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It may have been hot at UCLA’s final open practice on Aug. 17, but it was just a symbol of the heat facing the Bruins this season.
Despite going 7-6 last season and winning their last three regular season games over bowl teams - including a 13-9 upset of USC - this will be a pressure-filled season for Coach Karl Dorrell.
Critics have railed against his conservative offense and his penchant for being out-coached in big games despite the fact that Dorrell has gotten the team to a bowl game in his first four seasons, a first for a UCLA head coach.
With that in mind, there may be plenty of negative pressure but there is also positive pressure as the Bruins face high expectations to build off last year’s successes.
The team returns 20 starters and in the preseason Associated Press poll, released last week, they are ranked No. 14, third among Pac-10 schools behind USC (No. 1) and California (No. 12). It is also the highest preseason ranking for the Bruins since 1998 when they opened at No. 6.
UCLA opens the season at Stanford on Sept. 1 and with their favorable schedule - including home games against California and Notre Dame, many expect the Bruins to not just contend near the top of the Pac-10 but possibly for a BCS berth.
Head Coach Karl Dorrell praised the experience and depth that he has on both sides, saying that there is no single position that has more depth than the other.
“Offensively, we don’t have just one designated starter, particularly at our skill positions. We have three or four guys at every position that can come in and move us forward,” Dorrell said.
Speaking of the offense, the team does have to overcome its inability to spread the field and/or make the big play. But judging from practice where quarterback Ben Olson threw several long balls for completions, the offense is ready to break wide open.
A main reason for that is addition of offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jay Norvell, who held similar duties at Nebraska the last three seasons. He brings with him the West Coast offense which produced some of the best passing numbers in Nebraska’s history
Another key addition on the sidelines has been wide receivers coach Eric Scott. Scott, who spent the last seven seasons as an assistant at Crenshaw High School, is expecting a lot of production from this group of receivers.
“This offense is pass-oriented so a lot of the job is on the receivers. We’re throwing a lot more balls this year and these guys are expected to make a lot of big plays,” Scott said.
He added that for seniors Marcus Everett, Brandon Breazell and Joe Cowan, it will give them a great opportunity and show what they can do.
Recently Scott was in the news for being arrested on suspicion on burglary. No charges were filed by law enforcement and since being reinstated on August 11, he is glad to have put the matter behind him.
“Things are back to normal now,” he said, “It’s an awesome feeling because you don’t really think about it until it’s gone.”
Defensively is where the Bruins figure to shine all year. Last year, under new defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker. the team ranked ninth nationally in rushing yards allowed and 33rd overall in total defense.
With another year under their belt and 10 returning starters, including All-American senior defensive end Bruce Davis, who tied for team lead in sacks (12.5), and preseason All-American senior safety Chris Horton - this unit has the experience to improve greatly on those numbers.
“We know our defense, we’ve been in it for going on two years now and everyone’s comfortable with it,” Davis said.
The team held an open scrimmage on Aug. 18 and while the offense held back a little bit, preferring to work on the basics instead of displaying its full arsenal, one can be sure that when they travel to Stanford, this will be a better and perhaps more explosive Bruin squad than last year.