. Meeting One. Question One.

Rick Neuheisel, still with that new-car smell as UCLA's football coach, wasted little time getting to the point in January. In his first meeting with the Bruins, he had all the seniors raise their hands and asked, "What does rebuilding mean to you?"

Neuheisel already had an answer for them.

"It means, 'To heck with the seniors, we're rebuilding for the future,' " Neuheisel said. "I don't think that's right."

With that, Neuheisel headed down the path many first-year coaches follow, trying to lead his team away from a bad case of senioritis.

The Bruins, who scrimmage today, have 19 seniors on scholarship, 11 of whom could be starters in the fall. The group ranges from quarterback Ben Olson, who has one chance left to reach the lofty projections set for him, to Marcus Everett, who was granted a fifth year of eligibility, to cornerback Michael Norris, who has waited in line to be a starter.

Yet the prospects of a marquee season seem slim. A team with 25 seniors and 20 returning starters circled the drain last season, finishing 6-7. That sent Coach Karl Dorrell packing and brought Neuheisel back to his alma mater.

"Coach Neuheisel has been very adamant about rebuilding is not something we're looking to do because it is not really fair to the seniors," Olson said. "I look at it very much the same way, not only as a senior but if I was an underclassman. It isn't really fair to those players who have given so much to the program for four or five years."

Neuheisel has said of his seniors-to-be, "They all came here to win and take the program to a higher level. Why would we wait?"

Olson, considered one of the nation's top recruits out of high school, has missed parts of the last two seasons with injuries. He will be working under his fourth offensive coordinator since coming to UCLA, yet he sees more opportunity than urgency.

"I want to choose to look at it in the positive way," Olson said. "I had a chance to learn three different offenses in three years, and this will be my fourth offense. I'm kind of used to learning a new offense, so I should be able to pick up things quickly."

That he'll be working with offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who has developed two Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks, only accentuates the positive for Olson.

Finding that motivation is driving all the seniors-to-be.

"I hear 'rebuilding' and, as a word, I think of young people coming in trying to get the program restarted," linebacker Kyle Bosworth said. "I don't think that's the case with Coach Neuheisel. I think that he wants to see the seniors in the mind-set that we're the ones that are rebuilding what he needs to be doing here. It is a challenge for us to do well."

Everett and defensive tackle Brigham Harwell will be seniors getting do-overs. Both had seasons ended by injuries, Everett with an ankle injury and Harwell with a knee injury.

They return to a team that downsized expectations, yet goals remain.

While a quick turnaround is hardly unprecedented, it is unusual. Since 1960, Pacific 10 Conference teams coming off losing seasons changed coaches 29 times. Only five had winning records the next season, with the biggest turnaround by California's Jeff Tedford, who took over the remnants of a team that had finished 1-10 in 2001 and went 7-5 in 2002.

"We definitely want to change this subpar UCLA football that has been going on the past couple years," Everett said. "The whole attitude around the football team is totally different. Everyone is working hard, everyone really positive. There are no viruses on the team.

"We're not expected to do anything. We got a whole new coach and coaching staff, so that pretty much means it's supposed to take a couple years to actually be a winning program. I think we're optimistic that we can do it in one year."

And if they can't?

"If UCLA is in the Rose Bowl a couple years from now," Kyle Bosworth said, "I'll feel like we were the inaugural team under this staff that helped make that happen."

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chris.foster@latimes.com

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