UCLA plans to play opener despite fires

LOS ANGELES -- UCLA plans to play its football season opener while monitoring the wildfires in the Los Angeles hills above the Rose Bowl.

UCLA will host San Diego State on Saturday afternoon at the venerable stadium, which is less than 10 miles south of the fires currently burning in the Angeles National Forest. UCLA is in contact with Pasadena officials about air conditions in the area, but still plans to play, coach Rick Neuheisel said Monday at his weekly news conference.

"We're going to leave that to the experts, the people in Pasadena and the people fighting the fire," Neuheisel said. "We just wish them all the best and send out our best to the families and the people who are fighting it."

Smoke has created unhealthy air quality throughout the Los Angeles area, making strenuous physical activity inadvisable for some people. Yet conditions could change during the week as the fires are contained, and the Bruins are keeping an eye on the situation with help from fire officials.

UCLA will go after its fifth consecutive season-opening victory when the Bruins face the Aztecs. Quarterback Kevin Prince will make his debut for the Bruins after redshirting last season, but Neuheisel said tailback Christian Ramirez won't play with a sprained ankle that could keep him out until October.

Neuheisel seems pleased with the Bruins' progress through training camp, though several minor injuries have slowed them. Receiver Gavin Ketchum is out for Saturday with a hamstring injury, preventing him from playing against his younger brother, Logan, a linebacker for San Diego State.

Although the Aztecs went 2-10 last season and have never beaten the Bruins in 21 meetings, Neuheisel won't acknowledge any confidence heading into a three-game stretch of nonconference contests. UCLA visits rebuilding Tennessee next week before hosting Kansas State on Sept. 19.

"We certainly aren't in position after the season we had to take anybody lightly," said Neuheisel, whose first team at his alma mater went 4-8 last fall.

After Monday's practice, Neuheisel pronounced himself pleased with the defense's progress under new coordinator Chuck Bullough. With seven returning starters including cornerback Alterraun Verner and linebacker Reggie Carter, Neuheisel believes his defense's talent will override any problems with the transition.

"The language is kind of the same," Neuheisel said. "Our schemes are similar if not exactly the same. The key is to remain healthy. We do not have a real good amount of depth."

The Bruins had the Pac-10's worst rushing offense last season, but Neuheisel has said he's committed to re-establishing a ground game behind the rebuilt offensive line that struggled so much last year. Ramirez's sprained ankle, which occurred during a recent scrimmage, knocks him off the top of the depth chart for now.

Ramirez is returning to the Bruins after missing last season with academic woes, but Neuheisel is hopeful he won't be out more than two games. His absence puts a spotlight on freshman Johnathan Franklin and sophomore Derrick Coleman, currently the best of several ball-carriers on the roster.

"We've got so many good running backs that anybody who gets on the field should be able to contribute," Coleman said recently. "It's crazy how much talent we have at our position. We didn't run the ball that well last year, but that's going to change."