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Pac-12 preview: Things can only get better for UCLA

Published: Thursday, Aug. 4 2011 2:56 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this Aug. 9, 2010 file photo, University of California Los Angeles Bruins football head coach Rick Neuheisel takes questions from the media during a news conference at the UCLA campus in Los Angeles. (Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press) FILE - In this Aug. 9, 2010 file photo, University of California Los Angeles Bruins football head coach Rick Neuheisel takes questions from the media during a news conference at the UCLA campus in Los Angeles. (Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press)

Editor's note: This is the seventh in a series of stories previewing the Pac-12 football season.

LOS ANGELES — Simply put, the UCLA Bruins are in ruins these days and head coach Rick Neuheisel is feeling the heat.

In three years at the helm, the former UCLA quarterback has guided his alma mater to a 15-22 record. The Bruins went 4-8 last season, including a 2-7 mark and ninth-place finish in the Pac-10.

The slide followed a 7-6 campaign in 2009.

"Last year, unfortunately, (we) took a step backwards with respect to our progress for a number of reasons not to be gone into again," Neuheisel said.

After season-opening losses to Kansas State and Stanford, UCLA reeled off victories over Houston, Texas and Washington State to go 3-2.

Things then got ugly.

Setbacks to California, Oregon and Arizona (by a combined score of 124-41) followed and the Bruins never recovered. They went 1-3 after that.

Neuheisel, however, is optimistic he can turn things around.

"I think what drives all competitive people are great challenges and this is certainly that," he said. "It's a great challenge. I have a real stake in this. This is not just my job. It's my alma mater. It's kind of my dream to be the head coach at UCLA."

And that, Neuheisel added, is why he's especially anxious to get things going in the right direction.

Question is, how much more time will he have to turn it around? Being on the hot seat, Neusheisel acknowledged, is the nature of the beast.

"Certainly expectations at UCLA are such that it's important that we fashion together the best season possible," Neuheisel said. "I think we have a number of quality kids with the kind of experience that you can safely say they're going to play well."

UCLA opens the season at Houston before returning home to face San Jose State the next week.

OFFENSE: Junior running back Johnathan Franklin is the headliner. He rushed for 1,127 yards last season. New offensive coordinator Mike Johnson, who replaces Norm Chow, will oversee a quarterback battle in camp between juniors Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut.

DEFENSE: New defensive coordinator Joe Tresey, who held similar posts at Cincinnati and South Florida, inherits eight returning starters. Senior safety Tony Dye led the Bruins with 96 tackles and nine pass breakups last season. Senior linebacker Sean Westgate made 90 stops.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Junior punter Jeff Locke is one of the nation's best. He averaged 45.8 yards on 64 punts last season to lead the Pac-10 and rank fourth nationally. Senior Josh Smith averaged more than 22 yards on kickoff returns.

PLAYMAKERS: Franklin became UCLA's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006. He ran for 216 against Washington State . . . Dye averaged eight tackles per game last season, tying for fourth highest in the Pac-10.

TOUGH STRETCH: An early three-week run featuring a home game with Texas and road dates at Oregon State and Stanford could dictate how the season goes. A late stretch against Arizona, California, Arizona State and Utah will also be challenging.

EXTRA POINTS: UCLA is just 10-9 at the Rose Bowl under Neuheisel ... The Bruins have lost four straight games to rival USC ... Before returning to his alma mater, Neuheisel was 33-14 at Colorado (1995-98) and 33-16 at Washington (1999-2002).

UCLA Bruins

2011 media poll: 5th, South

2010 record: 4-8, 2-7

Head coach: Rick Neuheisel (15-22, fourth season)

2011 schedule

Sept. 3 — at Houston

Sept. 10 — SAN JOSE STATE

Sept. 17 — TEXAS

Sept. 24 — at Oregon State

Oct. 1 — at Stanford

Oct. 8 — WASHINGTON STATE

Oct. 20 — at Arizona

Oct. 29 — CALIFORNIA

Nov. 5 — ARIZONA STATE

Nov. 12 — at Utah

Nov. 19 — COLORADO

Nov. 26 — at USC

email: dirk@desnews.com

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