Dr. Saturday - NCAAF

Part of the Doc's Pac-10 Week.

By any measure, UCLA was terrible last year, and no aspect of that swoon -- not even Kevin "Please Run My Interception Back For a Touchdown" Craft -- was as rock-bottom as the running game. L.A. was held under 100 yards on the ground nine times in 12 games, including 29, 9 and 16-yard efforts against Tennessee, BYU and Cal, respectively, and the leading rusher, Khalil Bell, had 397 yards for the season on a depressing 2.8 per carry. As a team, the Bruins finished next-to-last nationally at 2.6 yards per carry, dead last in the Pac-10 at 82.6 yards per game and next-to-last in the conference in sacks allowed. With that practically nonexistant support, Craft was toast on a weekly basis, as will be the new starter, Kevin Prince, if left out to dry under the same harrowing conditions.

There's plenty of room for optimism on that front, most of it stemming from the fact that a) there must be some regression to the mean (i.e. it can't get any worse), and b) the personnel is totally new -- and new in the right way: By choice. Of the six returnees who started at least five games last year on the offensive line, preseason depth charts consistently list at least four of them -- Micah Kia (the most experienced by far, with 15 starts the last two years), Jake Dean, Darius Savage and Mike Harris -- as likely back-ups this fall, behind either players who were injured last year (Sean Sheller), transfers (Kai Maiava, a freshman All-American at Colorado in 2007, and JUCO signee Eddie Williams) or touted incoming freshmen (Xavier Su'a-Filo and Stan Hasiak). The starting right tackle in the spring, Nate Chandler, is a converted tight end. The returnees who seem most likely to stay in the lineup, Jeff Baca and Nick Ekbatani, will probably be forced to move from their familiar spots if they remain in the starting five at all. Behind them, leading returning rusher Derrick Coleman is listed behind '08 academic casualty Christian Ramirez, who should be able to take a pounding a 220 pounds. Rick Neuheisel has indicated he wants to run more to take pressure off the young quarterback.

As much blame as was laid at the feet of inexperience, injuries and general attrition last year, though, long-time Bruin observers might have seen the collapse on the ground coming from miles away:

UCLA Rushing Under Dorrell/Neuheisel
Carries/Game Yards/Game Yards/Carry NCAA Rank Pac-10 Rank Backs > 300 Yds
2004 38.8 184.9 4.8 27 2 3
2005 36.3 160.7 4.4 45 4 3
2006 33.5 129.8 3.9 63 4 1
2007 40.5 151.0 3.7 57 6 2
2008 31.6 82.6 2.6 116 10 1

Appropriately enough, the pathetic running game in '08 wasn't as much of an anomaly as it was the extreme culmination of a years-long trend through the Dorrell era -- production dropped every year until it finally went through the floor. Even if you assume the ground game returns to normal this fall, what is "normal" on an offense where the veterans have only known regression? Typical, moderate improvement in this case is still pretty bad.

So maybe the expectations of improvement, via experience or new blood, should be measured less by the tangible progress (which is inevitable but still likely to be pretty meh) than by the foundation this group is able to lay as one that actually knows how to mount a decent running game. Jim Harbaugh made this kind of transition very quickly at Stanford, from a team that could barely gain a yard on the ground when he took over to one that finished second in the Pac-10 and in the top 20 nationally in rushing last year, with only a single year of moderate improvement in between. As young and talented as guys like Maiava, Su'a-Filo and Hasiak are, this can be that transition year to actual competence down the line, but probably only if they're committed to seeing it that way amid the inevitable lumps.

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