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UCLA football Q&A: Biggest questions involve Rick Neuheisel and his staff

UCLA faces several questions entering spring football practice after an injury-marred 4-8 campaign in 2010. Bruins Coach Rick Neuheisel hopes a new offensive coordinator and new defensive coordinator can help him find the answers.

March 28, 2011|By Chris Foster
  • UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel will put the Bruins through their spring paces with new coordinators for offense and defense.
UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel will put the Bruins through their spring paces… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

A little more than three years ago, when he hired Rick Neuheisel as football coach, UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero said, "In the end, it was all about 66 collegiate wins." Neuheisel has added only 15 more to that total in three seasons since. Staff writer Chris Foster looks at 10 questions facing the Bruins as spring practice begins Tuesday.

Introduction required?

It's right out of Football Coaching 101: When the heat is on, fire your coordinators.

Neuheisel's seat is mildly warm after a 4-8 record in 2010. He has two years left on his contract and will likely survive, barring a complete collapse. Still, there is no reason to wait for the temperature to rise, so Neuheisel reshaped his staff.

Out: Norm Chow as offensive coordinator and Chuck Bullough as defensive coordinator, among others.

In: Jim Mastro to oversee the running game, Mike Johnson as offensive coordinator and Joe Tresey as defensive coordinator, among others.

What changes will the staff bring?

Neuheisel was unhappy with Bullough's 4-3 scheme, but Tresey also favors four linemen so changes on defense will be subtle.

The "pistol" offense — Mastro's specialty — remains, but the Bruins will use different looks. Sometimes the quarterback will be under center. Sometimes the quarterback will be in a shotgun formation and the Bruins will run the spread, Johnson's area of expertise. Sometimes there will be two running backs.

The goal is to maintain the improvements UCLA made in its running game while finding ways to throw the ball down the field more successfully.

What is the quarterback situation?

Like USC, the Bruins have a quarterback in camp who can't who get into an NC-17-rated movie. But while eighth-grader David Sills is in Trojans camp to watch practice, 17-year old Brett Hundley will be taking plenty of snaps for the Bruins.

Kevin Prince has been the starter the last two seasons, but he is still recovering from knee surgery. Richard Brehaut started seven games in 2010 in place of Prince, but he has been with the UCLA baseball team. Nick Crissman is limited as he returns from shoulder surgery, and Darius Bell is out after shoulder surgery.

Who will replace the missing stars on defense?

Akeem Ayers and Rahim Moore made themselves available for the NFL draft, leaving major holes at linebacker and free safety.

Dalton Hilliard played well as Moore's backup last season, but he will miss spring practice after knee surgery. Dietrich Riley is looking to break into the lineup. He is listed as a backup to strong safety Tony Dye, but both can play free safety.

The oft-injured Glenn Love is listed as Ayers' replacement for now, but sophomore Jordan Zumwalt is a high-end talent and could move to the outside. Currently, he's at middle linebacker while Patrick Larimore recovers from shoulder surgery.

Do the Bruins qualify for a group rate in surgery?

Injuries were a problem last year — and sometimes used as a crutch (sorry) during the 4-8 season.

Eight players are expected to miss all of camp, and three more will be limited in their participation. So, more than a few decisions will be put off until the fall.

Will there be another offensive line dance?

Every year, it seems, offensive line coach Bob Palcic conducts an "American Idol"-like search for a starting five. This season, he gets a bit of a break.

Tackles Sean Sheller and Mike Harris are back, as are center Kai Maiava, who is returning from a broken ankle, and guard Jeff Baca, who was academically ineligible. Maiava and Baca were starters in 2009.

The newcomer is likely to be sophomore Chris Ward, who has an upside proportional with his 6-foot-4, 325-pound frame.

Who will kick in?

UCLA must replace All-American kicker Kai Forbath, and redshirt freshman Kip Smith will get every opportunity to prove he can do the job.

Another option is punter Jeff Locke, who has a strong leg and handles the kickoff duties.

Can the Bruins stop the run?

There is no reason to believe the defensive front won't be significantly better.

Sophomores Owamagbe Odighizuwa and Cassius Marsh are blueprint-type linemen who now have a full season of experience behind them, and end Datone Jones is back from a broken foot.

What needs to be shored up on defense?

There are concerns at cornerback. Starters Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price are capable, but the reserve corps is thin.

What's a reasonable expectation?

There are at least six victories out there — for one, San Jose State replaces Kansas State on the schedule — and that would qualify the Bruins for a bowl game.

If not? Well, Guerrero set the bar on Day 1: This is about wins.

chris.foster@latimes.com

twitter.com/cfosterlatimes

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