The quarterback has no experience. The tailback has no established backup. The offensive line has no durability.
There is no solid starter at fullback, no dominant player in the defensive line and no certainty in the kicking game.
While there’s a big exclamation point at one end of town over the USC football team, with bold predictions of a national championship, there is only a question mark over Westwood.
How good is UCLA? Who knows?
Not Coach Terry Donahue. Not yet, anyway.
“Why don’t I know about my team?” he said. “Because we’ve been playing ourselves. Until you’ve put your team against another team, it’s very difficult to evaluate. I’ll know a lot more about my team by the end of Saturday night.”
The Bruins will open their season at 5 p.m. Saturday at the Rose Bowl against Miami.
UCLA could be very good if:
--Ryan Fien proves he can replace Wayne Cook as the starting quarterback.
--Karim Abdul-Jabbar (formerly Sharmon Shah) survives and thrives on a huge workload at tailback.
--One of three freshmen emerges as the fullback.
--An offensive line with a history of breaking down doesn’t.
--A weak-link defense last season flourishes under a new 4-3 system.
--A plan to spread the kicking game around and go with the hot foot proves successful.
That’s a lot of ifs for a team that will not be allowed to tiptoe cautiously into the season. After playing Miami, the Bruins journey to Provo, Utah, to face BYU in the second game, then come home to meet Oregon, the defending Pacific 10 champion.
By position, the ’95 Bruins shape up as follows:
QUARTERBACK--Fien, a junior with one start in his three years in Westwood, must show that, besides a strong right arm, he has a mind sharp enough to adapt to college defenses and the character to be a leader.
A thigh injury has slowed Fien’s progress and Donahue, although optimistic, still must be convinced Fien can handle the responsibility.
There will be no quick hook. Fien will be brought along slowly, his role in the offense de-emphasized as much as possible at the start so he can grow into the job.
If, however, he should falter, freshman Cade McNown is the most likely replacement.
The key question: Is Fien ready?
TAILBACK--This position starts and ends with Abdul-Jabbar.
Donahue will hand the ball to the 5-foot-10 1/2, 200-pound junior until he is too tired to carry it. It is expected that Abdul-Jabbar’s number will be called 25-30 times a game.
What choice does Donahue have?
The runner who was expected to share the load, Skip Hicks, is sidelined for at least half the season, having had arthroscopic knee surgery.
That leaves James Milliner as the backup. Milliner is switching over from fullback, but the choice was his, not Donahue’s. That says it all.
Junior Thaddeus Massey might also get some work.
The key question: Will Abdul-Jabbar, who has had arthroscopic surgery on both knees, hold up?
FULLBACK--With Milliner out of the picture and sophomore Greg Ford sidelined indefinitely because of back surgery, the position will be filled by the freshmen--Jarvis Watson, Craig Walendy and Cheyane Caldwell.
Walendy and Caldwell are true freshmen. Watson sat out last season as a redshirt.
Watson is listed as the top man on the depth chart, but this competition will be settled on the field, starting Saturday.
Watson is the best receiver, Caldwell the best blocker. Walendy is solid in both areas.
Because Donahue is planning on building his offense, at least at the start, around Abdul-Jabbar, a good blocking fullback is a must.
The key question: Which fullback candidate will emerge?
RECEIVERS--The star of this group is unquestionably Kevin Jordan, the All-American who teamed last season with J.J. Stokes.
There was some concern over Jordan’s ability to recover from the knee injury he suffered in last season’s finale, but he has made solid progress and appears to be back in form.
Competing to be the starting split end are two sophomores--Jim McElroy and Eric Scott. McElroy’s forte is speed. He has the ability to blow past defenders. Scott is more a possession receiver. He has good hands and is a good blocker.
The starter at tight end will be senior Brian Richards. He wasn’t much of a target last season, catching only three passes. But the Bruins hope to look his way more often in 1995.
The key question: There is speed among the receivers, but can Fien get them the ball?
OFFENSIVE LINE--This is the most solid unit on the squad, with five returning starters.
It begins with Jonathan Ogden, the most imposing figure on the field for UCLA at 6-8 1/2 and 303 pounds.
