Sun May 23 05:07pm EDT
An absurdly premature assessment of the 2010 Bruins.
As beleaguered as he's often seemed since taking the wheel at his alma mater, Rick Neuheisel has had the luxury of patience. Saddled with the most nondescript, reliably mediocre program in the country after five milquetoast seasons under Karl Dorrell, overshadowed by Pete Carroll's crosstown juggernaut at USC and forced to deal with a curious bit of marketing hubris before his first game, Neuheisel earned more sympathy than scorn as the Bruins limped to a 4-8 finish in his 2008 debut. Last year's 7-6 follow-up was hardly a breakthrough, but with a freshman quarterback operating behind a largely revamped, injury-ravaged line, it was a reasonable step forward.
Entering his third year, though, Neuheisel is clearly past the point of no return where eighth-place finishes and lackluster bowl bids against the MAC are concerned. He's vastly improved recruiting with three straight top-20 classes that all fall in the general ballpark of USC's chart-topping hauls; he has a hugely respected offensive coordinator, Norm Chow, overseeing a second-year starter at quarterback in a mostly veteran offense; and, for the first time, he has a lineup overwhelmingly of his own making. Yet the Bruins are almost certain to be sitting in the bottom half of the conference in every Pac-10 projection this summer, most likely behind even more dire rebuilding jobs at Stanford and Washington, as well as Arizona. If they finish there again, the malaise will begin to hit a little closer to home.
• What's Changed. For a defense that featured a) an All-American tackle (Brian Price) who went early in the second round of the draft, b) a senior middle linebacker (Reggie Carter) who was voted All-Pac-10 for the second year in a row and c) a conference-best 106 tackles for loss, the Bruins were surprisingly mediocre against the run, finishing eighth in the league in rushing D despite their persistence in opposing backfields. During the season-defining, five-game October losing streak, Stanford, Oregon, Cal, Arizona and Oregon State rolled up more than 200 yards per game on five per carry – even after you subtract 125 yards on 37 negative runs during the same stretch. Between big plays of their own, the Bruins were gashed.
It's not such great news, then, that the front seven has to replace not only Price and Carter in the middle, but also fellow defensive tackles Jerzy Siewierski and Jess Ward and both Bosworth Brothers, Korey and Kyle, productive mainstays for the last three years. That leaves end Datone Jones and phenomenally athletic linebacker/end Akeem Ayers, a Yeti-like All-America candidate who nevertheless seemed to personify the defense as a whole: Good for a few highlights on a weekly basis, but inconsistent on a down-to-down basis. (And in Ayers' case, also largely absent from the backfields of the best teams on the schedule.)
• What's the Same. If there's been one reliable constant here over the last four years, it's the very unreliable health of the starting quarterback: Of the four regular starters since 2006, three (Ben Olson, Patrick Cowan and Kevin Prince) have missed multiple starts to injury, and the one who made it through unscathed, Kevin Craft, guaranteed only that he wouldn't be returning as the starter after tossing a school-record 20 interceptions in 2008. Those struggles coincide with the perpetual uncertainty on the offensive line, which has been wracked with an annual parade of injuries and discontented shuffling of its own in an effort to wring some semblance of life from the conference's most perennially moribund running game.
In relative terms, this fall should be a beacon of stability: Prince returns as the entrenched starter after a respectable effort as a redshirt freshman, with four-fifths of the starting offensive line back in front of him (the only departure, Xavier Su'a-Filo, started every game at left tackle as a highly touted true freshman, but opted for a two-year Mormon mission last December). With journeyman starter Micah Kia rotating back into the mix after missing all of 2009 with a preseason knee injury, the line should be as experienced and cohesive a unit as L.A. has fielded in years – at least since the 2005 outfit that returned four starters up front and finished a touchdown shy of the school scoring record en route to a 10-2 finish. Of course, the annual August reckoning is yet to come.
• Firestarters. Long-awaited solutions on the line and even at quarterback can only go so far without the even longer-awaited emergence of a legitimate playmaker on offense, glaringly absent since Maurice Drew and Marcedes Lewis combined for 30 touchdowns for the '05 team, more than the entire offense has scored in any of the subsequent four seasons. The Bruins haven't put a single offensive player on the All-Pac-10 team in that span – lineman or skill player, first team or second – and have topped 30 points in a conference game only once under Neuheisel, against hapless bottom dweller Washington State last November.
