Rick Neuheisel has already framed UCLA’s season, though the phrase won’t find its way into any marketing campaign.
“We have to get over the hump of this mediocrity,” Neuheisel said.
That could be viewed as making a molehill out of a mountain after a 4-8 record in 2010 that has Neuheisel’s job in jeopardy. But the Bruins start the 2011 season confident that the age of mediocrity, and the culture of acceptance, are in the past.
“The program was different when I got here,” senior safety Tony Dye said. “People were OK with losing. My class, and the class that followed us, made sure that changed.”
The Bruins may have altered the intent, but results are needed after years of wandering in the college football wilderness.
* UCLA has not been to the Rose Bowl since the 1998 season, the longest stretch in the program’s history.
* The Bruins have not been ranked in the Associated Press poll in 62 weeks, also the longest stretch in program history.
* USC has treated the Bruins like San Jose State, winning 11 of the last 12 games.
All things deemed unacceptable in Westwood.
To end years of meandering, Neuheisel said, “There has to be a commitment to football.”
Neuheisel is careful on this point, saying, “It sounds like I’m pointing fingers, and I’m not. I don’t sit in the chair that requires balanced budgets and deal with admissions and all the other hurdles in running a top-flight program that also has a great academic reputation.”
But, Neuheisel said, “I do know because of the role football plays in the athletic department world as the breadwinner, it has to be treated like its own entity to be successful. Oregon and USC, and the different programs that treat football as such, have certainly borne fruit because of it.”
He added, “We have a $150-million project going on with Pauley Pavilion, which will be a huge boon to the men’s and women’s basketball programs, as well as the other programs that participate in it. To bite off more than that in this [economic] climate is a tall order. There has to be priorities. So it’s our job to hang on until it can become the exciting order of business to say, ‘OK, what does UCLA need to be that kind of football program?’ ”
Hanging on is what Neuheisel will try to do this season.
UCLA returns 22 players who started at least four games during an injury-marred 2010 season. Also back are center Kai Maiava and defensive end Datone Jones, who both started in 2009 but sat out last season because of injuries.
Players are feeling an urgency to find a way into the college football discussion beyond the city limits.
“It’s crazy,” Dye said. “I’m not sure why it has been this way.”
UCLA was United Press International national champion in 1954, finishing second in the AP poll that season. It was part of a four-year run in which the Bruins went 34-5 and finished no lower than sixth in the AP poll.
But since face masks were attached to helmets, UCLA has had spasms of success surrounded by periods of, well, mediocrity.
None has been longer than the current stretch, which began at the height of former coach Bob Toledo’s success. UCLA was 10-0 in 1998, with a shot at playing for the national title. The Bruins have a 75-74 record since, starting with the epic 49-45 loss to Miami that dashed those title hopes.
“It comes from a direct result of recruiting, all of it,” said former UCLA coach Terry Donahue, whose teams won three Rose Bowls. “Either mistakes were made in recruiting or kids haven’t fulfilled their potential.”
UCLA has not had an offensive lineman taken in the NFL draft since 1999. The last Bruins quarterback drafted was Cade McNown, also in 1999.
Donahue sees change, saying, “Rick is a very effective recruiter.”
And those Neuheisel has recruited are ready for change.
“We’ve got to get it done now,” junior cornerback Aaron Hester said. “Time is running out. This is my fourth year here. We’ve got to leave our mark on this program.”
BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX
Datone Jones, END, JUNIOR
Jones sustained a broken foot last August, depriving UCLA of its best defensive lineman. Now he’s back and, during practice, has looked a lot like an NFL prospect.
Kevin Prince, QUARTERBACK, JUNIOR
When he played well in 2009, UCLA won three consecutive November games to get to a bowl. He has usually been productive when healthy -- but he has often been injured.
ON THE SCHEDULE
BRUINS WON, 31-13, IN 2010
The Bruins need to open with a victory. A loss, even on the road against a team with a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback, could lead to doubt and other problems.
Last season: 175.6 yards per game (35th of 120 FBS teams)
The Bruins ran well out of the “pistol” offense last season. Johnathan Franklin rushed for 1,127 yards and is trying to become the first UCLA player to have consecutive 1,000-yard seasons since DeShaun Foster did it in 2000-01. The addition of running-game coordinator Jim Mastro, an expert in the “pistol” at Nevada, should help.
Last season: 141.1 yards per game (116th)
Statistics don’t lie. The Bruins gave up 28 sacks and had 14 passes intercepted. Improvement -- with Coach Rick Neuheisel taking over guidance of the position -- focuses on Kevin Prince, who had knee surgery in October. He is adept at running but has to improve his accuracy.
Against the run
Last season: 205.5 yards per game (108th)
No area should be more improved this season. The return of defensive end Datone Jones from a broken foot is an automatic upgrade. The Bruins are deep along the front seven. Defensive tackle Cassius Marsh and middle linebacker Patrick Larimore will make it difficult for teams to gain yards up the middle.
Against the pass
Last season: 214.6 yards per game (53rd)
New defensive coordinator Joe Tresey seems to border on obsessed when it comes to blitzing. That will put pressure on the secondary. UCLA is strong and deep at safety, with Tony Dye, Dietrich Riley and Dalton Hilliard. Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price are solid cornerbacks, but depth at that position is a concern.
Jeff Locke might be the best punter in the nation, and he certainly got a lot of practice last season. He responded by finishing fourth nationally, averaging 45 yards. Field goals and extra points are a concern. Kip Smith, who was supposed to be the heir to Kai Forbath, has struggled. Locke can do both jobs and has a strong leg on field goals. If that happens, Smith may take over kickoffs.
-- Chris Foster