by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Let’s rewind to September 16, 1972. The talk of college football, nationally, was none other than UCLA. We know that might surprise the likes of Erin Andrews and the rest of the ESPN Generation who might not realize that the Bruins were once known for sports other than basketball. Such as football. But on that afternoon 39 years ago, UCLA was indeed big news, because it had just opened its season with a startling 20-17 upset of two-time defending national champion Nebraska. Moreover, the Bruins had introduced a new QB named Mark Harmon, son of Michigan great and former Heisman Winner Tom Harmon, and at the time a prominent sports TV personality. Harmon’s Hollywood-like debut running Pepper Rodgers’ newly-installed wishbone offense sent shock waves across the nation. Even the East Coast sports media was intrigued, enough so that much of it descended upon old Pitt Stadium that September 16 when Harmon and the Bruins faced Carl DePasqua’s Panthers in UCLA’s only trip East that season.

Imagine the East Coast media going out of its way to watch a UCLA football game?

That the Bruins ended up winning that game over Pitt by a 38-28 score was mostly a footnote to the Mark Harmon headlines, but almost four decades later it is also a sad reminder of glory days gone by for UCLA football. Especially since the rebirth of football across Los Angeles at USC over the past decade, as the Bruins have become a minor storyline even in their hometown, much less nationally. The local L.A.-area media was quick to resurrect the old stereotypes regarding UCLA playing second fiddle to the Trojans on the gridiron despite the fact that the Bruins had at one point won eight straight games in the ‘90s over their crosstown rivals. And as SC resurrected itself under Pete Carroll, the Bruins faded under Bob Toledo and disappeared almost completely under Karl Dorrell and current HC Rick Neuheisel, both decorated UCLA football alums but neither able to rekindle the glory days in Westwood. Which put the Bruins at a disadvantage with high school recruits, whose attention span covers less time than an ESPN Sports Center, and these days cannot recall a time when UCLA was a significant football entity.

Now, entering the 2011 campaign, Neuheisel’s career in Westwood looks to be at match point, with Slick Rick looking at wrong side of a 40-love in the final set of the match. Lose again, as Neuheisel has done too often over the past three years in which his teams have dropped 22 of 37 games (including 8 of 12 a year ago), and Slick Rick walks the plank after this season. And many Pac-10 sources are wondering if even a minor bowl, which is the best Neuheisel has been able to do (and just once, in 2009) in his three years on the job, might not be enough to save his job.

Prospects for this fall didn’t look too encouraging in spring, when Neuheisel was busy indoctrinating two new coordinators (o.c. Mike Johnson and d.c. Joe Tresey) into the mix while the offense performed minus projected starting QB Kevin Prince, still recovering from last season’s knee injury. By the time the spring game was played, observers were wondering what the offense had been doing for the previous three weeks of work. Moreover, Neuheisel’s critics were out in force after a so-so recruiting haul, while those nasty Trojans, in the midst of debilitating NCAA probation, still landed one of the nation’s top-rated incoming classes. In Neuheisel’s defense, he was recruiting for specifics this season after loading up with deep classes the past couple of years, and he might have uncovered the savior of the program in QB Brett Hundley, a Phoenix-area product and third-ranked QB nationally who sources say could be the Bruins’ best at that position since Cade McNown was getting Heisman votes in the late ‘90s. Although many UCLA backers were hoping that Neuheisel could better capitalize on the Trojans’ vulnerability while in the midst of their NCAA penalty phase, and for the Bruins to at least win the recruiting wars in this unique window of opportunity that UCLA fans worry could be escaping them. Stay tuned for further developments.

Meanwhile, Neuheisel had better hope that Hundley is a quick study, because offensive ineptness has sabotaged each of the Rick’s Bruin squads and led to the unceremonious departure of respected o.c. Norm Chow to Utah in the offseason. Prince’s injury and up-and-down efforts from reliever Richard Brehaut (who threw at least one pick in each of the last six games in 2010) contributed to severe aerial shortcomings in 2010 that ranked the Bruins a woeful 116th in national passing stats in an awkward transition to Neuheisel’s interpretation of Chris Ault’s Nevada “Pistol,” which was renamed the “Revolver” in Westwood last fall. Even though the “Revolver” too often ran out of ammunition a year ago with the nation’s 104th-ranked scoring offense, Neuheisel has doubled-down with the formation by luring from Reno one of the Wolf Pack’s top offensive assistants, RB coach Jim Mastro. Prince, if healthy, still looks to be a potential good fit for the Revolver/Pistol, but his durability remains a major issue, especially considering the punishment any QB endures in this offense. The quick-footed Hundley flashed some upside and a potential Colin Kaepernick-like flair in the spring, but remains raw, and most Pac-10 observers suggest that Hundley will not be entering fall camp as Neuheisel’s preferred alternative at QB, to be called upon at this stage only if Prince and/or Brehaut falter. Some Pac-10 sources are already wondering if Hundley, who might not be ready for full-time duty until 2012, could have arrived a year too late to save Neuheisel, who will also get more involved with the mechanics of the offense as he adds QB coaching duties to his plate this fall.

