Is the college football monopoly in Los Angeles over or will USC produce a get-out-of- NCAA-jail-free card? Will the "LA" in UCLA stand for something other than "Lost Another" after the Dec. 4 game against the Trojans? Will the Bruins be in the conversation when the subject is "Pacific 10 Conference contenders," and will no one snicker if they are mentioned? Those questions will have to wait, but Times staff writer Chris Foster examines five issues facing the Bruins as they begin Season 3 of the Rick Neuheisel era.
If not now, when?
Neuheisel has three recruiting classes on campus and USC was knocked off its pedestal, first by Oregon, then by NCAA sanctions. The time has come to fulfill the UCLA marketing department's 2-year-old proclamation about the state of college football in Los Angeles.
But, wait, the media picked the Bruins to finish eighth in the Pac-10, like last season, ahead of only Arizona State and Washington State, like last season.
The Bruins will have to prove on the field that they are ready to be taken seriously as contenders. That won't be easy with nonconference games at Kansas State and Texas.
UCLA, which has not won a conference title since 1998, could convert the huddled media masses simply by winning consecutive games, at California on Oct. 9 and at Oregon on Oct. 21. The Bruins have not won in Berkeley since 1998 and have lost seven of the last nine against the Ducks.
What changes will the "pistol" offense bring?
Plenty, UCLA coaches are hoping.
The Bruins finished 116th nationally in rushing in 2008 and 97th last season. The pistol, developed by Nevada Coach Chris Ault, was brought in to improve the ground game. Quarterback Kevin Prince will line up four yards behind center, allowing him to get the ball more quickly to the single running back.
Nevada led the nation in rushing last season and had three players go over 1,000 yards.
The biggest difference will be using Prince as a runner, which will force defenses to account for him. That leads to the next question. . . .
Can Prince put in a full season or will he still lead with his chin?
Prince suffered a broken jaw, a concussion and a shoulder injury last season. He can be effective as a runner, as his 68-yard touchdown run against Washington State demonstrated. He also has a tendency to go head-on into defenders, a poor survival trait for a quarterback.
Prince said he has learned when to hit the ground and when to plow ahead. UCLA coaches say they will run Prince just enough to put the thought in opponents' heads.
Community college transfer Darius Bell and sophomore Richard Brehaut wait in the wings.
How is the third annual rebuilding of the offensive line going?
Last year, Xavier Su'a-Filo was brought in to be the left tackle and Nik Abele was ticketed for the right side. Su'a-Filo started all 13 games but is now on a two-year Mormon mission. Abele showed promise, then was forced to retire because of a chronic neck problem.
So, once more with feeling . . .
What makes coaches confident is the level of experience up front, with four seniors capable of starting. Tackle Micah Kia is back from a knee injury and tackle Sean Sheller impressed coaches enough that they moved him back from the defensive line. Eddie Williams, a starter last season, and Ryan Taylor, who saw considerable playing time, are back. Toss in returning starters Jeff Baca and Mike Harris, and the Bruins at least have bodies.
The key off-season development was center Kai Maiava's regaining his academic eligibility.
Will the defense hold up after losing six starters?
There are holes to fill, certainly, but there is also loads of talent awaiting a chance. Defensive end Datone Jones and tackle David Carter seem ready for the spotlight.
Two job openings stand out.
Someone has to fill the middle linebacker spot. Junior Steve Sloan has the know-how but has yet to display the fierceness. Sophomore Patrick Larimore has the edginess but must prove he can direct the defense.
Aaron Hester, who sat out most of last season after suffering a fractured right fibula in the opener, has the skills to be a lock-down cornerback and must live up to that potential.