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Getting Closer

Times Staff Writer

If winning records were decided only by talent, UCLA would finish well above .500 this season.

Tight end Marcedes Lewis, running back Maurice Drew, kicker Justin Medlock and linebacker Spencer Havner are award candidates, and center Mike McCloskey, safety Jarrad Page, defensive end Justin Hickman and linebacker Justin London are on national “to watch” lists at their positions.

The key for UCLA will be getting its talent to work together. Starting with their season opener at San Diego State on Saturday, the Bruins will get a chance to see if they finally have everything in place to make a run at a conference championship.

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“You’re going to see a much closer team out there this season,” senior receiver Junior Taylor said. “We feel that this is our time.”

UCLA’s calling card will be its offense, which has 14 players who started a game last year, including linemen Ed Blanton, Shannon Tevaga and McCloskey.

After the Bruins improved to second in the Pacific 10 Conference in rushing and third in scoring and yards a play last season, Coach Karl Dorrell predicted a “lights out” 2005.

“It’s all about efficiency for us,” running back coach Eric Bieniemy said. “We have guys who have been in the system now for a number of years. We expect them to go out and execute. ... Last year, we were great at times, and then we would fall off. Our goal is to be the most consistent team. We do that, everything will take care of itself.”

Three-year starter Drew Olson will open at quarterback against the Aztecs after surviving a strong challenge in training camp from redshirt freshman Ben Olson.

Drew Olson has started 26 games for the Bruins and has passed for 5,334 yards. But he’s coming off major knee surgery and has yet to win a big game. If he falters, the backups are David Koral, who played well in last season’s loss in the Las Vegas Bowl after Olson was injured, and Ben Olson (no relation), a highly touted recruit who spent the last two years on a Mormon mission after a redshirt season at Brigham Young. Ben Olson was a close No. 2 until an injury to his throwing hand sidelined him for the opener. His play to that point during practice -- and Drew Olson’s reaction to the competition for his starting position -- had the Bruins feeling good.

“It obviously feels a lot better having that confidence under your belt,” fullback Michael Pitre said. “During the off-season, we really worked hard and you can see it start to pay off now by knowing what you’re doing out there on the field.”

In Maurice Drew, UCLA has a game-changing runner who rushed for 1,007 yards last season, including a school-record 322 yards in a 37-31 victory over Washington. Drew finished 17th in the nation in all-purpose yardage at 146 yards a game.

Sophomore Chris Markey rushed for 350 yards last season in limited time behind Drew and then-senior Manuel White.

At tight end, Lewis is hoping to improve off a season in which he led the team with seven touchdowns in 32 receptions. At 6 feet 6, 256 pounds, Lewis presents matchup problems for defenses, and the Bruins have added more plays to get him the ball.

Taylor and junior Joe Cowan are the most experienced and reliable wide receivers. The Bruins also plan to give plenty of time to freshman Gavin Ketchum and sophomores Brandon Breazell and Marcus Everett (although Everett will open the season on the sidelines because of a separated shoulder) and walk-ons Andrew Baumgartner and Matt Willis.

McCloskey and Tevaga are the forces on the offensive line, which is expected to be more athletic than last year’s group. If sophomores Brian Abraham and Chris Joseph can learn quickly on the job and the Bruins get more consistency from Blanton, Dorrell may have his “lights out” offense.

“You look at our record from last year and it reads 6-6; that’s what we earned,” said Drew, who was a second-team All-Pacific 10 Conference selection. “The last two years, I think we kind of thought that we were better than everyone else because we had more athletes. But that’s not how the game is played. No matter how good a team is athletes-wise, if you play like a whole bunch of individuals, a team that plays as a team is going to win.”

A year ago, UCLA’s defense gave up 441 rushing yards and 31 points in a season-opening loss to Oklahoma State, then slowly improved with each game.

Getting better play up front is key. The Bruins will miss their most experienced lineman, Kevin Brown, who will be sidelined until October because of an ankle injury. But Hickman has been dominant in camp and Nikola Dragovic’s strong play made him a starter at the other end ahead of senior Kyle Morgan.

Tackle Brigham Harwell needs to control the middle and help Kenneth Lombard, Nathaniel Skaggs and Chase Moline until Brown returns.

After struggling through last season because of an ankle injury, London is back to anchor UCLA’s run defense. If he can stay healthy, that should help free up Havner, who is at his best reading the quarterback in passing situations. He has eight career interceptions.

Sophomore Trey Brown, who started the final half of last season, is the leader at cornerback, where Michael Norris, Marcus Cassel, Rodney Van and Bryon Velega will also play.

Sophomore Dennis Keyes has been a nice surprise at free safety, but expect Chris Horton to break back into the lineup once he fully recovers from wrist surgery. Page, a four-year starter, is the anchor of the secondary and he’s quicker and stronger than last season.

Redshirt freshman Aaron Perez will replace Chris Kluwe at punter. Medlock, an All-Pac-10 kicker last season, will provide a scoring threat from 50-plus yards.

