Spring football Q&A: UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Things are always interesting with Rick Neuheisel, and his first season coaching UCLA was no exception.

The Bruins opened with an overtime win over Tennessee. Then went splat, 59-zip, at BYU. And so started a decidedly inconsistent season.

With poor play at quarterback, no running game and a porous offensive line -- and that's sugarcoating things for the woeful offense -- UCLA finished 4-8 and in eighth place in the Pac-10.

But Bruins fans felt a lot better after Neuheisel fetched a highly rated recruiting class, which reignited whispers that -- just maybe -- USC should start looking over its shoulder and worrying about its football, er, monopoly in Los Angeles.

Spring practices don't crank up until April 2, but it seems like a good time to check in.

Let's look back on 2008: What were you happy with and unhappy with?

Rick Neuheisel: I thought our team played hard, but we lacked the proficiency to be a good team. We never got any consistency as an offense. Defensively, we hung in there most games, but we weren't stout enough to be a three-and-out type team. Our kickoff situation put us in a field position deficit because we weren't able to kick the ball off very far. We'd end up having to go long distances with respect to field position. We've got a lot of things to get better at if we're going to be a better football team. But the influx of new, young talent, the great effort in weight room and so forth, I think is going to lead to that.

How exited are you that the whole 'Neuheisel is back' won't be the big story this year?

RN: I'm excited the focus will be on our football team. Obviously, this was a program that needed a kick start with respect to the recruiting and excitement and that stuff. We were fortunate to have a big win at the start of the season that reminded folks how fun football can be. Now it's up to us to deliver that on a more regular basis. Obviously, if we could get to a bowl game this year, that would be a step in the right direction. I think a year from now, we're going to be a team that can compete for the top prizes.

You guys got a lot of publicity about your recruiting success on signing day.

RN: Recruiting went well. Recruiting went really well. It was kind of a validation of what I thought all along: That you can recruit at UCLA. That if you do it the right way and go after the right guys you can deliver. I was pleased to see that was possible.

What was the sales pitch during recruiting?

RN: I think it was the same as when I was an assistant here. This is a land of opportunity. You walk around here and look at former student athletes here -- Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe -- they have buildings and stadiums named after them. They came here with the idea it was more than just playing a sport. You come here and you know you are going to rub elbows with people in this environment and this neighborhood and you are going to create great opportunities for yourself. With respect to our program, bringing it back to a place of prominence creates all sorts of opportunities for guys who have a vision to do that. And I think guys bought into that.

Any good stories from the recruiting road you can share with us?

RN: With [Hawaii linebacker] Manti Te'o one, we went out there, [defensive coordinator] Chuck Bullough and I, and we leaped off the same cliff -- I don't know if you saw the movie "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," where the guy jumps off the cliff? Chuck and I both leaped off there, right at dusk. With Manti. Because I told him I would do that if I got to be in the hunt at the end. So the next thing you know, we're in the house, and the dad says, 'Yeah, I wouldn't let the team do it because there was this giant sting ray down there.' I go, 'Good to know.' It was a legitimate leap.

Which guys from the recruiting class are you expecting to play next year?

RN: I'm hoping [receiver] Randall Carroll because of the speed he brings to the table. I would say you'd look for [running back] Damien Thigpen to have a chance to participate early, too, because of his raw speed. A guy like [offensive lineman] Xavier Su'a Filo, with the impending church mission, you'd probably like to give him a chance to participate. [Offensive lineman] Stanley Hasiak is probably in that category as well. Defensively, you just wait to see who can blossom. Hopefully, a corner or two can do it -- Marlon Pollard and Sheldon Price are both ready-made looking guys, so hopefully they can give us some much needed depth at corner. We'll wait and see what happens at linebacker and defensive end.

The biggest story this spring, because everyone likes to talk about quarterbacks, will be that competition. What did you tell Kevin Craft he needs to do to win the job?

RN: He's got to become a consistent football player and consistent in all respects. Consistent in his decision making. Consistent in his accuracy. We've got to play the position much cleaner. He's got to do that if he's going to be the quarterback.

And how do the rest of the guys stack up?

RN: We have high hopes for [redshirt freshman] Kevin Prince. He is a guy who has the strongest arm and I think has a chance to be a threat to all areas of the field. He's a bright guy, so we'll see how he does. Chris Forcier is a unbelievably talented athlete but he's got to grasp the offense and understand the leadership role of the position if he's going to be a guy we can count on for a regular basis. Richard Brehaut is a freshman we recruited; we'll see if he can handle it. He's sort of starting on Monday and first practice is on Thursday. We'll see if he's ready to go. How he reacts to being submerged will be interesting.

How much can the offensive line improve from last year?

RN: I think it can be a huge difference. That's where I'm really counting on a huge difference. I think we have a slew of nice looking running backs but it starts up front. We have [center] Kai Maiava who had to sit out after transferring from
Colorado last year. He'll have a chance to play. We're a year bigger and stronger with some of the freshmen -- [guard] Jeff Baca, namely. We've got a couple of guys, a junior college kid from Texas named Ryan Taylor, who is going to join us. And we've got a good looking group of freshmen coming in. I think there is reason for optimism with the front, and we have to improve. This is a must.

You mentioned the running backs. What's the pecking order going into spring?

RN: Christian Ramirez will be the first guy. He would have been right at the top of the list with Kahlil Bell last fall but he was academically ineligible. Christian and Derrick Coleman both have size and speed. And we've got a couple of young redshirt freshmen that I'm anxious to watch, Milton Knox and Johnathan Franklin. And Aundre Dean and Ray Carter are in that mix, so it's a full contingent of guys. We've just got to see who is the more consistent across the board in terms of pass protection and taking care of the ball and so forth.

Any chance some of these guys might relocate to other positions?

RN: That's one of the things that I've got to do this spring. I've got to look and see where our best guys are. I've done that before and that's obviously one of the important roles a head coach plays, trying to find the best athletes and moving them to positions to improve your football team. Doesn't necessarily always meet with approval when you talk to kids about it, but it's something we've got to explore.

Any obvious ways the defense will change under new coordinator Chuck Bullough [who replaced new New Mexico State coach DeWayne Walker]?

RN: I don't think so. That was one of the reasons Chuck became a popular candidate with me in that this program has been through a lot of change, moving to a lot of different schemes, different languages. I don't think there's a kid on the team who hasn't had at least three position coaches. It's time to try to shore that up. And I think Chuck, using the same language and terminology, helps in that regard.

Defensively, which young players do you expect to break through this spring?

RN: I think [sophomore linebacker] Akeem Ayers, who played a lot last year, is going to become a name who everybody will recognize in the Pac-10. [Sophomore defensive end] Datone Jones, who played last year, I think is another guy who is going to cause some concern with opposing coaches. [Sophomore safety] Rahim Moore is another who played last year. Hopefully, [redshirt freshman] Aaron Hester is up to playing corner opposite Alterraun Verner. He's hugely talented, now it's important that he play like it. I think we are going to be a good defense. How deep we are is a concern. But we have an influx of young talent. If we can be good next year, I think we can be great in coming years.

How close are you guys to competing at the top of the Pac-10?

RN: If things fall our way, it can happen this year. But that kind of depends on how well we play at quarterback and up front to create a running game to help the quarterback position. If that can happen, we can be in every game and win our share of them. If we struggle, obviously that will put that off a little longer. But I do believe good things are on the horizon and it can happen as early as this season.