Neuheisel: 'We're going to play for first place'

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

LOS ANGELES -- New UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel was a Rose Bowl MVP for the Bruins, but he's also stirred controversy just about everywhere he's coached.

Fair or unfair, his career and behavior have been relentlessly picked over and microanalyzed.

He owns an impressive 66-30 record and won a Rose Bowl at Washington, but some folks view him as a rogue coach -- "Slick Rick" -- a guy who cuts corners and tries to talk his way out of every corner.

But figuring out who Rick Neuheisel really is won't be that difficult in coming years. His legacy surely will be tied to whether he leads UCLA back to the top of the Pac-10 and challenges USC for supremacy of Los Angeles.

I caught up with him this week; this is part I of a two-part interview.

Have things settled down and allowed you to just be UCLA's football coach after all the static about your past history?

Rick Neuheisel: Yeah, most of that is in the background, behind me. I'm sure every now and then it will resurface, especially with Washington being in the same conference. But things are enough in the rearview mirror that I don't have to worry about it on a daily basis. Now it's up to us as a staff and me personally to make sure nothing happens in the future that would drudge it all back up.

Do you feel like the important people at UCLA -- the administrators, boosters and fans -- don't care about the external static?

RN: I think that they're at that place. Don't care is probably too strong, but I think they are mindful there are two sides to everything and are comfortable that it is in the past.

Give me your impressions, after going through spring practices and now a few weeks into preseason camp, of the overall talent level here.

RN: There are some positions with terrific talent. It's just that we're not going to go out and win any games based on talent. It's just not the way it is. That doesn't mean someone isn't going to emerge here and become a 10-year NFL vet. I would never discount that opportunity for any of these kids. But we are who we are and now we have to play to that and make sure that we don't expose kids who are probably going to have matchup issues. That's the key. A lot has been said about our offensive line. We are who we are. We've got to do what we can to help them.

The offensive line: I was going to ask you about that. Everybody is talking badly about it. How do you handle that? Do these guys need to be built up after hearing over and over that they aren't good enough?

RN: Yeah. They need to be championed. There have been lots of offensive lines with average talent that have been on winning teams. It's up to us as coaches to find a way to get the most out of them because they are all high-effort guys. When you've got high-effort guys, you've got a chance.

How many years away are you guys from competing at the highest level?

RN: I hate to quantify it because it always makes it seem like you're saying you're not capable of doing it now. I don't ever want to sell these guys short. I told the seniors here that talking about rebuilding is just a coach-saver. That's what coaches say to give themselves time and keep expectations down, blah, blah, blah. We're at UCLA. We're going to play for first place. Our record is the same as everybody else's right now, so we're going to go out there. The good news about winning games is you don't have to win them 42-0. You get to win them 3-2 and 42-41. So we've just got to find ways to get one more point.

Who's stood out for you during camp -- play and leadership?

RN: I feel good about our defense and the leadership there. The Bosworth boys [LB Kyle and DE Korey] are tenacious guys. [DT] Brian Price is a bona fide big-time player. [CB] Alterraun Verner is a bona fide big-time player. If those guys do a great job of leading -- and [LB] Reggie Carter and [DT] Brigham Harwell, who's been voted captain -- do a great job of leading, then we're going to play good, solid defense. It doesn't mean we're going to play error-free, but we're going to play good defense.

Now we've got to get the same kind of moxie from the offense. [RB] Kahlil Bell can bring that, but he's coming off an ACL so he's not out there every practice. But when there's a QB competition and you've lost your first two senior guys [Patrick Cowan and Ben Olson], it's hard for the next guy to just go in and be a [expletive]-chewer because he's trying to win the job. [TE] Logan Paulsen, Kahlil Bell -- they have to lead. Now I need an offensive lineman who rises to that challenge. [C] Micah Reed and [OT] Micah Kia, those are the two guys who come to mind. But right now that is a challenge for them.

Recruiting. You go to USC's camp and it's like, 'Wow, these guys have got a lot of players.' How do you recruit against them; what do you say to a Southern California prep superstar to get him to choose you over the Trojans?

RN: There are three things you can do. First of all, you sell UCLA. Fortunately for me, I don't just sell it, I get to share it because I went here. I lived this. It has a lot just on its own merits to entice the very best. Second, you point out our depth compared to their depth in terms of opportunity. Third, you point out: Where did [USC] begin? With a bunch of guys who decided that this is where they were going to go. You try to get a group of guys to decide the same thing over here and be the ones who start the thing. There's some allure to that. I think there's enough kids out in the country who, once they get to see this campus, once they get to see these coaches -- the resumes of the coaches out here are at least impressive enough to bear mention -- and then they see what can be. They get to go to school here and start their own deal in California, knowing that while USC is certainly king of the mountain right now, in the last 29 years since I was a freshman, the record [between the teams] is 14-14-1 between UCLA and USC. So it isn't so far-fetched that it's too far away. We can get it done. But we have to be relentless in recruiting and our energy has to be at least equal if not beyond the very best in the country.

In part II, Neuheisel talks about USC and how he wants people to think about him.