Although the Revolver/Pistol will remain the Bruins’ primary formation, look for more true Shotgun and Spread looks as new o.c. Johnson (most recently with the San Francisco 49ers but very familiar to Neuheisel after previously working with him on Brian Billick's Baltimore Ravens staff) tries to reintroduce a downfield passing game, surprisingly absent the past few years under Chow. There look to be some intriguing targets in returnees Taylor Embree (team-best 32 catches LY) and Plaxico Burress-sized Nelson Rosario (29 receptions in 2010), but pass protection must improve, which is no given with an OL that was hindered by injuries and ineligibility a year ago and was still struggling to plug the gaps in spring. And then there’s the issues with the QBs, none of whom having demonstrated much consistency through the air in the past. For the moment, at least expect the Bruin infantry to be able to move the chains, especially with Mastro’s extra tweaks to the Revolver/Pistol scheme. The top seven RBs return, led by explosive Johnathan Franklin (1127 YR LY) and bruising Derrick Coleman, who gained nearly 6 ypc and exploded for 185 yards in the 42-28 win over Washington State. Neuheisel must also replace PK Kai Forbath, perhaps his most reliable offensive weapon over the past four seasons (stretching back to the pre-Neuheisel days of 2007) when bailing out many stalled drives with field goals, of which he kicked a school record-tying 85 in his career.

But Neuheisel might have even bigger concerns with a defense that melted down on several occasions last season (including 60 and 55-point torch jobs from Oregon and Arizona State, respectively), prompting the dismissal of coordinator Chuck Bullough and a search for a successor that took almost as long as Sarah Palin deciding if she is going to make a run for the presidency. Two months after forcing out Bullough, Neuheisel finally settled upon Tresey, who had been toiling on the staff of the Omaha Nighthawks of the UFL after previous stints as the d.c. at both Cincinnati and South Florida, the latter ending awkwardly after the 2009 campaign due to Jim Leavitt’s late dismissal that left Tresey and most of the rest of the USF staff out of work and too late to secure other college openings a year ago. Tresey’s Bearcats and Bulls defenses were both noted for their aggression and TO-forcing capabilities (his 2007 Cincy “D” led the nation in forced TOs with 42), but he’s inheriting a stop unit that ranked 9th overall in the Pac-10 and a poor 108th nationally vs. the run, not to mention losing key impact performers such as LB Akeem Ayers & S Rahim Moore to the the NFL Draft.

Tresey will continue to work out of a 4-3 base, with the flexibility to shift alignments to a 3-4 if necessary. Expect more blitzing than Bullough’s recent platoons, and the DL at least has experience with seven returnees who started games a year ago, plus the availability of disruptive DE Datone Jones, who missed last season with a broken foot. The back seven, however, is full of questions, with Tresey crossing his fingers that MLB Patrick Larimore returns at full strength in the fall after missing spring with shoulder problems. In the secondary, Rahim Moore’s playmaking ability at FS will likely be missed, although SS Tony Dye is garnering some preseason All-American mention after leading all UCLA in tackles with 96 a year ago. That’s not necessarily a positive when the strong safety leads the defense in tackles, however, and it underlines another concern with the run defense that was gouged for 262 ypg in the Bruins’ 8 losses a year ago. Improvement from returning CBs Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price will also be expected after the pass defense allowed 300 yards or more in three of the last six games a year ago.

Summary...This is a crossroads year for the Bruins, and not only because of Neuheisel being in must-win mode; Pac-10 sources also report AD Dan Guerrero’s job could be in a tenuous state, with his immediate future perhaps tied to Neuheisel, who is giving all indications of being Guerrero’s second straight head coaching miss after Karl Dorrell’s regime flamed out four years ago. There were few answers in spring, either, as both the offense and defense were in adjustment mode to new coaches. To last beyond this season, Neuheisel needs to thread the needle, with the offense finally discovering some balance and keeping key personnel in the OL and QB healthy for the first time in his Rick’s Westwood tenure, while playmakers emerge defensively and quickly adapt to new d.c. Joe Tresey’s schemes. If all goes well, the Bruins might slip back into the bowl mix and could possibly contend in what looks like a wide-open Pac-12 South, but whether a minor postseason assignment will be enough to save Neuheisel remains to be seen.

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