More optimistic fans have no shortage of candidates to attach their hopes to this time around: Receivers Nelson Rosario and Taylor Embree combined for 1,331 yards on 87 catches as sophomores; Johnathan Franklin led the team in rushing as a redshirt freshman; hyped '09 recruits Randall Carroll and Morrell Pressley (both one-time USC commits) have a chance to contribute more after modest debuts as true freshmen. To date, though, they all look like ordinary contributors, and the fact remains that the best thing you can say about last year's offense as a whole is that it improved its turnover margin. Compared to the attacks that have averaged just shy of 21 points per game over the last three years, mediocrity – say, 25 points per game, still less than last year's Pac-10 average – would be an improvement.
• Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. Players took a little heat last December for continuing the 30-year-old tradition of going "Over the Wall" – spontaneously ditching a practice just for the hell of it, much to the chagrin of fans, a few older players and especially the head coach (though in this case, Neuheisel was reportedly one of the initial instigators of the tradition in the early eighties, and it was reinstated under his former teammate, Karl Dorrell, after a moratorium under predecessor Bob Toledo).
At this point, the senior-led "Wall Day" is generally taken as a sign of disrespect and lack of commitment, especially when exercised by a 6-6 outfit on its way to play Temple in a fourth-tier bowl game, one of the reasons fifth-year senior Micah Kia was applauded for personally nixing a planned ditch during the spring, despite a "groundswell" by his fellow seniors: "I just told boys, ‘No, we're not going over the wall,' " Kia said. "I wasn't the only player to disagree. I was the one who kind of said something about it. We have a lot of long-term goals, and in order to reach them every practice counts." It's a rhetorical improvement, anyway.
• Best-Case. If Prince is relatively well-protected, he could begin to blossom under Chow's renowned tutelage, putting a viable offense within reach for the first time in years; they may even find something of a running game behind Franklin and Derrick Coleman. And they'll certainly know in a hurry: September dates with Kansas State, Houston and Texas, along with the conference opener against Stanford, make for one of the steepest learning curves in the country. If the Bruins can bring down Stanford in the Rose Bowl, they could be off to their second 3-0 start in as many years before the trip to Austin brings them back to earth. But the most crucial stretch, as always, will be the decisive six-game run against conference peers Cal, Oregon, Arizona, Oregon State, Washington and Arizona State. If L.A. can manage a split in those six after a fast start, it should be able to count one of the hardest-earned 7-5 marks in the country as a relative success.
• Worst-Case. With the lingering issues on offense and the wholesale turnover among the front seven, the September gauntlet is more likely to leave the Bruins sitting at a demoralizing 0-4 than vice versa; even assuming they win one of the first three, bowl hopes may be crushed before they ever really begin to take root. The meat of the conference schedule offers at least seven losses. With only one apparent gimme on the entire slate (Washington State), they could do plenty of good things, hold the line from last year and still come in reeling at 3-9 with a few bad breaks.
• Non-Binding Forecast. This feels like a program on the rise, but there's not a lot of room for upward mobility in a league where Washington and Stanford are trending even more clearly upward under their own charismatic young coaches and future first-round quarterbacks, while Arizona, Oregon State and California have established solid enough foundations to prevent a freefall in the standings. Among the generally competitive segment of Pac-10 also-rans, UCLA probably still has the least going for it on paper. Toss in the impressively murderous non-conference slate, and another bowl bid begins to look like a Herculean accomplishment.
Rather than the record, which probably isn't going to be very good, the season may better be judged by just how competitive the Bruins are en route to, say, 5-7 – last year, four of their six conference losses were by double digits, and Stanford and Oregon State both held double-digit fourth-quarter leads before allowing minor runs that brought the finals within apparent striking distance. L.A. should not be expected to exceed 6-6, but all things considered, if it can get there again while lamenting the ones that narrowly got away, that will be a (very) small step forward.
- - -
- - -
Previous Absurdly Premature Assessments (alphabetically by team): Boston College ... Central Michigan ... Clemson ... Colorado State ... Connecticut ... East Carolina ... Florida Atlantic ... Florida State ... Fresno State ... Hawaii ... Houston ... Iowa ... Kansas State ... Kentucky ... LSU ... Marshall ... Memphis … Middle Tennessee State ... Missouri … Nevada ... Oregon State ... Pittsburgh … San Diego State ... Stanford ... UAB. ... UTEP.
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.
- - -