Rick Neuheisel inherited a roster that epitomized the term “snake bitten” from the moment he stepped on campus LA. His first season saw him down to third string quarterback before the team had even played a snap. This year the Bruins look to rebound from the 4-8 disappointment of a season ago and have tools returning that make them capable of being called the Pac-10’s Dark Horse.
3 Biggest Reasons They Can:
-The depth on the offensive line is quality. The Bruins look to start Kai Maiava, Nick Ekbatani, Jeff Baca, Mike Harris and Sean Sheller while adding Jake Dean, Micah Kia, Darius Savage and Brandon Bennett to the mix. Of these nine players only Sheller hasn’t seen truly significant game time; he was a projected starter in 2008 that missed the season with a torn ACL. Maiava, the center anchoring the line is a Colorado transfer, former freshman All-American with Ekbatani and Baca two Pac-10 seasoned guards on either side. With Sheller at the critical left tackle spot the Bruins round out the starting five with Harris who made five starts as a redshirt freshman just a season ago.
Although the starting five is stout the true measure of a quality offensive line is in their depth and the Bruins return four capable back ups with significant game time experience. Thanks in part to last seasons injury and chemistry struggles Dean, Savage, Kia each enter 2009 with at least seven games started. Bennett played in nine games a season ago and helps round out the Bruins two-deep. With a promised return to cohesion the Bruins should see their quarterback off of his back, holes for their running backs and ample time to negotiate Norm Chow’s offensive scheme.
-While Neuheisel and Chow are both offensive gurus the best unit on the 2009 Bruins team will be their defense. The squad returns almost 70% of their tackles from a season ago and with the return of Kyle Bosworth; who missed most of 2008 with a knee injury, the squad truly features four returning starting linebackers. Reggie Carter returns to his natural position in the middle and has a shot at emerging as the Pac-10’s best linebacker.
Up front the Bruins line is experienced in the two-deep and talented throughout. First team All Pac-10 defensive tackle Brian Price is a bear in the middle who can keep Carter clean as well as use his athleticism to be a disruptive force. Expect the Bruins sack totals to improve as they return plenty of seasoned players up front.
The backend features Alterraun Verner one of the nation’s better cornerbacks and is littered with raw talent. Rahim Moore played well a season ago as a true freshman and this young group; made up largely of limited experience sophomores and redshirt freshman, has the talent to take advantage of mistakes forced by the stout front seven.
-The Neuheisel effect. Rick Neuheisel wins early in his collegiate coaching stops. Although he left trouble at his last two jobs he’s also posted a 79.1 winning percentage in the first 48 games between Colorado and Washington. UCLA has not followed suit in going 4-8 last season, however, Neuheisel has the coaching staff in place and the young talent necessary to create a winning atmosphere in Los Angeles. Think more Butch Davis at North Carolina of just a season ago; not quite Nick Saban’s year two but definitely a respectable jump between cleaning up the mess that Karl Dorrell left and making his own true mark on the program.
Biggest Roadblock To Their Dark Horse Dreams:
The biggest obstacle to the Bruins run at a Pac-10 title is their cross town rival the Pete Carroll led Southern California Trojans. The Bruins get a break in playing both Oregon and California in the friendly confines of the Rose Bowl. The Halloween trip to Corvallis won’t be easy with the Rodgers brothers looking to get the Beavers into Pac-10 contention. However, even with no clear quarterback, the entire starting linebacker core in NFL training camp now and only one starter returning on the defensive line the Trojans are still the team to beat in the Pac-10.
While the recent history has seen modest margins; save for 2005’s 66-19 beatdown, the Bruins have only risen to the task in 2006. Beating the Trojans 13-9 in the Rose Bowl was Dorrell’s saving grace for a season and Neuheisel will have to duplicate this feat if the Bruins want a shot at the Pac-10 title. If Neuheisel’s experienced team could catch the Trojans early in their “reloading” process the Bruins would have a puncher’s chance in the Coliseum, however with that game on Thanksgiving weekend expect the quarterback issues to be settled and yet another crop of NFL bound defenders to assert themselves.