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Posted: Wednesday April 16, 2008 12:17PM; Updated: Wednesday April 16, 2008 3:42PM
Stewart Mandel Stewart Mandel >
INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Neuheisel, Chow reinvigorate UCLA (cont.)

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Patrick Cowan
QB Patrick Cowan, who started five games as a junior last season, throwing four touchdown passes and two interceptions, has the inside track on the starting job.
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Though Chow steadfastly denies long-held rumblings of a falling out between Carroll and himself, it was no secret that over time Carroll exerted more control over the Trojans' offense. When Chow left to become the Tennessee Titans' offensive coordinator in 2005, he and his wife maintained their residence in nearby Manhattan Beach.

After Titans coach Jeff Fisher abruptly fired Chow last January following the team's playoff run, Neuheisel immediately pursued him like a blue-chip recruit. Both Neuheisel and incumbent defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker (whom Chow worked with for one season at USC) "home visited" Chow, who was also being sought for two head-coaching openings and who had briefly considered taking a year off.

"I wouldn't have traded that experience in the NFL for anything, because it was so challenging and so exciting on Sunday afternoons," said Chow. "But the NFL season is so long. When Rick came calling, it was a chance to sleep in my own bed."

It's also a chance for him to replicate what he did at USC: Resuscitate a program victimized by the dreaded West Coast offense.

Before he became a Heisman winner and eventual No. 1 draft choice, USC's Palmer struggled badly enough his first three seasons to nearly get benched. So did Notre Dame's Brady Quinn in two seasons under Tyrone Willingham. The common denominator: Both were bogged down by a highly complicated NFL offense that has rarely been successful at the college level (See: Bill Callahan's failed stint at Nebraska).

It's the same offense Dorrell stubbornly stuck to at UCLA, and, with the exception of a 10-2 season in 2005 with a senior QB (Drew Olson) at the helm, consistently ranked among the least productive in the country. (In an awkward twist, Dorrell was one of Neuheisel's receivers at UCLA and an assistant under him at Colorado.) Players practiced hundreds of different plays, each with their own pass-protection nuances and audibles.

"Bill Callahan took a team to the Super Bowl, so far be it from me to critique him," said Neuheisel, "but the West Coast offense in this arena is difficult."

Chow's offense is based in large part on West Coast principles, but the playbook is much simpler.

"That, to me, is the magic of Norm," said Neuheisel. "Norm has this ability to make things seem simple in the way he puts things in and the way he explains it, but there's a great deal of sophistication that's actually displayed in the way he calls it."

"Coach Chow is a legend," said receiver Marcus Everett. "Every time he talks to us, you want to hear every word he says."

Neuheisel and Chow wasted little time determining their new starting quarterback. Though they've made no official announcement, fifth-year senior Cowan began taking nearly all first-team reps after just the fifth spring practice. This after losing spring battles to fellow senior Ben Olson the past two springs only to wind up starting more games (13) than Olson (10) due to the latter's injuries.

"They have a lot of similar skills," said Chow, "but Pat has been more consistent."

Unfortunately for them, there are few other certainties about the 2008 Bruins.

While Neuheisel refuses to call the upcoming season a "rebuilding year" ("You've heard of screen savers? 'Rebuilding' is just a coach-saver," he said), it's clear from watching practice that's exactly what it is. UCLA is extremely thin in numbers, having lost 13 starters and 26 letterman from a year ago.

The departure earlier this week of veteran tackle Aleksey Lanis due to recurring knee problems leaves the Bruins with just two offensive linemen who played the position last season. UCLA's top returning receiver, Dominique Johnson, had just 25 catches last season (Everett, who caught more than 30 balls in 2005 and '06, is also back after missing most of last season with an ankle injury), and its top two tailbacks, Kahlil Bell and Raymond Carter, have sat out most of the spring with injuries.

The true impact of the new coaches will likely be felt further down the road -- particularly at quarterback. Strong-armed juco transfer Kevin Craft switched his commitment from Hawaii following Chow's hiring and will likely take over for Cowan either this year or next. Meanwhile, one of the nation's top recruits for next year, Aaron Murray (Tampa, Fla.), recently visited practice, and another similarly rated quarterback has expressed his interest.

"UCLA carries significant weight in recruiting," said Neuheisel. "This school has won 100 national championships [in all sports]. Football has been a national player -- it's time to be one again."

It won't happen overnight, but at least the Bruins will finally be fun to watch.

 
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