UCLA’s Rick Neuheisel wants nothing less than breakout season


In two seasons, UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel has managed to get the Bruins back to the Karl Dorrell level.

A 7-6 record, a trip to a lower-tier bowl game and a promise of better days ahead were the results of the 2009 season, all benchmarks of Dorrell’s tenure as the Bruins’ coach from 2003 to 2007.

There are reasons why the Bruins have yet to soar under Neuheisel, deeply rooted in the cupboard-is-bare program he was handed. But setting sail on his third season, with training camp opening Monday, even Neuheisel knows he has to deviate from that path.

“We’ve got to break out, no question,” Neuheisel said. “But it’s one thing to say it; it’s another thing to go about it.”

A year ago, Neuheisel set the bar at getting to a bowl game. The Bruins did, barely, and beat Temple in the EagleBank Bowl.

This season, Neuheisel has talked about “keeping the momentum going.” The Bruins are picked to finish eighth in the Pacific 10 Conference by the media.

“There is a honeymoon period,” Neuheisel said. “A coach comes in and everyone gets excited. We went 4-8 [in 2008] and everyone goes, ‘We’ll give you another chance.’ … We had a good November last year, and that kept the optimism going. We brought in another good recruiting class.”

And now?

The bar may have been set by others who took over programs with more problems than Neuheisel inherited.

Jeff Tedford took over a California team that went 1-10 in 2001. In his third season, the Bears went 10-2 and missed playing in the Rose Bowl on a last-minute shift in BCS poll voting.

Jim Harbaugh came to a Stanford program that went 1-11 in 2006. In Season 3, the Cardinal finished tied for second place in the Pac-10 and beat USC for the second time in three years, something UCLA has done only once since 1998.

“Last year, the answer to what was a successful season was a bowl game,” quarterback Kevin Prince said. “I don’t think that will be enough this year. Even last year, making a bowl and having a 7-6 record, it didn’t feel right. Anything less than competing for a Pac-10 title, being one of the top two teams in the race, would be a failure in my eyes.”

The Bruins believe they have reached a level in talent in which nine victories would be the minimum, center Kai Maiava said.

Neuheisel was 10-2 in his second season at Colorado and 5-6 in his third season. He was 11-1 in his second season at Washington and 8-4 in his third.

“I certainly don’t see any reason to wait any longer,” Neuheisel said. “Time may prove me wrong. We’ve got to be fortunate and depth is not a luxury. But the experience we now have gives us the right, at least in my mind, to have a chance.”

Baca questionable

Tackle Jeff Baca’s status is in doubt, as he is awaiting an academic appeal to maintain his eligibility, according to an athletic department official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. The date of the appeal is to be determined.

Meanwhile, the offensive line took another one-game hit, as tackle Mike Harris has been suspended for the first game for violating team rules, Neuheisel said.

Quick kicks

Sophomore tailback Damien Thigpen was moved to cornerback for the first practice, a four-day experiment, Neuheisel said.… Wide receiver Josh Smith suffered a groin injury during practice, but Neuheisel did not believe it was serious.… Prince was crisp during the first practice, demonstrating velocity and touch on his throws.… Freshman Anthony Barr had a handful of quality catches playing the “F back” position, a combination running back, wide receiver and tight end.