LOS ANGELES — Three years after he returned to his alma mater, coach Rick Neuheisel realizes he might be down to his last chance to fix UCLA.
He acknowledged it shortly after he sat down at Pac-12 media day last month, calling himself the “coach on the proverbial hot seat” before anybody had even asked a question.
Yet Neuheisel didn’t get where he is today without an unflagging belief in his ability to fix any football problem.
“I’m as excited as I’ve ever been,” Neuheisel said this week before UCLA opened fall practices. “I’m looking forward to getting UCLA football back closer to the top and over the hump. It’s been a while that we’ve been kind of wallowing in a valley, and it’s time to figure out a way out of it.”
Not much has gone according to Neuheisel’s plan in the past three seasons, which have included just 15 wins, one bowl appearance, numerous key injuries and a few changes in philosophy. Neuheisel has good reason to be worried about his job: The Bruins won 23 games and made three straight bowl games from 2005-07 under coach Karl Dorrell, who was fired after five largely successful seasons for his perceived failures.
But Neuheisel believes he’s getting close to a breakthrough in Westwood. He has two new coordinators who adhere to Neuheisel’s plans, and he has the fruits of four recruiting classes on his roster.
The Bruins have the pieces in place to win, Neuheisel insists. He just has to prove it.
“For the first time, I feel like we’ve got some real depth,” Neuheisel said. “There’s going to be some real competition at a number of positions. We’re deeper than we’ve ever been, and hopefully that will parlay itself into a good season.”
Neuheisel’s players claim to be feeling the same vibe after an offseason in which almost every player participated in every offseason activity. The Bruins have 15 starters back from last season, including star tailback Johnathan Franklin and defensive end Datone Jones.
“This is the first time I feel like all 22 guys have bought in,” said Tony Dye, who’s moving to strong safety and taking a bigger leadership role. “We came in here in the spring and picked up all this momentum, and we’ve kept it going so far.”
Neuheisel believes the Bruins finally will find a cohesive offensive strategy after parting ways with offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who never clicked with Neuheisel in three expensive seasons together. Their surprising experiment with the pistol formation last season came to define the disconnect between the veteran coaches.
Although Neuheisel’s new offense will contain pistol elements, new offensive coordinator Mike Johnson is determined to rebuild a passing game that nearly vanished last season when the Bruins spent too much time reviving their running game.
“It wasn’t like I didn’t know why (the passing game) wasn’t working,” Neuheisel said. “It was just that we didn’t devote enough time to it. If you don’t work on it, it will drift away from you. We made a mistake, and it just got away from us.”
Neuheisel also believes in quarterback Kevin Prince, who missed parts of last season and all of spring practice with injuries. He’s back along with two-sport backup Richard Brehaut, while promising freshman Brett Hundley is out until at least the middle of fall camp with a knee injury.
Franklin is among the West Coast’s top tailbacks, and the Bruins seem particularly deep in the backfield. None of it will matter unless UCLA’s three quarterbacks figure out how to get the ball to Nelson Rosario, Taylor Embree and the rest of the Bruins’ speedy receivers.
“We know that we can run it,” Neuheisel said. “We’ve got to marry a pass game to it. If we can marry it, we’ll have an offense that’s much more explosive than in years past.”
Neuheisel’s excitement about the Bruins’ depth doesn’t extend to the offensive line, where two positions are up for grabs. Stalwart left guard Jeff Baca has an injured left ankle that might keep him out of the season opener and beyond, forcing Neuheisel to shuffle his starting lineup before the season starts.
New defensive coordinator Joe Tresey is expected to provide more aggression and risk-taking than departed coordinator Chuck Bullough, and the Bruins might have the personnel to pull it off. Jones seems poised for a breakout year after injuries scuttled last season, while cornerback Sheldon Price and Dye form the backbone of a solid secondary.
New leaders must emerge after several prominent departures for the NFL in the past two years, yet defense rarely has been the Bruins’ problem under Neuheisel, still considered an offensive mastermind by his players.
“It definitely helps to have one solid voice now, one way of doing things,” Prince said. “We’ve got what we need to succeed and throw the ball well. We just have to do it.”