Advertisement

Jerry Neuheisel commiserates from afar as UCLA struggles, especially with running game

Jerry Neuheisel commiserates from afar as UCLA struggles, especially with running game
Former UCLA quarterback Jerry Neuheisel is now playing in Japan. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

As Jerry Neuheisel watched UCLA’s rally fall short against Washington State last weekend on his phone from a practice field in Kachidoki, Japan, his mind drifted to a familiar place. He was throwing passes for the Bruins as the fill-in quarterback, trying to save them from what seemed like certain defeat.

"I would be lying to you if I didn't say I thought that," Neuheisel said.

Advertisement

Neuheisel left UCLA with a year of eligibility remaining to become the starter for the Obic Seagulls, who play in Japan's top-tier American football league. He said it hurt too much to remain the Bruins backup after losing a battle for the starter's job to Josh Rosen before the 2015 season.

Seeing what's unfolded since his departure has inflicted a different kind of pain.

The Bruins (3-4 overall, 1-3 in Pac-12 Conference play) have ventured into foreign territory of their own with a losing record after three defeats in their last four games. They can’t run the ball, their receivers continually drop passes and they have failed to execute late in games, with all four of their losses coming down to the final series.

"It kills me that we're struggling, and I wish I could have been there to help them on the sideline," Neuheisel said. "I miss being part of the team and the battle."

Neuheisel said he doesn't regret his decision to head overseas after graduation, but his leaving is among a number of what-ifs that torment the Bruins as they strive just to become bowl-eligible. What if Neuheisel, who led UCLA to a come-from-behind victory over Texas in 2014 after Brett Hundley went down with an elbow injury, was around to fill in with Rosen hurt the last two games? What if coaches more heavily utilized freshman receiver Theo Howard instead of teammates who continue to drop passes? What if the Bruins could run the ball with even middling success?

UCLA Coach Jim Mora pointed to losses on the offensive line as the primary reason for the team’s epic struggles in the running game. The Bruins lost Jake Brendel, a four-year starter at center, as well as guard Alex Redmond and tackle Caleb Benenoch, who left for the NFL with a year of eligibility remaining. Their depth was further thinned earlier this month when right tackle Kolton Miller suffered a serious leg injury against Arizona.

"That takes its toll, so we got here because we can't run the football right now," said Mora, whose Bruins rank No. 126 out of 128 major college teams in rushing yards per game (91.1) and yards per carry (2.81). "I mean, that's it."

Mora has pledged to make changes to the running game when UCLA plays No. 19 Utah (6-1, 3-1) on Saturday at the Rose Bowl. Of course, that’s been an almost weekly refrain that hasn’t yielded much besides more vows to get better.

“Every game they’ve said the main goal is to improve the running game, and they haven’t found a way to do it despite it being a main point of emphasis,” said Mike Bellotti, the former Oregon coach who is now an ESPN analyst. “The backs unfortunately are getting more tentative than aggressive.”

Bellotti, who has seen UCLA three times in person this season, recalled two good runs on the Bruins' first drive against Washington State last week that were followed by constant penetration from Cougars defenders.

"After that," Bellotti said, "the backs were having to make moves in the backfield to avoid making negative plays."

The Bruins finished the game with 43 yards rushing in 25 carries, an average of 1.7 yards per carry. And that somehow qualified as a massive improvement over the previous week, when they gained a total of minus-one yard against Arizona State.

Bellotti said he found it easier to run the ball out of a spread formation than the more pro-style offense the Bruins are using this season because the latter scheme allows opposing teams to jam the box with defenders. A pro-style offense can nicely set up passes, Bellotti said, but only after some success running the ball.

UCLA's passing game has been plagued by drops, with receivers Eldridge Massington and Kenneth Walker III and tight end Austin Roberts failing to secure catchable passes against Washington State. It wasn't the first drop this season for any of those players.

Meanwhile, Howard did not play last week after Mora promised to more heavily use the star recruit following his touchdown catch against Arizona.

Greg Biggins, national recruiting analyst for Scout.com, said Howard was the most widely pursued member of the Bruins' receiving corps but has been in and out of the rotation after missing a blocking assignment last month against Brigham Young.

"A lot of coaches, including Urban Meyer at Ohio State, are big on blocking, to the point where you can't play for him until you show you can block," Biggins said. "Saying that, at Ohio State, they have crazy depth at the position, UCLA not so much, so you might want to throw Howard out there and see what he can do."

Biggins said the Bruins are stocked with talent at almost every position but noted the biggest contributors to a team's success are player development and a scheme tailored to personnel. Mora and several assistants have insisted that UCLA's new offense can work with the players on the roster even while acknowledging a shift in future recruiting preferences.

Neuheisel said some sputtering should have been expected this season given the changes.

"The team was built to maximize what Noel Mazzone's offense could do," Neuheisel said, referring to UCLA's former offensive coordinator, "so when you change the way when you run the offense, you're going to have to go through an adjustment period and when you play in a conference like the Pac-12, you're going to have some growing pains. But I truly believe they're one broken tackle or one inch away from big plays."

Neuheisel spent part of last week encouraging Mike Fafaul, the former walk-on who replaced him as Rosen's backup, from afar, encouraging Fafaul to "sling it" and then tweeting "Don't be afraid. Fafaul will save the day!" as he threw three touchdown passes in the second half of the Bruins' 27-21 loss.

Neuheisel, who is as unflinchingly optimistic as his father, Rick, the former Bruins coach, said he foresees a breakthrough for the Bruins even though it may not seem readily apparent.

"It's hard to exercise patience — trust me, I know," Jerry Neuheisel said. "I know UCLA fans are upset right now, but I know those guys and I believe in them 100% and fans have to be patient. The breakout offense is soon to come."

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Twitter: @latbbolch

Advertisement
Advertisement