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UCLA SEASON OPENER / Sept. 1 vs. No. 18 Tennessee at
the Rose Bowl, 5 p.m., ESPN

What do they expect?

The outside world agrees UCLA football is in for a long season, but Neuheisel and players have embraced underdog role, and optimism

August 25, 2008|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

A week from now, Rick Neuheisel will lead UCLA's football team onto the Rose Bowl field, an emotional moment for the former Bruins quarterback.

"It will be a thrill," Neuheisel said. "Some people who were with me through thick and thin will be with me coming out. This is kind of a thank-you, a tip of my cap, to them for being great friends. It will be very exciting. Then I'll go to work."

Ah, the work.

That, for this season, won't be demanding, at least by those outside looking in. Expectations for the Bruins boil down to this: The bar is set, now everybody limbo.

A year ago, it was Rose Bowl or bust (they went bust). Players even talked whimsically about being ready to play in the national title game (they weren't).

None of that this season. The journey that begins against Tennessee a week from today has already been mapped out. According to all preseason predictions, anyone who has UCLA reaching a BCS bowl game is just a nutty little Bruin.

That suits those sweating in Westwood just fine.

"People were expecting so much from us last season and I think that kind of went to guys' heads," middle linebacker Reggie Carter said. "Now they don't expect anything from us. I always liked being the underdog. I hope people think we're the worst team in the nation and talk bad about us every week."

Turning that angst into some I-told-you-so finger pointing -- and a bowl game -- will require the right answers to the harsh questions that continue to be asked after three weeks of fall camp.

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Is that an offensive line or a cattle drive?

This is the linchpin to the whole deal. The Bruins' linemen have spent fall camp hearing how they can't even block hats. Now they are looking to answer back on the field.

While the top 10 linemen on the depth chart include two converted defensive linemen (Darius Savage and Jess Ward) and two converted tight ends (Scott Glicksberg and Nate Chandler), their teacher has a blue chip resume. Offensive line coach Bob Palcic has forged more than a few quality linemen in his time, including two Outland Trophy winners.

"I can see the outside view, that there is lots of inexperience," tackle Nick Ekbatani said. "What people have overlooked is I have never seen a group of guys work harder since I have been at UCLA. We need to grow up and the only way to do that is by playing. I feel there will be a dramatic change in every series we play, from the first game and every game after that."

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Is a community college transfer the answer at quarterback?

Kevin Craft, who played at Mt. San Antonio College in 2007, got the job after the Bruins lost Patrick Cowan and Ben Olson to injuries. He is scheduled to be the first transfer quarterback to start the opener in his first UCLA season since Troy Aikman in 1987. He is the first community college transfer to start the opener in his first season since Mark Harmon in 1972.

Aikman ended up winning three Super Bowl rings. Harmon ended up starring in "St. Elsewhere" and "Chicago Hope."

Craft may be not reach those heights, but, given protection, he may do more than act like a quarterback.

He did start five games at San Diego State in 2006 and he did throw for 4,231 yards at Mt. SAC last season. And he has Norm Chow, the Dumbledore of offensive coordinators.

"I like Kevin's athleticism and dedication," Chow said. "He looks you right in the eye and tells you if he made a mistake. I like that in guys."

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Will the Bruins start screaming "the sky is falling" the minute things go bad?

The defense is solid. The depth will improve as a talented class of incoming freshmen gain experience. But who steps up when the Bruins need someone to calm nerves, push and prod? Volunteers are testing the waters.

Said tailback Kahlil Bell: "I don't know what outside expectations are nor do I care."

Said defensive tackle Brigham Harwell: "I love it when people trash us. It drives us."

That is a trickle-down theory that has worked. Neuheisel has all but stopped people on Westwood Village sidewalks to tell them he is relentlessly optimistic.

He continues to make his case.

"I've seen teams rise to levels that maybe individually you couldn't imagine," Neuheisel said. "I played on a team that went to the Rose Bowl after starting 0-3-1 [in 1983].

"Expectations are low outside looking in, not inside. Those are always high and we have to try to hold each other to them."

Besides, Neuheisel said, "the alternative, to me, is unacceptable."

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chris.foster@latimes.com

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