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March 29, 2011

Neuheisel's stint at UCLA hasn't been rosy

The Rose Bowl was abuzz when UCLA upset Tennessee in 2007 in Rick Neuheisel's debut as the Bruins' coach.

Turns out, that's the high point of the Neuheisel era.

The next week, BYU blasted UCLA 59-0 and the Bruins have been toiling in mediocrity (or worse) ever since. Neuheisel has managed just 15 victories in three seasons, which was the same total that led to Rich Rodriguez's ouster at Michigan. More telling, it's seven less than Neuheisel's predecessor, Karl Dorrell, managed in his first three seasons.

The heat is rising in Westwood because the Bruins have not posted more than seven victories since 2005 and have endured two four-win seasons in the past three years.

Neuheisel made major changes to his coaching staff and brought in two new coordinators. If those moves don't lead to a dramatic reversal of fortunes this fall, the next change will be at coach.

Here's a look at the Bruins as they prepare for spring ball.

Richard Brehaut threw more interceptions than touchdown passes last season.
Coach: Rick Neuheisel
Last season: 4-8 overall, 2-7 in the Pac-10.
Spring dates: March 29-April 23.
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (7): QB Richard Brehaut, WR Taylor Embree, TB Johnathan Franklin, TE Cory Harkey, T Mike Harris, WR Nelson Rosario, T Sean Sheller.
Defense (6): T Nate Chandler, SS Tony Dye, CB Aaron Hester, LB Patrick Larimore, CB Sheldon Price, LB Sean Westgate.
Special teams (1): P Jeff Locke.

Positions of strength

Three running backs who had at least 55 carries in 2010 are back for another campaign. Heading that list is junior Johnathan Franklin, who is coming off a breakout season in which he earned all-conference acclaim after rushing for 1,127 yards. Part-time starter Derrick Coleman rushed for nearly 500 yards last season and averaged nearly 6.0 yards per carry. Sophomore Malcolm Jones and redshirt freshman Jordan James have big-play ability. Even with the loss of Akeem Ayers, who opted to enter the NFL draft, the Bruins look to be solid at linebacker. Patrick Larimore, a returning starter, is coming back from a shoulder injury that will keep him out of spring practice. But Sean Westgate, who posted 90 tackles last season, will be there this spring, as will Jordan Zumwalt, who is trying to build on a strong freshman season. The secondary returns three starters and should be solid.

Help is needed

Offensive line play has been a problem. The Bruins made progress up front last season, but they still need to get better. The line paved the way for Franklin to surpass 1,000 yards, but more than half his yardage came in the Bruins' four victories. He was held to 73 or fewer yards in six of their seven losses. More consistency is needed in run blocking and UCLA must cut its sacks allowed, having given up 28 last season. The Bruins should get a boost from the return of C Kai Maiava, who sat out last season with an ankle injury, and G/T Jeff Baca, who was academically ineligible in 2010. The defensive line play needs to be upgraded, too. Injuries were a factor last season, and that area could be significantly improved if health doesn't become an issue. Quarterback remains a headache. The Bruins have endured sub-standard play there since 2005. Last season Richard Brehaut threw more interceptions (seven) than touchdown passes (six).

3 guys to watch

QB Brett Hundley: A four-star prospect, Hundley already has enrolled and will go through spring drills. As a high school senior, he threw 20 touchdown passes and only two interceptions. He's a running threat, too. Coaches don't want to demand too much from true freshmen, but with UCLA's situation, Hundley legitimately will compete for the starting job.

DE Datone Jones: He was expected to be the Bruins' top defensive lineman last season, but he missed the season with a foot injury. If he shows no lingering issues from the injury, he'll be back in the starting lineup and immediately upgrade the defensive front.

S Dietrich Riley: As a true freshman, Riley played in 11 games and received favorable reviews. With All-America FS Rahim Moore leaving early for the NFL, Riley will have a chance to play more and further distinguish himself.

The pressure is on

WR Nelson Rosario: Rosario, a senior, has the tools to be a dominant receiver (good size, excellent speed, soft hands), but he hasn't really developed into the big-play receiver he could be. In all fairness, he hasn't had good quarterbacks throwing to him. But he still has only 82 career receptions and just three touchdowns. Last season, Rosario managed 29 receptions and averaged just 10.7 yards per catch. He needs an impressive spring to show new coordinator Mike Johnson that he can be a major weapon in the offense.

The buzz

Under growing pressure, Neuheisel hired Johnson from the NFL's San Francisco 49ers to replace Norm Chow. The offense was held to 17 or fewer points in six games last season. Johnson faces a huge job. A quarterback competition looms, the line must be strengthened and receivers need to more productive. Frustrated UCLA fans weary of offensive ineptitude will be looking for any signs of progress in all those areas. The poor offensive production has meant the defense has walked a fine line; more points obviously will mean less pressure on the defense.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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