The mood of a football program is often found on the backs of
T-shirts. This off-season in Westwood, T's boasting of the
Bruins' Cotton Bowl victory last New Year's Day were scarce, as
were any that touted their 10-game winning streak to end the
season. No, the most popular shirt among Bruins players this
summer carried a simple message: UNFINISHED BUSINESS.
In the 1997 opener against Washington State, UCLA was stopped
just short of the goal line with less than three minutes to play
and lost 37-34. (When the Bruins wound up tying the Cougars for
the Pac-10 championship, that failure was the tiebreaker that
kept UCLA from the Rose Bowl and any shot at the national
title.) A week later UCLA came up short again, losing 30-24 to
Peyton Manning and Tennessee despite a furious second-half rally.
"Not a day goes by where I don't think about Washington State and
Tennessee," says Brendon Ayanbadejo, a senior linebacker. When
asked about those two games, senior guard Andy Meyers twists his
face into a scowl and says caustically, "They were a fluke and a
travesty, in that order, and we're still bitter."
The Bruins will need such motivation as they try to replicate the
success of 1997--which ended in a No. 5 final ranking, the
school's highest since '82--because questions lurk on both sides
of the ball.
The potent offense that was third in the nation in scoring has
lost 35 touchdowns from last year in tailback Skip Hicks and
deep receiver Jim McElroy. Quarterback and Heisman hopeful Cade
McNown, whose mastery of the West Coast offense helped him lead
the country in passing efficiency, returns for his senior year,
but the rest of the attack is in the hands of largely unproven
skill-position players. Among the deep receivers, 6'4",
210-pound junior Danny Farmer--who when not spiking the football
after touchdowns is spiking volleyballs as a key player on
UCLA's perennial national powerhouse--is the go-to guy by
default. At 6'5" and 205 pounds, sophomore Brian Poli-Dixon has
the size of former Bruins All-America J.J. Stokes and has shown
flashes of Stokes's game-breaking ability. Reliable tight end
Mike Grieb will also get more looks.
During spring practice the most pitched battle was at tailback,
where shifty sophomore Jermaine (Squat Diesel) Lewis, at 5'7",
177 pounds, had the edge on bigger (6-foot, 214) but slower
Keith Brown. If much-hyped incoming freshman DeShaun Foster has
the goods, the Bruins could go with a tailback by committee.
"I don't know if we're going to be capable of blowing teams away
like we did last year, but with Cade in charge of the offense,
I'm not so worried about scoring points," says Bob Toledo, who
in his two seasons as head coach (he was UCLA's offensive
coordinator for two years before moving up to the top job) has
earned the nicknames Tricky and Gadget because of his love for
crafty schoolyard plays. "What I'm worried about is the defense."
UCLA lost seven starters from the attacking, opportunistic
defense that helped the Bruins to a plus-1.82 turnover margin,
second best in the nation. Defensive coordinator Rocky Long also
left, to become head coach at New Mexico. His replacement is
Nick Aliotti, who worked as a defensive assistant with the St.
Louis Rams for three years and before that was architect of the
D for Oregon's '94 Rose Bowl team. Aliotti has dropped the 3-3-5
formation in favor of a 3-4-4 in hopes of becoming stronger
against the run while creating more opportunities to blitz.
In Ayanbadejo and senior strong safety Larry Atkins, Aliotti has
a couple of budding stars to build around. The 6'2", 234-pound
Ayanbadejo is a sideline-to-sideline terror who should thrive
with the increased freedom he gets in the new defense; the
ball-hawking Atkins (6'4", 228) snared five interceptions,
recovered three fumbles and had four sacks last year and is a
candidate for the Jim Thorpe Award. With the infusion of one of
the country's best recruiting classes, UCLA has fresh talent at
every defensive position.
How quickly the key players adapt to larger roles in a new
system may determine this team's fate, because the Bruins will
be tested early. Their first game is against Texas, which has
been stewing for nearly a year about last season's 66-3
annihilation in Austin. As far back as the spring the Bruins
coaches were studying game tapes of North Carolina and LSU,
where much of the Longhorns' new coaching staff came from. There
is also a game at Miami in the third week. Still, it's doubtful
that the early season will be as trying as last year's. That
UCLA didn't crack after its horrible start is testament to the
preternaturally upbeat Toledo. "For too long the expectations in
this program have not been high enough," he says. "It's time we
raised them. No one around here should be afraid of talking
about national championships."