“If he is not a No. 1 [NFL] draft choice, then they shouldn’t have a draft,” Bruin offensive coordinator Bob Toledo said.
Ogden is at left tackle, joined by left guard James Christensen, center Mike Flanagan, right guard Matt Soenksen and right tackle Chad Overhauser.
Not only are they good, they are experienced. All are seniors except Overhauser, a sophomore.
The key question: Can this injury-prone line avoid injuries?
DEFENSIVE LINE--This is the unit that must make the biggest adjustment.
The Bruins will be going more to a four-man line to take advantage of their speed up front and to compensate for the lack of a dominating nose guard, a critical player in the 3-4 alignment.
Playing at one defensive end will be Phillip Ward, a natural linebacker who will be used in the pass rush. The other defensive end position will be manned by a sophomore duo--Vae Tata and Danjuan Magee, with Tata going into the opener as the starter.
At defensive tackle will be Grady Stretz and Travis Kirschke, with George Kase, the starting nose guard the last two seasons, serving as a backup.
The key question: Will the 4-3 work?
LINEBACKER--This position features perhaps the two best athletes on the team--Donnie Edwards and Abdul McCullough.
Both have the ability to roam everywhere from the line to the secondary. McCullough, who weighs only 210 pounds, is actually switching from safety.
And both will roam, doing everything from pass rushing to pass coverage.
The versatility and explosiveness of this pair will be the key to the defense.
In the other spot will be a more conventional linebacker, Brian Willmer, a sophomore who will concentrate on stopping the inside run. Willmer will also take the defensive signals from the sidelines.
The key question: Can Edwards and McCullough make up for defensive deficiencies elsewhere?
DEFENSIVE BACKS--UCLA has three players competing for the two cornerback positions--Teddy Lawrence and brothers Paul and Javelin Guidry.
Lawrence, the senior of the group, has the most experience. He also knows the passing game, having been a quarterback in high school.
Paul Guidry has the versatility. When the Bruins were thin at safety last season, Guidry switched over, but he’s better suited for the corner. Javelin Guidry has competed well for a starting job as a sophomore.
Shaun Williams at strong safety offers the physical play that UCLA was known for in the days of Kenny Easley and Don Rogers.
Seniors Ted Nwoke and Tommy Bennett are both under consideration for the starting job at free safety.
The key question: The Bruins were eighth in the 10-team conference in pass-efficiency defense last season. Will a year of experience make this unit better?
THE KICKERS--Bjorn Merten slumped last season, his field-goal production dropping from 21 to 12.
Donahue will give Merten a chance to put his best foot forward, but wants him to concentrate on field goals and extra points. Last season, he kicked off some, as well.
The rest of the kicking game is uncertain. Juniors Justin Sogoian and Greg Andrasick are at the top of the depth chart for now, Sogoian as punter and Andrasick--who also kicked off last season--as kickoff man.
But freshman Chris Sailer, who has had a big camp, will also be given a chance to punt, kick off or both.
The key question: Can Merten regain his form? On a team with other questions about its offensive capabilities, his foot figures to be needed.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
DATE OPPONENT TIME Sept. 2 Miami 5 p.m. Sept. 9 at Brigham Young 4 p.m. Sept. 16 Oregon 12:30 p.m. Sept. 23 at Washington State 2 p.m. Sept. 30 Fresno State 7 p.m. Oct. 14 Arizona 4 p.m. Oct. 21 at Stanford 12:30 p.m. Oct. 28 California 3:30 p.m. Nov. 4 at Arizona State 3:30 p.m. Nov. 11 Washington 12:30 p.m. Nov. 18 at USC TBA
All times Pacific and subject to television
THE GAMBLE: Stanford goes with Tyrone Willingham, who has no experience as a head coach, to replace legend and resident genius Bill Walsh. C4
CLEARED TO PLAY: Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips is eligible while an investigation continues, the NCAA has ruled. C4
PACIFIC 10: The conference has gone from the “Year of the Quarterback” to a season of largely new quarterbacks. USC is the overwhelming favorite. C5