“We have some young guys that are a lot better than people know,” Page said. “They actually got some game experience last year and they’re going to be pretty good. ... We’re glad people are not really taking us seriously. We know what we have to do.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

AT A GLANCE

* Coach: Karl Dorrell, third season, 12-13.

* Last season: 6-6 overall, 4-4 in Pacific 10 Conference, tied for fifth.

* Key losses: WR Craig Bragg, WR Tab Perry, CB Matt Clark, OT Paul Mociler, RB Manuel White, FS Ben Emanuel, OG Steven Vieira, P Chris Kluwe.

* Returning starters: Senior center Mike McCloskey is a four-year starter and leader of an offensive line that includes sophomore strong-side guard Shannon Tevaga and senior weak-side tackle Ed Blanton. Senior quarterback Drew Olson is also a three-year starter and his main targets are expected to be senior wide receiver Junior Taylor and senior tight end Marcedes Lewis, a John Mackey Award finalist last season. Junior running back Maurice Drew and sophomore fullback Michael Pitre will handle backfield duties. Senior inside linebackers Spencer Havner and Justin London, along with senior safety Jarrad Page, are defensive leaders. Sophomore Bruce Davis and senior Wesley Walker have experience at outside linebacker. Junior linemen Justin Hickman and Kevin Brown, along with sophomore Brigham Harwell, are key players on the defensive front. Cornerbacks Trey Brown, a sophomore, and Marcus Cassel, a senior, both started last season. Junior Justin Medlock is regarded among the best kickers in the nation.

* Top newcomers: Quarterback Ben Olson, a redshirt freshman who transferred from Brigham Young, is expected to see plenty of playing time once he returns from a hand injury that has sidelined him for the opener. Freshman wide receiver Gavin Ketchum and freshmen tight ends Ryan Moya and Logan Paulsen also are expected to play a lot. Freshmen linebackers John Hale and Reggie Carter will be counted on to contribute on defense, along with freshman tackle Chase Moline and freshman safeties Robert Kibble and Bret Lockett.

* Offense: The Bruins have an experienced line that does a good job blocking for the run and pass. Drew is a top-notch runner who needs to stay healthy. Drew Olson has improved each season and had a strong training camp. Receivers Taylor and Joe Cowan are underrated threats who should benefit from attention paid to Lewis, arguably the best tight end in the nation.

* Defense: London and Havner enter the season healthy and need to stay that way. Hickman seems poised for a breakthrough season, and Page is one of the best defensive backs in the conference. The key will be how well the Bruins tackle -- a problem last season. The line will miss Brown, who will be sidelined for six weeks because of an ankle injury.

* Intangibles: A year ago, the Bruins were ranked 106th nationally in total defense and gave up at least 24 points in six games. No matter how many yards UCLA’s offense generates, the defense has to play better.

* Key to the season: Drew Olson worked hard rehabilitating his knee after major surgery and he will be under the spotlight. If he improves his play from a year ago, the Bruins will have a high-scoring offense. If he struggles and UCLA turns to Ben Olson, expect growing pains.

-- Lonnie White

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SCHEDULE

* Saturday, at San Diego State, 7:15 p.m., ESPN2: The Bruins have never lost to the Aztecs but they also have never won a season opener under Coach Karl Dorrell, who attended Helix High in San Diego.

* Sept. 10, Rice, Rose Bowl, 7 p.m., FSN West 2: The Bruins have never lost to the Owls ... but the last time they faced Rice was 1966.

* Sept. 17, Oklahoma, Rose Bowl, 12:30 p.m., Channel 7: The Bruins are 0-3 aginst the Sooners, including a 59-24 loss at Norman in 2003.

* Oct. 1, Washington, Rose Bowl, TBA: The Bruins under Dorrell have averaged 41.5 points in two victories over the Huskies.

* Oct. 8, California, Rose Bowl, TBA: The Bruins have defeated the Bears the last two times they’ve played at the Rose Bowl.

* Oct. 15, at Washington State, TBA: The Bruins have never defeated the Cougars under Dorrell, who is 0-2 against Washington State’s Bill Doba.

* Oct. 22, Oregon State, Rose Bowl, (homecoming), TBA: UCLA transfer Matt Moore, from Newhall Hart High, is the new Beaver starter at quarterback.

* Oct. 29, at Stanford, TBA: The Bruins’ 21-0 victory last year was their first shutout over the Cardinal since 1987.

* Nov. 5, at Arizona, TBA: The Bruins are 2-0 against the Wildcats under Dorrell, by a combined score of 61-38.

* Nov. 12, Arizona State, Rose Bowl, 4 p.m., Channel 7: The Bruins have defeated the Sun Devils the last three times they’ve met at the Rose Bowl.

* Dec. 3, at USC, Coliseum, 1:30 p.m., Channel 7: The Bruins have lost six in a row to the Trojans, but last year’s 29-24 score against the national champions was surprisingly close.


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