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DURING HALFTIME OF A USC-UCLA BASKETBALL GAME AT PAULEY Pavilion last January, UCLA football coach Rick Neuheisel, clutching the trophy from the EagleBank Bowl that his team had just won, stepped up to a center-court podium and addressed a fired-up Bruins crowd. Four days earlier, Lane Kiffin had bolted Tennessee to accept the coach's job at USC, and Neuheisel had some words for his new Pac-10 colleague. "A few of our guys, we want to welcome Coach Kiffin to Los Angeles," he said. "We have competed with him before, and we look forward to competing with him and this program again." Later, speaking to reporters, Neuheisel's words were sharper: "We believe we have every right to claim this city."
The challenge was out, and Neuheisel had at least some reason to be stoked. Four months earlier UCLA had upset Kiffin's Volunteers 19-15 in Knoxville, a win that helped the Bruins put their 4-8 2008 season—Neuheisel's first at UCLA—behind them. Now, coming off a 7-6 record and that bowl win over Temple, expectations are high. The Bruins will play in at least seven nationally televised games this season, and success in those games could help entice potential recruits.
If UCLA is going to improve on last season, it'll need to weather the loss of several key players, including defensive tackle Brian Price, who led the Pac-10 in tackles for loss (23½), and cornerback Alterraun Verner, a Jim Thorpe Award finalist. The defense will count on elite free safety Rahim Moore, athletic linebacker Akeem Ayers and explosive defensive end Datone Jones. Larger concerns loom over the offense, which lost premier tackle Xavier Su'a-Filo to a two-year Mormon mission. Sophomore QB Kevin Prince's passer rating was third worst in the Pac-10 last season; he spent the off-season working intensely on both arm strength and accuracy. Says Neuheisel, "We've got to get our running game going and manufacture a few more big plays than we had a year ago."
Neuheisel is optimistic about the ground game, noting that the Bruins' incoming class includes two of the nation's top 10 running back recruits, including Malcolm Jones, Gatorade's national player of the year. Neuheisel is also optimistic about UCLA having another winning season—and once again upsetting a Lane Kiffin team.
COACH Rick Neuheisel (3rd year)
11-14 (6-12 in Pac-10)