UCLA Bruins (2000: 6-6)
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Coach and programWith 16 starters returning from last season’s 6-6 Sun Bowl team, along with the starting punter and place-kicker, UCLA seems poised to make a run at the Pac-10 championship.
The Bruins have impact players at all the key positions and a load of depth behind them.
“We lost very few starters,’’ head coach Bob Toledo said. “Just three guys on offense -- although one of them was [NFL-bound wide receiver] Freddie Mitchell -- and three guys on defense."
Last year’s team suffered some key injuries early, and then never was able to pull out the big games as it stumbled to a 3-5 record in the Pac-10. Ten of UCLA’s 12 games were decided by eight points or less and five of those were losses.
One huge factor in UCLA’s favor is that it will have senior defensive end Kenyon Coleman (6-6, 280) coming after the quarterback late in games. Coleman, considered an All-America candidate, suffered a knee injury in UCLA’s third game of 2000 and sat out the rest of the season.
Last season, Coleman thought he was going to miss out on a magical year. UCLA was 3-0 when he got hurt, with wins over Alabama, Fresno State and Michigan. But then the season turned mediocre, perhaps heading on a downward trend in part because of his injury. He believes that magic could be realized this season.
“The expectations are high here,’’ he said. “Looking at our team, we have six to eight people who can make NFL rosters. We have an awful lot of talent.’’
Putting together that talent will be a couple of new coordinators. Last year’s defensive coordinator, Bob Field, was fired after spending 22 years with the program. Toledo needed to make room for the hiring of ASU defensive coordinator Phil Snow, who was left without a job when ASU head coach Bruce Snyder was fired.
Known to be a gambler, Toledo’s play calling should offer some fun surprises for UCLA fans, if not unpleasantness for opponents.
Of course, with so much returning talent, Toledo probably won’t have to rely on tricks to get the job done.
OffenseNo longer is there any dispute about who will be the No. 1 quarterback. Junior Cory Paus (6-2, 215) solidified his standing with a big year in 2000. He was the third sophomore to throw for more than 2,000 yards passing at UCLA and he completed 134-of-241 passes (55.6 percent) for 2,156 yards and 17 touchdowns.
“I am much more confident and knowledgeable,’’ Paus said. “I have much better footwork, reads, touch.’’
It appears senior tailback DeShaun Foster (6-1, 215) will battle with Oregon State tailback Ken Simonton for offensive player-of-the-year honors in the Pac-10. Despite missing a game-and-a-half with a broken bone in his right hand, Foster gained 1,037 yards last season, including 187 in the season opening win over Alabama.
For the entire puzzle to come together, senior Brian Poli-Dixon (6-5, 220) has to prove he can be a No. 1 wideout on an every game basis. As the second guy behind Mitchell, Poli-Dixon proved he had plenty of big-play capability, finishing with 53 catches for 750 yards and five touchdowns.
UCLA is loaded at tight end with the return of senior Bryan Fletcher (6-5, 235) and junior Mike Seidman (6-5, 240). The two combined for 16 catches and three touchdowns last season and both are solid blockers.
Three-year starting guards Oscar Cabrera and Brian Polak are gone. However, the Bruins have a solid, three-man nucleus returning in senior center Troy Danoff (6-5, 310) and junior tackles Mike Saffer (6-5, 305) and Bryce Bohlander (6-6, 290).
Defense and special teamsMake room for Coleman. He figures to be one of the most dominating defensive ends in college football, as he was expected to be last season before the injury. As a junior in 1999, he had 50 tackles with nine tackles for loss.
Junior Rusty Williams (6-4, 270), who missed the Sun Bowl as well as spring practice because of shoulder surgery, will start at the other defensive end position. Williams, whom Toledo says has a non-stop motor, had started the previous 22 games before the Sun Bowl.
Senior Robert Thomas (6-2, 235), a Butkus semifinalist, returns as the main man in the middle for the Bruins. Thomas led UCLA in tackles last season with 88 and also had nine tackles for loss.
The anchor in the secondary is strong safety turned free safety Marques Anderson (6-0, 205), a senior who had 73 tackles last season and forced 10 turnovers. The other returning starter is junior cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. (5-9, 180), who was selected to the All-Pac-10 first team last season. Manning has started 22 consecutive games for the Bruins, Last season, he had 65 tackles and four interceptions.
Junior Chris Griffith (6-2, 200) was second-team All-Pac-10 last season after he made 11-of-14 field-goal attempts and 44-of-46 point-after attempts. In the last two seasons, he has made 18-of-22 field-goal attempts inside the 40.
Bottom lineEverything is in place for the Bruins to charge to the top of the Pac-10. However, Toledo is going to have to find some cornerbacks in a hurry because Pac-10 teams tend to go through a lot of them during a season. An injury to a player like Manning could lead to a disaster.
On offense, Paus should blossom because Foster is going to be getting all the attention. That play-action freeze that will stifle defenses should allow Paus that extra split second to find his second and third receivers and avoid the huge errors that plagued him his first two seasons.
All in all, UCLA has very few weak spots. In a conference where all the teams seem to have a couple of problem areas, the Bruins have the look of the most complete team. If Toledo can handle the burden of calling the plays himself while running the team at the same time, it could be a huge year for UCLA.