The first hours of UCLA’s off-season didn’t go well. Offensive tackle Xavier Su’a-Filo will be leaving the team for a two-year Mormon mission and junior defensive tackle Brian Price, the Pacific 10 Conference’s defensive player of the year, says he will declare for the NFL draft.
With that, getting better in 2010 just got a little trickier.
The Bruins inched forward in 2009, finishing off a 7-6 season with a 30-21 victory over Temple in the EagleBank Bowl on Tuesday.
The win meant UCLA could claim progress after a 4-8 record in 2008 -- even though UCLA finished eighth in the Pac-10.
Moving forward again in what will be Coach Rick Neuheisel’s third season means filling holes on both lines and finding ways past substantial roadblocks on the schedule.
UCLA opens next season at Kansas State, which nearly won the Big 12 Conference North this season in Coach Bill Snyder’s first year back with the program.
The Bruins then host Houston, which is 10-3 heading into today’s Armed Forces Bowl. And the Bruins follow that up with a trip to Texas, which by then could be the defending national champion.
Houston was intended to be the automatic win when the game was scheduled. But the Cougars spent much of this season ranked in the top 25 and will have quarterback Case Keenum, who led the nation with 5,449 yards passing and 43 touchdowns.
Neuheisel laughed when asked about the 2010 nonconference schedule, then said, “Why do you think my hair is falling out as we speak? That’s a tall order.”
But what followed was a typically optimistic appraisal.
“It’s exciting,” Neuheisel said. “We knew this project. Getting UCLA back to where we want it to be is going to be a tough chore but a worthy one, and one we think we can be accomplished.”
“But,” he added, “we have some holes to fill.”
It’s a toss-up where the greatest need will be, the line on defense or offense.
With Price leaving early, David Carter is the lone defensive tackle who saw extensive playing time.
And that’s not the only defensive woe.
End Korey Bosworth, outside linebacker Kyle Bosworth and middle linebacker Reggie Carter, all seniors this season, have to be replaced.
Isaiah Bowens and Todd Golper will get a look at linebacker. Reginald Stokes, Damien Holmes and Iuta Tepa all have some experience at end. Tackle appears to be the main void.
“We hopefully will be able to recruit someone who can come in and play,” defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough said.
That appeared to be taken care of when Willie Mobley tried to transfer to UCLA from Ohio State. But Mobley’s transcripts were deemed unacceptable, and he now plans on attending Arizona.
Alterraun Verner, the Bruins’ best cornerback, is also out of eligibility.
“That means we will have some giant questions on defense,” Neuheisel said.
On offense, Su’a-Filo says he will return to UCLA after his mission, but that won’t help the Bruins in 2010. Nik Abele, who will be a redshirt freshman, will get a look at tackle, but the Bruins have other problems on the line.
Center Kai Maiava was ruled academically ineligible for the EagleBank Bowl. Eddie Williams started the first six games at right guard, then suffered an ankle injury and was still on crutches. Freshman guard Stanley Hasiak, considered one of 2009’s top freshmen, was sent home two weeks ago after continuing confrontations with teammates at practice.
There is a slim chance he could return.
So offensive line coach Bob Palcic may have to start from scratch -- again.
There are also concerns about quarterback Kevin Prince, who sat out two games because of a fractured jaw, half of one game because of a concussion, and suffered a mild shoulder separation, his second, against Temple.
The running game, though, may get a boost, as Malcolm Jones and Jordon James, two of California’s top high school running backs, have committed to UCLA.
“There are bumps in the road that you don’t always envision, but you keep working through them,” Neuheisel said. “They are some giant ones, large ones, that we face.”