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Pac-10 spring practice preview: UCLA

Youth will not be an excuse for Neuheisel and the Bruins in 2010. Dave Miller

Print This April 05, 2010, 05:30 PM EST

UCLA Bruins
2009: 7-6 (3-6)

UCLA opened spring practice on Thursday coming off a seven-win campaign and a victory over Temple in the EagleBank Bowl. Despite the Bruins’ youth, head coach Rick Neuheisel’s expectations for his team are as high as ever as the squad enters its third year under his leadership.

UCLA will need to replace six starters on defense — including three who earned first-team all-conference honors — led by defensive tackle and potential first-round pick Brian Price. Linebacker Reggie Carter, cornerback Alterraun Verner and the Bosworth Brothers — defensive end Korey and linebacker Kyle — will also be missed.

The Bruins boast a lot of young talent on a defensive line that loses three starters, but the youth may not fully blossom until 2011. As a result, the competition this spring for playing time will be intense, and it’ll be even more competitive in the fall with the arrival of a talented freshmen class that includes five signees.

Junior defensive end Datone Jones, who added weight and checked in around 270 pounds this spring, is being counted on to be the Bruins’ top pass rusher in ‘09. He had 11 tackles for loss and four sacks in his first year as a starter. Redshirt freshman Keenan Graham and sophomore Iuta Tepa are likely early leaders for playing time, as well, barring big fall seasons for the freshman class. Senior Reggie Stokes will miss the spring with an injured knee, and his status for the fall is undetermined.

UCLA must replace both tackles, and the hope is that David Carter could emerge as the leader inside after showing promise in spurts last season. Redshirt junior Nate Chandler, a former highly touted tight end recruit, has been moved inside in what could be a spring-only experiment. Filling the void in production of Price will certainly be a group effort — not just from the defensive tackles, but the entire front seven. Strongside linebacker Akeem Ayers will be used as a rusher more often — and may see time at middle linebacker — and the five frosh linemen will get every opportunity to earn playing time in the fall, especially stud end Owamagbe Odighizuwa. Ayers made 75 tackles — including 14½ for a loss — tallied six sacks, grabbed four interceptions and forced four fumbles in ’09. Look for him to be utilized in a variety of ways as Neuheisel searches for playmakers on the defensive side of the ball.

Meanwhile, Steve Sloan and Patrick Larimore will compete for the right to call the defensive signals at middle linebacker. Sloan, a redshirt junior, has the edge in experience, but Larimore, a redshirt sophomore, plays a more physical brand of defense.

The most experienced part of the Bruins defense is the secondary, which doesn’t even have a senior in the mix. Hard-working junior free safety Rahim Moore could be one of the best in the country, while redshirt sophomore cornerback Aaron Hester looks to be healthy after battling an ankle injury last fall. Junior strong safety Tony Dye and sophomore cornerback Sheldon Price are solid, but they’ll be pushed all offseason for playing time. Neuheisel admits he’s looking forward to the competition in all areas of the defense, as it will be beneficial for the entire unit this year and into the future.

While Kevin Prince is expected to be the starter at quarterback, Neuheisel has yet to tab him the team’s leader. Could sophomore Richard Brehaut, who saw limited action in ‘09, be a better fit to take control of the huddle and lead the Bruins’ offense?

“We have a starter in Kevin Prince,” Neuheisel told reporters on the eve of spring practice. “But I don't want to water down Richard Brehaut's hopes of earning his spot in this lineup. There'll be plenty enough reps for them to prove that they're going to take us to the next step, which is the top division of the Pac-10.”

Last season, the Bruins enjoyed a three-victory improvement from ‘08, but inconsistent quarterback play prevented UCLA from becoming a Pac-10 contender in a year when crosstown-rival USC was having a down year.

Prince tossed just eight touchdowns and ranked eighth in efficiency and passing yards per game. Because it’s conceivable the young Bruins may not have a starting senior on offense, Prince knows it’s up to him to bring a veteran presence to the huddle. Youth will no longer be an excuse for the team’s shortcomings on offense.

A third-year sophomore, Prince completed only 56.2 percent of his passes in ‘09, but he believes that he was compensating for lingering pain in his shoulder — an injury that’s no longer an issue. Fixing his delivery was one of his primary focuses this offseason, and he believes his play will be elevated because of it.

Barring a disastrous offseason, Prince will remain the starter — especially with Brehaut still not having a full understanding of the offense. But Neuheisel certainly will not accept subpar play from the same position he played at the school in the early 1980s.

The Bruins will have weapons on offense for whoever is under center, starting with wide receivers Taylor Embree and Nelson Rosario. The juniors combined for 87 catches, 1,331 yards and four scores in ’09. Junior Antwon Moutra, sophomore Randall Carroll and redshirt freshman Ricky Marvray will look to continue to develop this spring in hopes of cracking the rotation in the fall. Two transfers who could make an impact on offense right away are sophomore tight end Joseph Fauria, formerly of Notre Dame, and junior receiver/returner Josh Smith from Colorado.

Redshirt sophomore tailback Johnathan Franklin can arguably be considered the Bruins’ top running back, but can he hold on to the position? The 5-10, 200-pounder fumbled the ball eight times in ’09, and UCLA has too much depth in the backfield to keep running him out on the field if he can’t hold on to the football. Fellow sophomores Milton Knox and Damien Thigpen will look to show the coaching staff this spring that they’re capable of being more than change-of-pace backs, while junior Derrick Coleman could also steal some carries. However, in the fall, incoming freshmen Jordon James, Malcolm Jones and Anthony Barr could potentially turn the depth chart upside down.

Once again, the Bruins will try to solidify their offensive line this season. Four of five starters return, but there are questions, as Eddie Williams is recovering from ankle surgery and center Kai Maiava was academically ineligible for the bowl game. Redshirt freshman tackle Nik Abele will get a long look for one spot as Micah Kia is still recovering from a season-ending knee injury last August. With depth being an issue, it’s no wonder that guard Stanley Hasiak was allowed to return to the team after multiple off-the-field issues.

Neuheisel has stated that he is excited about Lane Kiffin’s arrival at USC and the possibility of the rivalry between the two schools getting kicked up a notch. But will youth be served in Westwood? Can the defense come together and be formidable enough high-powered Pac-10 offenses. And can Prince become a leader on offense? We begin to find out on April 24 at the Rose Bowl in the team’s annual spring game.

Follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

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