UCLA No. 1? That has the makings of a decent T-shirt.
COLOR PHOTO: JED JACOBSOHN/ALLSPORT Volley forged Farmer, who hones his talents on the volleyball court at Pauley Pavilion, will be McNown's top target. [Danny Farmer catching pass]
COLOR PHOTO: JAN SONNENMAIR Coleman [Kenyon Coleman]
1997 record: 10-2 (7-1, tied for 1st in Pac-10)
Final ranking: No. 5 AP, No. 5 coaches' poll
Rushing Passing Total
1997 Averages Scoring Yards Yards Yards
OFFENSE 40.7 166.7 266.3 433.0
DEFENSE 20.4 108.3 253.0 361.3
Coach: Bob Toledo
Third year at UCLA (15-8); career Division I-A record: 29-38
WR Danny Farmer Jr. Top returning receiver (37 rec.)
LT Kris Farris Jr. Huge (6'9") and dominating
LG Oscar Cabrera[*] So. One of line's five 300-pounders
C Shawn Stuart Sr. Academic All-America
RG Andy Meyers Sr. His third year as a starter
RT Brian Polak[*] So. Freshman or juco could unseat
TE Mike Grieb Sr. 37 rec., 6 TDs in last 2 years
WR Brian Poli-Dixon[*] So. 8 rec. for 118 yds. and 2 TDs
QB Cade McNown Sr. School's alltime leading passer
RB Jermaine Lewis[*] So. Top returning rusher (276 yds.)
FB Craig Walendy Sr. Big-time blocker had 8 rec.
K Chris Sailer Sr. Converted 19 of 24 FG att.
LE Kenyon Coleman[*] So. Strength, size and speed
NT Micah Webb[*] So. 2 of 3 tackles were for losses
RE Pete Holland Jr. Plays end and NT
OLB Michael Wiley[*] Jr. Scored on int. vs. Houston
ILB Tony White[*] So. Nephew of NBA's Mel Daniels
ILB Ramogi Huma[*] Jr. Made 14 tackles and 1 int.
OLB Brendon Ayanbadejo Sr. 3 sacks, 36 tackles
CB Marques Anderson So. Moves from RCB to LCB
SS Larry Atkins Sr. D's '97 MVP had 5 int.
FS Eric Whitfield[*] Jr. 30 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 int.
CB Jason Bell Jr. Tall for a corner (6'1")
P Chris Sailer Sr. 43.7-yd. avg.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are from 1997 season.
Fourth-year starter Cade McNown already holds most of UCLA's
alltime passing records. He needs eight touchdown passes to
break Tom Ramsey's mark of 50.... L.A. is not a place that
celebrates the blue-collar work ethic, but senior fullback Craig
Walendy, a 6'1", 229-pound wrecking ball, may change that. His
lead blocking will be crucial to the development of UCLA's
inexperienced tailbacks.... Last season Chris Sailer, a double
All-America at punter and placekicker, made six of nine field
goals from beyond 40 and set the school mark with a 56-yarder.
He hit the weights this summer and is boasting of even more
range.... Sophomore Kenyon Coleman should be a force at
defensive end. Teammate Brendon Ayanbadejo calls the 6'5",
275-pound Coleman's athleticism "frightening."... The vaunted
incoming class includes four Parade All-Americas: defensive back
Lovell Houston, defensive lineman Sean Phillips, offensive
lineman Mike Saffer and linebacker Robert Thomas.
Schedule strength: 7th of 112
Sept. 12 vs. Texas This early game could give either the
Bruins' McNown or Longhorns tailback Ricky Williams the jump on
the Heisman race.
Nov. 14 at Washington With Arizona State absent from UCLA's
schedule, this trip to Seattle could be the Bruins' toughest
test, as the Huskies look to avenge last year's 52-28 drubbing.
Nov. 21 vs. USC After seven straight wins over the Trojans,
including a 31-24 nail-biter on USC's home turf in '97, the
Bruins must hope the law of averages doesn't catch up with them.
The X Factor
The Bruins have had a 1,000-yard rusher for four straight years.
With untested receivers and with defenses keying on McNown,
they'll need a fifth--but is there a horse among the unproven
The Bottom Line
Inexperience at so many key positions is the primary concern,
but if UCLA can summon as much heart and emotion as it did last
year, a Rose Bowl trip--or better--should be the result.