Questions abound when it comes to the 2011 UCLA football team, and there will be plenty of questions directed the way of Coach Rick Neuheisel concerning the direction of the program and his future within it.
The real answers, of course, will come during the season when we find out if the Bruins can improve upon their disappointing 2010 season, but we’ll start hearing from Neuheisel and the other coaches in the newly aligned Pac-12 Tuesday during the annual conference media day.
Here, we take a look at some of the biggest questions facing UCLA:
1. HOW HOT IS NEUHEISEL'S SEAT?
This is guaranteed to be the topic of the day when it comes time for Neuheisel to address the media on Tuesday. Each coach gets 15 minutes in front of the reporters and cameras and it could very well be the only topic Neuheisel discusses.
In his first three seasons at UCLA, his teams have gone 4-8, 7-6 and 4-8. Last season injuries played a significant factor, but there is no getting around the fact that UCLA left a sour taste in the mouths of their fans by losing six of seven games to close the season and going 2-7 in conference.
Neuheisel is 8-19 in conference games as UCLA’s coach and the Bruins have finished no better than eighth in the Pac-10 in Neuheisel’s three seasons. UCLA has only two victories against teams that ended up with a winning record (Tennessee and Temple in 2009).
Neuheisel has gotten a pass for the first three years because he has been rebuilding the program, but outside pressures and calls for his job are going to come early and often if he doesn’t get things turned around this season.
2. WILL THE NEW COACHING STAFF GEL?
Neuheisel cleaned house as far as the coaching staff is concerned. Offensive coordinator Mike Johnson and defensive coordinator Joe Tresey replace Norm Chow and Chuck Bullough while Inoke Breckterfield (defensive line), Jim Mastro (Tight ends/F-backs) and Angus McClure (special teams) are also new to the staff.
Neuheisel has cited a lack of chemistry among the coaching staff as a reason for some of the problems over the last couple of years so bringing in some different personalities could help resolve some of those issues.
Neuheisel, who is adding quarterbacks coach to his responsibilities, has worked with Johnson in the past, so that is a proven relationship and should help get the offensive braintrust on the same page—a place it couldn’t seem to find last season.
Tresey, the man in charge of the defense, is bringing a freewheeling, spirited style that should help the players stay more comfortable on the field.
3. WHO WILL PLAY QUARTERBACK?
It’s been the big question on the field since fall camp of last season and it will most likely linger all the way until the season opener Sept. 3 at Houston.
Kevin Prince entered last season with the job, but promptly got hurt in fall camp. He tried to play through it and was ineffective early in the season. When he finally got healthy, the Bruins got on a bit of a roll, but he then suffered a season-ending knee injury.
That gave Richard Brehaut a chance to show his mettle, and while he showed flashes of top-tier talent, he failed to overwhelm with his performance.
Prince, when healthy, is probably the best choice. While not a flashy talent with a big arm, he’s a respected leader with field smarts and the fortitude to win big games (at Tennessee in 2009, against Temple in the 2009 Eagle Bank Bowl and at Texas in 2010).
Brehaut is a talented athlete with a strong arm, but seems to keep himself at arm’s length from fully committing to becoming a top-tier quarterback. If the competitive fire lights and he becomes fully immersed in the competition, he could win the job this fall.
Waiting in the wings is freshman Brett Hundley, who is undoubtedly the quarterback of the future. He’ll be in the mix, but even though he participated in spring camp, is still probably a year away from getting enough of a command of the position to seize the job full time.
4. WILL THE DEFENSE BE AS GOOD ON THE FIELD AS IT IS ON PAPER?
Defensively, UCLA appears to be loaded from the front line to the deep safety. Defensive end Datone Jones, middle linebacker Patrick Larimore and safety Tony Dye are All-Conference caliber players. Cornerbacks Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price are both physical and quick. Interior linemen Cassius Marsh and Nate Chandler are as tough as they come.
Their defensive front goes 10 deep with talented experienced players. The linebacker crew is filled with gritty, blue collar workhorses and the secondary could be among the conference’s best.
Now, the Bruins must translate that talent into performance. Last year, many of those players were raw and inexperienced and the defense suffered. With a year of seasoning and on-the-job training, this is a unit that could carry the Bruins this season.
5. HOW WILL THE OFFENSIVE LINE HOLD UP?
The Bruins are deep at running back with 1,000-yard rusher Johnathan Franklin leading a group that goes four deep, and have enough speed and talent at wide receiver to make any quarterback look good.
But the offense will only go as far as the offensive line, and keeping that unit on the field has been a problem. Injuries and ineligibility made this a fairly shallow unit last season and things got off on the wrong foot in the spring when projected starters Jeff Baca, Kai Maiava and Sean Sheller all missed time because of injuries.
When healthy, this unit is at worst passable and at best very good. Staying healthy hasn’t been all that easy, though, and it will need to if the Bruins want to have success.
6. WHERE WILL THE BRUINS FINISH?
It’s media day, so we have to have a prediction, right?
The new conference alignment helps the Bruins in a big way. They are in the Pac-12 South and away from Oregon and Stanford, widely considered the top two teams in the conference (UCLA plays Stanford, but won't be in a division race with the Cardinal).
The South is wide open and it’s conceivable that the Bruins could win the Pac-12 South. Yes, you read that right.
In order for that to happen, however, everything would have to go right: The coaching staff has to gel, Prince has to stay healthy, the offensive line has to stay together and the defense has to take a step forward.
The chances of all those forces aligning are, admittedly, slim, so we’re going to shy away from picking the Bruins to win the South. We’ll say Prince stays healthy and the coaching staff has good chemistry, but the offensive line depth will be problematic and the defense will have a crucial lapse or two.
The Bruins finish 7-5, good enough for a second-tier bowl game.
Predicted Pac-12 standings: